Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Last Supper

Top Chef - Season 6, Episode 14

Previously on Top Chef: Perhaps the most talented cast ever, barring a few without the necessary level of talent (Eve), drive (Ash), or ability to stir up watercooler buzz (Laurine). Sibling rivalry. Sibling rivalry. Sibling rivalry. Sibling rivalry. Sibling rivalry. There. You think I've said it enough times to prevent the editors from cramming it down our throats tonight? Michael, Bryan, Kevin, and Jenc were ordained as the Golden Children, and won every single Elimination Challenge. That's not an exaggeration. Nobody outside of these four won an Elimination Challenge. Seriously! Once the rest of the chefs were cut loose, one of the Golden Children had to take the fall, and Jenc's slightly unfocused approach finally did her in. Three chefs remain. Who will be Top Chef?

Opening credits. A wine called "Marilyn Merlot". Heh. Also, fondue up the wazoo! Our viewing party had both cheese and chocolate fondue, and I contributed the dippers, from apples to bread to veggies to marshmallows to pound cake to berries. It may have been delicious, but my stomach was not happy with me the next day.

Monday Morning Quarterback session. The final three analyze their chances. Kevin's got the best record going into the finals, but isn't about to rest on his laurels. Michael notes that Bryan has racked up a bunch of challenge wins, but could never manage to figure out those Quickfires. The chefs head out for the day, and Bravo pastes up a logo (practically in the center of the screen) for that dreadful attempt to recapture Project Runway. I'll make it simple for you, Bravo: No. If it makes you feel any better, Project Runway isn't good anymore. Anyway, back to this show.

The chefs meet Ptom and Padma in the midst of a winery, where they explain the upcoming SuperChallenge. Each chef will cook a three-course meal, but naturally, there will be certain parameters. The first course will be a rip-off of Chopped, in which chefs are given identical boxes of mystery ingredients, all of which must be incorporated into the dish. It's sad to see Top Chef have to stoop to stealing material from a show that owes its entire existence to this one. Thankfully, for all the carping I've done about the judging on this show, I doubt it would be possible to reach the level of sheer assitude the losers who call themselves experts spew on Chopped. Geez, what's with these digressions about shows that aren't good anymore? Forgive me, I'll try to focus. The second course is entirely up to the chef. The third course must be dessert. This news causes a couple of brows to furrow.

Obviously, the diners will be a collection of Names. Just as obviously, the chefs will have some help in their preparations. Who could it possibly be? Eliminated contestants? No way! How'd they think that one up? In a nice change of pace, all of the eliminated chefs are prospective sous chefs, and not just the people eliminated in the last few weeks. Each of the finalists will draw two knives to determine their helpers; one of the sous chefs will help today, and one tomorrow. My heart goes giddy, flush with the possibility that Michael may have to rely on Robin, or that anyone could draw Jenz and have to figure out her name, let alone her cooking style. Unfortunately, Fate isn't feeling particularly dramatic this evening. Kevin draws Preeti. Bryan draws Jenc. Michael draws Jesse. Kevin draws Ash. Bryan draws Ashley. Michael draws Eli. Interesting. I'd say Michael's picks don't really affect him one way or the other, but Bryan is sure set up nicely. Kevin, not so much.

That night, the chefs dig into their mystery boxes to figure out the first course. It contains Pacific rockfish, Dungeness crab, squash, lemon, Matsutake mushrooms, and anise hyssop. After some frenzied planning, everyone gets started. Preeti, Jesse, and Ashley are on the field as sous chefs. Ashley and Jesse are doing fine, but Preeti is cutting vegetables at a glacial pace. Kevin is getting peeved, as well he might. I'm pretty sure I could knock out that task faster. Kevin complains in interview that of the twenty items on his prep list, he can only assign two to Preeti. Ouch. As time winds down, Michael and Bryan spar via interview about whether Bryan's more conservative cooking style is "safe" or "smart". Kevin worries that his sous chefs will be about as much help as Sarah Palin in securing a win.

The next day, Kevin awakens in a foul mood. He lost time on Preeti, and lost even more time wandering around in a funk about Preeti. It's taken to the last episode to see that Bryan does indeed have a tattoo, just like most of his other brethren here in the most inked season ever. And just like them, it's not particularly becoming. A knock at the door sends all of the chefs' brains into a whirl. It's got to be a twist! What's going to be the twist? Will they be able to overcome the twist? It'd have been funny if it had just been a maid, all "I was just dropping by to see if you needed more towels." It turns out to be the chefs' mothers, which Bryan calls "surreal". DRINK! Michael and Bryan's mother interviews that she's rooting for both of them, but that ultimately, there will be one winner.

LabRat (as Voltaggimom): "You were always my favorite, Bryan."

There's a telling bit in which Voltaggimom helps button her sons' chef coats (probably at the producers' urging -- what self-sufficient adult needs help fastening a front-buttoned garment?) Bryan plays along nicely. Michael lectures his mother on the finer points of sleeve-rolling. Bryan kiddingly-but-not-really chides Michael for ragging on her. Kevin's mom pledges her full support and interviews that there's no reason he can't win. Kevin's mood is markedly improved by the visit, and the chefs head out for the day. They're met at the restaurant by Ptom, who nails them with the real twist. There is to be a fourth course. It will slide in as the first course, and shift all the other ones back. This new course will be "inspired" by the chefs' mothers, and should be a callback to a favorite childhood dish. The chefs have three hours before the first plate hits the table.

Ready? Go! The sous chefs enter, and everyone gets cookin'. Bryan's childhood course will be a play on tuna noodle casserole, which will include sardines, German potato, panko, and fennel cucumber linguine. Sounds good. Michael hated broccoli as a child, and will be playing around with that concept by "reinventing" it. He's making a cream of dehydrated broccoli soup, with spot prawn and fried broccoli. Kevin talks about his upbringing, and how he abandoned the idea of college to become a chef. His childhood course will be "chicken and fixings", which includes fried chicken skin, tomatoes, and a liquid squash casserole. As an aside, I know that everyone has their own personal list of words they despise, and "fixings" (not to mention its toothless cousin, "fixins'") is firmly ensconced in my top ten. Bleh.

For the mystery box course, Bryan is preparing sous vide rockfish with diced mushroom and a lemon jam. Michael is poaching the rockfish in butter, and serving it with tomato-kombu sauce, and a sweet and sour salad. Kevin is cooking his rockfish in duck fat, and serving it with mushrooms and crab broth, both of which will be roasted. Kevin doesn't like the texture of the Matsutake mushrooms, and doesn't quite know what to do with them. He's a lot happier with Ash than he was with Preeti, though.

For the third course, Michael, who loves his gimmicks, will be making fake mushrooms out of mushroom goo. He's also working with fennel, squab, and a pistachio cassoulet. Kevin, who loves his pork, will be slow roasting some pork belly, and serving it with roasted broccoli and Brussels sprouts. A caramelized ham jus will serve as the sauce. Bryan, who loves... Well, anyway. He'll be making venison saddle with Brussels sprouts, sunchokes, and maple-glazed carrots. The venison sounds good, but the vegetables are unimpressive.

For dessert, Michael works on a chocolate caramel cake with a butternut squash brulee and butternut ice cream. Kevin is throwing bacon into a roasted banana chocolate mousse. He's serving it with peanut bacon brittle. Hmm. You won't find a more ardent supporter of bacon than I, but it doesn't go well with everything. Bryan is making a white chocolate dulce de leche cheesecake with sheep's milk. There will also be a fig sorbet and poached pear. Time winds down.

Out in the dining room, the judges, Names, and moms await the first course. Padma apologizes in advance for the critical things that must be said about the food. Voltaggimom lives in Vegas, and threatens to track Ptom down if need be. Awesome. The chefs emerge to the surprise of being judged by their mothers. What, like we all don't live in fear of that? Bryan rethinks the wisdom of using sardine, which he's sure his mother has never gone near. Ptom introduces the diners, noting that the moms will only be around for the first course. The chefs explain their childhood memory courses, and recede. Kevin's squash casserole goes over very well. Bryan's sardine isn't as seasoned as much as it could be, which is a common theme with Bryan. His mother sticks up for him, of course, saying that she was concerned that the sardine would taste overly fishy, but it didn't. Michael's prawn is too undercooked for the Names, but he sold the shit out of his story of overcoming his dislike for broccoli. Wonderful, judges. I can't wait to head to the nearest restaurant and order crappy food that reminds the chef of his Nana. Padma tries to get Voltaggimom to decide which of her sons' dishes she liked better, but she wisely pleads the Fifth. Padma thanks the moms and sends them back to say good-bye. Michael immediately pumps Voltaggimom for information about the judges' opinions, but if he got any, we never hear it.

The chefs bring out their mystery box courses. Kevin's broth goes over very well, but his mushrooms were too tough. His fish wasn't bad, but it doesn't wow anyone, either. Bryan's fish is -- surprise! -- underseasoned. Again, the overall plate is good, but not great. Michael's is a lot more successful, as he struck a perfect balance of sweet and sour. Everyone likes it, but I'm surprised at how subdued all of the judges' reactions have been so far.

Third course. Bryan finally knocks one out of the park. The judges all love his venison. Michael's squab was excellent, but his mushrooms didn't have a lot of flavor, and were a bit silly in execution. Kevin, who's been excelling at meat dishes all season long, falls down a bit on his pork belly. It seems that cracks are finally starting to show in his veneer, but man, what a terrible day for that to be happening. The pork belly wasn't cooked long enough, and came out tough. The sauce was good, though.

Fourth course. Back in the kitchen, Michael realizes that Eli overfilled the cakes, and that Michael himself cooked them too long. They're way overdone. The chefs bring out their plates. Kevin's dessert gets poor to mixed reviews. Gail likes the bacon crumblies, but one of the Names is tired of chefs throwing bacon into desserts. Ptom thinks Kevin didn't do enough with the banana. Michael has made candied pumpkin seeds, which were good, but his cakes were dry. Bryan's cheesecake was "nice". Geez. If you just heard the deliberations, you'd never know this was the most successful final three ever. Based on the judges' conversation, it frankly sounds like a disappointing meal. Strange. The chefs come out for cursory applause, and so that Padma can tell them she'll see them later at Judges' Table. All three of the chefs think they have a good shot at the title, but Michael is nervous about his lackluster dessert.

Fret 'n sweat. Michael has both of those things covered. Judges' Table. Odd Asian Music and Gong breeze in so they can get through their work and go on vacation for a while. The chefs enter, and Padma thanks them for the meal, which was "an amazing end to an amazing season". I'm just not buying it. Nobody had that moment. You know, the one where you take a bite of truly extraordinary food and just lose yourself in it. I don't think I saw an expression much higher than "Meh" at that table. As to the dishes, Bryan's mystery box course was well-cooked, but it didn't have a lot of contrast, imagination, or seasoning. His venison was great. Kevin's childhood memory course was flavorful and complex. His pork belly needed more time, and the judges are surprised that he didn't deliver on his speciality. Michael's mystery box course was excellent. He's a creative cook, and takes risks, which judges always love. Michael's dessert was disappointing, which he admits. For some reason, the judges bend over backwards to excuse him for it. I don't know if they already had their minds made up or what, but they just shrugged off the detriments of a dessert they would have blasted any of the eliminated chefs for.

Padma asks the pageant question of why each chef "deserves" to be Top Chef. Bryan says that he expressed himself through his cuisine. Michael jokes that he just doesn't want Bryan to win. When everyone's done giggling, Michael really sells himself again, saying that cooking is what he is, and that he's never collected a paycheck for doing anything else, nor will he ever. He lives and breathes food. The judges wet their pants, because this neat package of American Dream is exactly what they're looking for. Ironically, a heartfelt speech on this show about how much food means to you is as important -- if not more -- than the actual food. A point to Michael for playing the production like a fiddle here. Kevin says he cooks soulful food that speaks to the person that he is. The judges are still swooning over Michael, and hardly pay attention. The chefs are dismissed.

Deliberations. Kevin had the most interesting, flavorful first course. Ptom found Bryan's bland, but Toby liked it, saying he didn't mind at all that it was underseasoned.

Limecrete: "Wow, the British judge likes bland food? Shut the fuck up."

Michael's fried broccoli completely overwhelmed the prawn. On the second course, Michael was king. He was smart and creative with the mystery box ingredients. Gail didn't care for Michael's tomato, but hated Kevin's mushroom more. Bryan's was safe and boring. Gail can't find a flaw in Bryan's third course. Toby admits that it was good, but says that it wasn't as memorable as Michael's squab. Gail lobs back that although the squab was good, two other components (the mushroom and the pistachio cassoulet) weren't up to par. Kevin is not even in the running on this course, as his pork belly was tough and unsophisticated. Michael's dessert execution was off, but his bold flavors made sense, whatever that means. I'm sorry, but "I know what you were going for," is an acceptable reason to keep someone around in Episode 1 or 2. Not the finale. Kevin's dessert was disappointing. He's clearly bound for culinary greatness, but he had a bad night. Bryan's dessert was restrained and sophisticated. Had Michael put out the dessert he intended, it may have been better than Bryan's, but it wasn't. The judges reach a decision.

Final decision. Ptom congratulates all three chefs. Padma starts with some bad news, and dismisses Kevin right away. It's amazing how many seasons this happens in. A favorite strides into the finals, then immediately shoots him or herself in the foot. Casey committed game suicide in Season Three. Richard flailed at the last minute in Season Four. Carla fell apart in Season Five. And here is Kevin, who unquestionably ruled this entire season. He dominated challenge after challenge, came to the finals, and promptly lost his head. It's a shame, because while I can support his elimination under the rules of the game, he's probably the most talented competitor this show has ever seen. The producers are giddy that Kevin lost his groove, though, because it sets up a magnificently television-friendly Battle of the Brothers for the final two. Kevin walks back to the fret 'n sweat room, where his mom is waiting to give him a conciliatory hug. He's disappointed, but proud of what he's accomplished, saying that he was the underdog from the very beginning. Kevin, you know I love you, but you do not get to win every goddamn challenge under the sun, then call yourself an underdog. Sorry, buddy.

Back at Judges' Table, Ptom obligingly plays up the EMOTION of a SIBLING RIVALRY final two, where two such professional chefs must STRUGGLE with their FEELINGS. Blah, blah, blah. Let's just get to the winner, which is... Michael. Even though he's spent the entire season talking himself up, he looks genuinely shocked. I'm sure he was thinking that the dessert course had torpedoed his chances. Bryan congratulates him, and pulls him in for a hug. Michael interviews that he's happier about having Bryan in the finals with him than about winning. He wishes both of them could have won. Uh huh. Also, he's got a pet unicorn, and Nigerian princes are waiting to wire you two million dollars. Voltaggimom comes out to hug them both. Michael leaks a few tears, and tells Padma she's finally getting the emotion she wanted. Heh. Bryan is disappointed, but displays his trademark stoicism. Hugs and handshakes are exchanged, and the season comes to a close with Michael saying that he's learned about himself as a person and as a cook.

That's an interesting distinction, actually. As I said in the short version, if the competition were judged solely on food, I wouldn't have a problem with any of these three chefs winning. I haven't tasted their cooking, of course, but we can figure out a lot based on judging and diners' reactions. If they say that Michael had the best food of the night and/or is the most talented chef overall, I have no reason to disbelieve that. But as I also said in the short version, it's also nice when the winner has an enjoyable personality on top of being meritorious. I can respect someone who does good work, but I have greater respect for someone who does good work without having to resort to being an ass to get it done. Given that this is a television show well before it is a cooking competition, how much should personality weigh into the decision? Is the positive force of Michael's talent so great that it's better than Bryan's talent + Bryan's personality? Is Michael so much better than Kevin that you'd prefer to work with him yelling "Relax! Relax! Relax! Relax! RE-LAX!" in your face every night?

These sound like rhetorical questions, but they're not. If this were a genuine cooking competition, or you were eating in a restaurant at which you'd never even come into contact with the chef, it wouldn't matter. You'd want the person with the best food. But when you watch a television show, you not only want the winner to deserve the achievement, you want to like them. You want to root for them, and it's difficult to resolve the situation when you don't. Looking back at Top Chef's history, we see that they do not have a great track record in this regard. Ilan was a scum-sucking douchebag. Hung was arrogant and condescending. Hosea was nice enough, but about as interesting as toast. And here we have Michael, the cold, snide victor, who swayed the judges with romantic talk of his Life's Work while serving dry cake and undercooked prawn. I don't know. I don't begrudge Michael the win for a moment, but at the same time, I have to admit to some disappointment. I like that Top Chef hands out the award to people who they believe can cook great food. I don't like that Top Chef hands out the award to people who kind of suck as people. Make of that what you will.

As to the season postmortem, I have very few complaints. They did a great job this time around. They seemed to focus on finding talented competitors, rather than people who would act up for attention. Mike was the exception to that, of course, but there's always got to be at least one, right? I didn't enjoy the Mean Girl mentality of ganging up on Robin, but it never got out of hand. Except for pointing out the obvious fact that Toby is woefully unqualified and works way too hard to be acerbic and witty (and fails every time), the judging was mostly sound and reasonable. I don't think Ptom really annoyed me once, which is a new milestone. If I had to pick the worst episode, I'd pick the Air Force challenge without hesitation. As I said then, I'm all for patriotism, but I felt like I was being bludgeoned to death by a bald eagle with an American flag in one talon and Mom's apple pie in the other. Not only that, but the judging was clearly steered towards getting rid of someone boring, rather than someone bad. Other than that, it was an interesting, well-crafted season, and I look forward to the next one.

Overall Grade: B-
Overall Season Grade: A-


Adam said...

I was very disappointed. It's tempered, somewhat, by Michael's obvious cooking ability and creativity, but I haven't been able to stand him since he made the comment about Kevin cooking the kind of food that he "cooks on [his] day off."

Tina said...

I was extremely disappointed. Two out of three odds to get one I actually would've liked to see win, but NO.

fablady said...

I'm happy Michael won,such a great chef!!And u people wouldn't had someone to make fun of all season long! Done with these done blogs,rather let the judges who actually taste the food be the ones who pick the winner!

Limecrete said...

You mean I should appreciate a meritorious winner? Crap, if only I'd said something like that in the blog entry!

Adam said...

I understand and agree (to a point) that the judges taste the food, and thus should be the ones making the decision. However, let's be realistic about something: this is first and foremost a reality television show. It is a competition second, and a cooking show third. A contestant's character or personality is the one thing the viewer can judge. Otherwise, why should we watch? You [Fablady] claim that we ought to allow the judges who taste the food to make the decision; what, exactly, are we supposed to base our judgments on, then? Should we blindly follow the opinions of the judges?

This is not a televised broadcast of Bocuse d'Or. The contestants on this show are chosen in no small part because of their marketability in the TV world. Michael may have won this season of Top Chef, but that doesn't mean he is the best chef in the world. It just means he won this season, and was one of the best of this particular group of chefs.

In the absence of being able to taste the food, the best judgment we can make is based on the way the food looks and the personality of the contestants. I don't think that's even remotely out of line.