A chef who's apparently incapable of running a functional kitchen won the title; and Tom Colicchio made it happen.

By Stephan Lee
February 06, 2014 at 07:01 AM EST
David Moir/Bravo
S11 E17
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Who else wanted to throw a turkey baster at the TV — or better yet, at Tom Colicchio’s head — after the winner of Top Chef: New Orleans was revealed? Yes, I had a strong opinion on who should have won before the finale even aired (as is my right as a viewer of television), but there were plenty of objective indications that the wrong person won. And it was mostly Tom Colicchio’s fault.

Usually, when the show introduces the chefs’ family members, it makes me like them more, but in the case of Nicholas, it didn’t change my opinion. It confirmed that he’s had people repeatedly telling him he was the greatest even as evidence suggested otherwise.

Throughout the season, Nicholas has screamed and hurled unfounded accusations at his fellow chefs. During tonight’s challenge and others, Nicholas threw tantrums and damaged other people’s reputations in order to make himself look blame-free. Nicholas, who often feigns humility, knows that if you scream at someone in front of other people, and things end up going wrong, you can always pin your failure on the person you yelled at (and humiliated publicly). By belittling people around him, he could safeguard himself in case he lost (“Ugh, if only I had better servers!” “If only Carlos or an invisible kitchen imp hadn’t turned up the temperature on my oven!”). I felt sorry for the servers Nicholas maligned tonight.

Alright, let’s cool down and finish this. At the top of the episode, Padma emerged from the Maui surf in a bright red bikini — it was her Ursula Andress/Halle Berry moment. She then paraded a bunch of previously eliminated contestants in front of Nicholas and Nina. As the winner of the previous episode’s challenge, Nicholas got to pick his three helpers first: of course Jason, whose arrogance matches his own, then Louis and Brian. It wasn’t much of an advantage because Nina got her three first choices: Shirley, Stephanie, and Travis.

Each of the teams had to take over a restaurant for a night and prepare a four-course meal. As they bought ingredients and prepped, Tom visited each kitchen. I loved that Tom openly threw shade when Nicholas told him that his first team pick was Jason. Tom: “Really?” Jason: “You have to say it like that?” Tom: “Yeah, I did.” SHADE SHADE SHADE. In Nina’s kitchen, Tom questioned her decision to make a simple last-minute dessert after she found out her kitchen didn’t have an ice cream maker — but Nina was wise to Tom’s mind games. If she hadn’t put a dessert on the menu, Tom would have asked where it was.

NEXT: “I’ll tell you exactly how I want stuff done.” Guess who said that?On the day of service, Nicholas ruled over his service team like some sadistic drill sergeant. He was sooooo ready to start yelling from the get-go he could taste it. He was just looking for reasons and he found them easily. Yeah, Nicholas, that’s the sign of an awesome person — treat people who have no choice but to listen to you like garbage and make them look incompetent on national television. Creating a hostile work environment doesn’t actually make people perform better.

For the service, the judges split into two groups so the chefs were forced to serve up consistent food throughout different times of the night. (For purposes of clarity, I’ll group all the judges’ comments together). We started with Nina‘s restaurant, which blended her island roots with new Italian techniques. Before the first course, she served a delightful-looking bread course with breadfruit and a whipped foie gras butter with curry salt on top. It may or may not have counted as an actual course, but Tom and Gail loved it.

Nina’s actual first course was a tuna and escolar tartare with tomato water and jalapeno. Tom loved that you could taste the island in the basil and chili threads. The second course was one of the most popular of the night: an orrechiette with roasted goat sugo, cherry tomato confit, and whipped goat cheese. Hugh called it “sublime.”

The third course was the first misstep. Nina’s spice-rubbed swordfish had great flavor, but the dish was lacking some crunch. Then Nina saved things with a simple intermezzo, which was super-pretty and fun to look at, like a weird sushi popsicle. It was a compressed dragon fruit and frozen papaya skewer. It wasn’t one of the actual courses, but as one of the judges said, “It’s a little something extra.” Lastly, her dessert predictably didn’t go over great. Her chocolate zeppole was tasty but a bit small. If Nina had been more like Nicholas, she would have yelled at the ice cream maker for failing to exist.

Now over to Nicholas‘ restaurant, where he started the night off by screaming at his service staff about plate placement. All season long, he struggled with underseasoning his dishes, and his first course — a crudo of hamachi and tuna — needed more salt, which all the judges agreed on. The second course, spearheaded by Jason, was an over-thought dish of shrimp bisque and scallop noodles. Some members of Tom’s group seemed to love the dish, but the others didn’t.

NEXT: The judges can hear you yelling!Nicholas’ duck course ended up having to be cooked twice. Emeril’s duck was chewy, but Tom’s was “really good.” After berating some young female servers about spoons, Nicholas passive-aggressively called them “lovely” with a purposely disingenuous smile in front of the judges. His panna cotta was an attempt to redeem himself for the panna cotta that should have gotten him eliminated earlier in the season. The cream on Hugh and Padma’s dessert hadn’t set yet. Tom said there was too much gelatin, but he still liked it.

At one point during the service, the judges heard Nicholas shrieking at people in the kitchen. It made for an uncomfortable moment. When the servers said Table 9 (a non-judge table) didn’t get their orders yet, Nicholas yelled, threw up his hands, and said, “Nope, I just lost.” No, Nicholas, the servers didn’t lose anything for you. Had you lost, your terrible behavior and under-seasoning would have lost it for you. You were just giving yourself someone else to blame.

Something weird was going on at the Judges Table. Everyone agreed that the chefs were great overall, but both made mistakes. The consensus showed that they preferred Nina for the first two courses but Nicholas for the third and fourth, but Tom seemed to be doing nothing but defending Nicholas. I didn’t take issue with Tom for preferring Nicholas’ dishes — after all, I wasn’t there — but his way of debating the issue seemed a bit bullying. Hugh, Padma, and maybe Emeril seemed to be leaning toward giving Nina the win, but Tom acted like Nicholas winning was a foregone conclusion. When Hugh in particular suggested otherwise, Tom looked at him like he was stupid as if to ask, “Is there really a question?” — as if his own opinion couldn’t possibly be wrong.

Back in the stew room, Nicholas infuriated me by saying to Nina, “Well, it didn’t happen.” Nina: “What?” Nicholas: “I had to be perfect to beat you.” Just in case anyone was mistaking that for humility, it was NOT. That’s Nicholas trying to look like the underdog so that if he lost, he could just shrug sadly, but if he won, he could do that whole dropped-jaw thing and make it look like some dramatic come-from-behind victory.

Sure enough, Tom got his way and Nicholas won. The shot of Tom’s satisfied smile as Nicholas celebrated was quite annoying. It looks like in a battle between men vs. women (Travis not withstanding), Tom came down on the side of the men.

Good LORD that was a sloppy kiss Nicholas planted directly on his mother’s unsuspecting lips.

(By the way, I know I’m being harsh, and editing plays a role, but based on what’s been shown to us in the finale and all season, I think Nina was the better chef and leader in the kitchen).

Should the judges have taken Nina’s “extras” into consideration? Should Nicholas’ shouting have been taken into consideration? Did you think Tom threw his weight around at the final Judges Table? Is Nicholas the least likable winner since Hosea? Was anyone happy that Jason got more screen time? He sure was.

Ugh, let’s just move on and pretend Nina and Shirley squared off in the finale and they both won and Shirley bought an A/C unit for her family. Until next time…

Tom, Padma, and Gail tell the cheftestants to pack their knives and go.
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