Top Chef Season 5, Episode 14: Didn't see that one coming
The Web site for the award-winning alternative weekly, the Philadelphia City Paper.
Top Chef Season 5, Episode 14: Didn't see that one coming
Season 5 of Bravo's Top Chef wrapped up last night. Meal Ticket readers and I have been blabbing all week about who we thought would take home the title among last-chefs-standing Stefan, Carla and Hosea.
Full commentary after the jump (warning for DVR people — immediate spoilers).
Boulder, Colorado's Hosea — who I've consistently labeled as an underachiever thanks to his back-of-the-line shuffle through this year's competition — is Top Chef.
I did not anticipate this happening AT ALL, and I don't think anyone else did, either.
The final challenge is always simple — cook the best three-course meal of your life. It's a task that I felt Stefan, ever the steely-yet-eloquent tactician, and Carla, whose bubbly, soulful nature has come through in her food in the second half of the season, would destroy. Yet both made odd, uncharacteristic mistakes and decisions that tarnished their final offerings so much that Hosea's inspired, well-executed meal was the clear champion.
It's just one more thing to argue about for the two schools of Top Chef judging thought: determining a cheftestant's fate based on his or her collective output, or picking winners based solely on a singular challenge. It doesn't seem that Top Chef has a hard and fast policy regarding this — if they did, Stefan would've been eliminated for his extremely overcooked salmon in Episode 12 instead of Leah for her runny eggs. Last night, however, Hosea was clearly the best — and this stroke of superiority was enough to convince the judges that he deserved the crown.
What the hell happened here? Let's see.
After an idyllic breakfast on a paddleboat, we got to hear the contestants rave about what winning would mean to them. "It would suck to go home without the title," Hosea said at the outset. At this point, I don't think anyone thought the guy was capable of going home with it. We were so wrong.
The Final Three learned that they would be cooking their meals at NOLA restaurant Commander's Palace for a group of tasters that included all our judges' table friends in addition to the likes of elimitaliano Fabio, Rocco DiSpirito and Hubert Keller. Then they tossed a sous chef twist into the wind by bringing back close-but-no-$100K-cigar finale participants from previous seasons — Season 2 chem slanger Marcel, twangy Season 3 debutante Casey and Season 4 frontrunner Richard (who was featured on Meal Ticket back in November). After knife-drawing, the ladies were paired up, while Richard and Marcel ended up with Hosea and Stefan, respectively. ("He's a bit of a twat, but who's not?" Stefan observed of his sous chef. I'm not a twat man.)
A prep period saw the baldies bitching at each over the distribution of foie gras and caviar, which ranks as the most presposterously insensitive first-world debate I've witnessed this season.
The next morning, Tom C. materialized in the Commander's Palace kitchen with another twist: Each contestant was required to prepare an additional passed hors d'oeuvres using one of three native NOLA ingredients — crab, red fish or alligator. To determine who would get to pick first (as well as assign the other cheftestants their food), they ate pieces of king cake, which Felicia D. told you about the other day. Whoever found the plastic baby in their wedge would get the advantage. (Please just read this.) Hosea landed the infant/choking hazard — he took red fish, giving Carla too-easy crab and leaving the gator for Stefan (of course). This ended up being irrelevant to the finale's outcome, however, as all the judges and guests dug the bite-size starters of each chef.
It all came down to the coursework.
Hosea started with sashimi drizzled with hot fennel oil, following that up with a scallop/foie gras dish on pain perdu with apple compote and foie gras foam and the third course, a Colorado-like venison dish with 'shrooms, chestnut/celery root purée and Richard-fied carbonated blackberries. No dessert — but no one was required to make one. All dishes were approved by the judges (small criticisms included blandess in the first course), though Tom C. and Toby butted heads over the lack of a sweet plate.
Carla began with a beautiful seared red snapper bouillabaisse-type thing with saffron aioli, moved on to a NY strip cooked sous vide (Casey's suggestion, though Carla had never used the technique; judges found the meat tough and Toby called it "rather anemic") and ended with an incomplete cheese plate that she sent out sans a souffle that got effed in the oven. (She originally wanted to rock one of her signature tarts, but went instead with Casey's suggestion.) A lot of people are blaming Casey for "sabotaging" Carla's chances, which I think is horseshit. The chef had 100 percent creative control over her menu, and was not obliged to take any of her (admittedly overly opinionated) sous chef's suggestions and run with them. Why did she do it? It had to have been nerves. It's just sad and unfortunate that it cost her $100K — if Carla had cooked her steak traditionally and put together her cheese tart as originally planned, she definitely would've won.
Much to Marcel's befuddlement, Stefan decided to freeze a hyper-fresh portion of halibut so he could slice it thin for a first-course carpaccio with smoked salmon, a decision that led to the judges ripping the dish for being too watery and bland. In the middle, he whipped up a homey, extremely well-received pan-seared squab (Tom's favorite of the night) before concluding with the universally reviled dessert trio at right. My girl Gail, whose soul-screaming cleavage was my change-of-heart pick for Top Chef after I knew Stef had lost it, said it looked straight out of 1982. Padma called it "pedestrian at best." I don't quite understand what happened here, especially considering a) Marcel surely had more than a few tweaks and tricks in his bag for his chef; and b) Stefan has dominated with his desserts in previously (see Restaurant Wars).
"Cooking basic food is much sexier than doing a bunch of bullshit," Stefan said while going over his menu. I agree, but there's nothing basic or sexy about something that looks like it could be served at one of the restaurants from American Psycho. You were my pick, Stef! What went wrong?
On paper, Hosea deserved to win — IF (big if) your criteria is strictly the final challenge. He did a better job than his two competitors, who succumbed to unfortunate lapses in judgment (Carla's over-reliance on Casey's ideas) and in imagination (Stefan seemed to resent being asked to cook with no boundaries or stipulations). It's just difficult for me to accept that Hosea deserved the title. IF (another big if) you look back and absorb what he did in Season 5 as part of your decision-making process, you'll find that though he did win a handful of challenges, the chef side-stepped his way through most rounds by squeaking through in the middle.
In Seasons 1 through 3, I felt that each Top Chef winner — Harold, Ilan and Hung — was the premier talent of his season. In Season 4, I didn't have a favorite, but was comfortable with either Richard or eventual winner Stephanie taking it.
This time around, however, I can't bring myself to say that the show rewarded the chef who possesses the widest breadth of culinary ability. I'm not taking issue with Hosea's on-paper talent — he proved in this episode that he can do it and do it well. Rather, I'm flummoxed because his victory proved that this season was nothing more than a game of Sharks and Minnows — keep your neck above water long enough, and catch a couple lucky breaks, and you may just find yourself the last fish in the pool.
As much as I have crapped on Hosea this season — for both his creepo relationship with pout factory Leah and his irritating Stefan's-little-brother inferiority complex — you have to give him credit for pulling off something that a majority of Top Chef fans thought was impossible. It just makes me wonder — with the producers aware of the identity of the winner some time before the airing of the finale, why did they make absolutely no effort to build audience empathy for Hosea in the episodes leading up to last night's? Throughout this season, he was never portrayed as scrappy enough to become default underdog. (That was Carla.) Most of his camera time was dedicated to complaining about Stefan. And they made sure to squeeze every bit of manufactured "he's a scumbag!" drama out of the Leah/infidelity subplot. In other words, they basically skipped over any and every opportunity they had to connect Hosea with viewers, so much so that no one (no one I know, at least) was rooting for him — or even really thinking about him — come finale time.
What does this tell us about Season 5? It tell us the producers probably didn't want — and certainly didn't expect — Hosea to win.
So what do you think? Let me know in the comments. Meanwhile, I'll be scouring the Internet for a high-res picture of Gail's bosoms.
UPDATE: Here are some pictures of Gail's boobs for archival purposes. Many thanks to PW's Style Blog:
- barstool scientist
- Brew Revue
- Chef Salad
- Dirty Dishes
- Don't Front
- Eat This Immediately
- Field Trip
- Food and Art
- Food and Holidays
- Food and Movies
- Food and Music
- Food and Politics
- Food and Sports
- Food and Web
- Food Blogs
- Food Books
- Food Events
- Food News
- Food TV
- Happy Hour Hopper
- In Print
- Meal Ticket
- Menu Time
- Not So Quickfire
- Notes from the Weekend
- On Wheels
- Patio Drinking
- Philly Beer Week 2010
- Private Chef POV
- Product Placement
- Snack Time
- Stiff Drank
- Ticket Stubs
- Top Chef
- Weekly Candy
- Weird Regional Foods
- We're Here to Help
- Where'd We Eat?
- Drew Lazor's Ill-Advised Rant Factory
- Ill-Advised Ranting
- The Week Without Meat
- Philly Beer Week 2009
- Real Big
- Where'd I Eat Last Night?
- Top Chef Masters
- The Good Word
- Next Iron Chef
- Arterial Terrorism
- Food and Radio