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 27, 2012

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.

1 Paul Quickfires
Last Week: 1 Eliminations

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!

2 Sarah Quickfires
Last Week: 2 Eliminations

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?"
"Uhhhhhhh, no. It took me three days to find and edit together all of the pieces to make that much."

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.

3 Lindsay Quickfires
Last Week: 3 Eliminations

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.



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.



Dom, the debate began precisely *because* it was the week she tried to use the antigriddle. She had no instinct for what properties are necessary for the hot component to thaw out a frozen sauce. And also, once frozen solid, didn't try to correct how cold the frozen slab was.

Sorry, don't mean to start the argument again, but that was the point in my original post.

Gratz on picking the two finalists! It's almost as if you've done this before ...


See, this is the problem... you argue about something long enough, and you forget why you started in the first place :-) FYI, I wasn't calling you out, Ally... yours is a view shared by a lot of people.

Also, antigriddle. REALLY cold. Not surprised that somebody who's never used one was thrown off by just how cold it made her sformato.

Congrats Dom on the 1-2 pre-season pick.

Among my issues with Sarah were the chef-killer risotto dishes. Clearly there are many opinions on what makes risotto great or not great, and Sarah twice (not once) served risotto that was not considered properly cooked by the judges. I would not expect that from an Italian specialist with her pedigree.

However, you are much more of an expert on Italian (or most any other type of) food than me, so I defer to your opinion of her cooking ability.

That said, I sure hope Paul wins - for his excellence, dominance, humbleness, being a class act and shining the light on Asian flavors.

Thanks, Dom, for that writeup regarding Sarah, editing, drama, and creativity. I toyed with posting a comment over the weekend, but couldn't quite put something coherent together. You took the words right out of my mouth.

I think television by nature changes our perceptions of food; because we can't taste anything, we're instinctively drawn to the flashier presentations and techniques. Since I started getting serious about eating, I've noticed that a lot of the things that so impressed with early don't resonate any longer; meanwhile, I'm starting to pick out much more subtle nuances in the things that might otherwise seem boring. Watching on TV, those subtleties disappear, so all you're left with are the flashes. As they've apparently trimmed down judges table comments to preserve the drama in the decisions (ugh), we viewers lose out on seeing some of those highs in the dishes.

Ironically, I think the best example of this is one of Paul's dishes, and not Sarah's: the cold vegetable soup. Without Gail's gushing on the Bravo site, I don't think any of us would have really picked up on how good it was. And in this case, the recipe makes it look even more unassuming; but when you combine the reaction with the utter simplicity of the recipe, you realize how razor-thin the margins had to be in the preparation.

Based on my experience at Spiaggia (three years ago, admittedly), I can say first-hand that so many things that sound simple and boring in theory are in fact astonishingly good in practice. That might be true of Italian cooking in general, but I don't think I ever really 'got' it until then.

Among my issues with Sarah were the chef-killer risotto dishes. Clearly there are many opinions on what makes risotto great or not great, and Sarah twice (not once) served risotto that was not considered properly cooked by the judges. I would not expect that from an Italian specialist with her pedigree.

I'm not trying to name drop, but let me confirm Sarah knows how to cook Risotto. When I went to Spiaggia, the risotto was the showstopper of the night; it was a minimalist production, with just a few little greens sprinkled over the rice, but the stock was incredibly intense, and melded perfectly with the greens. I remember it because it was the first time in my life that I actually liked risotto, and finally understood that Seinfeld episode.

I think the problem is that people have different ideas on what makes a good risotto, and get locked into a limited view of what it should be. With the lamb's heart risotto, Tom openly admitted he was nitpicking when he said he thought it was on the verge of being underdone. I think that was a pretty clear indication that his personal preference was for a softer risotto, and not that it was objectively wrong.

The one judged by Tim Love was a long time ago and has faded from memory, but my impression then was again that it was more a matter of opinion than a technical error.

Gilmore... when somebody who doesn't normally trade in risotto makes one that the judges criticize, I'm inclined to believe their risotto is off (didn't take more than a glance to know that this was the case with Tre's). When it's Tony Mantuano's right hand and it happens twice, I'm inclined to believe we're probably looking at a matter of preference/style.

Well done and said, Dom. I, for one -- and I am perfectly prepared to be the only one -- like Sarah. And Lindsay and Heather and Nyesha and Grayson. All strong women who have made their way successfully in a very tough world. You don't get to be executive chef of Spiaggia by being a shrinking violet, or by lacking talent and creativity in the food department. The only mystery to me this season was how Beverly, Dakota and Whitney made it. I grew hoarse shouting "Toughen up!" at the screen.

I know some of you have done the TC University and said decent things about it so I thought I'd share this:

I totally bought it right away so hopefully there's good information!

Alamos, I understand where you're coming from, with regard to toughness. 90% of my colleagues are male, and as recently as the 1980's women were often treated poorly in the sciences.

However, I would venture to say that it is a LOT easier to be a tough and effective leader of your own crew than it is to work with your peers in a high stress situation. Especially when you've been designated the oddball outsider that doesn't deserve respect. I'm an effective teacher and leader of a research group. I'm not as well equipped to deal with disdain from my colleagues. I learned how to be an effective group leader. I imagine learning how to deal with the few but psyche-killing a-holes in my department will be a continuing struggle. Luckily I'm not on national television and have my friends and family available.

As one who argued that Mike I. would be a legit Top Chef last year, based on e.g. the pineapple steak in the finals, I understand where Sarah defenders are coming from. I'm not there, but, I'm softening way more than her Log O Sauce ever did. :)

Oh yes, there are most definitely reality show writers - though they don't typically write dialogue (save perhaps for the "check out the headroom in this fuel-efficient Toyota Prius" type), they do watch the footage and craft the storylines, providing outlines for the editors to follow. A few years ago a group of writers on another similar competitive reality show (Runway or America's Next Top Model maybe?) went on strike after being denied union benefits through the Writers Guild of America. I think in the end the strike failed and the show just started using the editors in the same capacity, but I'm sure some reality shows still employ some sort of writing staff.

You are definitely right about Sarah, Dom. I am very aware even while watching the show that my response to her food is being influenced by my ever growing distaste for her personality (Grayson is a clear example of the opposite effect). But I do believe she belongs in the finale based on her food, which generally looks pretty yummy to me and the judges clearly concur. Sarah probably reminds me most of Tiffani Faisson in S1, before her Allstars character resuscitation. I find them equally distasteful though in very different ways, but in the end their talent is hard to deny.

Paul is as likable and professional as Harold was that season, but I truly do think he is cooking on a completely different level. I will be extremely dissapointed if he loses, but if Sarah beats him I don't think it will be due to any Collicchio/Montuano bromance, or producer manipulation. What producer would want such a clearly unpopular winner?

So, I was curious about how much Paul has really won this season. From what I gathered from Wikipedia it amounts to:

- $60,000 in prize money
- Premiere tickets to "Snow White and the Huntsman" (assuming it includes travel costs, but who knows)
- A new Prius V (Baseline $26,400)
- Trip to Costa Rica (again, unsure of the value here)

I figured since I looked it up, I might as well share it with people who would care :) Every time he wins, I think that it would be okay if he didn't win the finale, look at everything he has! But then I realize what I'm thinking and take it back immediately. Go Paul!

The interesting thing about Paul's pre-finale haul is that accounts of it differ from what we've seem on the show, to the point that I have wondered if perhaps the elves might even be obscuring some challenge winnings in order to make him appear less dominant that he actually has been. During his live-tweet during episode 12 (Block Party), which aired 1/26 after the final episodes filmed in BC, Tom commented that Paul shouldn't be nervous because he had already won $70k. At the point that he said that, Paul' had been shown to win $35k, though by the end of the episode he had pocketed another $15k to bring his total to $50k. Since that point, he's been shown to win an additional $10k in cash, for the ice-breaker leg of the culinary Olympics. But then in her post-knife interviews, Lindsay said definitively that Paul had won $80k plus a car - $10k more than Tom's earlier total and $20k more than what we've been shown.

Of course both Tom and Lindsay could easily be mistaken - why would they remember someone else's exact winnings? But they were both pretty specific with their totals. And I guess there's a chance there could be another cash prize up for grabs in the final episode. But I also would not be surprised If they edited out an additional $20k prize from the Mentor challenge or even Fire & Ice, just to maintain some suspense.

Or maybe I just think about this too much. I dont know. Either way he's easily surpassed the winnings of all the winners from season 1-5 if you consider cash and prizes. Definitely enough to provide seed money for his own place (not like he's going to have trouble finding investors, win or lose).

I feel like they've definitely downplayed Paul's dominance. There's at least two episodes where the blogs revealed his stuff to be AMAZING and the show downplayed it. Which frustrates me--I think it's just as compelling to know something is the best thing Gail's eaten on the show than to have the mystery. And of course until the end the drama of who wins isn't what really compels--it's just the auf* But the more stuff like that happens, the more staged it feels, and the less interested I am.

*Sorry, wrong show.

Anne, I'm afraid we'll have to ask you to pack your pinking shears and go.

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