Long-term success can buy you many things — often quite literally. But it can also make you bored and sloppy in all the wrong ways. You start making changes just for the sake of making them. You attempt to fix things that are a long way from broken. This is how you end up with New Coke or Rebirth or Michael Jordan, strikeout machine. It's how you end up with a finale like Top Chef did last night.
How else to explain the near-disastrous decision-making on display? Just a week after I praised the veteran food competition for always considering contestants "solely on the strength of their cooking," the producers chucked their winning format in the garbage like so many burnt pig ears. In its place we were served something both unwanted and unexpected: an overheated, painfully dulled version of Iron Chef. Instead of excitement, it was hard not to feel sorry for Kristen Kish and Brooke Williamson, the two totally deserving, totally shellshocked finalists, as they were pitted against each other in a garish kumite that treated both their talents and the audience's comprehension the way a Vitamix treats an overripe tomato. Instead of cooking the "meal of their lives," the two gifted chefs were forced to cook as if their lives depended on it, racing breathlessly to push out 68 plates (!) of each course, and then stand, sweating like salted eggplants, while it was judged on a nuance-free up and down vote, separated by time and context from what came before or after. It was loud and it was dumb. Kristen won, but we all lost.
Twelve hours later, I'm still frustrated. The reliable genius of Top Chef over the years has been the way it allowed the reality TV frippery necessary for such a pricey, multi-tentacled production — the knife-less Quickfires, the blind taste tests, absolutely everything involving Healthy Choice frozen meals — to fall slowly away as the season progressed. By the finale, the contestants had nothing left to protect them but their abilities, creativity, and drive — not even the Glad family of products remained to lock in freshness™. The long season was a marathon of survival; the final challenge a simple sprint of skill. It's ironic that in the same boneheaded quest to reduce the drama to nothing but the food, Magical Elves (the usually savvy team behind the scenes) made the same blunder as the goonish chancers responsible for The Taste. Eliminating the familiar beats of a Top Chef finale — the long walks considering the menu, the choosing of the sous chefs, the all-night deliberations of the judges — wasn't cutting fat, it was cutting flavor. The best Top Chef episode of all-time was, to my mind, the hour in the All-Stars season when the remaining five met with family on Ellis Island, then cooked from their heritage and their hearts. It was proof positive that there's a difference between manufactured human interest pap — like whatever it was poor Gail Simmons was forced to do at the "family tables" last night — and the actual thought, care, and process that go into great cooking. Misunderstanding that is the same mistake made by people who don't like cilantro: It's not soapy, it's delicious.
I have no beef, raw or cooked, with Kristen's victory, despite her being (unjustly) eliminated some weeks back. "Last Chance Kitchen," while obviously a cynical, traffic-generating stunt, has also been a fascinating glimpse into the weird media divide between the "real" show we watch on our TV and the extended afterlife that exists in countless recaps, blogs, and tweets. Watching Kristen emerge from the untelevised underworld back into the main fray last week was like some 21st century version of the Orpheus myth, only this time our heroine successfully resisted looking over her shoulder and losing her microplane grater for all eternity. I can't help but wonder, though, if the desperate frenzy of the "Last Chance Kitchen" challenges — all of which seemed to be, more or less, "cook this fish really fast and make Tom Colicchio happy" — helped her in the flash-bomb of the finale. Kristen's plates and, we can infer, flavors were consistently as understated, lovely, and refined as she was. This gave her a distinct advantage last night and, in many ways, an unfair one over her equally deserving rival. Brooke's style — the style that carried her through the competition with the kind of artful, intellectual grace not seen since the tattoo canvas with tweezers known as Michael Voltaggio — simply wasn't suited for such a rushed, noisy arena. You could make the argument that she should have adjusted for the conditions of the field, but why? Even Richard Blais, the most inventive and successful Top Chef contestant in history, would have shorted out the studio with his smoke gun in the first five minutes. The point of getting this far was to do your best, not make do.
In the end, it was Top Chef's remarkable commitment to honesty that did the most dramatic damage. Once it was announced that the five-course meal would be reduced to a simple numbers game — take three courses and the title's yours — the fix was in. Or rather, it wasn't. On blustery nonsense like Hell's Kitchen, all head-to-head competitions miraculously come down to the final bite. But Top Chef stands apart for always allowing its esteemed judges to make their decisions free from the meddling of a sizzle-starved network. When Emeril Lagasse, hunched over Kristen's plate of bone marrow like a heavy, listing crockpot, declared "I just loved all those earthy tones," it was clear he meant it. (It's also clear he could have subbed for Naomi Wolf in advising the Gore campaign.) But when, with 10 minutes to go and Kristen leading two courses to one, we were suddenly served bland filler toasting the success of previous winners (and suffering a renewed bout of heartburn over Hosea, the biggest fluke in history not to be pulled from the icy waters of the Long Island Sound), it was also clear that there would be no just dessert. Kristen was crowned Top Chef on the back of an unfinished meal. I'm thrilled that she won but, after an hour devoid of both excitement and sweets, the way it happened left a sour taste in my mouth.
Thankfully, the blunt geniality that makes Tom Colicchio such a trustworthy presence on camera continues off of it. This morning he tweeted his own dissatisfaction with the new format and expressed "doubt" that it'll ever happen again. It's a relief. On a television table stacked high with "semi-homemade" shortcuts and genetically modified drama, Top Chef stands apart for its devotion to taking cooking if not seriously, than at least respectfully. Nearly everyone affiliated with this show can cut it, regardless of when or whether they packed their knives and left. There's a reason its past winners have had real and lasting success away from the heat of Quickfires and studio lights. Hopefully Kristen's crown will eventually stand apart from the messy hash Magical Elves and Bravo made of its ceremony, in the same way Jennifer Lawrence's Oscar will one day be mentioned without the stumble that preceded it. As for next year, I think Top Chef learned the same basic lesson its judges repeatedly tell the contestants: Stay true to yourself and don't stray too far from your comfort zone. It may infuriate a real chef, but when a customer sends something back to the kitchen, you have no choice but to refire it and get it right.