Top Chef - S9E16 Power Rankings
Gail Simmons: "It’s the final showdown between Paul and Sarah. Who would ever have known it would come to these two?"
(Allow me this moment of arrogant pride....................... okay, thanks.)
If the elves ensure that every episode of season ten is at least as good as this one -- a solid, workmanlike episode -- I will consider forgiving them for the culinary olympics.
That's a fun quickfire. And I hear some gnashing of teeth over something kind of gimmicky and chaotic in the finals, and my teeth might have joined the choir if not for the fact that it had absolutely no bearing on the elimination. Unless you consider giving somebody the opportunity to potentially get under Paul's skin as having a significant bearing on the elimination (A. Didn't seem to stop him, and B. is it my imagination, or does he look like he's constantly on the verge of throwing up due to nerves?). Kudos to Sarah for stepping into unfamiliar territory and roping a win and $20K. I find it especially odd that debate over Sarah's range broke out the same week she tag-teamed a stir-fry and worked curry and the antigriddle into her elimination dish, but we'll get to that later.
Fire and Ice. Cue Pat Benatar. Even though they were free to interpret the phrase loosely, I'm a total sucker for temperature contrast. One of my favorite dishes of 2010 was a brûléed foie torchon served with fig mochi, and fresh figs both raw and torched. In Hot Potato, Cold Potato, Grant Achatz has made a signature dish out of a completely classic flavor combination distinguished by its stark temperature contrast. (He once famously complained that those who wait too long to eat it end up with "Warm Potato, Warm Potato" and completely miss the point of the dish.) Hey, even when it comes to something as simple as a fried fish sandwich, crispy hot fish set against cool bread and cold cole slaw can make for something special. Which is why it was kind of disappointing that the chefs didn't push that envelope more. Or if they weren't going to go the temperature route, I would have at least liked to have seen somebody rock out a chile and menthol pairing. Blais, can you get on that?
We're nearing endgame... not much more to say. Let's do this.
The power rankings are not purely a prediction of who is most likely to win, or an assessment of last episode's dishes, or a reflection of the contestants' historical performance, but rather a nebulous amalgam of all three, combined with a little bit of gut feeling, to provide a relative measure of current awesomeness.
Naturally. Which isn't to say that this isn't closer than I think a lot of people give Sarah credit for. But for one week, due to Paul stumbling on the first quickfire of the season, he would have gone wire to wire in the top spot heading into the finale. Despite the fact that I've kind of fallen backwards into the role of Sarah advocate this week, you won't hear me arguing that this isn't Paul's to lose. Despite the head fake of sending Sarah to the finale first, the supplemental materials make it sound as though his was a clear first place dish. He has nearly double the wins of anybody else. I believe he's already won more cash and prizes than the winners of the first few seasons. He has flavor pairings coming from... damned if I know where. Aaaaaand, he's clearly into "he's his own worst enemy" territory, and that's where the intrigue comes in. Seriously, the guy looks like his stomach is in danger of turning inside out. When he's gotten into trouble, it's usually because he can't stop second-guessing himself. I hope he turns those nerves into positive energy, because it's rare that I'm so openly rooting for somebody to win. TCPR is officially endorsing Team Paul. Woo!
That said, Sarah belongs here. This is exactly the final matchup I've been hoping for since midseason. And for those who have been active in the comments, I'm repeating myself here, but I'm still trying to wrap my head around the notion that this might be a minority opinion. Sarah has come across badly, I'm sure at least some of it is well-deserved, though precisely how much is, as always, something we'll never know. In a bit of hilarious timing, an old friend from my Los Angeles days was in town last weekend, and while talking about his work, which has encompassed a number of different aspects of television production at different times, it came up that at one point he was a writer for a reality show. Yyyyyyou heard me. So I asked him how, precisely, one writes a reality show. He replied, in a manner that should surprise nobody (but probably will anyway), that you can write any scene you want provided you have the ability to edit skillfully. Where you can get into trouble, he said, is when you do it too well.
"Hey, this is great stuff! Can we work in some more of this?"
It's been a long time since we've covered this ground, but an exchange like that is just too good of an opportunity for a reminder. Good editors are not limited by their footage, only by their honesty. Unless you see it all in one continuous take, assume nothing. And even then, treat it with a healthy dose of skepticism. And none of that is to say that the elves are giving us a badly skewed version of Sarah. Just that they could be. And it's probably a lot harder to detect than you think. That said, let's assume the worst. She still deserves to be here, and I'm increasingly of the opinion that if she had the personality of Stephanie Izard or Carla Hall, folks would be falling over themselves about how fabulous her food looks rather than dismissing her. It's a broad generalization, but I don't think it's a straw man. And I could be wrong. But if we're so far down the wild creativity rabbit hole that Blaisian/Voltaggian has become the new norm and the kind of restrained, smart creativity that typifies some of the world's most beloved chefs who work exclusively within one genre qualifies as not all that creative, I think it's time to reassess. I dare you to tell me that Enrique Olvera is doing just Mexican. Of course Sarah dips into the Spiaggia well and her food reflects Tony Mantuano. Paul dips into the Uchi well and his food reflects Tyson Cole. I'd say something was wrong if their mentors didn't rub off on these chefs. My point is simply that while I agree that Paul's the clear favorite, I think Sarah's shown a lot more than a lot of folks want to give her credit for, and I won't be all that surprised if she takes this thing.
I am very, very relieved that the poster child for "don't amaze, but don't screw up" has come up short. I'm going to repeat myself, but while she's clearly, clearly skilled, I never got a distinctive vibe from her. I never got a sense that the food was hers. And that may be entirely a matter of perception on my part, but I never got the sense of an auteur at work. And I don't mean this as a criticism. There are many different kinds of chefs, and you can be incredibly talented and run a tight ship that turns out fabulous food day in and day out without doing something wild or distinctive. But while there are shows that feature those kinds of chefs, this isn't it, and I'm glad that the two to remain are the ones who, to me, produced some of the most interesting food.
WARNING : MINOR EPISODE SEVENTEEN SPOILERS AHEAD
OH GOD, THEY'VE BROUGHT BACK TYLER STONE!!!
Breathe, everybody. He has to cook his way into a sous chef position. I'm... um... not concerned. But I'll be very curious to see if he's amended his attitude in light of his total pantsing in episode one. And I really, really, REALLY hope Tom surveys the sous chef competition. All of the potential sous chefs have to cook their way in, the field is an odd collection of eliminated contestants, and Tyler isn't the only one who didn't even make the cut to sixteen. Strange. Here's hoping Nyesha makes it, but it'll be nice to see her again either way. Having a beast like that would be a serious leg up for somebody.
The final challenge is a full service, though it's unclear whether the chefs will be judged on anything other than the plates they send to the judges. I do like that the finales as of late have more closely resembled the environs in which they actually work on a day to day basis. It could be argued that Sarah has a leg up right off the bat, since there's a wine pairing requirement. It looks like the ones being offered are Californian rather than Italian, but still, it's a whole lot easier to pair wine with Italian than it is with Asian. That said, Paul's shown time and time again that he's less about pairing specific flavors and more about pairing flavor characteristics, which makes me think he'll do just fine.
One week ago, my enthusiasm was barely a tick and a half above zero. But I'm jazzed. Looking forward to this finale, and looking forward to the food... from both of them. See you all on the other side.