PLEASE READ BEFORE COMMENTING!!!
As usual, there's a lot of sneaky intel out there, but I'm endeavoring to keep this blog a spoiler-free zone. This isn't just for the readers, but for me, too -- I don't want to know what happens! As such, anything that's already been broadcast or has been posted on the official Bravo site is fair game for discussion. I will, for example, discuss the preview of next week's show at the end of the post. But if you've heard rumors that one chef has been hosting a lot of dinner parties, or that another chef was spotted boarding a plane to an exotic locale, please keep them to yourself.

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February 29, 2012

Top Chef - S9E17 Postmortem

I'm sure there are people who were hoping for a different outcome... buuuuuut I don't know any of them.

That's a great finale. Two great chefs, both bringing it, even if the finale judges are starting to sound like Pee-wee ("I have to say, these are the best [pancakes] I've ever tasted."). And a close call, it would seem. (It's been suggested below that it perhaps wasn't as close as the edit would indicate... but I wouldn't know because video on the Bravo site is flaking out as usual... *facepalm*) And though I'm probably in the minority here, I would have been cool with Sarah winning after presenting a meal like that. It looked freaking fabulous.

As with the routine recurrence of Restaurant Wars, can we write this finale structure in stone?

I love the sous chef blind tasting. No, it doesn't necessarily demonstrate what they're looking for in sous chefs. It's probably more important to have somebody who can take and nail instruction, and is easy to collaborate with. But I do kind of like the notion that the food speaks. If Marco Canora doesn't put one of the best dishes on the table, he doesn't get selected. And if Tyler Stone does, why shouldn't he? The reason Sarah ended up with him was precisely because she was trying to game the system rather than playing along. It adds a little bit of reality show interest and fun while still keeping it about the food.

And though others have expressed reservations below, I like the fact that two judging teams trade off. One of the most important parts of running a restaurant is consistency, and if you can serve a fabulous dish in the first half of the evening but can't pull it together in the second, I'm more than okay with that potentially having a bearing on the outcome. In general, this format is an excellent way to gauge how these chefs perform in a real world setting. No BS, just run a restaurant for the evening, and serve your best menu.

If every finale were structured like this, I'd be a happy, happy camper. Please don't change a thing, elves.

No rankings this week, obviously, but I'll put up a season postmortem after the reunion episode.

Discuss!

UPDATE : I have to share this, just because it kills me. From Hugh's blog:

"Nobody picked Marco Canora. WTF. This man eats young chefs like this for a midday snack. He burns his own cuts shut. He poops saucepans."

Comments

I was not expecting that...but HALLELUJAH!!!!!!

We can all calm down now. But I would eat each of those menus everyday and twice on Sunday. Especially Each first course.

Thank. F*ckin'. God.

Phew, but I'm still more likely to get to Chicago than I am to Austin. Of course, I have too many choices in Chicago- Stephanie, Bayless, Achatz, Sarah. I can't afford to eat at them all!

Am I the only one who hates the double service of judges? I get that it's meant to prevent judging bias based upon whose food the judges ate first, but how do you judge sometimes when certain judges got DIFFERENT food?

Oh and Yay.

Phew.

And on the double service, if you're going to screw up one of them, make sure it's not Tom's.

One word: Yay!

And the best reason ever to watch Watch What Happens Live.

DF: And the best reason ever to watch Watch What Happens Live.

Agreed, though the downside is having to also watch that complete and utter tool of a host.

"Am I the only one who hates the double service of judges? I get that it's meant to prevent judging bias based upon whose food the judges ate first, but how do you judge sometimes when certain judges got DIFFERENT food?"

I actually like this. One of the toughest things about running a restaurant is consistency. It's one thing to make a great dish. It's another thing entirely to make it just as great fifty times in a night. It's a good test of a real aspect of a night's service.

After watching the live interview with Paul and Sarah post-show, I's like to take back my comment expressing relief that Paul won. I'm still glad he did win. Maybe the most deserving winner in all the seasons. But ... as usual, the editing does present us with a different person. Unedited, Sarah came across much better. And, retrospectively, I was slightly annoyed with myself for falling for the "Sarah" we were presented with during the season. (Her meal also really did sound good, though I thought the dessert plate - delicious as the dessert seemed to be - looked really ungainly.)

Congrats to Sarah for stepping it up. And to having a drama-free kitchen, even with Mr. Stone in the house.

Kudos to Paul for pulling it off. I was worried when they were complimenting Sarah for stepping it up. But, uh, how much higher did they expect Paul to go?

And I love the fact that Paul will be in his trailer for SXSW.

I watched extended judges' table. Didn't seem that close really. Their summary was that Sarah won the first course and Paul the second. Everyone seemed to agree that Paul won the third. Somewhat mixed on dessert, though Tom preferred Paul's. And you know what Tom thinks is what counts. (No way someone other than who he thinks should win will win.) He also preferred Paul's first course. And the comments about Paul's greater attention to detail and refinement were telling.

Hated the inclusion of Tyler in the team selection. At least it wasn't random selection and didn't appear to have had a huge impact but, still, there's no reason to include Tyler and some of the other weaker contestants other than for the drama. Barbara Lynch came across really well. Ate at No 9 Park a few times way back when it first opened. Really good.

Thrilled by the result, congrats to Paul.

I like the double service in theory for the same reasons as Dom, but in reality Tom's vote counts for more than anyone else's. I wonder if it would have gone the same way had Tom been in the second group.

I always thought the double service was a contingency plan in case something went wrong. For Paul, that meant being judged on his best executed first course, rather than a mistake that may not have been his fault. Thinking of season's past, Carla could have benefitted from this by having a second shot at the souffles.

But thank God none of it matters now. Congrats Paul!!!

Wow. I had to watch the rerun at 10:30 central. Turned on the TV and the Andy Cohen horror show was still on. Sarah was in the middle with a chefs hat on. OH NO. Thought she was the winner. Saw the first 5 minutes and fell asleep. Just finished watching.

88-12 on the audience vote for Paul. WOW.

So happy he won. It can't all be editing. When one judge (Padma?) said that Sarah's desert was the best they ever had on the show Paul gave her a pat on the back. When something super complimentary was said about one of Paul's dish, there was no such reaction from Sarah. Just glad for Paul because of his demeanor.

Agree on the split service, that it serves a purpose. Thought Paul's dish was the deal breaker, but you are right chrish, Tom got the great one and that is what counts. Tom also mentioned "under-seasoned" for Sarah's fish.

To win Top Chef with porridge as your main course? Pretty impressive, really. Nice save by Hugh when Gail was questioning his sequencing.

My family's reaction was split; my daughter and I would have preferred to each Sarah's food, my wife (who is Chinese) Paul's. (My wife can eat porridge three times a day.) But, the more I think back on it, there were some clear flaws in Sarah's dishes: the fish looked dry (no comments from the judges to that effect, however)and Tom said it was under-seasoned, and the plating was boring. I love sweetbreads - but dry ones would really bother me - and again, the plating on that dish was a mess - too much polenta, not artfully arranged. Dessert was a killer, though, in concept, execution, presentation and apparently - in flavor.

Elves were setting us up to think she'd lose because of something Tyler would screw up, and thankfully it didn't come to that.

Still think it was two-two with Sarah winning first and dessert courses, but overall, Paul's meal was more coherent, and had higher highs.

I think Paul is a clearly a genius, and the win was probably as much for his "body of work" on the show as for his four courses last night, and I have absolutely no problem with that. Thank goodness he used coconut!

I wonder if Tyler knew Heather's menu. He got the full idiot edit, didn't he?

From game theory, Sarah wasted two picks to get Heather. Probably cost her the win.

"From game theory, Sarah wasted two picks to get Heather. Probably cost her the win."

I dunno, she ended up with a pretty good team. Besides Heather, who she was trying to get, Nyesha is exactly who you'd want and I'd think Grayson is pretty good in that role too. As I said, I hate that Tyler was included, but it didn't appear to cost her, besides having to manage him (and they probably showed all the most annoying things he did).

Paul was nearly done in by Ty-Lor, though Paul graciously took the responsibility for that. If the second chawanmushi service had been on, this would not have been remotely close, and I'm not sure it really was in Tom's mind anyway.

Tom's blog up now.

"Sarah probably should have listened to Tyler Stone when he suggested that she sous vide."

Ouch.

Anyway, reading that along with Hugh's blog suggests the margin wasn't as razor-thin as suggested by the episode. Seems like Paul took out the second and third courses pretty comfortably and the other two were a toss-up (though Paul probably would have taken the first if not for the second service).

Even though it's been said many times before I can see the 'best finale ever' comments being genuine. No real failures and even the desserts were exceptional. Might have been helped by the fact that there were no last-minute extra courses to prepare. Didn't think the elves would be capable of that kind of restraint given the ridiculousness a couple of episodes prior.

"Probably cost her the win."

Yeah, I don't see this, either. Having Tyler on her team was clearly not ideal, because Sarah didn't trust that he knew what he was doing (like she might have with some of the others). But he didn't screw anything up, and, in fact, may have helped make her dessert what it was by insisting that hand-whipping/mixing would provide better results than using an electric mixer. (Although, I don't really know if the results would have been different.)

Even with someone else, I think Paul still takes it, because Tyler didn't negatively affect Sarah's menu.

Only 20 comments? On the finale thread? I guess the "culinary olympics" episode officially lost some people.

Re: the first course. At JT, Tom said he would probably give the slight edge to the pasta course, despite the fact that he received the *good* chawanmushi. Maybe he said that in light of the inconsistency issues, but it seems like Sarah won the first course flat-out. That being said, Tom says in his blog that Paul won 3 out of the 4 courses. Pretty much seals the deal for Paul right there.

Ding dong the witch is gone! Hurray and awesome for Paul.

I found it interesting that they showed Sarah's reasoning in choosing her dishes/sous, but not Paul's. I assume he just went for the best dish on the table, but it would be awesome if (in addition to everything else we've seen him do) he was also trying to game the system and just more successful at it than Sarah.

I also loved seeing him beaming and relaxed oh, so briefly once the cooking was all over and then revert right back to being "nervous Paul" again. I'd be nervous, too, if I'd just served Tom Colicchio a meal with no red meat. That's gutsy.

I will try to watch the Andy Cohen show if it is available in on-demand to see the "nice" Sarah.

Her exit video started out revolting - she should have won. Paul's broken custard should have been the difference maker. etc. etc. etc.

At what point is it not the editing and the person?

@StephanieP: I live in Chicago and I have been trying to get into The Girl and the Goat for quite some time. If you are planning a trip, make reservations early. By early I mean six months out. No joke.

Rumor has it there is a lunch place opening called Little Goat and you might have more success there.

"And if Tyler Stone does, why shouldn't he?"

Because he's an idiot and was included just for the drama. I agree on the point about Sarah outsmarting herself. The only way I'm ok with it is if it was all set up in advance that this was the structure of the finale, before we got to experience Tyler Stone. (I didn't get a good look at the group. Was everyone else competing, except for maybe the last couple of eliminated chefs?) If the reason he's there is because he's a doofus, then don't include the doofus.

"Maybe he said that in light of the inconsistency issues"

He explicitly said that: "On balance, since the other judges received slightly overcooked versions". And I tend to think that in his mind Paul won that round b/c he goes by what he eats.

"I'd be nervous, too, if I'd just served Tom Colicchio a meal with no red meat. That's gutsy."

And a meal with chinese "risotto" as the main. I really want to taste that.

I think Marco Canora wasn't picked because both chefs were gaming the system a little bit. Sarah was clearly trying to pick her friends and perhaps if she hadn't taken the misstep with Tyler Stone, she would have tried to get Marco. Paul knew that even one master chef could be a difficult personality to deal with so I feel he probably made an effort to not get a second and have (for the sake of the pun) "too many cooks in the kitchen."

I was very worried that Sarah was going to win. Her meal looked fantastic and she seemed to get more praise than Paul. Yes, she would have deserved it based on the one meal but it just would have been weird for the distant #2 all season to take it.

So - Paul is basically walking away with $200k in cash and prizes. New record?

And how many more seasons do you think we need before we get a Top Top Chef season with all of the past winners? Quarter Quell style Season 10 anyone? I would bet Blaise, Paul, and Volt dominate the other 6.

From Tom C's blog:
"For all of you haters out there who kept posting all season long that you didn’t think Sarah was good enough and that you couldn’t understand why she was advancing… and then why she made the finale…and the final two… I trust that this episode made it completely clear to you that she’s a very, very good chef."

http://www.bravotv.com/top-chef/season-9/blogs/tom-colicchio/best-food-ever-served-on-top-chef

At this point, only 7 comments, but the long knives are coming out. Maybe he will listen.

"I would bet Blaise, Paul, and Volt dominate the other 6."

That would be a fun season to think about, no question, and everyone is capable of a mis-step; but I can't picture Hung or Stephanie being dominated by anybody.

Thank God!

Even if it was a near tie, Paul should have gotten it due to overwhelming awesomeness.

I can't believe Sarah is so delusional (exit interview) She continues to be clASSy.

The elves had the long con going, and I sure fell for it. I'm so happy for Paul, and wow I hope I'm lucky enough to eat at a restaurant of his sometime.

Sarah's finale meal looked and sounded great - I do find it a little odd that they seemed so much more creative than what she put out during the season, but I'm willing to go with it.

Unfortunately, her incredibly nasty personality was still on display, and it really soured my enjoyment of her arc. I get that picking Tyler seemed like a real blow to her...but actively and loudly commiserating with Heather about it right in front of him? Disgusting...and stupid.

And then, after she utterly emasculates him and lets him know that she thinks he's a steaming pile of crap, she then has the nerve to be annoyed by him desperately trying to seek her approval. Really? And this is someone who is supposed to be a seasoned manager? She was lucky that he reacted by desperately trying to please her. She's lucky he didn't emotionally check out of the competition right then and there.

From what we've seen over the season, Sarah is one of those people who functions by designating a constant scapegoat onto which she puts all of her frustrations and fears and insecurities. While I guess that works for the other people in the kitchen, it's a huge flaw, and makes me want to avoid both her and her restaurant, regardless of how enjoyable I might otherwise find her food.

Rules question - could Paul have replaced the over-cooked custard for the second set of judges with a new dish created on the fly or did he have to stick with the printed menu? Obviously, he didn't have enough eggs (as he said in the show) to redo that particular dish, but maybe could have come up with five plates of something else.

Great question Bob. Don't know.

How smart that Paul had the spot prawns in reserve when his crab soured. How lucky for him that Keith noticed (although Paul probably would have as well).

Too bad he did not have extra eggs. Next season, someone will.

"I can't picture Hung or Stephanie being dominated by anybody."

Good point... I would bump Hung up and call it a new 4 horsemen. Maybe it's just been too long for me since Stephanie's season but I just don't know if she has the same level of creativity as the others, even if she has a lot of skill.

I'm happy for Paul but it's Sarah's food that I want to eat.

Fairly unremarkable finale. 1v1 plays much more dull than 1v1v1. Maybe it was the edit, but it seemed to me Tyler added more than he detracted.

I'm not sure just letting the chefs rolodex it makes for a great finale either. There needs to be at least one course with some degree of a twist. Zero doubt those dishes had been worked over dozens of time back home.

Congratulations to Paul; the overcooked custard had me worried there a bit, but I'm glad he won out. Those both looked like absolutely phenomenal menus.

So, does an excellent finale make up for an otherwise meg regular season? I'm tempted to skip weeks 1-7 on the next go around; at the very least, I'll skip the episode, come here for the recap, and then decide for myself if I want to watch.

It seemed strange to me that Ed and Bev weren't in the group of prospective sous chefs. Some chefs might not have been able to make the trip, but those two were among the diners. I bet Paul would have liked to have had them as options.

I agree with Dom that I like the two groups of judges; it's a truer test of running a kitchen to put out great food on two occasions. I also like the ability to adapt if things aren't working, like Richard did last season and Sarah did in this one.

My brilliant wife called the spot prawn substitution before they came back from commercial. Attention to detail, there.

I can't say I've loved Sarah's personality this season but the drama seemed way overblown/artificially produced, to me. Ask yourself: how sure are you that those truly rude Sarah/Bev interactions happened on one take? I was rooting for Paul, but I'm not putting Sarah in the same boat with Heather.

Sarah was robbed!

No, just kidding.

Maybe it's just been too long for me since Stephanie's season but I just don't know if she has the same level of creativity as the others, even if she has a lot of skill.

Review of The Girl and the Goat by Saveur Magazine:

"When the chickpea fritters came, atop a salad of both raw and crisp-fried garbanzos, goat feta, hazelnut hummus, and nutty romesco sauce, I started to understand why Izard's food is alluring: she brings the complexity and care you expect to find at higher-end restaurants down to earth. The food is unpretentious, but nothing about it is dumbed down. It's complicated, with layers of flavor and bold pairings that reach around the world but are never fussy or forced. Even more impressive than the fact that she's able to keep her dishes so balanced is that she's dreamed them up at all. Shiitake gelato with chocolate cake? Cauliflower with pickled peppers and mint? How does that happen?"

Thanks Lou! I am SUCH a Stephanie partisan, and I really resented the revisionist history of the All-Stars season where everyone (including the judges) seemed to agree that her win over Blais was some kind of huge upset.

I am so pleased with Paul's win. All season he has served dishes that intrigued me with their flavor combinations. He made so many yhings that just should not have worked, yet received near-universal praise. I have no idea how that works. I can't wait to try Uchiko next time I am in Chicago.

Now that the season is over I want thank Dom and all of you for the great discussions. I am a "refugee" from another forum and I so appreciate all the thoughtful, reasoned, and informed comments here!

I understand _completely_ why Tyler behaved as he did: He's a personal chef, used to having to get validation of every move and step from the stockbroker's wives he's working for, not an auteur who can do whatever he thinks is correct (which is what nearly burned Paul with Ty-Lor, but that's the other end of the ruler). His questions and "neediness" are what he needs to work, normally, but it isn't what works well in a busy kitchen.

Dom -- once again, thanks for the hard work on the power rankings this season. Yes, you are compensated handsomely for it, but still, we appreciate the effort. :)

Enjoyed the finale. To the extent it was "less exciting," that's probably due to the fact that for the most part, the planning and execution was at such a high level -- as it should be. The crab turned? Prawns in reserve, etc. etc.

Glad to see Paul win, and how can you not appreciate the nice connection with his dad? Very cool.

Re: Sarah -- she deserved to be there, irritating moments and all. I have no doubt she did something to get the cuts she did, but also have no doubt there was exaggeration to it as well. In the end, glad to see her kick out a good meal.

Although I have no doubt it was close, I wonder if the debate was that intense: a couple of comments from Tom had me confident Paul would win -- "attention to the details," "not seasoned well (Sarah's trout)" -- both of these had me thinking that Paul, absent a total fail (which the first course of custard saved him from), was going to go home with the prize.

All in all, not a bad season. Yes, some poorly-designed challenges...but we say that every season. Yes, not the most talented group overall...but we've said that every season but 4/6/8. Looking forward to Season 10 already -- I hope to be less busy whenever it comes on so I can spend more time commenting!

One note on All Stars...I know the edits made it seem as if everyone was bagging on Stephanie's win, but I think a closer look doesn't reveal that. Yes, they got Blais to say several times that he choked -- but that's not revisionist history, he really DID have a terrible night.

That is NOT to say he would have won if he hadn't bombed. Stephanie put together a ridiculous meal (and so did Lisa, much as it pains me to say) that, in my mind, could have beaten a better effort from Blais. But the fact remains: he choked. And of course they played it up for the drama.

I doubt that any of Tom/Gail/Tim (or Blais, for that matter) would say that she was an undeserving winner. And although Blais is my favorite Top Chef, I'd eat at Stephanie's restaurant any day...if I could get reses.

I'm just hoping that they can take an extended break. With 24-30 months passing with just one casting call (due to allstars) I am hoping they can find some decent competition next time.

You'd like to think there are 16 solid chefs out there who can smile for the cameras.

Isn't Stephanie the only TC winner with a hugely successful, first class restaurant?
I know that Harold has two but I've never heard that there's a six month waiting period for reservations in either one.
And, thanks, Dom, for this entertaining and educational blog. Happy eating!

Sue, that's a good question. Of the winners, and almost-winners, who has successful restaurants?

Sue & Ann: Give it time; I followed Steph only because I live in her city, but it took 3 years between her win on TC, and the opening of her restaurant. I haven't really been keeping up with the other winners, but Kevin S already owned his own restaurant when he competed; Mike V is still in the process of opening his.

The one I'm most curious about is Hung; I remember reading that he used his winnings to finance a series of stages around the world, but haven't heard anything beyond that.

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