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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March 7, 2012

Top Chef - S9 Postmortem

No, I didn't lose my will to finish the season recap. Though I don't know why I watch the reunion shows. It's like they take all of the stuff I hate most about the show and make an hour long special out of it. But no, this is not the reason for my extreme tardiness. It's just been a very, very, very busy week.

In any case, I'm not sure that I have any great wisdom to share this season, beyond echoing the sentiment that it was a disappointing one. What's doubly frustrating, however, is that it got so much right while still getting so much wrong.

First, the good:

  • Last Chance Kitchen. Arguably more enjoyable than the regular show. Why? Probably because the challenges were mostly very straightforward, people were cooking for their lives, and the short format meant that what was missing was the usual dramatic BS. No fuss, no muss, compelling TV. InterTV. Whatever.
  • The play-in round. Again, I hope this returns. It seems like it really helps to eliminate some of the clunkers that can make the first third of the season a frustrating joke. And it's good TV. I'm more than okay with this practice sticking around.
  • The finale format. Seriously, bronze it please. One could argue with the inclusion of some of the dregs of the 29-person field in the sous cookoff, but that strikes me as a small sin in an otherwise fabulous structure. The whole setup made for just enough reality show intrigue while keeping things simple and straightforward and allowing the chefs to do their thing. If the show does exactly this for the finale every single season, I'll be thrilled.
  • Showing off the location. Though the manner in which they did so wasn't always the most conducive to good cooking, and though I may be in the minority here, I really, really appreciate that they tried to get out of the kitchen a bit and show off the locale. Though it has little to do with the food, I think it makes for a more compelling show.

Sadly, all of this good... and there was a lot of it... was derailed by the bad:

  • Inconsistent judges. And by this I don't mean inconsistent judgING, but inconsistent judgES. For the first two seasons, we had Tom and Gail. Then, to allow Gail to handle some other obligations, we went to Tom and Gail and an occasional alternate, who the elves tried to keep consistent across seasons (Ted Allen in seasons three and four, Toby Young in five and six). Then the alternate judge started changing every season. Now we're up to Tom, Gail, Padma, Hugh and Emeril. I'm of the opinion that the guest judges, when they're good guest judges and not gimmicky ones, provide the necessary fresh perspective. But just as it's good when a viewer establishes a connection with the contestants over the length of the season, so too is it when they establish a connection with the judges. But other than Tom and Padma, it's like musical chairs. I wish there were a little more consistency here.
  • The challenges. I appreciated the effort to work in Texas-specific challenges. Unlike many, I actually appreciated the chili cookoff. But BBQ is just too specialized and too touchy, I think. And while I have no problem with well-designed catering challenges, this season seemed dominated by tests of endurance and challenges where the chefs were set up to fail. The result? The instances where we got a true look at the contestants' food were few and far between. Time and time again, it's been proven that watching the contestants survive isn't nearly as enjoyable as watching them thrive, but this season's challenges seemed designed to give us more of the former and less of the latter. And don't even get me started on the culinary olympics. Like Rome before the fall. Let's feed some Christians to the lions while we're at it. Yeah, that'll be exciting stuff. Ugh.
  • Drama. Oy. Yeah, it's high pressure. Yeah, stuff happens. Of course we're going to see that, and some of it is interesting. But the bickering and sniping just gets tiresome. Really, really tiresome. And while they can't control whether or not it happens, the editors can certainly control how much of a focus it is. More food, less childish BS, please.
  • The suspense edit. Speaking of the editors, this has become one of the worst aspects of the show. Please, elves... the occasional amount of suspense we might feel at the end of an episode is far, far less compelling than actually seeing the judges' true feelings about a dish. Listening to them doing backflips over Paul's soup would have been a whole lot more fun than wondering if he was going to win by a little or by a lot. Editing out the passion -- positive or negative -- is removing one of the most compelling aspects of the show, and for what? A cheap surprise? Maybe on occasion? Plus, it undermines the credibility of the show by making it clear that there's no attempt to honestly portray how the food is received. We can't taste, so we have to rely on the judges. But we're learning that we can't rely on the judges because their comments have been selectively edited into oblivion. So what the hell are we watching, exactly? It's a terrible, terrible tradeoff. Please stop this.

In general, I suspect it's an unfortunate matter of insecurity on the part of the elves. Top Chef has been around for a while now. Viewership isn't what it was at its apex. But now it seems as though they're just trying too hard, attempting to manufacture artificial excitement and drama rather than trusting in what made the show a success in the first place. This competition is compelling stuff! Seeing that food, seeing that passion, seeing the judges' reactions... THAT'S what makes this show compelling. Not sleep deprivation and childish bickering and manufactured suspense. That's why, for all of the good ideas to come out of this season, most of us here see it as unsatisfying. The spirit of the show is getting buried under a pile of crap.

Find your roots, elves. Go back to what made the show a success in the first place. Let that passion and energy and FOOD come through. Please.

Consider this post the final one for season nine, and home base for any off-season discussion. Though the fact that this is now its own blog means that I'll probably be less hesitant to post little updates here and there as news trickles out. Check back.

Thanks again to everybody for making this a fun place to discuss the show, even during a down season. I LOVE that some of you might actually be getting together as a result. Community, community, community. And I apologize for the fact that an unusually busy schedule has meant that I've been a little less hands-on than in some seasons past. Hopefully that'll be remedied next time around.

Until next season, all!


Top Chef - the food + Andy Cohen = reunion episode...

A pretty bad episode, just like the season.

They did not even show Grayson's meatball comment!!!!

As much as I have bashed Pee Wee Herman this season, I think that he would be a better host than Andy Cohen.

Plus, Pee Wee predicted his episode was the shark jumper!!!

That was the most painful, unpleasant, immature and degrading display I have ever seen. My wife left the room in disgust. How could that moron Cohen conceive that intensifying humiliation through public ridicule would be entertaining and funny?

Yup, I'm glad I didn't watch. I hated Andy Cohen's schtick even in the good seasons of Top Chef; I was 99% sure I wouldn't be able to bear it last night.

I thought it had its moments. Grayson is just a riot. It was interesting to see Sarah and Lindsey mostly own up to their bad behavior with Bev, and to see that Heather is as genuinely unpleasant as she appeared to be during her run on the show. I love that Ed, when asked about why he was such a jerk to Sarah in the BBQ challenge, basically said, "Yeah, I was a dick." THANK YOU! I don't understand why more people on these shows don't just own up to their less-than-flattering behavior sometimes and admit they had a bad day or whatever. Why is that so hard? You get a million more forgiveness points from the general public if you just admit you're human.

Man, Padma is one raunchy chick! And I was very glad to see Gail make a point of telling Bev how well she handled the crap thrown her way, and how very few people would have handled it as gracefully. I thoroughly agree with that sentiment.

Paula- I agree with you on all points. How refreshing to see Ed own up to his questionable behavior (I'm a huge Ed fan, but I thought he was pretty crass during the BBQ challenge) and not make excuses. Sometimes, you just have a bad day. I also thought it was telling that Bev immediately pointed out Sarah when Andy asked if anyone had apologized. It seems that if Sarah's apology had been insincere, Bev probably would not have been so quick to speak about it. I got the feeling that the editing (Andy) was once again trying to paint Sarah in a less than flattering light last night- what was up with that question about telling one of the judges to eff off? I probably would have cried if I were Sarah too. She seems to genuinely be trying to make up for her bad behavior.

As for Heather...well, it's good to know that not everything on the show is edited.

I said to my wife after the Mediocre Chef gag, "Now what that does right there is prove the producers can construct damn near any narrative they want out of their raw material."

Heather reminds me quite a bit of my other, much guiltier pleasure: Abby Lee from 'Dance Moms'. She's brusque, abrupt, and demeaning to those around her, but she is exacting in her approach and believes results are the only thing that matters.

As Ty-lor attested, if you can swallow your pride and respond to the challenge, that approach can inspire great growth and produce great results.

I think the most interesting part of the finale was when Tom kinda/sorta defended Heather when he said something like "She didn't question Bev's work ethic to hurt her feelings, that's not why she said that."

While I thought the other chefs were very hard of Bev throughout the season, I also thought the reunion was a bit over the top in the sympathy for Bev. Was it hard for Bev throughout the season? Of course.

But on the other hand, she volunteered and auditioned to be on a Bravo tv show that is known for putting people in high stress situations.

I think the other chefs were unfair to Bev, but I do not think it was as serious as everybody was making it out to be.

If you want to feel better about Sarah, please read her interview with Bravo:
She comes across as a smart, thoughtful woman, who was bothered about how she was portrayed on the show, as similar in obnoxiousness to Heather, which she didn't believe she deserved.

I don't know ZRD - she goes on about how 'patient' she was with Tyler, and implies that she protected him from the other chefs...this was not born out by how she actually treated him, or her nasty (and very public) exchange with Heather about him during the selection process.

I think there is definitely a disconnect between how Sarah perceives herself and others, and how Sarah actually acts. Now, I'm very confident that the editing exaggerated that, and I'm quite sure that I would not be reacting to her quite so negatively had her attitudes and actions not been part of a larger trend with Lindsey and Heather. I guess to my mind there's a difference between being just generally nasty and intolerant of perceived weakness as an individual, and having those same traits as part of a coordinated group.

She doesn't seem to get that, and that's pretty damning for me.

Based on how she acts, I bet Sarah has spent a lifetime bonding with other people by putting other people down. If she doesn't respect you she treats you like a child who needs to be told what to do for her.

Heather is judge and jury. She decides who is worthy and if you're deemed unworthy you're punished.

So Sarah is just immature in how she makes friends and maintains friendships. And Heather is just mean.

Just my take on it. But I didn't watch the reunion episode (I never do because I can't bear it).

I like how Paul summed it up on the bravo blog: What did he think of the Heather-Bev stuff? "It wasn't cool."

dmantell and ally: YES.

The funniest line from Sarah's interview with Bravo:

"The frustrating part is that it doesn’t seem like Italian food and Mediterranean food ever get the same respect and it’s really a shame and I hope that that will change."

I know I'm in the minority but I like the reunion shows, it gives everyone a chance to talk about how the acted on the show, appologize, or not, and it's a good way to sum up a season. Here were my thoughts.

* Grayson and Malibu: I think they may have dated, dating, had something because when they asked him if he was single she had a really strange look on her face. Too bad though because I think they would be fun as a couple together.

* Kutos to Lindsay for being very honest and feeling embarassed about some of her bahavior. She always struck me as the kind of person that just gets stressed and does and says things they don't really mean.

* Kudos to Sarah for also talking about it and setting the record straight. I have so much more respect for both her and Lindsay now.

* It looks as though both Sarah and Lindsay have appologied to Bev after the show and all are on good terms now.

* Although The FU at one of the judges story was strange. Did she say it, did she not, was it directed at Emeril? It had to be right?

* Awww Gail. What she said to Bev was nice

* I had mentioned that Heather wasn't getting the mean edit, she's just like that. Most of the things she said were not editted together clips, and sure enough she owned up to watch she said but didn't think she should have to apologize for anything.

* Ed - I was a dick! Loved it. :)

* Jonesy weirdness had me laughing as did Keiths Fart in the Kitchen analogy.

* It was funny but I don't understand why Charlize Theron kept telling Tom not to touch his penis. Did I miss something?

Ok, the clip show is definitely worth it just for Grayson's montage. I was cracking up for like 5 minutes straight.

Mediocre Chef and Evil Gail were also pretty good but yea, definitely shows what you can do with editing.

Yes, you have to watch (or fast fwd if you have DVR! hehehe...) through the crying montage, and the apologies and Sarah looking like she is going to lose it at any second, but there are plenty of good parts.

rab01: I noticed that line as well. She continues to be so delusional. She lost fair and square.

Reason I think she's delusional? Hung is the only one who did Asian food that has become a Top Chef winner. Others have had mediterranean influence (Ilan for one). I don't remember her cooking Italian food being an issue on the show. Others making "asian" food were called out by other contestants - did she want the judges to call them out for it as well?

If she was graceful at all on the reunion show then good on her. But on the regular show and from anything I heard/read about her since then, she has been a sore loser and blaming the judges for her loss. I'm sure her mentor had to say that she was ripped off because in her world it's either for her or against her. But I can't see how she had a disadvantage because of the style of cuisine she sent out.

I would like her better if she would just be proud of herself and how she did culinarily and quit acting like she was the Top Chef.

To be honest, I do feel a little bad for her because I would hate to have all my bitchy moments on national television. :)

So did Grayson get Fan Favorite, or did the robo-voting win it for Malibu?

Am I the only one who thought there was something strange about the way they showed the whole Sarah vs. the judges at the finale thing? I'd have to watch it again, but it seemed like it started with her denying it (and decrying the topic even being brought up), then a shot of Tom and Emeril looking a little mad, followed by Sarah apologizing directly Emeril for something she claims she doesn't remember saying (she also claimed she didn't remember who she might have said it to, I think). The whole exchange seemed a little odd...I couldn't help but think they'd actually showed the video of what she said at the reunion but edited it out afterward.

IG - Malibu beat out Grayson. Paul 3rd, Sarah 9th.

Agree Amanda - Tom C. Cringed when they brought it up (If the clip of his cringe was actually from the time the question was asked). They kept showing Emeril and then Sarah spoke only to him. Wonder if the cameras were off by the time she dissed him, or they choose not to show it.

Sarah's being raised by a single mother is touching, but it appears that she was raised believing that she can no wrong. Anything that goes wrong is not her fault and that someone else is always to blame.

Tom Colicchio not respecting Italian cuisine?

From Sarah's interview referenced by ZRD - "It’s like everyone knows Italian-American and I spent my whole career studying the regionality of Italian food and going to different regions when I can, so Italian food is very different to me then what it is to the vast majority of Americans. And that was really what I wanted to show people. That real Italian food, as far as the regional cuisine, and I got some flack for that."

I guess that Fabio was cooking Italian-American. Sarah is the USA's expert on real Italian food.

And I loved sitting there watching the show with my daughter while Charlize Theron kept telling Tom not to touch his penis.

Amanda- I thought that was the strangest part of the reunion show. Surely they would have showed the clip if they had the footage? It was really uncomfortable.

Sarah doesn't seem to be able to keep her foot out of her mouth. I agree with others that she sees herself and her actions very differently than how they actually come across. That being said, I do genuinely think she regretted some of her behavior and wants to make up for it. She certainly seemed more remorseful than, say, Heather. Maybe I'm just naive.

I take Judge Tom's word that the food was great this season, but as to contestants's personalities and their actions, it was one of the weirdest of all 9 seasons. They acted like a bunch of children on the playground, not like adults. Maybe the heat and length of challenges had something to do with their behavior.

I'm sorry, but I don't believe that even exceptional talent gives anyone carte blanche to act badly. Tensions can arise when pressure mounts but during down times, people should at least attempt to make amends.

I do know there are some people who are toxic to each other. It seems this season there were more than usual of those people.

Lon - have you read "Kitchen Confidential" by Anthony Bourdain? After I read that, it really explained a lot of the Top Chef personalities to me.

I find it so odd that Malibu won. There didn't seem to be anything spectacularly memorable about his personality and the rest of the top 6 make perfect sense in their order if you take him out. I call shenanigans.

@TxGriff: Agreed; I would have thought they'd show the clip too, unless it was just that bad. Maybe that was the reason for the weird cut?

After the reunion show, I am even more grateful Paul won. Best chef and pretty clearly one of the best people from this season (not that there were many great people to choose from).

It's more likely that the alleged incident took place off-camera. Given the way this season has gone, I'm sure that if it did happen, and they caught it on camera, they would have used it.

They didn't have a clear edit or camera on the situation which is why it was said a "staffer" that was amidst the crowded crazy finale ending told Andy that Sarah Said FU to a judge.

She was probably very hurt. If I take a good look at myself I see that not only do I wear my heart on my sleeve and cry when I'm very happy, upset, and angry, I also too can say things in the heat of the moment that I don't mean.

I can understand the emotion she was feeling. She grew a lot over the course of the show. I could see myself loving her menu better than Paul's only based off of reactions and descriptions. Sees we can't lick our tv's.

Perhaps what may have happened is Emeril being a lover of her food, and someone who may have agreed that her meal was better, went up to console her. And her feeling like the judge that she thought had her back didn't.

I never ever thought I'd stand up for Sarah but you have to give her credit. If Paul's nerves got the best of him and she could have one.

While Paul has a talent and an innate sense of flavor profiles Sarah is the one who grew the most in the competition and she should be proud of that.

Well said, Libster. The more I watched this season, the less judgmental I became. It was just a glorified torture chamber. I'm surprised any of them made it to the end.

Great article on Paul Qui in today's Austin Statesman. Also an interesting blurb on a conversation with Cohen and Collicio in South by Southwest:

"Not evident on the edited show, Qui had picked five perfect dishes for the judges, but the server took them to another table."

Interesting, hadn't seen that mentioned before. Would have been all the more painful had he lost. Obviously the fact that the overcooked dishes had to go out to someone is a mark against him, but in the context of the competition only the judges' plates matter.

Omicron, agreed. But also you'll notice that the article mentions that Paul (as is his wont) never blamed the servers or others during the judging or at any other time.

My take from the article is that he is the real deal. I respect that very much and have been (too much so, for sure) an unabashed cheerleader. Interestingly enough, everyone I come in contact with supports that view of Paul. The valet driver at Uchi raves about what a hard worker he was, humble and a nice guy. You hear it again and again.

Also, FWIW, I will again say that Uchi is superior to Uchiko. I stand behind no one in my respect for Paul Qui, but the two restaurants are just not equal. It is a matter of small, but important degrees.

Also, Sarah has really been sour grapes about the end result. And her non-denial//confirmation of saying "FU" to Emeril just confirms that. Yeesh.

Dom, are you hoping we all forgot about this by now? I need your final words of wisdom, your perspective, your view of how this season fits in with seasons past.

Don't forsake us!

Random, but I was watching Michele Bernstein versus Bobby Flay on a very, very old Iron Chef America ('05?) and the 2nd Sous Chef was none other than Top Chef Texas' Lindsey. Looked about the same...

Thank YOU Dom. And everyone else.

Can we send everyone involved with the show a link to Dom's perfect critique?

Someone should send the link to Tom. Would if I were a twitterer but alas, no.

Check out this story on Paul from his mentor Chef Tyson Cole which includes pics of food.

Just want to thank you for taking time from what is obviously a very busy life to give us your wonderful insights, opinions, and power rankings.
As someone who has been watching since Season 1, salivating the entire time, I am not able to taste any of the food these chefs make...I am strictly kosher. For a short time Chef Hung and Chef Eli were at a kosher restaurant in NY, and I got to enjoy their food. If only...It would be great for someone to do a Top Chef Road Trip one summer, eating their way through cheftestants restaurants. Just sayin'

Well thanks for your back patting info DebbyT!

Thank you, Dom!

This is probably being sent into a strange, sad void but ... although I loathed the first season of Top Chef Canada, the second season, which just ended, was in fact superb with at least a couple of things I'm looking forward to seeing on the flagship show ... Most especially, the blindfolded protein tasting where the chefs had to identify, if they could, cooked venison, wild boar, quail, et. The season - Season 2, if you can find it - had its villain, but she didn't stick around long enough to poison the show. Instead, a clutch of talented - in some cases VERY talented - chefs fought it out honestly. The biggest problem with the first season - the utterly dslikable judges - was still a problem this season, but not as glaring. (it's just angry making to hear some self-absorbed restaurateur berate chefs who are doing what she couldn't do in conditions that would likely cripple her ... think Toby frickin' Young ...) and the winner lives around the corner from me! If I had to compare it to any regular top chef seasons, I'd compare it to Season 4 (possibly because Blais was a judge this season of TC Canada.) It was fun to watch, most of the chefs were likable and I'd recommend it to anyone who's looking for a TC fix before Season 10 comes on.

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