Top Chef 12 – Finale

2006.May.30 Tuesday · 0 comments

in Books & Other Media

Buenos Aires – I know, I’ve kept you in heart-wrenching, breath-held suspense for nearly a week. Harold won. That’s the short version. There’s not even much of a long version. It came down to two things – cooking skill and personality. The judges claimed that “this isn’t a popularity contest” – that was after the four last contestants who were eliminated were brought back to assist Harold and Tiffani in their final cooking challenge and asked who they’d prefer to work for. Three of them picked Harold, the fourth, Stephen, hinted that while he’d prefer Harold, he thought “it might be more interesting to work with Tiffani as it’ll be more challenging.” She also got saddled with Dave, her arch-nemesis in the competition. Harold got Lee Anne and Miguel – one dream team member and one solid assistant. It was sort of a foregone conclusion unless he did something really stupid or she did something amazing. And while “popular” may not have been a criterion, obviously the ability to inspire and lead a team of assistants is part of being a top chef, and it played a part in the final scoring.

He didn’t do anything stupid. He cooked safely, his usual style, taking no risks, and paying attention to detail and making sure everything was cooked right and presented beautifully. Tiffani knew what she was up against and decided to pull out the big guns. They were to cook a five course tasting menu for eight judges. She chose to cook two separate five course tasting menus, for four judges each, showing off her talents with ten dishes in total. And each course was a different treatment of the same main ingredient. Oh, and they had to be paired with wines from Lorraine Bracco’s Italian winery (yes, the actress). Strangely, she made some odd choices in her wine pairings. I say strangely because she had Stephen, the sommelier, on her team. I have to give her top accolades for throwing caution to the wind and going that route, it’s the sort of stunt I might think of pulling being put in that kind of position, knowing what I was up against. I’m not sure I would have attempted it given the two assistants, either of which could easily have sabotaged the whole thing just out of spite. (They didn’t.) They also had a few industry heavyweights on the panel to deal with – Drew Nieporent, owner of the Myriad restaurant group in New York; Michael Mina, chef and owner of several San Francisco and Las Vegas restaurants; and Dana Cowen, editor in chief of Food & Wine magazine.

It was once again interesting reading Tom and Gail’s blogs after the show to see some of the behind the scenes stuff. For example, finding out that they never got to see the one-on-one interviews with the contestants until after the entire twelve episodes were over so as to avoid influencing them on personal issues. That the scoring was actually done with a numerical point system, not just the on camera opinions stated, and that much of what they said had been cut out. Not that editing is a surprise, but apparently at times things were edited to make it look like someone else should have won so that the judges’ decisions seemed to come out of left field. That Bravo didn’t like some of their decisions and wanted different outcomes but Tom and Gail refused to budge if they were going to remain with the show (brings up the whole question of usual “reality shows” and the judging decisions though, doesn’t it?). And, that in the end, they felt that, and here’s where her risk didn’t pay off, Tiffani’s five best dishes easily topped Harold’s five in the finale, but because she also had five other dishes that didn’t, her average score came out lower than his. That’s one of the chances you take when you go a riskier path.

Truthfully, in the end, I was semi-rooting for Tiffani, just because Harold was playing it so safe, and cocky, and she was clearly pouring herself into each dish. It also just seemed so completely unfair that she was saddled with the two assistants she got – not because they’re not good, but because of the chance given their relationships that they might undermine her efforts. Stephen was notorious for not getting things done and disappearing when needed – he didn’t this time. Dave and she never got along, and continued not to in this episode, but he played it professionally, and in fact, the two desserts he made for her menu (completely, at least on camera and according to him, his own creations, though she claimed in the judging interview that they were collaborations) were complete knockouts that the judges unanimously loved. They both also showed up drunk, and late, after an all nighter of partying, and Dave continued to drink during the show, even objecting to Tiffani telling him that while she didn’t mind his drinking (she should have), he couldn’t keep his wineglass on the station as it was a safety risk – something any kitchen beginner learns. I was also a little surprised to see Harold downing airline minis of Bombay Sapphire throughout the challenge, huddled in a corner on the floor – a side of him that hadn’t been shown before – claiming he was “steadying his nerves.” I’ve always hated working with chefs who drink (and I don’t mean sipping at an occasional glass of wine that the sommelier brings back for them to try) while on the line – it tends to bring out bad personality traits (screaming tantrums happen a whole lot more with drunk chefs), plus stupid mistakes get made and missed.

So, kudos to Harold for winning, and much as I may not have liked Tiffani’s personality, and think she has a long way to go to lead any kind of team (if she ever realizes just how off base she is in the human interaction world), if things were judged purely on creativity and quality of cooking, she’d have deserved to win.

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