Within one or two weeks of the start of the “Top Chef Las Vegas” season, most passionate viewers were ready to predict a Final Four of Kevin, Jennifer and the Voltaggio Brothers. Whether it was the editing or their clear talent that made this prediction such a no-brainer is unclear, but I’d say nobody was surprised when three-and-a-half months later, that’s exactly the Final Four we ended up with.
The sixth installment of “Top Chef” (seventh, if you count “Top Chef Masters,” which I don’t but probably could) came to a close on Wednesday (Dec. 9) night.
The end result wasn’t a huge surprise, especially in context, and it just went to confirm what a very good season of “Top Chef” this ended up being.
[A bit of a seasonal recap and finale results recap after the break… With spoilers obviously…]
In terms of drama, this season may not have been at the top of the “Top Chef” heap for me. The editing turned cancer survivor Robin into an unexpected villain, as she skirted elimination week after week after week even though, from the outside without the ability to taste any of the food, her departure came after three or four superior chefs. Robin also had very minor conflicts with Eli, but they also felt like an editing trick, like the producers emphasized those shouting matches when that sort of thing happens in kitchens all of the time on a larger scale. Even the mindgames between Bryan and Michael Voltaggio never emerged as a source for consistent tension.
When a point of “Top Chef” comparison would be the attempted forced shaving of Marcel in Season Two or flamboyant or combustive personalities like Fabio or Hung or Dale, “Top Chef Las Vegas” had to let the Sin City locations and the ridiculously high profile guests bring the flash. And the locations and guests certainly delivered, whether you happened to be more impressed with Natalie Portman or with Thomas Keller and Joel Robuchon.
Contrived soap opera drama is only part of the reason to watch “Top Chef” anyway (and the “Top Chef Reunion Dinner” provided all of the contrived soap opera drama you could ever want and more).
On a culinary level, this was the best season of “Top Chef” to date and I don’t think you could even make an argument in favor of another season. It wasn’t just that the four finalists were making delicious and thoughtful dishes every episode for three months (with the exception of Jen’s illness-aided midseason swoon). I think that Eli, Ashley and one or two other pre-Finale bootees would have been more deserving and gifted winners than last season’s champ Hosea, whose win remains one of the most provocative mysteries of reality TV-dom.
The margin was so razor thin that last week, Jen was sent home basically for a duck dish that the judges all liked, seemingly because they decided they would have preferred the duck to be prepared in the way she initially intended. Had she not admitted that an early preparation had been quashed, a different choice might have been made.
In Wednesday’s finale, similar tiny gaffes made all of the difference and the big decision probably wasn’t unanimous, based on at least some contention amongst the judges on certain elements.
The finale had the chefs preparing four dishes. The first was supposed to be a variation on a favorite childhood dish, prepared in honor of guest appearances by the chef-testants’ mothers (only two moms, since Bryan and Michael had to share). The second dish had to be composed using the ingredients in a mystery box, ingredients that included Pacific rockfish, Dungeness crab, Meyer lemons, a squash, matsutake mushrooms and anise hyssop. The third dish was anything goes and the fourth had to be a dessert, which prompted the usual carping about how they’re not pastry chefs, but arriving on “Top Chef” without at least a couple showy mastered desserts is as dumb as going on “The Amazing Race” and not being able to drive a stick shift. You’ve just gotta have that in your pocket for when the inevitable moment comes.
FIRST DISH: Kevin prepared a variation on fried chicken, concentrating on the crispy skin atop a squash puree and stewed tomatoes. Michael did something with spot prawns and fried/dehydrated broccoli reflecting his childhood hatred of broccoli. And Bryan did a takeoff on tuna casserole with sardines and panko crumbs. The judges took issue with Michael’s prawns and Bryan’s lack of seasoning, while they were impressed with the depth of flavor in Kevin’s puree, saying it tasted Southern. Clear winner for the round? Kevin. His was also the one I would most have preferred to my own microwaved dinner tonight.
MYSTERY BOX: Bryan chose to sous vide the rockfish and served it with diced matsutakes and a lemon jam. Michael poached the rockfish in butter, made a sweet-and-sour salad with the crab and described it as a “scavenger hunt” of flavors. Kevin did the rockfish in duck fat and placed it on a roasted crab broth. While the judges loved Kevin’s broth, they thought he blew the mushroom entirely. Bryan was again faulted for lack of seasoning, though everybody acknowledged his fish was well-cooked. And Michael won the round easily, with Toby Young proving to be a particular fan of the flavors in the salad. The selection of ingredients made this one tough on the chefs, tough on the judges and tough on me to guess. While I’m a fan of anything cooked in duck fat, Kevin didn’t have a clue what to do with the mushroom and that was bad.
THIRD COURSE: Michael did a fennel-scented squab, a pistachio cassoulet and a strange mushroom thing where he took a mushroom puree, reshaped it as a mushroom and thought he was being cheeky. Kevin slow-cooked pork belly and placed it atop roasted broccoli and brussels sprouts. Bryan did a venison saddle and then did multiple preparations with a trio of veggies — brussels sprouts, sunchokes and carrots. This time nobody complained about Bryan’s seasoning and his veggies earned raves. There was some mockery from the judges of Michael’s reformed mushroom and some questions about the texture of the cassoulet. With Kevin, a couple judges didn’t think the pork belly was properly cooked, while Tom Colicchio wanted just a bit more to the dish. Bryan’s venison did look perfectly prepared and I’m a big venison fan, so count me in.
DESSERT: Kevin did a roasted banana and accompanied it with a smear of banana chocolate mousse and bits of peanut bacon brittle, announcing “I’m gonna get an award from the Bacon Council.” [Alas, there is no Bacon Council. But there *is* a Canadian Institute for the Advance of Bacon Studies. Now you know.] Michael made a chocolate caramel coulant with butternut squash ice cream and little candied pumpkin seeds. He blamed sous chef Eli for overfilling the mold, but blamed himself for overcooking the cakes. And Bryan did a sheep’s milk and white chocolate dulce de leche cheesecake and dry caramel (a concept I don’t think I’d ever seen before) and fig sorbet. One silly judge said he didn’t want pork for desert and wasn’t pleased with Kevin, while Tom wanted something more than just the blob of banana. The judges criticized Michael’s execution, but they could tell that if he’d cooked it properly, it would have been good. With Bryan, there was some admiration of his craft, but no real excitement. For me? Bacon and chocolate, please, though the banana wasn’t an interesting centerpiece.
Kevin was eliminated first and that wasn’t a surprise. He picked a bad night not to deliver at his full potential. Kevin’s been my favorite from Week One and if you gave me the chance to eat at a restaurant run by any of these chefs, I’d pick Kevin’s in a heartbeat (an accelerated heartbeat with clogged arteries if I ate too many of his bacon desserts). But based on what we saw of the preparations and the judging, who could be surprised? Kevin also got hosed in the random selection of two sous chefs among the earlier contestants, landing dreadful Preeti and competent Ash. [In comparison, Michael got Jesse, who I barely remember, and Eli, while Bryan hit the jackpot with Jennifer and Ashley.]
Your “Top Chef Las Vegas” winner?
It was a reward for flash and conceptual excellent over steadiness and technique, but it also wasn’t a result I could find any fault in. Watching the show and the judging, it felt as if Bryan had won two of the courses, compared to one a piece for Michael and Kevin, but it was obvious that nobody felt any passion for Bryan’s dessert and that it wasn’t going to be memorable dish by the time they got to Judges’ Table. Gail Simmons was enthusiastic enough about the aspiration of Michael’s dessert to excuse the overcooking and all indications were that Toby was going to be a passionate defender of Michael.
Although his final words for the judges were “I just don’t want Bryan to be Top Chef,” in the end, Michael was very gracious and humble in victory. He cried. He hugged his brother. He hugged his mother. During the season, he got on my nerves for questioning the difficulty of Kevin’s cuisine, but I’d eat at his restaurant. I’d eat at any of their restaurants.
So not my choice of a winner, but not one I’m going to get annoyed about.
What’d y’all think of the finale? Of the season’s winner? Or “Top Chef Las Vegas” in general?