Sorry for the long delay between posts, but the move, which went reasonably smoothly*, has still been a colossal ass-kicking. Not only are we unpacking, but we have all our stuff in one place for the first time in … well, maybe ever, since we had a fairly full basement back in Massachusetts and a storage space with some boxes that had been there for five years. Since we started the unpacking process, we’ve donated at least six bankers’ boxes full of books, a lot of clothes and fabric, and an old laser printer to Savers, and we’re not done yet – so clearly, we had way too much stuff.
*I define “smoothly” as “the pizza stone, espresso machine, and rum collection all made it intact.” My wife may view it differently. Anyway having DirecTV come the day of the move to get us set up turned out great, since by that night we had the HD-DVR already recording shows.
I did catch the Top Chef finale last week as well as the first episode of Top Chef: Desserts. I’ve seen a fair amount of hand-wringing over Kevin’s upset win in Top Chef, and on some level I can sympathize – in effect, the team with the third-best record (of the three finalists) won the World Series. But as I argued loudly in 2006, the best team doesn’t always win the World Series, and winning the World Series does not make that team the best. Kevin may or may not have been the best chef of the final three, but he clearly finished ahead of Ed and had a good case to finish ahead of Angelo, and under the rules of the competition, that makes him Top Chef.
Ed’s final offerings were extremely disappointing. I’m unclear whether he completely farmed out dessert or had some input into what his sous (Ilan) was making, but that was as complete a whiff as you should ever see in a final challenge – he served sticky toffee pudding, an outstanding dessert that (for me) transcends ordinary cake, but there’s a recipe for the thing in the back of Baking Illustrated, and most Whole Foods sell a very solid microwavable version from the Sticky Toffee Pudding Company. I know he used fleur de sel, but salt and caramel isn’t exactly an inventive combination. I didn’t really see a chilled corn soup as the sort of cutting-edge cooking I’d want to see in a Top Chef finale, and I just have to take the judges’ word for it that his fish dish was too complicated and that he overcooked his duck. I will say that duck can move from perfectly cooked to inedible in a short period of time.
Angelo getting sick provided the drama the producers seemed desperate to inject into this season (coughpeapureecough), but also raised a question for me of whether he completed enough of the work to win the title. It was a lose/lose situation – if he’d won, there would be legitimate complaints that he skipped a day of work the other chefs put in, and if he lost, there’s the question of whether he lost because he got sick. The tart cherry “palate cleanser” was incredibly bizarre – palate cleansers usually aren’t sweet, and certainly not sweet and acidic – but the way he flubbed the first dish shocked me, since a pork belly char siu bao should be right in his wheelhouse. The meringue was also just weird; it was as if Angelo couldn’t taste how sweet some of these items were, so he wasn’t bothered by the high sugar content.
From episode one, Angelo came off poorly on camera between the steady arrogance (doesn’t bother me if the man can really cook) and the increasingly emotional, even erratic, behavior, but he was the closest thing this season had to a high-quality chef who pushed the envelope with many of his dishes. He’s no Voltaggio brother, but in a thinner pool, he stood out to me all season.
Whatever the reason for Angelo’s mediocre performance in the finale, it does seem like Kevin out-cooked him, and his quartet of dishes had its weakest link up front (the vegetable terrine … seriously? A terrine? What’s next, Kevin – a fondue pot? You can take that terrine and shove it up your aspic) and finished very strongly, with a dessert that the judges treated as revolutionary but looked to me like it was slightly clever but just well-executed. He didn’t botch anything major and left the judges with strong impressions of the dishes they had most recently from him, which doesn’t match our general impressions of what should make a Top Chef … but it’s not like we tasted the food, either, so I’m really hesitant to call them out the way I’m going to call the voters out when Felix Hernandez finishes 4th in the AL Cy Young voting.
Overall, a disappointing season, one where I felt like I didn’t learn as much about food as I did the previous year. Great cooking shows should either teach you fundamentals or get you to think about ingredients differently, and both Voltaggio brothers did that, while no one this season did. Kenny was our best hope, as he went for crazy flavor combinations, but when the judges told him repeatedly to edit his dishes and he didn’t do it, he was destined for an early exit.* I thought the judges had really fallen for Tiffany’s cooking, and she seemed to execute at a very high level until her last episode, but did she ever push the envelope with anything she produced? In hindsight, I think the answer is “no.”
*Also worth noting: The stronger teams on paper in this year’s Top Chef Restaurant Wars episode and the two-team episode of the current season of Project Runway both got smoked by the underdogs.
As for Top Chef: Desserts, as someone who likes cooking desserts even more than I like cooking savory foods, I’m glad to see the sequestering of desserts into their own show, and we already have seen some Voltaggio-like offerings from Seth, who works with a complex, full flavor palate and is pretty clearly unafraid to use it.
Gail Simmons gets her chance to look more beautiful without Padma Laskhmi next to her, and so far they haven’t sabotaged her with ridiculous clothing. Her delivery as a host didn’t work for me in the first episode, though; when she walked in to announce the twist to the quickfire, her “did you really think it would be that easy” came off as obnoxious, even taunting, when they were throwing a pretty nasty wrench into the works for the chefs. Picture Tom Colicchio delivering the same line as a throwaway – “Come on, did you think it would that easy?” – making it seem like a joke that the chefs are in on, a sort of, “Yeah, you know, it’s Top Chef, we like screwing with you” way. I don’t think Gail was trying to taunt anyone, but her delivery was that of a host who’s focused on seeming host-like instead of being charismatic.
I commented on Twitter that the preview of the rest of the season made it look like the show would be a cross between Top Chef and Project Runway, which wasn’t meant as a comment on how, er, fabulous the cast is but on how much more inter-chef drama they showed in the previews. Not to steal a line from Alton, but I’m just here for the food, and I hope they don’t edit in too much of the personality stuff at a cost of showing and talking about the dishes and the techniques at work.
Obligatory ESPN note: I’ll resume regular writing this week, with one piece scheduled for Tuesday and blog items probably five of the next six days, after which I’ll start some instructional league coverage. I will be doing playoff preview pieces for the eight teams that qualify, but they’ll be a little shorter this year so I don’t have to miss instructs while I’m living in the area. I’m also scheduled for a chat on Thursday.