The results of tonight’s viewer poll revealed that of the remaining three contestants going into finale, Carla deserved to win by an overwhelming 65% margin, with Hosea at 20% and Stefan bringing up the rear at 15%. I’m kind of shocked and crestfallen by this result. Granted, Stefan has been painted as the villain of the season—and, if I’m being honest, his arrogance and bullying at times earned the label. But the thing I like about Top Chef is that it’s a meritocracy: The artistry and creativity (and tastiness) of the food makes all the difference; personalities—and whatever diabolical reality-show strategies that go along with them—ultimately mean absolutely nothing. So with all due respect to 85% of you out there (and somewhat less respect for the happy 20%), I felt before the episode started that Stefan deserved to win. Nobody in the show’s history had racked up more wins in a single season, and had towered so far above the competition. Only Hung comes close.
Tonight’s hour was less than inspiring: By consistently cooking above-average cuisine throughout the competition, and holding steady while others faltered around him, Hosea backed his way into the Top Chef title. It was a disappointing result to say the least, but at the same time, Carla and Stefan made too many grievous mistakes in the end and Hosea played the tortoise and crept right past them. If Hosea were a more charismatic guy, he’d be Bruce Willis to Stefan’s Alan Rickman, a scrappy American pug pulling out an unlikely victory against a snooty European super-genius. Certainly both men seemed to think of their rivalry in those terms, and the finale followed the Hollywood script.
As with finales past, the challenge was simple: Cook the best meal of your life. (Season One asked the chefs to incorporate black truffles and fine wine—not exactly twisting their arms there—but I think the other finales were more or less free of restrictions on the food itself. Am I wrong about that?) The twist is that their sous chefs are also-rans from previous finales—Season Two’s Marcel, Season Three’s Casey, and Season Four’s Richard—who can impart their wisdom on, um, how not to make the same mistakes they did. For Carla, who drew short straw, the partnership was a disaster.
You had to feel bad for Carla tonight. She was by far the most likable chef left and had spent the last few weeks making a very strong case for herself—one that could not have been predicted by the food she was putting out in the first half of the season, that’s for sure. (I still don’t know how she got out of “Restaurant Wars” alive.) But she made a mistake by hitching her wagon to Casey, who had flamed out spectacularly in the finale after making a late run in her own season. Carla’s decision to defer to Casey on dishes like the sous vide, despite never having cooked beef that way herself, was a mysterious one and Carla appeared to be talked into that disastrous soufflé as well.
For his part, Stefan was all over the map. The first moment when I thought he might be in trouble was his discomfort at the beginning with having to cook without restrictions. He obviously adapted well to challenges with strict parameters and seemed thrown off by not having them anymore. The perfect example: Given the dreaded alligator to cook in the surprise hors d’oeuvre course, Stefan excelled at finding a way to incorporate a difficult, unfamiliar protein into a tasty soup. Left alone, he bungled by making carpaccio with frozen fish and decided to close out the meal with a dessert that everyone but Toby thought was pedestrian. It didn’t matter that his squab was widely considered the best dish of the night; when half of the dishes had major problems, he couldn’t have expected to win.
All of which leaves Hosea coasting to the finish on the strength of four dishes that the judges at least liked, and that was good enough for the title. And as much as I’m let down by that result considering the scope of the whole season, I think you have to credit Hosea for playing to his strengths, making a smart choice in terms of the progression of his meal, and ultimately putting his best foot forward. At the most critical time, that proved to be good enough.
And for viewers like me, a serious anti-climax.
• Loved Stefan’s backhanded compliment of Marcel, his choice for sous chef: “He’s a great chef. A bit of a twat.”
• As much as Stefan lived to play mind games with Hosea, I think Hosea genuinely got the upper hand on him in the end. Stefan liked to compete with Hosea and belittled him at every opportunity, but he probably needed to respect him more. Stefan never saw Hosea as a threat and that bred a fatal complacency down the stretch.
• I was initially very disappointed that Fabio, the other half of Team Europe, was allowed to sit among the 12 guests at big meal. It’s not that I don’t love him like everyone else, but he had made so clear his bias toward Stefan that it seemed unfair to the other two. But then, even he had to admit his friend’s mistakes and that was a bigger blow than anything said at Judges’ Table.
• Now that Gail’s back, does this end Toby Young’s run on the show?
• You’re on your own for the reunion show. Not going to blog about that. See you next season!