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Top Chef: “Finale”

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It took me a while to be able to even write about “Finale.” I was pretty upset with how it went down. Critically, I had a sense that Nick might take the season—he’d been edited to have an arc, and those earlier episodes where he got the “villain” edit for no clear reason make more sense now. I do not buy that Nick is a better chef than Nina. But I think Top Chef did a good job building his narrative.


I have a sneaking suspicion that narrative is what he had over Nina, in the end. The result of the judging left a bad taste in my mouth. It wasn’t quite like last week’s competition, in which Shirley was my personal favorite but stumbled with her dish at the end. This seemed more like the judges had to make a decision based on something more than just the meals they were presented, so they went with some undefinable quality of narrative.

The thing is, the judges were so not going to come to a consensus. It’s impressive how long they stayed under the lights deliberating the result, given that—but according to the clock at the bottom of the screen, they stayed up judging for at least a couple of hours. And at least at the beginning, there was a clear split between Padma, Emeril, and Hugh Acheson, who were all inclined toward Nina, and Tom and Gail, who were leaning toward Nick. Tellingly, that’s how the dining groups split, too—Tom and Gail were paired in the group that went to Nina’s restaurant first, and Padma and Emeril were in the larger group. (I am having trouble remembering which group Hugh was in, but I think Padma and Emeril’s group was bigger, and perhaps he was with them.) I was expecting the judges to point out that there was inconsistency among the dishes—especially when it came to Nick's meal, which seems to have been wildly different across the two different sittings. (Either that, or all of a sudden, Tom and Gail have totally different taste than Padma and Emeril do.)


But instead they seemed split on the food. They threw out Nina’s extra courses from the decision making—but then decided to vote for the winner based on the overall experience. That seemed to be, pretty clearly, Nina’s restaurant, based on everything everyone said. But somehow it ended up being Nick.

Aside from who won, “Finale” is a strong episode. It feels like a near-constant cliffhanger, and seeing the old contestants come back and work as sous chefs was a lot of fun. Nina’s team was freaking awesome: Shirley, Stephanie, and Travis, who was friends with Nina from way back when. (Their other friend, Bene, didn’t make the cut for being a sous-chef.) Nick’s choices were perplexing, meanwhile: He had first pick, so I thought he was going to go for near-winner Shirley. Instead, he chose Louis, Brian, and… Jay, the surfer guy with weird floppy hair and an undercut. And all of my personal opinions aside, there’s something very odd about the optics of the tall guy choosing only men for his team. Someone jokingly says: “It’s guys versus girls!” which is a dig at Travis, mostly, who is openly gay (and therefore inherently feminine, or something). But in my mind it also looked like—the past, and the future. And I'm just so pissed that the past won. After a season that felt like it was breaking some of the old Top Chef norms, this is a rather anticlimactic result.

Every way I come back to this episode, I feel that Nina was robbed. And I don’t mean to pile on Nick—I’m sure he’s a nice guy, despite his villainous edit, and he’s certainly a skilled chef with a lot of ideas. But Nick made so many mistakes in this last episode, it’s a goddamn miracle he won.

Throughout this competition, in fact, Nina has been remarkably collected and calm in a very high-pressure environment. Nick, meanwhile, has demonstrated an inability to fly off the handle at a moment’s notice—whether that’s in tears over his family, or in a burst of rage over a moved pot. He was phenomenally unprofessional in this episode—I don’t care how stressed out you are; it is just stupid to yell when the judges can hear you. I don’t buy that Nick's servers were shitty—the last time there was a challenge that required servers, he had problems with them, too. He just treats people like crap. That is what happens when you treat your servers like crap.


And, it must be said: If Nina had done the same thing, I think there would have been hell to pay. Top Chef is a product of the restaurant world, and there is a bias toward aggressive men in the kitchen—indeed, an expectation, even, that chefs will be arrogant, demanding, and male. Hugh pointed out that he was unimpressed with the yelling—and was willing to use it as a mark against Nick—but Tom dismissed that idea as “not their problem.” But: It is very hard for me to imagine that Nina pulling that stunt would have received the same hand-waving.

And that goes back right to the start of the competition. If Nina had broken down in tears, or yelled at Carlos, or bitched about a stolen knife, or thrown Stephanie under the bus, we would have hated her. I think Nick got some space for a redemption arc from the producers of the show and the judges because he looks like the platonic ideal of a chef and he pouted a lot. Meanwhile, Nina got punished for being consistent, imaginative, and going above and beyond what was required. It doesn’t quite add up, does it? I wish we’d gotten more of the judging—just enough to see how Padma and/or Emeril changed their minds.


But as has been established already in this show, what Colicchio wants, Colicchio gets. Colicchio wanted Nick. And Nick is clearly a great cook with a lot of ideas who is now going to use his $125,000, minus taxes, to start his restaurant. I just don't want to be a server there, you know?

Episode grade: B+
Season grade: B

Stray observations:

  • Serious props to both Nina and Nick for making it through an incredibly challenging season.
  • When Nick is hugging people, look at Stephanie's face: She couldn’t even fake a smile. Poor girl. Can’t blame her.
  • Nick and his wife sure do tear up while kissing a lot!
  • Hearing Emeril stump for Nina was adorable.
  • Gail makes being pregnant look really good.
  • Shirley refers to Nina as “My girl Nina,” which is priceless. They make a fantastic team.
  • Thanks for sticking with me these 17 weeks, everyone! I hope you had fun with the reviews—I certainly did. This is probably the last full season of Top Chef we’ll be covering—hopefully, we’ll drop in on next season’s premiere and finale, but that will likely be it. In the meantime, enjoy the lull in between now and season 12.