Top Chef: Finale, Part 2

M: We’re a bit late, which again is my fault, but here’s our rundown of the Top Chef DC finale.

E: First takes? Kevin has nerves of steel. Angelo gets sick.  Ed falls victim to a classic blunder: only slightly less well known then “never start a land war in Asia” is the adage “never let your sous chef take charge of your menu when the title of Top Chef is on the line!”

M: Really?  I thought he did OK with not letting Ilan take over the menu, but fell for another classic blunder…  “Never screw up dessert when the title of Top Chef is on the line!”

E: Well, he screwed up by giving Ilan the dessert!  He didn’t have anything to do with it, as far as they showed.

M: No, they said that he told Ilan what to make.  Ilan cooked it, but it wasn’t the execution that was the problem, it was the choice.

E: Ok, lets move past that for now.  The challenge is as usual both simple and devastating; cook the four course meal of your life.  The twist?  I’m not sure I’d call it a twist, exactly, but everyone has to base their dishes on exactly the same things.  Tom and Eric go shopping for the proteins at a local market.  The first course must be a vegetable course, the second a fish course featuring rouget, the third course is duck (which is an entire dead duck – uck) and the last course MUST be a dessert.  In addition, somewhere within the menu they must use cuttlefish, cockles, and pork belly.

M: I thought it was interesting that they kind of went the Chopped route for the finale.  I prefer it when they leave give them a topic, rather than ingredients.  I see the advantage in judging people based on the same ingredients, but still.

E: I agree that it’s more surprising when you don’t know what someone’s ingredients are, but as with Chopped, this is also where you really get to see the clear difference between the meals.  I don’t know that the outcome would have been so clear and defensible otherwise.

M: True enough, doesn’t mean it’s the best for the viewer, though.

E: So, the contestants draw knives to pick their sous chefs among previous winners Ilan, Hung and Michael Voltaggio.  Kevin gets his buddy Michael, to his joy, and Angelo gets his choice, Hung, while Ed is stuck with that prat Ilan.  I do have to wonder if working with Michael wouldn’t have taken Ed’s dessert into a more appropriate level?   Ah well.  I’m getting ahead of myself.  Or behind, since I can’t stop talking about the dessert.

M: Oh, it totally would have, but you’re right, we’ll get to that.

E: Ed, presented with the chance of a lifetime, sets about shooting himself in the foot.  He explains in the confessional that he’s too smart to let his sous chef (the reviled Ilan) steer his menu off course, as has happened in seasons past.  (Carla! I mourn for you!)

M: Oh, poor Carla.  Not that I think she would have definitely won, but the mistakes she made in that finale were so palpable, so excruciating, and her emotion over it was just gut wrenching.  Ed didn’t do that.  He was a bit more Michael Chiarello, treating Ilan with little to no respect, until he turned dessert completely over to him.

E: Ed rocks the vegetable course with his corn veloute with fried cockles.  In his second course, however, he kind of forgets the rouget, which has too many tiny bones.  It’s too difficult, and he weirdly shrugs it off.  The duck – with his special duck neck preparation – goes swimmingly.  But his dessert (a toffeed cake) fails.  He goes for something tasty but basic, despite having won the previous elimination challenge largely based on his astounding fritter dessert.  Ed, where did your brain go?

M: Admittedly, they all thought that the cake was good, the problem was it was something anyone could have done.  Angelo’s and Kevin’s desserts were much more top chef-y.

E: Indeed.  But Ed had proven he could make surprising desserts, and for him to excuse himself at Judges table claiming he didn’t think he could execute a lemon curd?  I can make a lemon curd, for heaven’s sake.

M: Yeah, that was really weak.  He basically said “I didn’t go for it”.  Not a good call.  Now Angelo, as opposed to Ed, had physical, not mental issues.  Well, I take that back.  Angelo has all sorts of mental issues, but his problems in the finale were physical.  He got some sort of bug that kept him in bed (doctor’s orders, which I probably would have defied) for the entire shopping/prep day, but he muddled through on the day of the challenge itself.  I have to say, the attitudes that each of the other competitors took really solidified my rooting interest behind Kevin.  Ed was happy to see Angelo down, and hoped he wouldn’t compete in the challenge.  Kevin, on the other hand, felt bad for Angelo, and more so wanted him to get better because he wanted to compete against the best.  I loved that.

E: Yep.  Sure, Kevin has occasionally lost his temper, which isn’t a pretty thing to see, but generally, he seems to act from a far better place.

M: Once he made it in, Angelo, working with Hung, seemed to go back a bit to the self doubt that almost torpedo’d him in mid-season.  He second guessed some of his choices, and made none of his usual comments about his food being lovely, sexy or breathtaking.  One thing I’ve found over the season is that over-confident, over-creepy Angelo is a better chef than humble, human Angelo.  Proved out again, as he provided one or two top notch dishes, but one that needed instructions, and a “vegetable” course that was noodles with bacon.

E: So weird to wish for creepy Angelo, no?  I don’t know what he was thinking, putting the porkbelly in with the vegetable course.  It reminds me of his peanut butter vegetable dish from the school lunch challenge!  And I know, Ed had cockles in his soup (man, that sounds wrong) but they seemed to complement and not overpower the veloute.  Not the case with the porkbelly, and who’s surprised?  In a fight, bacon always wins.

M: Kevin, on the other hand, put together a great meal start to finish.  His vegetable course wasn’t perfect, but at least according to Tom Colicchio was enough to beat Ed’s and win the round.

E: The editing was interesting here, because I thought the judges generally preferred Ed’s; Tom’s blog implies Kevin took that round.  Odd.

M: I thought the same thing watching it, but we’ve seen them edit it that way many, many times.

E: Anyway, Angelo seemed to blow the third course between his marshmallow and that weird cherry cough syrup ‘pallet cleanser.’  What an idea!  Kevin clearly had the best cooked duck with a simple but perfect preparation, and generally made a terrific dish for every course.  AND he had the judges practically crying over his gorgeous plating.

M: His dessert was, in the eyes of some diners, a new national dessert for Singapore.  Pretty high praise.

E: Didn’t you come out of that feeling like you ought to know what a Singapore Sling was?   Not once did anyone explain how it was more than a glorified fruit cup with ice cream.  It must have been pretty amazing, considering how simple it sounded.

M: I totally wanted to know, had to Google it, which I did not enjoy.

E: Oh dear.  (Note to self: do not try that at home.)

M: What I did enjoy was seeing he and last season’s winner, Michael Voltaggio, banter.  Apparently they used to work together 10 years ago, and the quip from Michael about liking it better when “Kev” de-boned fish for him to prepare was fun to see.

E: It was kind of a new side to Michael V, too; I enjoyed seeing him from a more collegial viewpoint.  Honestly, the fact that he worked well with Michael and had his respect – took my estimation of Kevin up a notch.

M: He then took that fish and nailed the fish course with what may have been the best of all the dishes of the night.  His duck, while not as creative as Ed’s duck neck sausage, was perfectly cooked.

E: Can I adequately express how the phrase “duck neck sausage” turns my stomach?  I’ll have to take their word on that one.  And again, this is odd, because I thought Kevin took this round, but Tom’s blog said it went to Ed for that sausage thing.  You’d think watching the tv show would actually clue you in on what the judges thought!

M: Oh, no, I totally thought watching it that Ed took that round, though not by much.

E: On a side note, how cool was it, though,  to see the delightfully daffy (and super skilled) Susan Feniger as one of the guest diners?

M: That was fun; she is a hoot.  One of the things that I remembered from Top Chef Masters is that she’s big into street food, and Singapore is apparently street food heaven, so it probably shouldn’t have surprised me that she was there.

E: Speaking of which, I wasn’t surprised to see Kevin win.  It really seemed like he was the one with the four best, most consistent courses.  As with previous winner Hosea, Kevin wasn’t someone who won a lot of challenges, but he was plainly the best on that particular day.  As they say in the NFL, any given Sunday…

M: Definitely.  As the episode went on, it was pretty clear Angelo was off a bit, that Kevin was dialed in, and that Ed was competing, but dessert was going to kill him.  What I found interesting was that Tom Colicchio said after that this was the best food they’ve had in any season finale, even better than last season, and that Kevin’s in particular was the best of every finale!  He said it over again in his blog, and it doesn’t seem to be hyperbole, he really means it.  High praise again!

E: That totally shocks me.  I don’t even know what to say about that, considering how lackluster this season felt (particularly after last season). But the fact that Tom admits that this season overall wasn’t as impressive as last season really puts his praise in context.  So, well played, finalists!

M: Agreed!

E: It’s kind of embarrassing, but when Kevin started proclaiming his pride at becoming the first African American Top Chef, all I could think was “Kevin is African American?”  How did I miss that?  (It’s not just me, by the way – I mentioned this to Mr. E, and he had exactly the same response.)

M: I thought the same thing!  My second thought was “No other African American has won before?”  I think it’s a good sign for society.

E: I hope so.

M: Societal advancement aside, in the end the season itself didn’t seem as strong, but the people left at the end definitely deserved to be there, and really put their all into it.  I enjoyed it, but kind of hope for a cast next time that will rival the Top Chef Vegas cast of Kevin, Jen and the Voltaggio brothers.  Who’s with me?

E: Me, of course.  You know what I think was the issue?  Kevin, Jen and the Voltaggio brothers cooked great food all season, and many others in the Vegas cast were largely good (Eli, Michael I, et al).  This season, no one managed to cook well the whole time, and wow the judges on a regular basis, so we didn’t get the same feeling that they were producing great food.  Which is funny and sort of sad, because apparently they’re all capable of it.  So next season’s cast, don’t save it for the finals!  Bring your A game day one.  And keep it up!  That’s how you get us to hunt down your restaurants, okay?

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2 comments on “Top Chef: Finale, Part 2

  1. Krizzzz says:

    A Singapore Sling is a drink. Or used to be. Maybe it’s gone some other horrible direction in common parlance, but I think Kevin was going for the drink reference. 😉

    I think Ed made the third classic blunder: never go in so determined not to be ruled by your sous chef that you completely distrust your sous chef.

    Angelo’s “palate cleanser” thing — did HE actually say that’s what it was? Padma said it. And yes, he went along with it. But then when he said that afterward, you were supposed to eat something else, to clear the palate cleanser from the palate…well, yeah.

    Kevin played a classier game, I think. And I think he was, as somebody put it up there, dialed in: he “got” the flavors and the cuisines they were working with, and got them well enough to play with them. He may not have been a big challenge winner, but I think he emerged as quite worthy. I was actually really happy for him. =)

    • E says:

      When Angelo was explaining his dish in voice over, he called it a shooter, but when he introduced it to the judges (so to speak) I’m 95% certain he used the term palate cleanser. One wonders if that would have gone any better if he hadn’t? The judges can get very caught up in terminology.

      I’m happy for Kevin, too. What with the wife and the new baby and not having his own restaurant – now, hopefully, he can get one. That’s always a good outcome to see.

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