The major disadvantage of heading into the finale with three likable chefs is that it's all too easy for the Top Chef editors to set viewers up for disappointment. Tonight's a masterful example of this game—from the onset, it's all about Sheldon. The mistake he'll eventually make is obvious from the get-go. It's the same one Josh made last week—guessing that the judges must want something fancy. So we watch our tragic hero make this choice in the first few minutes of the show, then watch him march humbly and sweetly to his elimination. Here's how I ended things last week: "[Sheldon] plated an elevated version of his food (albeit with a major flaw)—not food that he understood to be what the judges wanted. If he can keep his head here in the finale… perhaps he'll give Brooke a run for her money."
The first few minutes of tonight's episode, however, feature a visit to Sheldon at his home in Hawaii. It's been six months since the pre-finale finale in Alaska, and Tim Gunn stops by to check in on the progress Sheldon's making with his collection. This opening to the finale lacks the focus of those Project Runway home visits, though, because there's no mentorship role—there's not even anyone from the Top Chef cast there. It's just Sheldon and the camera guys. They're asking him the right questions—what has he been doing to prepare for the finale?—but there's no one there to tell him he's making a terrible mistake. That information comes way too late, when he's already cooking in the kitchen, less than three hours before service.
Brooke also has cameras follow her in L.A.; she runs her business and has some family time. The character exposition isn't too clumsy but it's certainly slow—between that and the Last Chance Kitchen recap that follows, the elimination doesn't appear until nearly the 20-minute mark. This finale-part-one suffers a little from the onset, that hour tasked with only one challenge and three chefs. I was relieved to see that the episode was only an hour long, but there wasn't quite enough footage to fill the time effectively. The first 20 minutes felt like those tensionless "first look" previews that air before movie trailers in the theater—their only purpose to kill time before the main feature.
The elimination challenge, though, certainly delivers. Fresh from Last Chance Kitchen, Kristen joins Brooke and Sheldon to compete. Last season, LCK felt gimmicky at times, especially with Bev popping out and back in in such short order. With Kristen, it feels more like the natural order of things—a wrong being righted. A tough contender from the beginning, Kristen was clearly eliminated out of order (Josie, Josh). That said, it's a shame that her presence next episode comes at the expense of Sheldon's. I'd have much rather seen this elimination, with some slight tweaking, be the final episode.
Sheldon's narrative is richer. He was clearly the underdog coming into this episode, having climbed the ranks from dishwasher to chef. He doesn't have the credentials of Kristen or Brooke. But until this episode, that was his advantage. He surprised the judges with flavor combinations representative of his own experience. In tonight's completely open-ended challenge—cook an appetizer, entrée, and dessert for service at Craft—he looked to his contenders rather than to himself. He spent his time off trying to become more like them so he could better compete with them, and in doing so, did himself in. Top Chef tries to pick up the mentorship thread in this episode, but Hugh and Emeril head back into the kitchen with things already underway. Emeril sees this coming and tries to warn him, but it's too late. Sheldon's quail is Sheldon doing someone else's quail. It's fine, but it's not extraordinary.
Given Kristen's lukewarm performance tonight (gone were the surprises from LCK, replaced by very carefully muted, over-edited plates), it seems Sheldon might have a fighting chance. The judges are disappointed, too. They say they try not to consider a chef's past performance, but here it's his strong past performance that comes back to bite him in the ass. It's based on this reputation that the judges view his quail so harshly. In and of itself, the quail didn't seem so offensive. It's just that it came from Sheldon, and they expected something different. He stumbled in other places—the fresh fennel on his dessert, for example, was overpowering—but the major complaint stemmed more from absence than from presence. It was more about what he was missing than what he delivered.
The judges laid into Kristen for her clumsy dessert and one-note dishes, to the extent that she seemed truly embarrassed at judge's table. (Especially when Padma said she wanted to dip Kristen's tuna into Brooke's sauce.) It'll be interesting to see what she does with this information. Typically, the finale turns strong chefs into nervous wrecks, and you might expect her confidence to be shot. But I get the feeling Kristen's more like a supervillian. She'll take all the criticism, internalize it, turn it into something magical, and then spit it back out in fiery glory.
Brooke is tough, though, and for all her disorganization in the kitchen tonight, took the competition tonight easily. The judges nitpicked her dishes but thought her entrée's sauce and dessert were outstanding. So we head into the finale with two similar chefs. Brooke might be prouder to win against someone she respects professionally, as she said at the head of tonight's episode, but I'll certainly miss the underdog.
- Sad Sheldon looks an awful lot like I imagine stoned Sheldon would look.
- I loved all the back-and-forth about Tom's blue eyes. It's so nice that the end of this season's banter is so lighthearted and fun. Nothing like last year's poisonous lineup.
- Sheldon on the quail: "It's my ticket to the big show." Dramatic irony, my friends!
- They did have me going on the whole Brooke-is-a-mess storyline. Until the judge's comments, I did think she was in big trouble. Well played.