rumination 6: the cheftestants v6.0…

I rarely watch the boob tube.

When I do, it’s usually the news. But lately, the news has gotten so intolerable that I’ve shut that off too.

When it comes to television culture post-2002, I’m rather clueless.  With the tee vee shows I do like to watch – The Big Bang Theory, for example – I wait for the season to street on DVD and run through them marathon-style.

But there is one show that I’ve watched on a weekly basis for a few years now: Top Chef.

I rarely, if ever, think twice about or comment on television shows.  Movies, yes.  Live theatre, yes.  Radio shows, yes.

But last night’s season finale of Season 6 of Top Chef gave me a trite morsel to ruminate over.  I’ll write my thoughts down here before they go to File 13.

WARNING: If you haven’t seen the season finale, the following will spoil.

Working off the unstated-but-apparent-m.o. from previous seasons, all signs pointed to Bryan Voltaggio as the winner last night.

Why?

Well, he was the only cheftestant that didn’t have any glaring execution errors in the final elimination challenge.

So his mystery box fish dish was boring (“one-note” as Gail Simmons described it).  But boring food is probably better than overcooked food, which both of the other cheftestants served.

And, Bryan’s sardines were accused of being bland.  But bland is a subjective term, as the The Drama Brit pointed out.

I won’t regurgitate the analyses. You watched the show. You know what the judges said (at least what the editors at Bravo TV allowed us to see/hear).

It became pretty clear that, in this sixth season, the judges decided to reward ingenuity over flawless execution.

All three of this year’s finalist cheftestants were flexible and technically proficient – something that seems to have been missing in previous seasons among the top three.  In fact, this year’s three finalists were, unnervingly, each other’s equals.  Any one of them could have won.  Every one of them would have been deserving.  That made for fascinating television.

Last year, the title of Top Chef seemed to reluctantly default to Hosea Rosenberg based strictly on the merits of that last meal.  Rosenberg’s win was met with such deflated interest (not that any of the top three last year were as strong as the finalists in any other year) that perhaps this year, the judges took a different approach to choosing the winner.

In the past, I’ve criticized “Top Chef” elimination results for being too narrowly-based – that is, based solely on that elimination meal and not for the chef’s overall performance.  I think this year, they’ve definitely corrected that issue.

Bryan Voltaggio and Kevin Gillespie seemed to win more hearts.  They certainly were my two favorite personalities on the show.  And each of them had an incredibly consistent record throughout this season’s challenges; they’re both extremely talented cooks.  In my opinion, Michael came into this finale with the weakest track record, having had two rather weak performances in the weeks immediately preceding the finale.

But I’ll admit that, over the course of the season, Michael Voltaggio better captured the essence of what I think the winner of a reality tee vee show named “Top Chef” should be – that is, a ballsy, adventurous spirit that’s backed up by mastery over fundamental techniques with a few parlor tricks in the back pocket for a occasional snazzle.

If there was any criticism to made about this year’s final episode, I would aim it at the producers and editors of the show.  To keep the audience on their toes is one thing; a smart thing.  But to so manipulate the sound bites as to make the judges appear inexplicably partial to a cheftestant is self-defeating.  In my opinion, that’s what happened last night.  What Lakshmi, Colicchio, Simmons, and Young said at the dinner table and at judges’ table didn’t comport with the outcome. Either Bravo TV didn’t show us the complete picture, or there was a lot of behind-the-scenes lobbying for Michael Voltaggio.  If the judges, producers, and editors of the show felt that M. Volataggio’s win was justified by qualities that couldn’t be properly conveyed through 40-minute episodes, they did a poor job of showing and articulating it.

Regardless, Season 6 of Top Chef is, by far, the best one I’ve seen so far (I haven’t seen Season 1 or 2).  Having just eaten in Las Vegas at a couple of the restaurants featured in this year’s episodes made it a particularly relevant story to follow.

From this tiny podium in cyberspace, I congratulate Mssrs. Voltaggio, Voltaggio, and Gillespie.

~ by ulterior epicure on December 10, 2009.

8 Responses to “rumination 6: the cheftestants v6.0…”

  1. Did the show make you want to eat at Volt? I haven’t been watching but my wife, who does watch, wants to go.

  2. @ AaronS: Actually, yes it does. Will it be the meal of my lifetime? Probably not. But I think Bryan Voltaggio is clearly very talented chef. As I said to one of my friends: of the three finalists, I think he was, perhaps, the most well-rounded cook.

    But there are a lot of well-rounded chefs out there. In my experience, the chefs who have a unique style/perspective and are able to express it well are the ones that I fall in love with more (for their food, of course). Michael Voltaggio seemed to have a style that seemed to most personalized (I’m avoiding the term unique because a few other chefs, including Bryan Voltaggio and Jennifer Carroll also seemed to have their own, identifiable styles). They did a good job of telling a story (I know this claim is utterly unfounded since I clearly haven’t eaten any of the dishes that the cheftestants cooked). His dishes weren’t always a success, but it seemed like he was the one that, when he hit the mark, produced the highest highs. And he seemed to do so on an impressively consistent basis. As one who eats out a lot, chefs like M. Voltaggio excite me because their food has great potential. Often, the few disappointments are well-worth the adventure.

    Again, there were three fantastic candidates. I think any of them could have taken the title. I’d be pleased as punch to find myself eating at Volt, Bazaar (or wherever M. Voltaggio lands), and Woodfire Grill.

  3. Great post. I said some similar things on GFC’s Facebook Fanpage last night. It was by far the best season of Top Chef and any of those 3 would have been worthy of being crowned Top Chef.

    I’ll disagree with the telegraphing of the final pick though. Gail defended the overcooked cake saying the flavors were there and it could have been a great dish. I think that Michael immediately stated it was overcooked helped his case as well. I think the reason he was picked over Bryan Voltaggio was for the same reason that more and more people are finding The French Laundry lacking. Sure there might be flawless execution, but flawless execution of something that doesn’t make an impact on you is not worth much. I think they made the right choice with Michael and I thought that was who they were going to pick based on the edited footage.

  4. @ snekse: Read my response to Aaron S above.

  5. I was watching until I saw Toby Young as a judge. The man is so vacuously narcissistic, his food reviews so meaningless, I couldn’t watch any more.

  6. @ Moby: Yes, I call him the walking cliche. That man is the soul over over-emphasis.

  7. If the purpose of the final elimination challenge were to woo the 50,000 other chefs in the country who have tattoos of pigs (and whose swine spectrum is limited to the belly) at a fantasy role-playing BBQ picnic, then Kevin nailed it. He should have “refinement” tattooed on this other arm as well as a fundamental cake batter recipe. There are plenty of other ingredients left in the world/supermarket for dessert applications before one had to resort to bacon.

    There was a French equivalent of Top Chef that I saw over there a few years ago, a svelte 4-episode French version “Plus Près des Etoiles” (Closer to the Stars) which follows 7 of the country’s highest rated apprentices as they compete, without flabby saddlebag drama, for a 6 month internship in judge Joël Robuchon’s restaurants… possibly more substantial to a culinary career than a lifetime supply of disposable tupperwares.

    The televised distraction’s host station suffers in terms of limited budget, audience (4am. Sunday time slot proceeded by “Riptide” reruns) no cultured tension or silly Whole Foods sourced reinvent-the-bagel-sandwich-with-traditional-Ashkenazi-condiments challenges. Its sensational liabilities are compensated by the presence of elite chefs. Cameras focus on technique and horsepower rather than producer prodded squabbles and horse shit. 3 final candidates must create (from identical mystery boxes) as well as write a methodical savory and sweet recipe with artisan products and are coached by starred stove heavyweights: 4th Generation chef Marc Haeberlin, Bruce Willisish Thierry Marx and creepy Raider of the Lost Arkish Marc Veyrat.

  8. @ oste e coc: I agree, Kevin was probably the most lop-sided in terms of breadth of repertoire. His weakness in the pastry department alone was enough to seed him last among the three in terms of range of motion..

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