'Top Chef' Finale Is Serious Business

I'll admit it. Unlike Serious Eats's Harold Check (who will shortly give you his blow-by-blow, cut-by-cut take on the finale), Anthony Bourdain, and almost everyone else I know, I've never gotten hooked on Top Chef.

But after reading Frank Bruni's piece in the New York Times yesterday, in which he compared the celebrity chef judges on the show to Charo and the other has-been show business types appearing as regulars on Hollywood Squares, I resolved to watch the Top Chef finale last night with a clear eye and a relatively clean food reality television palate (full disclosure: I do watch Iron Chef occasionally and have appeared on the show a few times as a judge). [Note: There are no spoilers after the jump. Proceed with abandon.]

Here is Bruni's conclusive paragraph:

But the celebrity chefs who do cameos on the Top Chef judging panel, greeted by awe-struck stares from those contestants, recall the actors and actresses of The Hollywood Squares. They're transmitting their fungible star wattage, and they're a long way from their supposed day jobs.

What I watched last night were three clearly talented young chefs cooking their butts off for a set of mostly well-qualified judges, with no would-be Joan Rivers in sight. <!-- Bruni agrees. "At its heart Top Chef remains a show about cooking, the triumphs and pratfalls of its contestants yielding lessons about the way ingredients go together and why a dish succeeds or not." -->In fact Top Chef last night was pretty damn riveting, smartly executed, competition reality television.

So where's Bruni's beef?

To find out, let's break down exactly what happened on Top Chef last night:

Casey, Dale, and Hung basically got to cook exactly the meal they wanted. The challenges were as follows:

  • They found themselves in the kitchen with heavyweight celebrity chefs Todd English, Rocco DiSpirito, and Miami-based Michelle Bernstein lending them a hand. Yes, I'm sure it must have made them nervous initially, but they quickly got over it. To Bruni's point that the celebrity chef judges don't spend much time in the kitchen anymore, it must be noted here that, in DiSpirito's case, his stint as sous chef on last night's show may have been the first time in awhile that he found himself cooking serious food with other talented chefs. There was a funny moment when English, who has never been accused of being a minimalist chef, worries out loud that one of the contestants has too much going on in his dishes.
  • At the last moment, head judge Tom Colicchio calls them all out of the kitchen to announce their final challenge: All three chefs have to prepare an extra course in the alloted time aided by one of their former Top Chef contestants.

The final meals were spectacular to look at, remarkably well-executed, and in a couple of cases so delicious-looking I wanted to put a fork through my television, namely Dale's lamb with deconstructed ratatouille and Hung's "fish and chips" appetizer—hamachi and potatoes. All three finalists, Casey, Dale, and Hung, successfully created (for the most part) smartly conceived and executed dishes on the fly and showed that, indeed, as Colicchio pointed out, they had bright futures ahead.

When the judges, Colicchio, host Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons, Ted Allen (an intelligent, articulate fellow who doesn't appear to know much about food), English, Bernstein, and one of last year's contestants, talked about the food among themselves and with the contestants, they invariably had smart and measured things to say. There was no Simon Cowell–like gratuitous nastiness and no Paula Abdul–like overly sentimental silliness. Yes, to Bruni's point, Colicchio is opening new restaurants on both coasts and is therefore spending less time in his far-flung kitchens, but he certainly knows his stuff when it comes to food, and he engaged in very little grandstanding while I was watching.

The bottom line is that just about every super-talented chef judge we have seen on Top Chef, from Colicchio to Daniel Boulud, from English to Eric Ripert, has the opportunity to realize their far-flung ambitions as a result of their celebrity status. The days of an André Soltner (Lutèce in New York) having one restaurant and literally living "over the store" are gone forever, whether we like it or not. If ultimately that means we will now judge celebrity chefs as managers and business people instead of chefs behind a stove, so be it. Some will undoubtedly succeed, and some will fail (I beg you, Tom, make the eggs in the egg sandwich at 'wichcraft to order). All of us can be the judge and vote with our tastebuds and ultimately our wallets.

But I didn't see anything on last night's show that had much to do with slightly stale celebrities phonily answering questions on Hollywood Squares. Colicchio, English, and Bernstein are clearly still growing as chefs and creative business people, and they will not be relegated to the celebrity-chef scrap heap anytime soon. They have not become Charo, Paul Lynde, or Joan Rivers quite yet.

Correction I reread Bruni's piece again, and I feel compelled to right a wrong here. Frankly, I misread his story. He was not equating the celebrity chef judges on Top Chef with the has-been showbiz types who appear on Hollywood Squares. He was merely making the point that what these chefs do appear on Top Chef as mere celebrity scenery they are in fact moving further and further away from cooking, which is what made them famous in the first place. I stand corrected.