Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Top Chef Season 4 Finale

The day has finally come. What are we all going to do with ourselves now???

Lisa, Stephanie and Richard Blaise battled it out for the title of Top Chef in Puerto Rico, with the help (sort-of) of world-renowned uberchefs : The woman from Spotted Pig, the guy who runs Blue Hill, and that tall, awesome-looking French dude with the shocking white hair and blue eyes. (Due to a spotty wireless connection, I am doing a bit of a rush job on my front stoop, so certain facts remain unresearched. Three cheers for Time Warner Cable, but at least my TV is still working!)

The requisite curve ball of tonight's competition was the sous chefs not showing up on the day of service. All three simply nodded their heads and stared when the news broke, sighing a silent, collective "Whatever".

Based on the last three season finales, I was prepared for the dinner service to be somewhat anticlimactic – when the judging is this strict and the food (allegedly) this refined, it doesn’t leave much room for high drama. Still, the tension at tonight’s service was the most I’ve felt in four seasons, and it seemed to be extremely competitive among all three. No dish crashed and burned, and no chef had more than one that the judges absolutely died for. Of the three chefs, Richard didn’t elicit an overwhelmingly positive or negative response – which made me nervous for him. I think they could have given him a break for one substandard dish if another was spectacular.

Lisa won the first unanimous praise with her second course, which was a coconut, Asian- style soup seasoned with citrus and lemongrass (I think). Stephanie’s third course – a lamb dish with olives and braised pistachios (? – again, don’t quote me on this) was a happy surprise, and was arguably the most well received dish of the total service. Everyone really liked both Richard’s (again with the banana scallops, Richard?) and Lisa’s dessert, and Stephanie’s was the clear loser. But it wasn’t a total disaster.

In the confessional commentary, Tom seemed – oddly - to be pulling for Lisa, warts and all. He made a point of saying that sometimes abrasive personalities can be an asset for a chef (you don’t say, Tom!), and seemed to be won over by her cool-as-a-cucumber act during preparation. And at the excruciating judges table faceoff, Lisa was palpably faring better than her competitors. While I was sweating bullets.

The judges are careful to remind the audience and the chefs that this game is about each individual competition, not the cumulative performance of each chef. But if they had stood by this at each finale, the outcomes might have been different. Tiffany could have taken Season 1 and Dale Season 3, but they didn’t. There was never been a completely shocking Top Chef finale, and tonight threatened to be the first.

Maybe we can thank the editing room for this, but from start to finish, the undercurrent of tonight’s episode was this question: If Lisa wins tonight’s challenge, does she deserve to be Top Chef?

When Richard copped to “choking”, I nearly swallowed my arm. On the one hand, he forced the judges to recognize that he didn’t present the best meal of the evening, but they knew that already. On the other hand, he challenged them to recognize that up until this point, he has been the most solid competitor. At least in his opinion. But while Richard’s strategy was historically apt, Stephanie could have presented the very same argument, and her meal was better than his tonight. In hindsight, Richard’s confession could have influenced more than just his own fate.

Like past seasons, the judges broke down the meal by the winners of each course, but unlike past seasons, the final decisions for each course were somewhat ambivalent – likely due to the individual preferences of each judge. It ended like this:

1st course: Lisa/Stephanie

2nd course: Lisa/Richard

3rd course: Stephanie

4th course: Richard/Lisa

I always loved Ted Allen, but I never loved him more when he said: “We agree that you liked one dish more than the other in each course, but the question is how much”. Clearly this was a nod to the fact that while Lisa may have edged out her competitors on the course-by-course tally, did she edge them out enough to win?

Fortunately for Stephanie, the answer was no. Phew!

Congratulations Stephanie. I’m really glad you won – even if you didn’t *quite* deserve it.


betty said...

Heroic blogging! Hurrah! Picture me wearing a chef hat and tossing it skyward.

Even though I've not seen the show (yet) -- I am sad that it's over, too, because your dispatches really sizzle.

How do you keep your Top Chef skills sharp in the off-season? I know I will be boning up on the re-runs, with Bimbo's help.

LadyElaineFairchild said...

Betty, you are so affirming! I really appreciate that. Kathy Griffin's show My Life on The D-list starts p again tonight, maybe i'll keep my skills sharp that way. All bravo, all the time....

betty said...

Sweet! Sounds like a plan. By the way, at dinner tonight at Orlin on St. Mark's we overheard at least two convos at other tables about Stephanie and Top Chef! I felt so in-the-know!

James' LA Event Listing said...

Not having Top Chef to watch anymore this season will be tragic. To get my fix I will buy the latest Top Chef cookbook, read the show blogs, buy a Top Chef apron and do anything else that can keep my rampant consumerism alive and well until next season.

Being in Los Angeles, I will trundle over to Craft and launch into a scathing critique of their food and demand to see Tom to vent. They will of course throw my out, but it will be a "cool" moment for me.

I am just so glad that Lisa did not win. To paraphrase that great Chef Dave from Season One, "Lisa's a bitch, bitch!" I'm guessing that the editors cut the judging table tape to make it look like she was building some momentum, but in the end, they were all pretty unanimous for Stephanie and as much as I like Richard, molecular gastronomy is NOT cooking!

I don't think you should get points for dipping food into vats of liquid nitrogen and turning tapioca into caviar and getting kudos for it.

At the end of the day, use a knife, use fire, use seasonings and use your that's a Top Chef!