Top Chef Episode 12: The Finale

Watching the final episode of Top Chef was like reading a reverse-murder mystery, where you know who the murderer and/or the victim is already (think Sunset Boulevard), but you want to know exactly how it happened. All the conventions of reality television pointed to Good Guy Harold winning, with Bad Girl Tiffani getting her just desserts, pardon the pun. It did in fact happen that way, but nevertheless it was an entertaining ending to the season.

I think that loyal viewers of the show knew since the teaser last week, when it was shown that the last four eliminated contestants - Stephen, Miguel, Dave and Lee Anne - were to be the sous chefs for the two finalists, that Tiffani was basically doomed. None of the four liked her, and at least two of them actively hated her. Three of them outright chose to work with Harold, with only Stephen for whatever reason choosing Tiffani. (The closet Stephen fan in me would like to think it's because he has a kind heart.) Harold picked Lee Anne outright, and had Miguel and Dave drawing those dang knives to see who went with who; Dave, to his obvious dismay, ended up with Tiffani. Then, blatantly showing their lack of respect for her, Dave and Stephen went out on a drunk and showed up late with a hangover on the big day. I did feel rather sorry for Tiffani at this point, though I guess she had it coming.

Since the setting was Las Vegas, I was fearing some kind o circus-like ding-dong final challenge in a public arena, Iron Chef style, but fortunately that wasn't the case. The final challenge was quite fair: come up with a 5 course tasting menu paired with product placement Bracco Vineyard wines.

As far as the two menus were concerned, they both seemed to have highs and lows. Harold played it safe by presenting 5 fairly simple dishes, while Tiffani, perhaps sensing that she had to go for broke, presented 10 dishes in total - 2 per course. Ironically, the one dish that the judges seemed to love was Dave's panna cotta dessert, the one he has come up with in the event that he made the finals. Whatever his feelings were towards Tiffani, Dave showed his generosity of spirit in 'giving' her one of his dishes. And, when she tried to claim that dish as her own after the judges had already heard from Dave that that was his dish, her enshrinement into the pantheon of Reality Show Villains alongside lumaries such as Omarosa (The Apprentice), Richard Hatch (Survivor), and Team Guido (The Amazing Race) was assured.

As for the dishes themselves - to be honest, Harold's dishes didn't excite me much at all. A few of Tiffani's dishes were quite intriguing however, especially the artichoke 'risotto' with panchetta. Since the viewing audience cannot taste anything, we can only go by the judges' reactions as to how good or bad things were as usual, and they chose Harold's conservative menu over Tiffani's perhaps overly ambitious one.

And so, the contestants ride off into the sunset of reality television. It was certainly entertaining; often hilarious, frequently frustrating, occasionally infuriating. There was of course lots of reality-show-drama. As a food show it performed less well, but did offer a few tantalizing glimpses into certain aspects of cooking professionally. And at the very least it provided some nice food porn along the way. There is a lot of room for improvement, but I am cautiously looking forward to the second season.

A few closing thoughts about the final episode:

  • Being New York-centric when it comes to the U.S. dining scene I was quite impressed to see restauranteur extraordinaire Drew Nieporent as a guest judge. (My mom the retired restaurant manager was quite good friends with him when she was in NY and mentioned him often, but I never got to meet him.)
  • The look of bewilderment on guest judge Lorraine Bracco's face when the 'sous-chefs' expressed their total lack of support for Tiffani was quite funny, though not surprising since she obviously didn't know any of them prior to this judging round.
  • I cringed a little at the sight of Harold sneaking gulps from a mini liquor bottle. I've seen first hand the unfortunate prevalence of alcohol and drug abuse amongst restaurant chefs. Harold looks so much like a cast member from the short-lived sitcom based on Anthony Bourdain's book, Kitchen Confidential...I'm hoping those gulps were simply because of the particular high pressure situation.
  • When Tiffani lost out to Harold in the inevitable end, and tearfully said she had hoped she'd be able to travel with that money to learn more about the origins of the food she was cooking, I couldn't really get out the hankie for her. People who think they can only go traveling overseas with a load of cash are too shortsighted; you can travel on a budget and still experience the world. My first few trips to Europe (from the U.S.) were done on shoestring budgets; I travelled around with a rail pass, stayed at youth hostels, b & bs and cheap hotels; filled up on free or very cheap breakfasts and skipped lunch so that I could indulge myself at dinner. Or, I aimed for the usually less expensive lunches. One time, I skipped lunch for about 3 or 4 days in a row, and had bread and and a couple of tomatoes from the market or something for dinner, so that I could afford to go to one of the famed restaurants that I had been dreaming about for ages. And it was worth all the hunger pangs and feeling faint and all that. (Of course, now that I'm older and softer in more ways than one, I'm not sure I could do it again.)

Complete list of my Top Chef reviews:

[Edit a bit later:] Top Chef has cracked the Top 20 TV Show list on iTunes, breaking the usual strangehold of Lost, The Office, Desperate Housewives, Alias and 24. As far as I know I think it's the first time a reality show has shown up on the Top 20.

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