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The ''Top Chef'' finale: We have a winner!

On the season finale of ”Top Chef,” the finalists get some surprising — and not so surprising — help with their last meals; Hung sizzled, Dale fizzled, and Casey crumbled

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Top Chef

TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons
Reality TV

The ”Top Chef” finale: We have a winner!

There were some surprises on the finale of Top Chef. For example, I didn’t know that water won’t reach a rolling boil at high altitudes. And it was unexpected to learn that Top Chef 2 champ Marcel was a friend of Hung’s, or at least plays one on TV. And who would have guessed that in a live-TV situation, Padma would have so little idea of what to do with her hands that she’d devolve into a rotating series of random gestures?

Shockers all. But Hung’s victory? Not so surprising. Sure, he’s been painted as the villain all season long, or rather, he’s painted himself that way with his go-it-alone arrogance. But he’s always been at or close to the top, because you can’t taste a cocky personality. (You can, however, taste a coughy personality. Aspiring chefs, please make that distinction and keep your phlegm out of my soup.)

The final challenge of making a perfect meal with great ingredients was, you might argue, the only legitimate one all season. You can throw all the stunt tasks at the contestants that you want, but none of them is really the test of what you want in a chef. When I’m picking a fancy restaurant for, say, my anniversary, I don’t skim through Zagat’s saying, ”I want to commemorate this special day with a dish made from only items found in the cleaning-solutions aisle of Stop & Shop and cooked on the chest of a feverish colitis patient!”

Casey, Dale, and Hung were faced with a tremendous buffet of raw foods to create their three-course meals, and we were treated to a montage of them biting into various ingredients and making ”Oooooh!” faces. Was this done for the cameras, or are chefs remarkably never jaded when it comes to food, getting giddy with every taste? I’m impressed, and a little envious about such undying passion. I know that if there were a show called Top Writer, a final battle wouldn’t begin with writers licking their keyboards and going, ”Mmmmm! I taste verbiage!” No, it would begin with a row of contestants plunking down in front of their computers with a series of deep, anguished sighs.

The chefs selected their ingredients, created their menus, and then were told to pick knives to select their sous chefs. Expecting old show cast-offs, they were surprised when three all-star cooks — Rocco DiSpirito, Michelle Bernstein, and Todd English — emerged from the gondola as a surprise. This seemed less a crowd-pleasing stunt than an ego boost for the contestants. As an audience member, I don’t want to see great chefs do prep work. That’s like having Tiger Woods caddy. I did hold out hopes for a twist, because when English emerged dressed in all black, I assumed that he was some sort of Chef Dark Lord and that we’d be in for some truly insidious sous-cheffing. But we didn’t get so much as a clogged colander, let alone a complete takeover of the kitchen for nefarious purposes.

It was all very professional and, frankly, a little dull. I know I said all the previous contests were too stunty, but I must admit that their ludicrousness did make them fun to watch, while this race to create a tasty menu felt tedious and, though I couldn’t reproduce a single one of those recipes, strangely predictable. It was Emeril without the Bam. It was somewhat interesting hearing what the chefs had to say in their asides about the finalists’ plans, but it was too many cutting boards, not enough cutting remarks.

Here’s something I found annoying: Right before every commercial break, the pretaped show would cut back to Padma live in the studio, and she’d announce that one of the finalists’ friends and families were there tonight, and the crowd would applaud. And yet the cameras never ever actually cut to the friends and families. She did it three different times for the three different chefs, and each time, no visual aid. I started to wonder whether they were being held hostage: ”Casey’s friends and family are backstage! And if Casey ever wants to see them again, she’ll throw this contest by being a bit free with the cumin!”

But the ultimate twist was announced the next day: In the midst of their final preparations, the contestants were told to create a fourth dish with the aid of the ousted Howie, CJ, and Sara M.! On The Apprentice‘s finale, Trump would always bring back the most troublesome losers to aid the two remaining players, as an alleged test of their steady hand around chaos. It was as if the Top Chef people wanted to do the same thing, but their hearts weren’t totally invested: Howie, sure, but Sara? A more innocuous player you’ll never find. And CJ? I think they only brought the tall contestant back to this high-altitude city so he could have the rare opportunity to ask someone else, ”How’s the weather up there?”

NEXT: Casey burns out

Finally, it was time to serve, and it became instantly clear that this wasn’t going to be Casey’s night. She seemed to be having a big problem with roe; the judges complained about its intrusiveness in two dishes, though when put on the spot at judges’ table, she blamed one of them on Howie. But to be fair, you need to point out two things: (1) those weren’t fish eggs, they were just drops of congealed sweat that had rolled off Howie’s brow, and (2) on a salad they’re usually delicious.

I forgot to mention that recent loser Brian was asked to come to the final dinner, and he couldn’t have looked more out of place. Even his introduction was weird: It was clearly done in postproduction, as Padma sounded different, as if she were reading lines. I suspected that he’d snuck into the meal, and when the producers discovered him in the footage, they had to pretend it wasn’t an accident. He didn’t have much to say during the meal; he just feverishly nodded at others’ opinions. I kept waiting for everyone to shut up and just stare at him until he stood up and cleared the table.

Ultimately, it was Dale and Hung’s food that got all the praise. Both had two dishes that the judges raved about, but both also had their dings: Dale’s gnocchi was deemed inedible, and Hung’s traditional chocolate cake was considered tasty but uninspiring, which is also what one says when served fried Mary-Kate Olsen. As the judges deliberated, Tom pulled for Hung, saying he would always pick an unenterprising but delicious treat over something just awful. I’m not sure if he meant that as a political metaphor, but I suspect that Fox News will be hiring him as an on-air election analyst by Friday.

On the live show, it was Hung who was named Top Chef and feted with the most anemic confetti drop I’ve ever seen on TV. It was as if they’d tethered Rip Taylor to the ceiling and told him to go crazy. (I wouldn’t be surprised if these confetti strips were the leftovers from a challenge left on the cutting-room floor. ”Chefs, you have to feed a cadre of expert tasters with extremely refined palates, and all you’ll have are these knives and this colored paper. You have an hour!”) I respect the decision: Casey was a mess this round, and while Dale kicked partial ass, his cooking had only become remarkable at the tail end of the competition, while Hung was a star throughout. Still, it is interesting that picking Hung over Dale completely goes against Chef Tom’s theory: Didn’t he say that he would always choose the innocuous over a complete failure? I guess once again Hung has to be glad that you can’t taste personality.

What do you think? Did the right person win? Do you think the judge should reward innovative failures or stick to the results? And how many of you are disappointed we don’t have a woman Top Chef?

See why EW’s Ken Tucker made the season finale of Top Chef a Reason to Live this week in Take 5