Stick a fork in season five, folks, it’s done.
Having now had a week to digest the finale, I’m considerably less bummed than I was. Yes, it was somewhat anticlimactic and yes, I would much rather have seen Stefan or Carla win, but having checked out Hosea’s recipes for the final meal, I feel even more strongly that he fully earned that win. Every dish looked delicious, every dish was creative and interesting, and every one hit a level of refinement that Hosea hadn’t managed to hit all season long. In fact, after checking out the recipes, even if Carla and Stefan had both been on, I’m convinced that this still would have been a fight. Hosea’s final menu was the kind of food that gets me excited about Top Chef.
What’s frustrating to me is that if he’d been making this kind of food for the rest of the season, I actually would have been behind him. Many are crediting Blais for Hosea’s performance in the finale, but I find the confidence with which they say so disappointing. First, there were no glaring weaknesses in Hosea’s menu, and he wasn’t just sitting on the sidelines sipping a beer and letting Blais cook in his name. Second, from the first half of the finale – when he was working solo – it was clear that Hosea came prepared. The dude cooked a great meal, worked in the flavors and traditions of New Orleans in subtle ways even when he didn’t have to, and won the title on merit. Deal with it.
That said, I am still frustrated, but not because Hosea won. I’m frustrated partially because it felt like a completely different chef was dropped on us at the last minute, but mostly because of what that says about Top Chef’s format. We’ve been touching on this for a couple of months now, but with the full season in the rear view mirror, we can look at it with a little perspective. It’s a hard thing to ensure you’re not looking back with rose-colored glasses, but it sure feels like this crowd was kind of hanging back and playing it safe, didn’t it? Hosea wasn’t one of the worst offenders by any stretch of the imagination, but I felt our fears were confirmed by Fabio a couple of weeks back:
”The problem is that for the whole season the judges are keep asking us to amaze them with incredible food. They have been telling us that playing safe is not going to get us anywhere and they prized poached eggs and roasted chicken. Lately who is winning the challanges has been doing panna cotta, seared scallops, mousse, and grits. With all due respect for those people, how amazing is a panna cotta or a plate of grits. They have to decide where they arestanding because this year it seems like that the more safe you play the further you go. I'm happy I do simple food and this is what is good for me but I dont know how amazing the food is till the end of the competition; all the chefs are playing very safe, and I dont think that he will laugh at me."
This from the guy who, despite looking pretty lackluster for most of the season, was one elimination away from the final showdown. The thing of it is, maybe Fabio actually was a whole lot better than he showed, and maybe he was simply playing it smart. But if the smart thing to do was to lay low, not get eliminated and then wait until the very end to show your true ability, and if more contestants are figuring this out, then Top Chef has a problem that needs to be addressed. Was this a function of this season’s casting, or are the contestants just getting wise, or was it simply a matter of how the season unfolded? I think all three – or a combination thereof – are possible.
With the full season now in review, I agree that this seems like one of the weaker casts. Or at the very least, it didn’t have the wow factor that some contestants from previous seasons have provided. I don’t think the gap is as vast as some like to claim, and I don’t understand the amount of disdain that it inspires, but this certainly wasn’t like last season when Blais, Stephanie and Dale could all uncork a jaw-dropper at any moment, and Antonia could always be counted on to provide a simple, beautifully executed counterpoint (up until she was eliminated, that is). And as dominant as Stefan was for most of the season, and as much as he impressed me, there was still always something just a little safe about his food. There’s nothing like competition between titans to drive them both to greater heights. Think the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa (okay, bad example). This season, it felt like Stefan and Jamie was the closest we got to that kind of exciting one-upmanship. But even then, the fire didn’t seem as fierce, and when Jamie went down Stefan genuinely seemed to lose some of that drive, and it showed in his food. I wonder if this lack of a dominant duo or trio wasn’t an intentional choice on the part of casting. Indeed, when it looked at the midpoint of the season like anybody could win this thing, that was pretty exciting. But I think what we’ve learned is that Top Chef needs those sickeningly talented chefs – two or three of them – who are so driven to lay it all on the line that they see every challenge as an opportunity to astound, safety bedamned. They may leave the field in the dust, and we may lose a little suspense about who will make the finals, but I think the show is better for it.
Or maybe the contestants are just getting smarter. They saw Lisa sneak into the final by always being better than just one other person. They’ve seen highly talented chefs go down in flames because they flew a little close to the sun. If this is happening, I’m not sure there’s a direct remedy. You can’t make contestants work against what they perceive to be their self-interests. But you can influence their perceptions.
Which brings us to the path this particular season took. Unfortunately, I think Ariane’s early success may have been the season’s biggest problem. I don’t mean to suggest that she wasn’t skilled and shouldn’t have met with some success. But whether it was the wins themselves or the manner in which the judges awarded them, they seem to have inadvertently left the crowd with the impression – possibly a true one! – that the way to win Top Chef is to reign in your more creative, distinctive ideas and just execute, execute, execute until the very end, when you can show us what you can really do in the last couple of episodes. That certainly seems to be the message Fabio took from the early judges’ tables. The tricky thing is that I’m not suggesting the judges erred in rewarding Ariane’s simple but solid offerings rather than her creative but flawed competition. Good is good and it deserves to win if the wilder and wackier elements can’t rise to the occasion. And to be fair to the judges, one of Ariane’s early wins was awarded by Martha Stewart and another was awarded by the cast of the Today show. But next season, here’s hoping the judges make it clear from the start that they’re not going to let people coast. The judges – Tom especially – like to come down hard on the chefs for overreaching, and it’s valid criticism. But I bet that point can be made without making the crowd scared to reach at all, and here’s hoping they find a way to do that next season.
One thing I definitely don’t support is the idea that past performance should count. If it’s a really close call and the judges are trying to find some space between two chefs, sure, they should give a break to the one who’s been performing well and I suspect they do just that. But without the knowledge that anybody can go home at any time, the second half of the season becomes less of a competition and more of a coronation, when the leaders can coast and the others have no chance of catching up. Another sports analogy, I’m sorry, but the best team doesn’t always win. And if it did, the season would be boring. I fully understand the frustration when a favorite makes one dumb mistake and goes home, but I think the alternative is far, far worse.
My only other complaint this season was that we were again treated to wonkiness in the finals. Attention Top Chef producers: PLEASE JUST LET THEM COOK FOR THE FINAL CHALLENGE. Yes, we understand twists and gimmicks. We know they’re necessary to inject some variety and excitement, and we even like them when they aren’t absurd. But this is the final episode. You don’t need to generate excitement. We’re already invested in these people. What we WANT is for them all to cook the meal of their lives and for the chips to fall where they may. Otherwise we’re left with this vague feeling – both this season and last – that the final competition was a letdown. There’s nothing more exciting than a victory hard-fought and earned against competitors who are at the top of their game, and nothing more deflating than a victory by attrition. You should be setting the chefs up for success and striving to achieve the former, not kneecapping them and risking the latter.
But all of this, of course, obscures what I thought was otherwise a really, really wonderful season. These chefs were granted an unprecedented level of freedom and flexibility to cook their food, and the fact that they rarely took advantage of it was really a shame. There were a few markedly gimmicky challenges, but they were few and far between and a vast improvement over previous seasons – particularly in the run up to the final episode. The three episodes leading up to the final challenge may have been the best stretch the show has seen, with great challenges, excellent guests and – to give credit where credit is due – a fine job by the editors in making us care about these people. Also, I loved the level of camaraderie we saw this season. The vibes were so positive that even the “villain” was impossible not to like. In some ways, all of this makes season five all the more frustrating. So many things went right that it was disappointing to see them waylaid by a couple of glaring problems. My fear is that the producers will learn what I believe to be the wrong lesson from the season, and that we’ll see a wackier, nastier cast and stranger, stupider challenges in season six. But here’s hoping they see that a couple of little tweaks are all that are necessary to bring us another season four.
Either way, I’ll be watching.
It’s been another fun season, folks. Thanks to everybody for participating, thanks for all of the support and kind words, and thanks to the cast, both those who commented publicly and those who wrote me privately, for taking the time to bring an insider’s angle to our discussions. I think we have a fun thing going here, and I’ll definitely jump right back in as soon as we have a cast for season six. In the meantime, for those who have only started reading recently, this IS actually a normal food blog most of the time, with recipes and restaurants and cookbooks and everything, though I can’t blame you for thinking otherwise. I’m more than ready to get back to actual food that I’m actually cooking and tasting, and while my feelings won’t be hurt if you all disappear until next season, it’s always nice to have company when we aren’t talking reality TV :-)
Thanks again, everybody... discuss!