Under-Seasoned: Belated Musing on the ‘Top Chef: New Orleans’ Finale

We thought we’d take a few moments to discuss the recent competition final that has legions of fans around the world crying foul. No, not the Ice Dancing Gold in Sochi, although that outcome has not surprisingly raised some eyebrows (to the novice judges viewing from our living room, we had the Canadians at least even with the Americans). No, we’re not talking about the world of sports here, but the culinary world, and, more specifically, the results of the Top Chef:New Orleans travesty finale.

In all of our years of watching Top Chef we can’t recall such an outrage over the final verdict. The only moment reminiscent of the anger we’ve seen the last two weeks is the reaction to the “triumph” of Hosea in the show’s Brooklyn season, when he bested presumptive favorite Stefan, but even that upset was tempered by the understanding that Stefan was too cocky and likely cooked his way out of the top spot, and Hosea, while probably technically and creatively inferior, had not cooked bad enough to lose (even if he maybe didn’t cook well enough to win). That finale left a bad taste in our mouth, but looking at the final plates, and Stefan’s nonchalant, careless, almost indignant dessert, it was hard to argue with the judge’s decision, however unfortunate. But with this season’s New Orleans by way of Hawaii finale the judges were not faced with such a clear-cut choice, this was not a case of one chef choking or phoning it in when it mattered most, or one cheftestant being unequivocally above the rest. In this instance both chefs, by the judges admissions, cooked several outstanding dishes along with a couple less than stellar plates, leaving finalists Nicholas Elmi and Nina Compton in a virtual deadlock. There were a couple minor missteps – Nicholas once again under-seasoned his fish, his Achilles heel all season, and Nina, finding that the kitchen lacked an ice cream machine, turned out a fine, pleasant tasting but wholly unsatisfying chocolate zeppole – but neither finalist did anything that clearly violated a culinary precept or severely offended the tongue. Both chefs essentially did what they did all season; Nicholas composed complex but ever-so-slightly bland dishes, emphasizing technique and texture more than vision and flavor, and Nina delighted with bold, aggressive, rich tastes and a fusion of  her island upbringing with her Italian training. For most of the season Nicholas floated near the bottom, with occasional trips to the top, while Nina began at the upper echelon and remained there throughout. Nicholas was the one with the elegant French training who was just as likely to put out a truly transcendent gnudi as he was to deliver a reviled corn silk nest, while Nina was the chef with a unique background and a penchant for brilliant gnocchi who made the extraordinary dish ordinary. So then, if their final dishes were roughly equal, without a calamitous mistake or revolutionary breakthrough to tip the scales, it reasoned that Nina would take the crown and the lifetime supply of Lean Cuisines.

However, logic would not rule that night (or early morning, if the apparent extended judging deliberations are to be believed), and Nicholas was awarded the victory and the title of future Top Chef All-Star, thus precipitating an avalanche of frustration, vitriol and conspiracy theories. If everything we saw before the final was to believed, then Nina was the superior chef and deserved to win. However, if you paid attention to the way Tom Colicchio was obviously steering the other judges towards Nicholas (and how could you have missed it?), the producers preferred Nicholas to win. His personal arc, the “bad boy gone good” storyline, was the more exiting, entertaining one. His redemption tale  – constantly on the bubble, escaping elimination despite his apparent allergy to salt, single-handedly sending Stephanie home because he refused to forfeit his immunity and take responsibility for a unanimously abhorred set of dishes , and then turning it all around and taking home the blue ribbon – well, that was too juicy of a plot for the producers to pass up. Nina cooked great food all season, never really faltered and won it all easily. Yawn. That’s not the recipe for an exciting, surprising, crowd-pleasing finale. No, Nicholas’ improbable path from middle-of-the-pack, unremarkable cheftestant to Top Chef was reality TV gold. The producers knew it, and so did Tom. The fix was in.

Except it wasn’t.

Sure, it’s indisputable that Nina cooked better food all season. I’m fairly certain even Nicholas would agree with that. In fact, it was in part because of Nina’s consistent excellence that we found it to be a relatively boring season, with her and Shirley operating on a higher level than their fellow cheftestants, racking up the majority of the wins, never really breaking a sweat. In fact, the only time Nina was in danger was when she was paired up with Sideshow Bob Michael, a cheftestant with so little culinary knowledge that his selection to the show could have only been to fill some sort of New Orleans quota, Top Chef Affirmative Action, (and who asked so many questions during “Last Chance Kitchen” that Jonathan Lipnicki would have told him to shut up). Even when Nina forgot an entire element of her dish, she was still met with universal acclaim. Her place in the final seemed like a foregone conclusion.

However, the Top Chef finals and the final Top Chef are two different things, and Nina’s dominating performance did not gain her any advantage when it came down to two. She could have made ten of the best ten dishes up to that point, and it shouldn’t have mattered, at least according to how Tom and Padma and Gail and Emeril purport to judge the finale. Although Nina delivered better dishes all season – and very well might be the better chef – she might have been beaten on that one night.

But you’re still skeptical, you feel that the edit clearly worked in Nicholas’ favor. The way they cut the show all season – or at least final half-dozen or so episodes – with the blustery, gin-blossomed Nicholas mixing it up with the either nefarious or clueless Carlos, refusing to listen to poor, innocent Stephanie’s pleas and basically packing up her knives for her, and berating the young, inexperienced waitstaff in the finale for delays in service, it just made too much sense to award Nicholas the win, actual food be damned. The producers had their perfect ending.

Except, that’s not how it works. You don’t build the outcome around the edit, you build the edit around the outcome. The reason the storyline worked so well with Nicholas as the winner was because they worked backwards, knowing that ultimately he wins top honors (one caveat: the finale is filmed after what seems to be a significant break; however, the producers and editors still knew far in advance that Nicholas makes it to Hawaii, and could tailor the edit as such). There’s been much discussion of Nicholas as the victorious villain, but keep in mind he’s only a villain because the show was so devoid of drama that its biggest flare-up all season was over a borrowed knife. Nicholas was only a villain insofar as no one else had the audacity to call dibs on an oven in the LSU cafeteria before Carlos. It’s not like the guy is Puck, Nick never ate anyone’s peanut butter with his fingers, he’s the person who was pissed off that his knife wasn’t cleaned. But just like the world needs heroes, reality TV needs villains. But the show didn’t say to itself, “Oh, great, we can ignore the final four dishes and make this mediocre but vindictive and malicious contestant the winner, because that will make for better copy.” No, they looked at a roster of somewhat unimpressive personalities (especially with Nick’s Philly running-mate and walking haircut Jason eliminated so early) and made due with that they had. Which meant turning a mild-mannered guy who just got over the flu and really, really misses his family into a ruthless monster (or so distraught, disappointed viewers seem to believe). Nick did not win because he was the villain. He was the villain because he won. And because, frankly, no one else seemed to care that much about winning (Some, in fact, might have actually been there to make friends)

In the end, the bad guy didn’t win. The bad guy never existed.

Also, c’mon. Really?

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Filed under Analysis, Better Late Than Never, Century 21 Reality, The Sixth Taste, Top Scallop

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