Well, that was one for the ages.
Though it ended -- again -- in less than satisfying fashion (the structure, not the result), season six was still a barnburner, and I feel pretty comfortable calling it my favorite of the series thus far. A big jump in collective talent paired with a good deal of restraint when it came to wacky challenges fulfilled the food nerds' wishes... up until the finale.
Because I'd like to finish with the positive, let's get this out of the way. I thought the finale was a clunker. Once upon a time, the finalists were set loose to cook "the meal of their lives." It was a great sentiment. You've survived a full season of tough competition and wacky challenges, now give us your no-holds-barred best shot. Go! But as the series has gone on, the (in)famous Top Chef "twists" have slowly worked their way into the last episode, until you're left with the modern three ring circus Top Chef Finale. Random sous chef assignment from a broad range of talents (and lack thereof)! Mystery box of ingredients! Mom's on your doorstep! Surprise course with a theme! You must make dessert! Individually, they range from largely innocuous to potentially unbalancing, but when all thrown into the same four course meal, they pretty much make the old mandate -- the meal of the chef's lives -- an exercise in futility. Even if they successfully navigate all of the roadblocks and turn out good dishes, how can they be expected to produce any kind of a cohesive menu from such chaos?
What made it especially galling this season, and the reasons I reacted so strongly a few days ago, are twofold. First, the sous chef knife block draw. I don't mean to suggest that what transpired in any way delegitimizes the results. Absolutely not. BUT, the fact is that they were subjected to a process that could have -- and may have! -- immediately put one of them at a very significant disadvantage or advantage. As terrible as pulling the sous chefs without notice was in season four, at least that disadvantage was evenly applied. And though we've had sous chef selections before, those involved a narrower range of talent and some level of selection on the part of the chefs. And again, if the shenanigans end there, it's largely a non-issue. But as a contributing factor, it struck me as especially ridiculous. Second, and I think this is why the finale really got my goat, was the issue of potential. Here you had an incredible collection of talent -- three guys who, if totally cut loose, could have produced three incredible menus of wildly disparate yet mature styles. Do we know for certain that this would have happened in a completely open format? Of course not. But it sure seems a lot more likely, doesn't it? As anybody who watched the Top Chef Masters finale can attest, there's nothing more exciting than watching great chefs express their vision with no holds barred. The Top Chef Masters finale was one of the best in the history of the Top Chef franchise. Maybe THE best. That's what we could have and should have gotten. Instead, we got an episode that, to me, barely ranks in the top third of season six alone.
My conclusion? If this is how the finale is going to be (it wasn't always this way), they need to drop this pretense of it being a "show us your best" ultimate challenge. It's not the big kahuna. It's not an opportunity for them to express their vision. It's not their best shot. It's two episodes -- quickfires and eliminations -- crammed into one with a little extra pomp and circumstance. Nothing more. Of course, my preference would be a return to the purer finale format (it was never totally pure, but it started out a heckuva lot closer). It seems to me that despite the claims that they have to make interesting television, the more compelling material has always come from the chefs themselves, not from whatever goofy situations they were put in. And though it's been a long time since I've seen some of them, I think my favorite finale is still season one where, after some sous chef selection shenanigans, Harold and Tiffani really and truly were set loose to make the best meal they could. And it resulted in a beautiful and illuminating contrast of their styles and talents -- far more interesting, in a finale context, than what they might do with a mystery box or how they might react when their moms show up. And it's doubly disappointing for me because it means that Lee Anne -- whose tenure as culinary director coincided, not accidentally I think, with a marked improvement in the quality of the challenges -- having defended the format of the finale, leaves on a sour note.
Setting that aside, however, since it seems to have been the grand exception for somebody who has always championed food before reality, I'm still incredibly sad to see Lee Anne go. As just mentioned, it appears that she's had a very positive impact on the past few seasons -- potentially a very, very significant one -- and historically speaking, I've always looked to her blog as one of the most illuminating. You can't pull a chef out of the kitchen for too long, however, and her recent writings seem to suggest that one of her culinary team protégés has been groomed as her successor, so hopefully we'll continue to see mostly smart, compelling challenges and a stunning selection of tools and raw materials as we go to season seven.
I told myself I wasn't going to let the season postmortem be dominated by the finale, and it looks like it's a little too late for that. but it's also important to talk about how much went right this season. The problem is, we've said so much of it already. This was an incredible collection of talent that was a joy to watch in the kitchen. The challenges allowed them to flex their muscles and diminished the chances of ridiculous, freak eliminations. The judges -- THE JUDGES -- how better to put the focus on the food than having panels like those in the French standards episode, or the Bocuse d'Or challenge? The Robin drama was unfortunate -- did anybody really consider that compelling television? -- but I found the camaraderie and (mostly) support of this season's cast far more enjoyable to watch than the constant backbiting and high school antics of some seasons past. This is a food blog. You guys are reading a food blog. Maybe we're in the minority, I don't know. But really, if any magical elves are reading, more of this, please. To think... with an elegant coda, season six could have -- no, no... not going back there.
And with that, we'll wrap up season six here at Skillet Doux. From the look of things, season seven is going to be hot on season six's heels, with more Masters crammed in between. But it'll be back to business as usual around these parts, at least for a little while.
Once again, thanks to everybody for participating. I continue to try to make this a place for smart discussion of a show with which we're all embarrassingly obsessed, and that's as much if not more a factor of the nature of your participation than it is the result of my setup. Hope you all stick around in the "offseason," but if not, I look forward to season seven!