Oh, Toby Young. Have truer words ever been spoken? Top Chef huffed and puffed its way to the bitter end last night, but rather than granting long-suffering viewers climactic relief, it delivered a finale that was more akin to watching a bull try to impregnate an indifferent cow. There was much laborious effort, some grunting, and then it was all over.
After engaging in a modicum of breakfast table banter, Michael, Bryan, and Kevin journeyed to a nearby vineyard, where they were greeted by a glowering Tom and Padma, who informed them that they’d be cooking a three-course meal with as many twists as the average loaf of challah.
Twist No. 1: They’d receive a “mystery box” full of ingredients they had to use for their second course. Twist No. 2: They’d each get two sous chefs chosen from their erstwhile fellow contestants, who materialized, Day of the Dead-like from amongst the grapevines, grinning mechanically. Jen got the unhappy task of presenting the boys with a box of knives emblazoned with the contestants’ names, and looked like she wanted to stab herself with one of them.
After drawing Preeti and Ash, Kevin also looked like he wanted to stab himself, and confessed somewhat tactfully that he worried about “Preeti’s skill set.” Bryan drew Jen and Ashley, while Michael drew Eli and Jesse, who had finally stopped crying and decided to peroxide her hair. Kevin admitted in a most un-Kevinly fashion that he was jealous of his competitors, but then everybody was leveled by the challenge of figuring out what to do with a mystery box full of Pacific rockfish, Dungeness crab, anise hyssop, kabocha squash, and possibly some of Tom’s gym clothes.
Kevin fumed over Preeti’s skill set as she chopped a carrot as slowly as she’d shucked a pile of oysters, while Bryan and Michael again took the opportunity to subtly undermine one another. “Bryan’s more conservative than I am,” Michael said. “I wouldn’t say I’m playing it safe. I’d say I’m playing it smart,” Bryan retorted. We get it. You’re siblings. Yet you’re rivals! Wherever could this be leading?
Straight to twist no. 3, of course: Hey, it’s mom, here to provide emotional room service for their boys! Kevin’s mother, who looked exactly like her son, minus the beard, confided that her kid could beat both Bryan and Michael as old photos of him and his incipient facial hair flashed across the screen. Bryan and Michael’s mother buttoned her sons’ coats as viewers were treated to old pictures of towheaded boys in striped turtlenecks. “I’m going to fight to the very last dish!” Kevin proclaimed, as if he was preparing to depart for Afghanistan instead of a well-appointed Napa restaurant kitchen.
Twist No. 4, of course, came courtesy of mom: As their first and now fourth course, the chefs would have to make a dish inspired by a favorite childhood dish. Bryan decided to make tuna noodle casserole because his mom’s helped him “develop his sense of texture,” which is possibly the nicest thing that’s ever been said about tuna casserole.
In the dining room, Padma, Tom, Gail, and Toby were joined by the moms, Douglas Keane, and a bunch of sinister-looking people from the restaurant and wine industries; Stephen Starr in particular looked like he’d whetted his appetite for the meal with barbecued kittens.
For the first course, Bryan served sardine with German butterball potato, heirloom tomato and panko bread crumbs to his startled-looking mother, who confessed she’d never eaten a sardine before. Kevin served southern fried chicken skin with squash casserole and tomato, and Michael served a terrifying-sounding cream of dehydrated broccoli with fried broccoli and spot prawns.
Tom liked Kevin’s squash, while Toby bemoaned the lack of seasoning in Bryan’s sardine. Donatella Arpaia called out Michael’s undercooked shrimp, and then the moms were dismissed so the judges could more freely savage their offspring.
For the second course, Michael’s dashi-glazed rockfish with sweet and sour crab salad, squash, and Meyer lemon got some serious loving from Tom. One of the restaurant men compared Bryan’s rockfish sous vide with kabocha squash with curry and Meyer lemon to a “blind date you just don’t want to go on,” perhaps because he didn’t want to make awkward small talk with a fish. Kevin’s Pacific rockfish with roasted squash and crab broth was tragically undermined by a tough matsutake mushroom.
Kevin also ran into problems with his third course, slow-roasted pork belly with Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and caramelized ham jus, which the judges declared too tough. Michael fared better with his fennel-scented squab breast with pistachio cassoulet and “textures” of mushrooms, though Donatella wisely deemed it too gimmicky. There was a lot of love for Bryan’s venison saddle with puree of sunchokes and orange juniper sauce.
And finally, thank god, finally, it was time for dessert. Stephen Starr called foul on Kevin’s decision to use bacon in his toasted banana with chocolate bacon mousse and peanut bacon brittle (so first quarter 2009!), and everyone agreed that Michael’s vulcanized-looking chocolate caramel coulant with butternut squash ice cream and butternut brulee was a wee bit overcooked. Bryan’s dulce de leche cheesecake with fig sorbet was the big winner: Gail looked like she was about to climb right out of her dress.
At the judges’ table, Padma, brimming with the emotion of a section of particle board, declared that the dinner was “an amazing end to an amazing season.” Toby criticized the restraint in Bryan’s dishes, waxed poetic over Michael’s “flavor bomb” matsutake mushroom, and hated on Kevin’s pork belly: “You’ve got a pig tattooed on your body; I thought it was going to be an absolute knock-out, and it wasn’t.” Padma, in a tone reminiscent of the world’s most indifferent elementary school teacher, asked the contestants “why you think you deserve to be Top Chef.” A love of food and bad grades in high school were cited. And then they were dismissed.
Much nitpicking followed. The chefs returned to learn that one of them would be Top Chef (really?), with a prize furnished by the “Glad family of products.” And then Kevin got the boot and his beard and 58 percent of the show’s viewers nearly started crying. Kevin took refuge in the arms of his mother. She kissed the bald spot on his head, a gesture that almost made the entire season worth watching.
And then, in a moment that seemed pretty much predetermined since episode 1, the judges milked the Voltaggio sibling rivalry to its last sour drop before finally declared Michael the winner. Weirdly, though, it didn’t feel like much of a victory. There were some back-slapping man hugs, tears, and glasses of wine, and Bryan said something about being proud of his brother. But there were no declarations of joy. Though Michael confided he “didn’t know you could feel every single emotion all at once,” he didn’t really seem to be showing any one of them. And so viewers, too, were denied any sort of emotional release, and left with a vaguely unfulfilled feeling as the credits rolled. And then a show about aspiring fashion designers came on, and the past 13 weeks began to fade like some kind of anise hyssop-scented fever dream.