Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Top Chef: And the winner is...

Spoilers for the "Top Chef" season 4 finale coming up just as soon as I stock up on liquid nitrogen..

Stephanie. Okay. I'm fine with that. She was easily one of the best chefs this season, and based on the events of the finale, she was really the only choice.

I don't care how good Lisa's finale dishes were -- and there was so much praise for them that I started to get worried -- because she was such a toxic nightmare throughout the season that it would have been a black mark on the show for her to win. This wasn't like season 3 Dale, where he was only occasionally impressive pre-finale but was usually at least competent; Lisa survived week after week by being the second-worst, and it would reflect really badly on the franchise to have her as the winner.

Richard, meanwhile, presented the opposite problem: he had been up there with Stephanie (and, to a lesser degree, Dale and Antonia) as the best chefs of the season, but, like Casey last year, he choked at the end. He got too caught up in technique over flavor, and even he couldn't really defend his dishes.

And so Stephanie had to be the winner, almost by default, even though the only one of her finale dishes that seemed to get universal praise was her third course. As Ted Allen noted, of course, there's the matter of "better" versus "how much better," and it's possible that Stephanie's meat course was so much better than any dish of the evening that she deserved the win. Still, the editing didn't make her seem that impressive, and it's unclear if that was just to maintain suspense until the ending or if that was an accurate reflection of how the judges reacted to all the dishes.

Anyway, I'm glad with the final result and yet not that excited about it. Seems kind of an appropriate ending for this season, which had so much talent and promise but rarely made my mouth water.

What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

I bet that's why the judges had to stay up until dawn (per Ted's comment)...they were debating Lisa vs. Stephanie.

Though you make a great point about having Lisa win being a black mark on the show, the rules are the rules and it's a shame for them to break them on the last episode when I wish they would have bent them earlier when Dale got eliminated.

Anonymous said...

It was a disappointing final episode, appropriate for a generally disappointing season. Certainly, I believe that Richard and Stephanie deserved to be among the final three, but Lisa's inclusion diminished my enjoyment of the last show. That said, based on the portrayal of the dishes and the commentary offered, it seemed like she was robbed. Both her soup and her desert received rave reviews, while Stephanie's cooking only truly seemed to excel with the third course.

I was glad to see her win, as she was my favorite throughout the season. (I enjoyed seeing the episode one flashback, where she was literally shaking as she plated her dish.)

I thought Richard would be the winner and was bummed to see him choke. I wanted to see a tough competition between him and Stephanie with Lisa left far behind. Oh well, there's always next season.

Dani B said...

I dunno man...if Lisa had won for coconut soup and coconut rice, I might've killed myself! That's standard fare at any mid-range Asian restaurant. And that soup, which I'm sure was delicious, if freakin easy to make--no wonder she was all chill in the kitchen.

Eric said...

I agree with dani - those dishes might have been excellent, but they weren't "Lisa's" dishes. The Tom Yum Gai also didn't highlight the poultry (at least it was never mentioned) so that might have helped tip the balance.

It did seem like they were trying to figure out a way to go with Stephanie over Lisa given the "only judge this meal" rule, which once again highlights the problem with not being able to take into account the entire season. And this is a case where they really should have been able to, because there was no guest judge.

I was hoping Stephanie would win, and I'm glad she won, but it just wasn't satisfying the way it happened.

Steve said...

In Season 3 the Asian guy's name was Hung, not Dale.

Anonymous said...

I dunno, they all seemed crazy about Stephanie's first course, with the fish and the asparagus.

Yeah, it was underwhelming. Everyone's food, including Lisa's, looked better in the first part of the finale.

While I'm happy Stephanie won, I'm sad for Richard. I think he's talented and probably the classiest person ever to appear in a reality program. I'd like to have seen him go out without choking.

Alan Sepinwall said...

In Season 3 the Asian guy's name was Hung, not Dale.

Yeah, but I'm referring to that season's second place finisher, the guy with the mohawk who seemed like an afterthought going into the finals and then came very close to beating Hung. I was comparing that Dale to this Lisa, and noting that a Lisa win would have been much worse than one for Dale a season ago.

Grunt said...

I was talking to my friend about Richard's monumental collapse last night and said that the problem with Molecular Gastronomy is that you really need time to prepare things and figure out what you want to do. As a chef day-to-day that's not so much a problem, but on a show like Top Chef, where the whole point is you don't have enough time to do anything, it's a huge liability. I'd rather have dinner at Richard's restaurant, but I always thought Stephanie should have won. She was consistantly good for the entire show (with the exception of those two episodes) whereas Richard would make big successes and then big mistakes as well.

Anonymous said...

I didn't keep count during the season...but when they had to pick knives in order to determine the order of picking sous-chefs, Padma mentioned that Richard and Stephanie were tied in elim challenges.

In that 4-4 tie, how was the time when Richard gave the win to Stephanie counted (the one where the prize was $1000 at Crate & Barrel)?

Anonymous said...

I was really pulling for Stephanie when it became clear Richard wasn't going to win (I would have been fine with either of them being Top Chef), but even though she won, this finale episode was incredibly unsatisfying. It seemed like no one knocked it out of the park -- the judges were choosing between two OK menus instead of two really strong ones. A letdown of an ending for a weirdly uncompelling season.

K J Gillenwater said...

Wasn't that the third time Richard had served a 'Banana Scallop'? That kind of annoyed me.

Lisa should not have been in the final three. Toward the end of the season, the judges should *always* take into consideration a chef's performance overall. Why wouldn't they? I'd rather have a chef win who was consistently ranked high, rather than one who happened to pull out a win at the last minute.

Not sure why Lisa was even a consideration in the end, because more than once I remember someone remarking that her cooking was 'pedestrian' and 'average.' No surprises. And she always managed to make her 'hot' stuff too hot for anyone to enjoy.

Poor Richard! I like the guy, but he really did choke. He just shouldn't have admitted it.

Stephanie deserved the win, as she consistently performed very well throughout most of the series.

I still think Antonia should have been there. She had her missteps, but overall she outperformed Lisa by a mile! What were the judges thinking?

Satisfying win, but still had something lacking b/c I wanted Richard to be more competition than he actually was.....

Anonymous said...

Like everyone else, I'm glad Stephanie won over Lisa. Richard's choking was sad to watch and I really felt bad for him.

I get the whole "Judge them on this meal alone" but it's sort of unrealistic for naming a Top Chef after months of work. I mean, imagine going to a restaurant run by Lisa. If only one out of every 6 meals is only the second worst thing you've eaten, you're not going back. But if you go to Stephanie or Richards and 5 out of every 6 meals is really good, you'll forgive the one that isn't great. At least for the finals, I think they need to look at the entire season to determine who is really the Top Chef.

Anonymous said...

I wrote that wrong. At Lisa's restaurant 5 out of 6 meals would be the second worst thing you've eaten and only one would be good.

Sorry to be unclear.

Anonymous said...

Even the winning announcement was underwhelming. Not sure how it's been done in the past, or maybe I'm used to other reality shows where they manufacture the drama a little more, but it felt like they just came out and said, "'re the top chef." with little to no build up.

Maybe it was the editing, maybe it was Padma (likely), maybe it was a very tired crew (that apparently stayed up till dawn) and just wanted to end it.

Adam said...

A really underwhelming finale. In previous seasons, they really made an effort to make the last decision special, whether through longer episodes, or live reveals. This episode matched the underwhelming nature of the menus. Aside from Stephanie's braised pistachio lamb (it was lamb, right?) there wasn't anything that memorable to this one. I was pulling for Richard, but I think his bow-out was an attempt to insure that he didn't take any votes away from Stephanie. At least, that's what I want to think.

I'll be back next time, even for the Teen Tournament, but seriously Bravo, mix it up. Ditch Colliccio and his Incredibly Shrinking Michelin Rating and get someone in there who can drive the show, not just coast downhill.

Agnes B said...

I think that this season was overall not as great as last season, but still a solid outing for the show.

I was incredibly surprised that there were no real curveballs in this finale.

Seeing Richard choke made me wonder, initially if there was something wrong with this final challenge. I expected him to give Stephanie a run for her money and he blew it. But if you think about it, Richard really excelled in the more creative obstacle-heavy challenges. When it came to the final three episodes of this season, and there seemed to be few if any surprises, he fell short; Stephanie didn't. It seemed as though he has trouble channeling his creativity when there are no obstacles.

The editing created suspense, as was intended, but it also seemed to seriously undermine Stephanie's win. If it really was as close a race between her and Lisa as it seemed to be, fine. If not...well, I'm not wild about being toyed with quite so blatantly.

I think that there needs to be a balance between holding the chefs accountable in the context of the weekly challenge and taking into account past performances. Whether there's a points system (that would curb the cooking-not-to-lose attitude some chefs adopt) or something similar, I don't care. But some weeks this show favors adherence to the challenge at hand, and other times consider the bigger picture.

Agnes B said...

Two other, related, things:

1) I too was annoyed that Richard trotted out the thick-cut bananas, I'm sorry, banana scallops , for the THIRD time as wasn't called on it.

2) It seemed like Lisa was all about Asian-influenced food, all season long. In past seasons, I thought chefs were dinged for playing it safe too often, was she doing something different that made it okay for her?

Nicole said...

I would have been happy with either Richard or Stephanie winning, so when they were editing it to make a Lisa win a real possibility, I was getting concerned. She is the reason why the judges should look at overall performance when eliminating cheftestants. At the very least, the entire series performance should play a role for the final. A Top Chef isn't someone who lucks out and does one good meal, but who is consistently good. It's true that one bad meal can drive away certain customers, but the whole of Lisa's repertoire never added up to an overall package that was as talented and innovative as Richard or Stephanie.

I also think Richard fell on his sword because he knew he wouldn't win, and wanted to make sure Stephanie would win this.

Anonymous said...

I agree -- a rather dull season, and barely relived by any inter-personal drama, which may indeed be the last resort of a reality show -- but halfway into this season, I'd have taken ANY entertainment, however low-rent.

I respect that they brought in real chefs, but these are also people less apt to make mistakes -- and provide us couch-slugs with smug vicarious pleasures.

(Those dumb cooks are now toiling on Next Food Network Star.)

Stephanie or Richard seemed locks to win from mid-season; even the guest judges were a staid lot this time around.

I also was a bit mystified why we all got hauled out way down to Puerto Rico when the setting didn't seem to matter that much in term of cooking, except to provide a pretty background.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm being paranoid, but I really felt like they were being insincere at judging. After the actual tasting it seemed like other than the dessert course (which wasn't a failure for Stephanie) that they really liked Stephanie's dishes overall, with the lamb course being, as the guest chef/sous chef pointed out, the first one anyone said they "loved". The first one they seemed close to loving, and the second they enjoyed but thought it needed more lobster "essence" in the sauce, but the perfect excution of the quail was praised during tasting.

Lisa's first course was called "too spicy" and I believe "pedestrian", and her third course was poorly cooked. I mean, did you hear the dress down she got at panel for cooking the Wagyu beef medium rare and not letting the fat to melt through and give it the right texture? It was a display of her immaturity as a chef. Also, her dessert wasn't universally liked, I don't think. I think it was just the "best" in some people's eyes among a pretty shabby offering of desserts.

So in conclusion, my theory is the editing made it seem closer than it was.

Anonymous said...

I was surprised and impressed that Lisa stepped up for the finale, being positive, getting along with her sous chef, and putting out well executed dishes, and redeeming herself from a past bad soup and a past bad rice dessert.

I think it was her third dish that was called pedestrian.

I'm glad Stephanie won because she deserves it, but appreciated how tense the episode was, because no one would have predicted Lisa would be close to a win.

Amasea said...

I believe in the finale they do consider seasonal performance, not just the performance that week. Although the Last Supper does play a big role in the judging, because it's the chef's best opportunity to show his or her strengths with a gazillion arbitrary impositions.
Eric, it was Tom Kah Gai, not Tom Yum Gai -- Tom Kah is my favorite Thai soup, but I don't like Tom Yum so much (and Gai just means chicken).
Kristin, I agree with you. Lisa was always second-worst, so she often skated through in the challenges, including the second-to-last one with Antonia. This is where the weakness of judging on a single meal is made apparent. The strength of judging on a single meal is a) that's how diners do it -- if they have a crummy meal their first time at a restaurant, they're likely not coming back and b) that makes it an even playing field for the guest judges, who don't have the chef's entire experience on the show to judge upon.
Nicole, I really don't think Richard fell on his sword. I think he knew he hadn't done his best and wanted to openly acknowledge that instead of trying to defend the meal as being representative of him as a chef. Sure, he wanted Steph to win if it couldn't be him, but did you see how bloody disappointed he looked to lose? He was basically in tears.
Anyway, hooray for Stephanie!!

David Dust said...

I got something BETTER than bacon ice cream - TRANNY ICE CREAM!!!

CLICK HERE for DavidDust's Top Chef Chicago recap!


Joan said...

Poor Richard, yay Stephanie, shut up, Lisa.

I think Richard was hurt the most by not having a sous chef the day of the dinner. I think he does well when he has someone else to work with as a sounding board, to try out ideas and flavor combinations, etc. His menu was not well-defined after the prep day, he was planning on working with his sous to firm everything up for the actual dinner. When they pulled the sous chefs at the last minute, Richard really had to go into overdrive to both think and cook.

ITA with everything the Jessica said about the editing making Lisa look closer to a win than she actually was. The kiss of death was her mistreatment of the Wagyu beef; that's just criminal mistreatment of a spectacular piece of meat. The other thing about Lisa's menu is that there was nothing new there, it was all stuff she does in her restaurant, yes? That annoys me, the same way it annoyed me in S2 when Ilan got the win for cooking everything he did at the restaurant he worked in.

It was nice to see Lisa without a scowl on her face, but Stephanie deserved that win. As for Richard, I'm sure he'll do fine. I really admired him throughout this competition. He's got class, and I'd love to eat at his restaurant.

Anonymous said...

I was fully prepared to give up on the show if Lisa won. Very sad for Richard, but I liked Stephanie as well and thought that she did good work the whole season long.

Stef said...

I was very close to giving up on Top Chef after season 2, which was both the nastiest in terms of typical "reality" drama and disappointing in that (IMO) an inferior candidate won. But I'm so glad I came back for season 3 and now season 4. Even though they've both had ups and downs, Top Chef is my favorite reality show because it really does bring talented people together and gives them the chance to shine. I've learned more about food by watching this show than anything else in my 33 years, and I feel like both a better cook and a more educated diner. Love it.