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'Top Chef' finale: Casey dooms Carla, Stefan does dessert, Hosea wins title

February 26, 2009 |  7:05 am

Top_chef_finaleWell, that was an unfortunate finale. Not because Hosea, who won the “Top Chef” title with just three challenge wins under his belt, bested who I thought to be the season’s front-runner, Stefan, and not because Carla made the bad decision of letting Casey call the shots in the kitchen, though that certainly didn’t help.

Did it sadden me to see Stefan prepare a dessert plate I’d expect to see at the kind of restaurant that shops its desserts around on a cart? Definitely. And it was beyond painful to watch Carla second guess herself out of the running, causing her to sob openly in front of the judges. 

But the main reason it all came up underwhelming was because, for the first time, the finale felt tired, uninspired in both the production of the episode and in the food itself.

As always for the final challenge, the finalists were asked simply to cook the best meal they could. Only, this time, none of them brought any special ingredients to work with. We didn’t see any fancy techniques or gadgets that make some chefs giddy. No one talked about the ideas they had coming into the final challenge or what winning would really mean to them. We heard a little bit about why Stefan prepared squab and cabbage, hearty Scandinavian soul food, as it were, but not a whole lot about the thought going into any one else’s dishes.

The dishes themselves, except for the squab, seemed unusually ordinary. Recall the menus: Hosea prepared sashimi, scallops and venison. Stefan also did a raw fish, squab and that unspeakable dessert plate. Carla made bouillabaisse, “meat and potatoes” and a cheese soufflé that never made it to the table.

When I think back on seasons past, I remember a lot more finesse and bigger ideas. I remember (with the aid of online archives) Hung’s sous-vide duck with mushroom ragout and truffle sauce, Ilan’s macadamia-nut gazpacho with pan-roasted moi, and Marcel’s hearts of palm and maitake mushrooms with kaffir lime sauce and sea beans. Even if he didn’t win, I also remember Richard’s banana scallop with bacon ice cream.

I don’t know if these past contestants just wanted to win more, but the level of creativity that’s been on display in previous seasons wasn’t there tonight -- perhaps a reflection of the contestants themselves and the fact that throughout the season none of them, not even Stefan, emerged with signature styles of their own. Last year, Stephanie did refined French cuisine with Asian flair, Richard was the experimental artist, and Lisa concentrated on Asian fusion. This year, Carla talked about putting “love” into her food, Hosea talked a lot about Stefan, and Stefan talked a lot about ... Stefan.

There were some bright spots, of course. The surprise request for a fourth dish, an appetizer, to be cooked with one of three proteins typical of New Orleans -- red fish, crab and alligator -- forced the contestants to put their thinking caps on and resulted in winning courses for all. The squab made me hungry. And the near brawl between Hosea and Stefan over the foie gras and caviar was startling -- were they sharing a brain for the final challenge? Was there little else in the kitchen to work with other than these gimme products?

In general, though, I was bored. Even Colicchio’s final words for the night’s two strongest contenders were unexcited and unexciting: “Hosea, you put together a nice meal. You were very steady across the board. Stefan, you had some amazing highs but you also had a few lows.”

I guess it’s only fair then that Hosea be crowned the winner for being the most “steady” of the three in this most banal of finales. Bring on "Top Chef Masters."

What do you think? Did you enjoy the finale more than I did? Do you think Hosea truly deserved to win?

Don’t forget to join in today’s live chat with host Toby Young at 11 a.m. PST, right here on the Showtracker blog.

-- Denise Martin

Related:
‘Top Chef’s’ Stefan: ‘People are just intimidated by me’
‘Top Chef’: Fabio Viviana goes Italian and exits laughing

Photo: NBC Universal

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