During the opening montages of this season's finale, structured to both remind us how far they've come and endear their personality quirks for one last time, I was struck again by just how little I cared which way this competition would lead. I didn't particularly dislike any of the contestants, but I wasn't drawn to them or floored by their prowess in the kitchen. Perhaps it's the fault of following such a strong season, which ultimately created a kind of culinary drama in pitting highfalutin' technique against down-home simplicity and depth of flavor, but Season 7's finale featured three chefs who were obviously skilled but failed to really distinguish themselves. No real narrative emerged. Angelo cooks Asian food, sure. But the other guys? I've been watching attentively all season and would be hard pressed to describe a singular style for each of them.
The show changed course for this final competition, ditching the tell-your-life-story-as-a-multiple-course-meal conceit of Top Chef seasons past for another great one: They had to cook with the same proteins. Eric and Tom headed to the market and selected the chefs' fish and meat, taking away the free-for-all nature of the final challenge but focusing it. By pushing the chefs in the same general direction, they've got a jumping-off point and a common base on which they'll be judged. Duck against duck against duck.
Heading into the challenge, Ed and Angelo talk about each other like they're the only competition, and perhaps they were right to think so; I expected Kevin to be eliminated before Kelly. But Kevin smartly plays it simple, recognizing Ed's tendency to go nuts on the plate and to put forward too many components. He also lands a huge help in Michael Voltaggio, one of three former winners brought forward to sous-chef for the night. Bravo did well to ditch the normal plan to bring back former contestants from that season; I guess the lesson was learned last season that handing out another Preeti could really handicap someone. It's more fun to see the chefs with competent help, able to perform their best. Despite Bravo's obvious attempts to infuse personal drama into the show, Top Chef is best left a show about expert chefs performing their craft under pressure. That pressure should be time and constraints designed to bring out their creativity—not the bad-luck-of-the-draw variety we see sometimes with lesser chefs "helping" at such a crucial stage. Angelo certainly needed good help this time around, stuck in bed with some mystery illness that felt so excruciating he could hardly open his eyes, "like being stabbed in the stomach." (I'm sorry, but I found pitiful, bedridden Angelo slightly amusing when describing his ailments to the camera.) He called in his prep work, and Hung did a fabulous job prepping for two. I'm surprised the judges didn't bring this up at judge's table.
The chefs were to make a vegetable course, a fish course, a main course featuring duck, and, yes, a dessert. Though Gail raves that this might be the first season that breaks the dessert curse, it's not unanimous among the judges. Ed turns in a brick of sticky toffee pudding with a little "fleur de sell crème chantilly," a.k.a. salty whipped cream, and Eric Ripert, bless his French soul, says, "Ed's dessert really shock me." To the viewers at home, at least in my living room, it really did look like something you might find in a diner, with a slightly fancier shape on that whipped cream dollop. (Instead of the ice-cream scoop, it's that technique done with a big spoon so it's scallop-shaped.) Gail admired the guts it took to turn in something so inelegant (it reportedly tasted good), but Tom's equally offended by the degree to which Ed played it safe. Not helping Ed here of course are the other two desserts, which actually got rave reviews from the judges. Kevin's dessert was subtle, Gail said, but packed a huge punch. Angelo's was "yummy."
The dessert round seemed to have knocked Ed out most assuredly, which left Angelo as the main contender against Kevin's strong showing. He seemed to showcase all the correct ingredients and cook well under difficult circumstances, but his main course, a sautéed duck breast and foie gras with marshmallow and tart cherry shooter, fell flatter than the other duck dishes. Looking at it being plated—hell, even reading the ingredient list—you could tell it was a risk. Tart cherries and duck might not be risky flavors together, but throw the cherries in a shooter and a marshmallow on the duck, and, well, it's just not normal. He tries to back-pedal on his assertion that the shooter is a palate cleanser, but only after Padma says it rather coated her mouth; he says you have to go back in forth, meaning it's more like an occasional sauce. The judges aren't buying it, though, and once they've sent the guys away, there's not much deliberation to be had. Of these three, he really seemed to earn it in this round, delivering perfectly cooked roasted duck and a duck dumpling, finishing with his "Singapore sling." The other guys seemed to know it, too, tasting his food in the kitchen after service. Their "clear winner" was Kevin Sbraga, and though the season was a bit of a snooze, I'll admit to grinning during the announcement and watching him process the announcement. Best of luck to him.
-- Manged to stay away from Bravo's accidental spoiler this week. Did you?
-- Fun to see Hung superfast-prepper Huynh and Ilan Hall from seasons 2 and 3, though I felt bad for Ilan whose suggestions to paranoid Ed were interpreted as messing with his head. (Ed's maybe concerned about this since he goes out of his way to mess with everyone else.)
-- One thing I liked about Angelo: his constant confession, "to be honest witchoo"
-- The chit-chat in the waiting room seemed particularly painful. "It's just so subjective!" and "You either like it or you don't!"
-- Such mixed reactions from the slew of chefs they flew in for the finale meal. And, I didn't have time to research—is this the first time the judges have sat at different tables? Certainly during the finale anyway.
-- I'm glad the judges spent some time at the beginning of their deliberations to remind us all what an excellent season it's been. They almost had me going there!
-- Looks like we're bound to suffer another pea-purée mention in the reunion show.
-- This makes me want to watch Top Chef Just Desserts. Gail, on Kevin's: "Literally, it was a fruit punch. It punched you. With fruit."
-- Michael Voltaggio: "That was the second best food I've ever seen on top chef." Kevin: "Aw, this motherfucker."