Heating Up Leftovers: Top Chef Season 7 Finale

Heating Up Leftovers: Season 7 Finale

September 15th, 2010

Technically speaking, every Top Chef finale is meant to stand alone – for the remaining chefs, it all comes down to the meal of their lives. However, for the audience sitting at home the finale is the end of a journey, and usually the end of a season of narratives; whether they be rivalries or redemptive arcs, there should be some sort of story coming to an end during each season of the show.

However, Top Chef D.C. never quite found a narrative that it knew how to work with, and the finale is a perfect example of that. Despite the fact that there were a number of potential narratives to build upon, the finale was left to stand entirely on its own without any real connection to previous outings. Sure, the surefire rivalry ended when Kenny left early, but after last season’s finale felt like the show finally getting the showdown we had all been waiting for, the showdown between Angelo, Ed and Kevin felt like leftovers, except that they were leftovers that you don’t remember having but still seem old and tired regardless.

And while the cooking itself wasn’t impacted by this particular concern, my emotional attachment to the conclusion most definitely was.

I like Kevin well enough, so good on him for winning out in the final challenge, but he never really had a compelling story. I think there was one to be found there: he’s a young father trying to make a name for himself, and cooks simple food not unlike last season’s bearded wonder Kevin Gillespie, so there was a story to be told if the producers were interested in telling it. However, this season the Magical Elves seemed to have a short narrative attention span for everything unrelated to pea purees, and so they seemed to jump from story to story without any sense of continuity. Yes, as mentioned, Kenny’s early exit certainly put them in a difficult position, Tiffany’s exit took out the most charming of the remaining chefs, and Angelo’s illness took the wind out of their sails in terms of bringing his redemptive arc from the previous episodes to the surface; at the end of the day, though, one can’t help but feel that they could have done a whole lot more with this season from a narrative standpoint even with these setbacks.

I’m open to the idea that the finale should be all about celebrating the food, which is ostensibly what the show is about, but as someone who is watching without any great appreciation for cuisine I really missed any sort of long-term storyline. Angelo’s illness offered a standalone narrative that formed at the start of the episode, even giving us the spinoff of Hung attempting to become the first man to win Top Chef twice, but they did almost nothing to capture the real ups and downs of Angelo’s journey (which have been quite intriguing) and instead focused on how it impacted this challenge and this challenge alone. As a result, Kevin’s win feels even more out of the blue than it really should: while he was certainly “under the radar,” it seems surprising less because Kevin hasn’t cooked well and more because the editors never developed a narrative for Kevin which gained traction and built towards the finale.

In an interview with Jace Lacob over at the Daily Beast, the Magical Elves (Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz) try to capture “where the season went wrong,” and a lot of people are looking to the setting as the season’s biggest problem. I’ll admit that Washington D.C. didn’t really offer anything particularly engaging, but I don’t buy their notion that people were turned off by politics. I think they were turned off by the fact that the challenges felt like gimmicks, or the fact that some of them were ludicrously designed (I speak specifically of the tournament-style elimination showdown which made zero sense), or the fact that they couldn’t decided on a consistent narrative to drive the series forward. They make the claim that D.C. was “worth it” because they got to do challenges at NASA and the CIA, but both challenges were all flash and no substance: the CIA challenge of “disguising” a dish was silly, and the NASA challenge of creating a dish which could be freeze dried was largely ignored within the challenge itself. However, instead of focusing on where the challenges were located, have more challenges that focus on the cooking, and on the individual chefs as opposed to larger tension (as we saw with a huge number of “group” challenges where everyone prepared part of the same meal for no reason but to create false conflict. You could hold a season of Top Chef anywhere in the country and still make it a consistently entertaining reality show, and Top Chef being unable to do that with Washington D.C. has nothing to do with the nation’s tolerance for politics.

As a result, traveling to Singapore didn’t impress me because it was a new location, it impressed me because it held potential for more interesting challenges. And yet, there again the chefs are forced to collaborate for no reason but to create conflict, and then Tom and Eric Ripert chose their proteins for the finale instead of allowing the chefs to truly express their own point of view (the latter one isn’t a huge issue, but it still feels like an unnecessary handicap added to create drama).

As a critic, I write about reality television for two reasons: when it’s particularly exciting from a narrative perspective, and when it’s particularly fascinating from a production perspective. This season, for reasons which go far beyond the setting, Top Chef fell into the latter category, and I have a feeling that the All-Star season isn’t going to change this particular fact if there’s not some serious reworking behind the scenes.

Cultural Observations

  • I don’t consider myself to have a particularly dirty mind, but dude: between Angelo’s “I’m in Singapore! And I got Hung,” and Kevin wanting Angelo to get well because it’s the only way he can “measure up,” to Kevin calling David Change a “stud,” I couldn’t get my mind out of the gutter. The meal nearly got me out of there, but then Tom discussed how he liked the salty creme, and I just accepted that I wasn’t getting out of it any time soon.
  • While Kevin argued that cooking with the same proteins as your competitors really pushes your creativity, wouldn’t it actually limit your creativity? I think it’s interesting from a comparative perspective, and it made the judging more logical (in that we could compare how each treated the proteins and could make a judgment accordingly), but I wouldn’t say that “creativity” would be the word I’d use to describe its effects.
  • As noted above, they’re doing an All-Star season, and heading into the finale I was wondering how they would justify Angelo’s inclusion (I don’t treat All-Star casting as a spoiler, so I’ll say he’s definitely there). I’d say that his illness is a decent piece of logic, so I’ll be curious to see how his personality emerges amongst such a challenging group.
  • I’ll likely update with some comments on Top Chef: Just Desserts (it’s been paused since I started writing) when I finish watching it, but note how Gail tried to bring up desserts when she declared the curse dead…only for Ed’s dessert to eventually sink any chances of his victory. The curse lives!
  • EDIT: Not too much to say about Just Desserts, really – the chefs seem to be a whole new level of crazy, which at least adds an element of newness to the proceedings, and the challenges present a few set of terms and details that are similarly “new.” Structurally, the show is identical to the previous formats, but there’s enough different there that it will make a compelling diversion in the weeks ahead (plus, Gail!)
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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Heating Up Leftovers: Top Chef Season 7 Finale

  1. Do you think that Ed’s dessert sunk him, or was it his (lack of) defense of his dessert? I agree with you about the season lacking a clear narrative, but the one thing I did find consistently interesting, with so much parity among the top tier of cooks, was how they hurt or helped their chances with what they said about their work. It was sort of like watching a lot of job interviews. My interest in the outcome left when Tiffany and Kelly did, but it still seemed appropriate to this season to see a contender talk his way into defeat.

    Which is not to say the dessert curse doesn’t hold, it just manifest in an interesting way here.

    • Even if it was his response to his Dessert, it remains tied into the Dessert curse, but you’re right that it’s certainly a new twist, and that the judges’ deliberations were particularly interesting this time around.

  2. itsnotlucky

    Few of the chefs this season seemed to have any personality, which made them hard to connect with. Tiffany was very likable, but the others were pretty flat. Watching people cook food on TV isn’t really that interesting on its own. You don’t even get the reward of eating it at the end!

    Having lived in DC for several years, I don’t think the producers did much to step away from the gimmicky political aspect for the challenges. There’s so much more to the city though! The Ethiopian quickfire was very cool to me because it wasn’t based on a pun but still reflected the city, and I liked the concept of “disguising” a dish even if the CIA connection was awfully on-the-nose.

  3. Itsnotlucky, I totally agree. I haven’t watched Top Chef for several years but I tuned in to this season because I used to live in DC. There’s a pretty vibrant food community there and aside from a few instances (the Ethiopian one, the Capitol Hill steakhouse, and I suppose the school and the embassy challenges) there was no sense of using the city’s resources at all. It was very much an outsiders’ view of DC.

  4. belinda

    I agree. I wished they concentrated on what DC offers in terms of restaurants, chefs and food trends rather than NASA! CIA! Random government institution/personel! (which I’m sure was really cool for the judges and contestants to meet these people, but their expertise have nothing to do with cooking or food). Even in Vegas, sure we get the cheesy Vegas gimmicks, but we also get these chefs meeting people in their industry, suppliers from local farms, chefs who own the best restaurants in Vegas, challenges related to local cuisine and local ingredients, etc – things that are actually relevant to a cooking competition and I’d imagine would inspire the contestants more.

    Also, except for Angelo, I still don’t have a clear grasp of what the chefs’ individual cooking styles are, and I don’t think I ever felt that way about any of the past seasons. I might like or not like so and so, but I know what kind of a chef they are. This year, all the dishes sort of meshed together and nothing stood out.

  5. Brad

    Anybody but Ed. His pairing with the despicable Ilan was vile and viler. Favorite line:
    Ed: You’re not sick?
    Angelo: I’m sick of your attitude.

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