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'Top Chef' recap: 'Mano a Mano'

There can only be one.

Posted on

David Moir/Bravo

Top Chef

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

It’s a fun exercise to go back and watch a season’s premiere before its finale. Four months ago, we watched 16 nervous chefs arrive in Boston, shuffling awkwardly at their stations. Now we’re in Mexico, with only two remaining in contention. Between then and now, there would be 30-plus challenges, 14 eliminations, four pigs, two if-by-lands, and one winner.   

Although 16 chefs stood ready in the Top Chef kitchen that day, Gregory and Mei were literally the first two chefs we heard from. It’s only fitting that they get the last word.

More often than not, Bravo’s stalwart series manages to get the finale it deserves. Like any competitive reality show, there are always surprises along the way, but in the end, the last chef left standing is usually the most deserving. What was nice about this finale, though, was that it seemed like either result was one that would satisfy us. Even though one chef would emerge victorious from the clash of the titans, this was a can’t-lose scenario for the viewer. I certainly didn’t think I’d be saying that this past October.

After the first few weeks, I wasn’t sure how much I was going to enjoy the Boston cast. They seemed young and pugnacious, engaging in verbal sparring and making food that felt distant and overwrought. Michael was criticizing Tom’s palate. Keriann and Aaron were seconds away from a knife-fight on the line. The only bit of levity we had was Katsuji piling on ingredient after ingredient while the judges looked on incredulously.

But once the excess noise had quieted, we were left with a diverse cast that felt the most evenly matched in years. Coming into tonight’s finale, Gregory and Doug had each won four elimination challenges, Mei and Katsuji had won three, and Melissa had taken two. I can’t remember a time when paring down the field week-after-week got so hard so early. During the season’s final third, it felt like every week a different chef was emergent, and I truly believe there were, in the judges’ minds, four different chefs who could’ve won. Other than Vegas (which had the Voltaggios, Kevin, and Jennifer), has another season ever felt so evenly matched?

Rather than playing at seriousness, the final half-dozen-or-so chefs all had voices and visions for their cuisine. George was traditional, but consistent in his Old World ways. Doug’s rustic cooking took on a boldness fueled by his admitted Napoleon complex. Technique hamstrung Melissa at the outset as she focused more on knife cuts than complete dishes, but part of me still believes she’s the season’s most technically-proficient cook. Either way, this might be the show’s most well-rounded cast.

For that and more, credit has to be given to the producers, who after 12 seasons and almost as many spin-offs, still find ways to keep the show’s recipe sustainable. Old favorites like the mis-en-place race and Restaurant Wars are the show’s signatures, but sudden-death quickfires, judge-selected pantries, and especially the menu-creation-oriented challenge broadened the task at hand for the contestants. The argument could be made that, in times over past years, this show operated as “Top Cook.” This year’s emphasis on the broad expectations of the “chef” title deserves recognition.

NEXT: Sizing up the competitors