Top Chef the Finale: Five courses, eight celebrity judges, and one Top Chef.February 1, 2007
Like that roast you’ve been cooking in the oven all day long, Top Chef is done at last. And like that roast, it didn’t come out quite like you’d hoped: It’s dry, unappetizing and quite frankly, you’re not that keen to eat it — it certainly wasn’t worth all that work.
Ah, Top Chef, why are you so like an overcooked roast?
But enough with the forced cooking metaphors, and on with the show. Our two unlikable final contestants, Marcel and Ilan, squared off for the title of Top Chef, tasked with cooking “the best meal of their lives” for eight judges over five courses. We think the opening of the show set the tone… It included such memorable lines as, “I would have loved to have peed on Marcel.”
Similar to last year’s finale, our booted and long lost contestants also made a reappearance (packing their knives and returning), and like last year, they were asked which chef they’d most like to work with in the final cooking showdown. (Here Marcel waits for the Acme anvil to fall on him or the earth to swallow him up.) Surprisingly, about half the contestants — including our fallen hero Sam — give Marcel the nod. Does that say something about how there really was no favorite? Were the two really such a loathsome toss-up?
Both Marcel and Ilan wind up with at least one strong sous chef: Sam goes to Marcel and Elia to Ilan. Sam, clearly confusing Top Chef with some other reality show, attempts to give a reasonable explanation as to why he chose to work with Marcel, showing himself to be a class act. (Sorry, Sam, that does not count for much on Top Chef.) Then he displays those leadership qualities that made absolutely no difference in the competition: He tells Marcel to pick him; Marcel does. He tells Marcel to pick Mikey; Marcel does. (Later he tells Marcel not to freak about missing fish and substitute hearts of palm; Marcel does. But I’m skipping ahead.)
At any rate, the two teams had an hour to shop at a product-placement — er, farmers’ — market, and four hours to prepare their five courses. Both chose characteristic menus: Ilan took a Spanish cuisine approach, and Marcel a molecular gastronomic approach. (Ilan’s courses: Spanish baby eels on toast with caviar; pan seared moi with macadamia nut gazpacho; grilled squab and shrimp with fois gras; braised short ribs with romanesco sauce; cherry sorbet with fruit and fritter-fried bay leaf. Marcel’s courses: Uni in meyer lemon gelee; salad with yuzu isomalt tear drop; hearts of palm with seabeans; seared beef with taro balls; belini with mousse and kona coffee caviar.)
To their credit, both seemed to construct impressive and seemingly tasty meals. The judges table was packed with celebrity chef star power, and the praise from the heavyweights was regular, if not effusive. Guests included such folks as Wylie Dufresne, Scott Conant and Hubert Keller. Unfortunately, only one of these celebrity chefs, Hubert Keller, weighed in at the judges table, and frankly, he didn’t say very much. Before judgement, our intrepid sous chefs and defunct Top Chef wannabes also gave their two cents about how things went (despite not having tasted the opposing team’s food) … Naturally, Marcel’s abrasive personality and (lack of?) leadership skills were noted, though no one mentioned that Ilan can be kind of weasley, too.
In the end, the judges compared the menus course by course — bestowing praise on all but Ilan’s first dish of eels on toast and Marcel’s salad. It was difficult to determine who the judges would crown Top Chef — and even they hedged their bets saying something about how “one may eventually be better, but we’re picking the best chef at the moment.” La-ame. But with Padma’s slow talking delivery and the addition of suspenseful music, we dutifully waited in a state of mild anticipation for the winner to be announced.
It was Ilan.
Marcel — “unfortunately,” as he kept saying — had to stand awkwardly as his rival was congratulated and hugged. We, “fortunately,” got to turn the TV off.
After waiting all this time for our Top Chef roast to cook, we did feel obligated to eat it. We only wish that it had gone down easier — and tastier — in the end.
Did Sam prove he is the true Top Chef?
Husband: I think I’m gushing too much about this guy, my wife is going to worry I have a man crush on him if I don’t watch what I say. Nevertheless, I think this guy proved it. First, he showed again that he didn’t care as much about the reality TV ridiculousness. Offering to cook for Marcel I think was clearly a classy move. Second, he was obviously an excellent influence over Marcel with his hand in correcting for the missing fish. Sam shows why he’ll have no problem being the real deal when not surrounded by reality show foolishness.
Wife: It’s hard to say, since he was probably in half-hearted form tonight. But he did display class and leadership skills at the sous-chef selection. It’s disappointing that he wasn’t one of the finalists, but he clearly won the hearts of many fans. (And to think that Ilan started out as my favorite.)
Did Marcel steal from My Husband Cooks?
H: I suspect that my wife is too embarrassed to even answer this. But he clearly reads our blog because we were doing olive oil bon bons back in November. I mean, I even explain the technique and go into a discussion about what isomalt is in the comments! Come on, Marcel, you need to own up and give some love to MHC. (Of course, I’m being a moron because I stole this idea from Jose Andres and Minibar. Clearly, both Marcel and I are dirty rotten scoundrels. And note to Marcel: If you are going to steal people’ s dishes, don’t steal there signature dish — or, at least throw a little credit out there.)
W: I hope he doesn’t read our blog. I only like being snarky if I think the people I’m talking about won’t actually read it.
Finally, do you agree with the outcome?
H: At this point, I don’t know. I like Marcel’s style of cooking better. I’ve said before that I’m not a huge fan of Spanish cuisine. I also like the idea of using science and new products to press the edge on certain ingredients. However, if you cook like Marcel and you don’t execute, the flavors aren’t there, and your ideas aren’t original, you go in the tank fast. So, I’m not shocked that Ilan won. I still feel the only winner in this whole show is Sam. He might have lost, and Ilan might have captured the big prizes, but Sam has got my vote. (NOTE: This does not mean I will be giving him a Kenmore Pro Kitchen, a ticket to the Food & Wine Classic, a feature on My Husband Cooks, or $100,000.)
W: It seemed to be truly a toss-up in the judges’ minds… and since they’re the only ones tasting the food, it’s hard to be certain if they’re uncertain. Ilan did have a way of charming his colleagues into working well with him. And certainly Marcel managed to turn just about everyone against him, and seemed to display poor leadership skills in the kitchen. All things taste being equal, then, the judges may have made the right call with Ilan. But, as we note repeatedly, the show would have been so much more enjoyable if the finalists weren’t so “ehh.” It’s a shame.
Finally, and most important to us, what are your thoughts on the finale? Did we get the Top Chef? Are you sick of Molecular Gastronomy? Is saffron the new pink?