When I dropped in on the premiere of Top Chef Masters, the numbers were apparently such that it could go either way: I could keep writing about the show if I desired, but not doing so would be unlikely to spark a revolution among the A.V. Club readership.
I would be lying if I said that I don’t somewhat regret the decision to continue, although I feel covering the show was a worthwhile endeavor at the end of the day. While we might argue that this season was hardly worth weekly commentary, considering just how inert it was, there is something important about documenting a failed experiment. The season’s reviews become an archive of the show’s struggles, with both my analysis and — more importantly — your comments capturing the production tomfoolery that led to a severely diminished quality in the show’s third season.
I know that some of you resent this type of navel-gazing critic-speak opening in these reviews, but let’s be honest: Is there some sort of season narrative for me to speak about to open this review? Did you want 150 words on Floyd’s “Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride” narrative of mediocrity? Have either Traci or Mary Sue been exciting enough to create a functioning feminist narrative in a series to this point dominated by male chefs (with not a single female finalist in the first two seasons)? I would love to open with a sweeping narrative, but the show hasn’t earned one, and to invent one for the sake of this review would be giving them credit where they deserve little but scorn.
Some part of me hopes that the chefs involved in this season — Hugh, I’m looking in your direction — will do some interviews in which they talk about the tension between what the producers wanted the show to be and what the chefs were willing to offer them. As with last week’s penultimate episode, that is not an issue in the finale: Meant as a celebration of each chef’s career and a showcase for great food free from creative limitations and “challenges,” this episode feels perfectly tuned for the collegial and pleasant atmosphere that these chefs cultivated. The chefs are asked to tackle their first prominent food memory, the food memory that most made them want to become a chef, as well as a food memory from one of the judges (here represented by James, Gael and Ruth, with the food bloggers blissfully absent).
It is also a rare episode that manages to find some actual drama — with Floyd stuck in traffic early in the challenge, after L.A. rains complicated what was otherwise a risk/reward scenario in terms of balance shopping and prep work, there were some legitimate concerns about whether his dish would be finished (since he had to interrupt the braising process). Similarly, Mary Sue’s soufflé mishap (where her eggs were prepared too early) was something that could have legitimately cost her the competition, but Traci, Floyd and even their sous chefs all pitched in to help her plate what turned out to be perhaps the best dish served during the finale. Instead of the show turning mole hills into mountains, these seemed like legitimate mountains that the contestants turned into mole hills through some good cooking and some endearing camaraderie, and the finale had a nice internal momentum as a result.
It didn’t have much in terms of external momentum, although the commenters called it last week: The show, so absent of real narrative, showed its hand in the past few episodes when Floyd’s “Always a Bridesmaid” narrative was oddly prevalent despite the fact that we likely would have never noticed it otherwise. It was the only story we were really being sold, and its prevalence early in the episode clearly foreshadowed a Floyd victory. And through three courses, the dishes told the same story: while there were some issues with Floyd’s food (like an overly tough rice layer on his snapper), there seemed to be something about each of his dishes that the judges found impressive and even a bit daring. His Upma Polenta was well received even if some found it a bit disappointing, his broth on the snapper dish was highly praised, and his Rendung seemed to please both James and the other diners. It just seemed like he put together a real three-course meal, with a sense of purpose behind the overall execution of the dishes.
In other words, Floyd wasn’t just competing the challenge as it was written. He did complete the three tasks, but he was also tackling another task, which was giving the whole meal a sense of his own culinary identity. With Mary Sue’s dishes, the judges considered her Lemon dessert — made for Ruth — the most singularly impressive dish, but everything else was sending out mixed signals. There is something admirable about not cooking the food you’re best known for in a finale situation (and the judges said as much regarding her steak tartare), but the lack of Mexican influence made the meal seem a bit muddled, which was also a problem cited with her disconnected duo of shrimp in the second course. Traci, meanwhile, was out of it from the time her dishes went to the diners: Some undercooked duck for Gael’s food memory, and some differences of opinion on what makes a Louisiana Creole on the first course, and it just seemed like her meal could never pick up any momentum with the judges (even if the second course, a quail salad, went over pretty well).
On the one hand, I accept that Floyd was the more impressive chef on this day, especially considering the eighty-minute disadvantage he had after being stuck in traffic. Of course, on the other hand, I would have much preferred that Mary Sue won — that isn’t some sort of food-related judgment so much as a sense that I just like her considerably more, and found her to be a more enjoyable competitor. That was confirmed tonight, when she was throwing out some trash talk to Traci and yet still being incredibly gracious after Traci and Floyd helped her out of the weeds. Plus, her reunion with Susan Feniger during the final meal was just warm in a way that the show hasn’t been all season, as the competition seemed stripped away by the sight of two friends coming together over cooking. I didn’t feel any of that with Floyd, at any point in the competition, and would have easily taken both Naomi and Hugh over him if you had given me a choice.
And yet, despite my disappointment in Floyd’s victory, I enjoyed this episode a great deal. The food memories gave us a chance to finally learn more about the chefs (which has been disappointingly absent all season), the challenge was kept fairly simple and felt like a good “finale challenge,” and most importantly the collection of diners were outright tremendous. In fact, I would have easily cut out that dinner at Curtis’ if it meant we could have had more time spent with the diners, as we barely got to spend time with some of the Top Chef Masters alumni (like Susur Lee, who I can’t even remember speaking at any point after being introduced). But those we did spend time with were delightful, and Floyd and Traci’s hug envy (sparked by Susan greeting Mary Sue before the final course) being answered by a lumbering Jonathan Waxman was maybe the most memorable moment of the season.
It was also a sign of the show that could have been. That grade at the top of the page is for the finale, which I’d say was quite entertaining and satisfying on the level of an individual episode. And, perhaps it gets even more credit for making something out of nothing, given how little this season offered. There were no moments like Waxman’s hugs, no sense of the fun and spontaneity that seemed as though it would suit this set of contestants. When the chefs were reminiscing on what they remembered most, there were roughly four challenges that they could count off as their favorites, and those were either huge gimmicks that had nothing to do with the chefs (the bugs) or challenges that came so late in the game that they made no impact on the season as a whole (the “Relative Behind the Barrier” challenge from last week’s episode).
That final dinner service made me wish that they could just give into the camaraderie and stop trying to pretend that Top Chef Masters is a show about competition. We could argue that the season suffered due to the caliber of chefs, but I don’t think that is necessarily the case. Sure, the genius of Jonathan Waxman in this episode made it clear that there wasn’t a Jonathan Waxman in this bunch, but why not aim for a show that lets people like Waxman be a little bit goofy? Why not find a way to merge the sort of Chef’s Club-like atmosphere of that final meal with the competition, taking a group of 12 chefs and having three of them battle it out for charity in each episode with the other nine chefs serving as the diners for the various challenges? Make the show about their personalities, and about the sense of fun they have in cooking for and with their peers, all for a good cause. Don’t try to make it cutthroat when it’s not cutthroat, and don’t try to pretend that it’s high drama when it’s all in good fun at the end of the day.
The ratings for this season have been fairly consistent, which concerns me: if that’s the only metric Bravo has to go by, they might be convinced that this new format was a success. And who knows: someone at Bravo could see the grade at the top of the page and believe that The A.V. Club has endorsed the changes made this season. As a result, let me make this point very clear: This season of Top Chef Masters was a failure. No, it was not a complete failure, as the show naturally moved towards the tone they should have set at the beginning of the season by the time we reached the finale. However, all of the changes that the Magical Elves tried to make, and the very idea of making Top Chef Masters more like Top Chef, worked against everything that made Top Chef Masters different, and that which made it a welcome break from (rather than a tired retread of) the mothership.
Although there were times when I felt covering this show week-to-week was an exercise in futility, I at least hope that doing so has revealed where the show went wrong this year. I doubt Bravo has been reading these reviews, or that they’d be willing to admit that the show has gone through creative problems this year, but some part of me is glad that these reviews and the comment sections exist in case they really want to win back those of us who have found this season so unremarkable. It’s not just about getting more memorable chefs, or cutting down on challenges that create unpredictable handicaps, or getting rid of James Oseland before his pomposity overwhelms everything else around him. It’s about really stepping back and thinking about what used to make Top Chef Masters stand out, and why that was so completely absent.
Consider that your elimination challenge to complete by next summer, Bravo — don’t treat it like a quickfire.
Finale Grade: A-
Season Grade: C+
- “You like it raw” — Jonathan Waxman, American hero, to Gael Greene. Seriously, how does he not have his own show?
- “You must have been such little hotties” — James Oseland, American anti-hero, to Susan Feniger. I will say that James’ cuddle with Ruth after Floyd’s name was announced was a bit endearing, but then I remembered he had said this earlier in the episode, and I just shivered.
- I enjoyed Traci’s utter astonishment that Gael expected her to fry a duck — this isn’t the first time some of the chefs have balked at certain challenges, but I like how Traci is almost more disgusted because it was a food critic who asked her to do it. I don’t think she would have won with fried duck, but it was interesting she ditched the mustard flavor altogether (which was something Gael did mention specifically).
- Last week Naomi mentioned that Mary Sue and Traci have both found ways to be able to spend time with family while working, and tonight we found out why when both of their sous chefs were actually the executive chefs of their restaurants.
- It is very possible I misspelled some of the dishes above — I actually watched this through the magic of Slingbox, since I’m in Canada at the moment where Top Chef Masters doesn’t air, so I wasn’t able to (or, more accurately, wasn’t sure I knew how to) pause it to check spellings. So, my apologies to any of the foodies if I’ve horribly murdered something, as I tried googling to the best of my ability.
- As promised in last week’s comments, I’ve checked out Top Chef Canada while at home — I watched the premiere and then the latest episode, which was an interesting experiment (as it cuts out all of the character development in between). Still, it was pretty easy to pick up the narrative for each chef, and I thought this week’s challenge (which involved cooking based on different regions) was a smart one that really focused on constructions of Canada’s national identity. As a Maritimer, and although I know he was listed as a commenter favorite, I thought Francois was completely off the mark, even if Angela deserved to go home for just failing to execute at all. Seems like it’s a race between Dale and Connie at this point, but that third finalist could be a real spoiler given the pretentions of the former and the insecurity of the latter.
- And speaking of the comments, thanks to everyone for sticking around — like I said above, we almost decided against covering this, but it seemed like people wanted a space to chat, and I hope these reviews offered that space.