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Singapore Sling: Thoughts on the Season Finale of Top Chef

Um, yeah.

After a seriously contentious season of Top Chef, the Washington D.C.-set seventh season came to a close with a final showdown between Angelo, Kevin, and Ed in Singapore, amid a head-scratching judges' decision that made me question just what they were thinking... and what we'd seen throughout the course of the season as members of the home audience.

I watched the season finale earlier this week and had a very difficult time keeping my mouth shut about the winner and my intense disappointment over the outcome of the season. While the Singapore installments gave the series a much-needed jolt, it didn't remove the bad taste in mouth about this season as a whole nor the decision to crown a particular person the ultimate winner and bearer of the title of Top Chef.

(If you haven't already, head over to The Daily Beast to read my exclusive interview with Top Chef's executive producers, where we discuss my criticisms of the past season, what went wrong, and the winner revealed last night.)

So what did I think of the episode and the chef selected as the overall winner of this season? Let's discuss...

So the winner of this season of Top Chef is Kevin?!?! While he performed pretty well overall this season, he only won one Elimination Challenge over the course of the season and flew so far under the radar that I didn't even expect him to make the Final Four over the far superior Tiffany.

So what gives? What went down in Singapore that led to his dark horse being crowned the ultimate victor?

I had a sinking feeling that Angelo would be out of the running due to his sudden and inexplicable illness, as seen from the promos for this week's episode. While Angelo did manage to rally on the last day and present four courses for the judges, his performance was entirely dependent on that of sous chef Hung, who managed to do all of Angelo's shopping and prep ahead of time.

In fact, I felt that the sous chefs had a huge effect on the outcome of the Singapore culinary battle, given that winner Kevin managed to get none other than Michael Voltaggio to serve as his sous chef. Wait a second here. The winner of the last Top Chef, arguably one of the strongest chefs ever to play the game, was recruited as a sous chef for the final challenge that would decide the ultimate winner? How on earth is that fair?

Granted, Ed and Angelo also had winners to work with and Angelo's sous, Hung, is a workhorse of the highest order. He flies around that kitchen and can pull off the work of 50 chefs in about a few hours' time. But I've never been a fan of Ilan and I was surprised when he won his particular season. And Ed here seemed to have been undone a bit by Ilan, who kept offering his own opinions of what Ed should be doing but instead brought little more than a halfway decent sticky toffee pudding and salted whipped cream to the plate.

In any event, the final three chefs had to prepare an extraordinary four-course meal for their final challenge, one that comprised a vegetable course, a fish course, a meat course, and a--shudder--dessert.

So what did they make? Let's take a look:

Angelo:
  • First Course: pickled royale mushrooms, char siu bao pork belly, noodles, and watermelon tea
  • Second Course: sautéed rouget, olive oil-poached cuttlefish with "Asian Style" bouillabaisse
  • Third Course: sautéed duck breast and foie gras with marshmallow, daikon-ginger salad and a tart cherry shooter
  • Fourth Course: Thai Jewel: coconut-vanilla cream and crushed ice with exotic fruits, yam taro, and saffron syrup

Ed:
  • First Course: chilled summer corn veloute with fried black cockles and silan
  • Second Course: stuffed rouget and glazed slipper lobster, cuttlefish with zucchini pesto, toasted pine nuts
  • Third Course: Duck Two Ways: roasted breast and braised stuffed neck with baby spinach and duck jus
  • Fourth Course: sticky toffee-date pudding with fleur de sel crème Chantilly "a la Ilan"

Kevin:
  • First Course: eggplant, zucchini, and pepper terrine, tomatoes, jalapenos, and sweet soy reduction with ginger oil
  • Second Course: rouget, cuttlefish noodles, pork belly, cockles, slipper lobster, and cigala
  • Third Course: roasted duck breast with duck dumpling, caramelized bok choy, and coriander sauce
  • Fourth Course: Frozen Singapore Sling with tropical fruits

First, I do think it was a stroke of genius on the part of the producers to have the judges select the proteins for the chefs and require them to use them as part of the meal and highlight them accordingly. It put them on somewhat equal playing ground and challenged them to use these ingredients in innovative ways while still having them compete against one another using the same elements on the plate, just configured in their own inimitable way.

Second, I do think Kevin did some things right. While I question whether he was the best chef this season (a title I don't think is really warranted), he did--as Tom Colicchio put it--take the most risks. Or at least took one major risk that paid off. Whereas Angelo and Ed both used proteins in their vegetable first course--Angelo with pork belly and Ed with black cockles--Kevin created a purely vegetarian dish for his start that stood up to both of those dishes.

I do, however, wish that the judges had been more strict during the instructions and had said that it was to be a "vegetarian" rather than "vegetable" dish. I would have liked to have seen what each of them could have done without the use of proteins in their starters. Would it have changed the outcome? Who knows.

There were some interesting techniques in play here. Kevin's transformation of the cuttlefish into noodle-like ribbons, Ed's stuffing of the duck's neck, Angelo's watermelon tea and that cinnamon-spiced marshmallow, though the latter was less than successful, as was his bizarre decision to include that tart cherry shooter on the plate... and describe it as a palate-cleanser, which it was nothing of the sort whatsoever.

While the judges seemed to be enraptured by Kevin's deceptively simple Sinagpore Sling-inspired dessert, I thought that it was Angelo's "Thai Jewel" dessert, with its unexpected flavors of saffron, that was a far superior dessert, at least in terms of technique, execution, and presentation. Ed's dessert--Ilan's main contribution to the team--was a total disappointment. Sure, Gail said that it seemed to be in keeping with Ed's personality (and his somewhat disappointing attitude this week) that dessert was more or less an afterthought, but it's also the last thing that you're giving the judges in a competition to win $150,000. Why would you leave that for your sous chef to conceive and execute? It looked sloppy and homemade, rather than something you'd find in a fine dining establishment and it totally missed the point of including dessert as part of the dinner. The judges wanted to be wowed four times over. They didn't want a piece of sticky toffee pudding presented with very little thought or grace.

Each of the contestants had their high and low points in the final leg and, yes, you're only as good as your last dish. But I can't help but question the judges decision to award the win to Kevin when they only once picked him out as the strongest chef that week prior. Surely, there must be some thought to the overall performance, vision, and execution of the chefs when they make their way to the final judges' table. Or there should be, anyway. In the meantime, I can't help but feel frustrated both by the outcome and by the season at large. Here's to hoping that the producers can fix some of the issues that many of us have had with this season...

What did you think of the season as a whole? Did Kevin deserve to win over Ed and Angelo? Was the the strongest chef? Head to the comments section to discuss and debate.

Next week on Top Chef ("Reunion Special"), it's one last chance to catch up with the cast of the Washington, D.C. season before the series returns sometime next year with a new installment on Bravo.

Comments

Anonymous said…
I may not judge the overall season as harshly as you seem to, but I would definitely agree that last night's outcome was a disappointment. And I would also agree that the title of Top Chef would *have* to go to a candidate who has proven him/herself over the course of the series, not only in the final hour. Kevin not only flew under the radar, but as you pointed out, he only won one Quick Fire and if I remember correctly, even found himself in the bottom three at least once. I personally was hoping that Ed would finish first. I think he proved himself, time and again. It was interesting that one of the sound bytes had him noting that previous contestants had been undone by their sous chefs, and that he was wary of that. Choosing Ilan put him at a disadvantage, no doubt, and Kevin scoring Michael V. was a huge boost for him. It may have been poor judgement to allow Ilan to create dessert, but it doesn't seem fair that that's what ended Ed's chances. And while Kevin did "take a risk" by creating an all vegetable vegetable course, you will remember that the judges generally were not very impressed with it. Shouldn't that weak starter have cancelled out his strong finish? Ed was robbed...
Kat W. said…
I think this was Ed's to game lose and, sadly, I think his overconfidence was his downfall. He said he didn't care about the dessert and it showed. Did Ilan produce a lame dessert? Yes. But it was Ed's decision to let him have complete control over the dessert while he focused on other things.

Overall, a pretty lackluster season. I'm hoping that next season (all-stars) will reinvigorate the series.
Tonya Ricucci said…
Top Chef finales are always a let down for me. Kevin was completely undone by Preeti - so unfair. I'd much rather they all get a sous chef from their own kitchen whom they're comfortable working with. And even more important, be judged for their overall work, not just the one meal. I'd like to see that last part for judging the whole season so you don't lose excellent chefs along the way. yeah, bleah.
Florence said…
Hell, no, Kevin did not deserve to win. I know Tom likes to say you only get judged for that day's dish, that should not apply for the finale.

that being said, I would've been way more upset if Angelo won. I don't even believe he was really sick. I think he just choked.
Chris said…
Eh, Kevin's win didn't bother me that much. I got the sense that he would win after hearing the judges' remarks at the dining table so at least there wasn't tricky editing. (There have been a few seasons in the past where the winner hasn't been the person we saw getting the most praise during the actual meal.) Ed seemed off his game and too focused on tearing down Angelo than cooking superior food; his duck was slightly overcooked and I'm pretty sure I can make a better-looking sticky toffee pudding from a recipe book. (And while I love the combination of salt and caramel, salty creme strikes me as an ill-advised concept. Each part of a dessert should hold up since inevitably during the course of eating somebody will have a spoonful of just one element. Salty creme's never going to work.)

But on the issue of the sous chefs, I don't think there's that huge a difference between Mike Voltaggio and Hung. Hung dominated his season and is still probably one of the best chefs to win. Plus the combination of Hung and a well Angelo would have been formidable with their combined knowledge of Asian cuisine. The real problem for me was Ilan, who I felt was a real dip down. The way his season ended and his utterly childish behavior still colors my view of him and what little we saw of him on Wednesday's show did nothing to change my impression. But when you think about it, what were the other options? Harold would have been good but he doesn't seem to have any desire to return to reality television, not that I blame him. Stephanie Izard similarly hasn't been too visible on these shows and, while she was good, I'm not convinced she was that much better than Ilan. That leaves Hosea, who remains the "worst" winner for me. Although he cooked well, it was also very clear that both Carla and Stefan imploded. At least with Kevin, I believed he outcooked chefs who also put out tons of good product, rather than winning by process of elimination. In this instance, I think the idea of bringing back the winners, though good in theory, was fundamentally flawed because, in the absence of Harold, anybody they chose was going to be a few notches below Mike V. and Hung.

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