Okay, first order of business: I’m scheduled to interview the Top Chef winner tomorrow (Thursday) morning at 11 a.m. CT. I realize that’s not a lot of time, but if you wake up with any questions, please email them directly to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Look for the completed interview to get posted on the website on Friday, if all goes according to plan.)
So two thoughts about the finale:
I’m not sure if you were keeping score at home when the judges were going over who won what course, but my scorecard had the dreaded Lisa winning the day, even under the most generous of tallies for the other two. While her coconut soup was the only outright winner, she also at least contended in the first and last courses with her spicy prawns and thai rice pudding. And though Stephanie’s lamb medallions with pistachio seemed to be the favorite dish of the night—and the undisputed third course champ—she could really only claim a tie in the first course, a middling effort in the second, and a dessert that everyone agreed was extremely problematic. All of which leaves Richard the surprising non-contender, having whiffed on the big night in much the same fashion as Casey did last year.
So again we return to the question: How much should (or does) past performance figure into judging? And another question: Should (or does) it figure more in the final decision of who should be considered “Top Chef”? In other words, was Lisa doomed to lose no matter how brilliantly she performed for one night? I’m thinking “yes,” and I’m also thinking that’s perfectly fair in this situation. Turning out one great meal at the right time doesn’t seem to me a particularly good criteria for a title that’s supposed to represent qualities like consistency, refinement, leadership, and vision—and those qualities can only be judged when considering the overall picture. Because if you’re just blind taste test on tonight’s dinner, don’t you have to give the nod to Lisa? Shudder to think.
In any case, I was happy to see the show reprise a good idea from last season’s finale by bringing in a bunch of ringers to work as sous-chefs during prep time. Watching Stephanie hover over Eric Ripert as he sliced up the snapper for the first course was deliciously surreal, akin to a session guitarist making sure Keith Richards knows the chord progression on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” And yet there was something sweet about Ripert and the other chefs catching a glimpse of how Richard was using liquid nitrogen and taking it all in like eager students. (Until now, I only thought liquid nitrogen was useful for powering lasers and fashioning dummy quarters for the vending machine. That’s what happens when you get your scientific education from movies like Real Genius.) One of the things that interests me about the show is how often it reveals a code of honor and respect and humility among chefs, and how that code transcends any personal rancor and me-first power-grabbing. And that’s part of why Lisa doesn’t deserve the prize: She doesn’t live by the code.
The “meh” part for me was the dinner itself, which seemed to underwhelm the diners as it was happening, even though they were loathe to admit as much at Judges’ Table. And Richard is probably to blame for it: He was the most conceptually bold contestant from the start, but with his whimsical ideas falling flat again and again throughout the meal, the whole event lacked a certain magic as a result. I trust Stephanie’s dishes were mostly strong, save for the dessert and the undercooked leeks in the second course, but my one reservation about her is that I don’t know who she is as a chef. Richard is the molecular gastronomist and Lisa has a fetish for bold, spicy Asian flavors, but if I were to visit Stephanie’s restaurant—and she’s working on finding a space for one here in Chicago—I wouldn’t have the first clue what I’d be getting. There are euphemisms for that: You could call her versatile or unpredictable, and you definitely couldn’t peg her for being too narrow, like Ilan’s all-Spanish diet from Season Two. But other than her self-professed love of freshness, balance, and clean flavors, who is she as a chef?
Really, though, I’m just playing devil’s advocate a little bit here. There’s no question that Stephanie deserves the prize—she and Richard were clearly ahead of the pack from wire to wire—and she’s probably the most gracious, down-to-earth, self-deprecating, and quietly accomplished contestant on the show since Harold from Season One. (Did she ever really complain about a particular challenge or fellow contestant? I can’t think of any incidents. Even Harold was giving to whining about challenges before taking them down.) It’d have been nice if she could have won on the strength of an unimpeachable four-course meal, but I trust that when she finally opens her new restaurant, she won’t get stuck making poundcake.
So what are your thoughts on the season overall? To me, the formula for any reality competition show is bound to go stale over time, and Top Chef perhaps lost a step this season because of it and other minor factors, such as Chef Tom’s growing apathy at its center, a few too many group challenges, and a mostly uninspired use of Chicago’s rich culinary universe. Nevertheless, I still feel it’s the strongest show of its kind—yes, better than Project Runway—and the formula mostly works, because it forces even the most gifted of chefs to work outside their comfort zone and try to assert their own sense of style while, say, catering to tailgaters at a Bears game or throwing together a wedding cake in 24 hours. And for that, I remain a devotee.
• So why did Stephanie have problems with dessert all of the sudden? With her gorgonzola cheesecake during Restaurant Wars and her full-on cake for Wedding Wars, it seemed off that she was out of sorts in that area tonight. Why oh why don’t contestants ever show up with at least one dessert in their back pocket? And with six months of downtime before the finale, too?
• Hey foodies: What’s the story with wagyu beef? Is it really worth dropping that extra $50 or so over your average filet mignon at a steakhouse, or is it an indulgence of negligible value?
• What an strange dynamic tonight: Lisa enters with all kinds of unearned swagger, despite being in the bottom two or three throughout the entire back half of the competition, and the two front-runners are wracked with trepidation and self-doubt. What gives?
• Stephanie says she’s not in it for the $100,000, but wants the title. Can this really be true? Perhaps someone should ask her. Like me. Tomorrow.