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'Top Chef: Las Vegas' finale: In the end, the risks pay off

I'm sure there are quite a few viewers out there who have a morning-after beef with the finale of "Top Chef: Las Vegas."

Although the final three -- and, this season, they were the right three -- were villain-free this time, a Bravo poll taken during Wednesday's season-ending episode revealed that a big 58% of voters wanted that hog-loving, comfort-food-cooking and all-around-nice-guy Kevin to take the crown.

But I gotta say Michael Voltaggio deserved the win. (He was a little bit of a villainous type but didn't approach the Marcel/Stefan/Lisa abrasiveness of past seasons.)

Mike was a hard guy to like. The backward baseball cap. The smack talk. The self-importance. The immaturity. He was the competition's kid brother in every negative sense of the word, and he was more impressed with his own culinary skills than anyone else ever could be. He told us on more than one occasion that Kevin's simple Southern cuisine was the kind of food he might make on his day off.

He also told us incessantly that his food was bold, risky and surprising. He was right.

I'd even add that his food was more bold, risky and surprising than anyone else in "Top Chef" history. (Only Richard Blais might have been even more of a mad scientist in the kitchen.) I'll be the first to admit I'm prone to rooting for "Top Chef's" less likable contestants. I was a fan of Marcel, a sort of egomaniacal predecessor to Mike (though his foams would not stand a chance against the myriad techniques the Voltaggio brothers employed this season). I also rooted for big talkers such as Hung and Stefan because their skills more often than not matched their egos. Mike was a risk taker like the best of them. His dishes didn't always work out, but he never settled. He never played it just to win. He cooked, ultimately, to tickle and please and wow the palate.

Now Kevin certainly could have won. Many would have been thrilled, including me. But even if he had not had an off-night, I still believe Mike was destined to win. Why? The finale is about pulling out all the stops and putting it on a plate. It's not just about making food that will taste really good or cooking your signature dishes to perfection. It's always about having a (near-)blank slate and dreaming up (and cooking the heck out of) dishes that should win $125,000. It's where Kevin and Bryan faltered.

Kevin's first dish was certainly creative and a crowd-pleaser -- I believe Hung also won raves during his season for offering the judges an artery-clogging piece of fried-chicken skin -- but his roasted pork belly looked like a lackluster effort. The judges said it wasn't cooked long enough. Dare I say it was also too simple for the finale? Pork. Brussels sprouts. Broccoli. Jus. It sounds delicious, just not ambitious. Looking back at Kevin's "Top Chef" repertoire, you know he's capable of more; check out what he did in the very first episode! That arctic-char dish had a ton more going on. Kevin also didn't know how to work with the matsutake mushroom in the mystery box, and that was just a plain bad break. The dessert? I am not up with all the food trends, but certainly bacon-and-chocolate combo is a well-worn one. And serving the dessert with a plain old roasted banana? I'd eat it all, and I'd love it, but during this season finale, it didn't stack up with what the Voltaggio boys were offering.

That left Bryan, the "conservative" brother, according to Mike. Bryan said he didn't play it safe, he played it smart. He said the finale wasn't the time to try something new. Not a bad strategy but not a winning one this time. Although it sounded like seasoning was his only real mistake, Gail might have said it best when she described one of his dishes as "uninspired." Everyone loved Bryan's venison, most of all Toby, and even Toby said nothing was particularly memorable about it. And isn't a top dining experience nothing if not one you'll savor and think about long after you've digested it?

Mike said he was anxious for the first time in the competition, but he seemed to operate best under pressure. The spot prawn was a bad choice (has anyone ever done a spot prawn well on "Top Chef"? Someone remind me if it's been done successfully in the comments below). But the broccoli starter he served it with looked interesting, was inspired by a great story and, apparently, tasted pretty good. His sweet-and-sour rockfish turned out better than both Kevin's and Bryan's, period. His fennel-scented squab with pistachio cassoulet was tight and just sounded cool. A bit froufrou, sure, but just try Googling pistachio cassoulet. It's not something he's ripping off from anywhere, and he made it work. He overcooked his cake and the judges still thought it stood up to Bryan's perfectly executed cheesecake with fig sorbet. That's saying a lot.

Mike wins the night for not only out-cooking the other two, but also for having the exact right approach to a final-showdown, winner-takes-all cook-off.

An excellent cap to an excellent season. If they choose amateurs any more talented than these guys next season, they may as well go up against the "Top Chef Masters" chefs. (This season's closer was also way better than last season's ho-hum event.) My only quibble? I prefer final twos. It gives me a better sense of what they're cooking, a better idea of the process in the kitchen and commentary from the judges that is far more thorough. A final three feels like cramming in too much, like I'm not getting a full picture of what goes down in the kitchen and what's said after the meal. A minor complaint.

What did everyone else think? Excited to hear your thoughts. Feel free to tell me why I'm wrong and Kevin deserved to walk away with the title. I'm open! Come back later to read our interview with Mike.

-- Denise Martin

Photo: NBC Universal

Comments () | Archives (38)

I to was surprised by the final 3.Yet through out the contest Bryan and Michael were great it would not be fair to eliminate one or the other.As for Kevin,I liked him a lot but he is not the chef this panel is looking for.To homey and down home.

I truly enjoyed the lack of drama this season,I watch for the culinary skills,not the grandstanding or the inflated egos.

However,what made this season off putting for me was the revealation of Padmas pregnancy,it was unneccesary and offensive to me.The show is about chefs,not about pregnant unmarried judges.Shr could have easily remained seated for the last 3 episodes and no one would have been the wiser.

My main complaint with the finale was the contrivances. Too much nonsense, not enough cooking. I agree that three chefs calls for a longer finale - perhaps 1.5 hours instead of 1.

Also, I'm curious about your take on the whole "created drama" of kicking Kevin out of the room for 5 minutes in order to get a Voltaggio family portrait. That seemed petty and made me cringe.

While I can't answer the question about spot prawn, I have to agree with everything you said...I was cheering first for Byran, second for Mike (I'm from Frederick, MD, too)...I think it was the right choice. Kevin's "simple" food may have been great, but in the finale, you need to bring it ALL. I also agree with having only 2 in the finale or at least make it a longer episode (they've done that this year), so we could get a clearer understanding of what the judges really thought.

Loved this season! I wanted Kevin to win, and thought Michael was totally immature and arrogant throughout the competition, but I do think Michael did the best job last night (even with the overcooked cake). His mystery box dish did seem like the best. That said, I would totally eat at any of these guys' (and Jennifer's) restaurants...

Hard to get past the extreme truth of Bryan's comment: 'Hate to see Michael's bad behavior continue to be rewarded'.

I was actually rooting for Mike for most of the season. He seemed to have a great sense of imagination, and usually executed. I thought that Kevin's dishes, though expertly done, lacked the wow factor.

Did anyone else catch Kevin's comment last night after he was cut that he had started the competition as the underdog? I'm pretty sure he was the front runner for most of the season.

Definitely the best chef's we've seen in a finale thus far! Of course I wanted Kevin to win, who didn't??? I can say without a doubt that throughout the entire season I would have much preferred to eat Kevin's dishes, simple or not. Michael made a mistake more than once when he tried to over-complicate everything.

Sad about the end results :(

I knew all along Michael would win! Yes, people loved Kevin, his food was probably the most relatable, but he did not cook his best last night. He'll get fan favorite and some money for that so don't fret. I don't think of Michael as the "villain" so much as he was just confident (call it cocky if you like but the guy can cook and he did win) as well as brutally honest. I think he's the one that probably made people crack up the most with his deadpan spot-on honest (yes, sometimes harsh) take on the goings on this season. There's something likable in that.

Definitely rooting for Michael this season. I liked the top three. Though Kevin is very talented, his food didn't surprise me as much as Michael's dishes. Sad to see an arrogant guy win, but hey he's a great chef.

Although he was very creative, Michael V was a big JERK all season, making rude comments about most of the other chefs, and acting superior to everyone. He was also a sore loser anytime he didn’t win a challenge. Michael (and some of the other contestants..e.g. Eli) were especially cruel to Robin…mocking her recovery from cancer, and calling her ‘Grandma’ and making other inappropriate and, frankly, discriminatory comments about her age. That behavior should never have been tolerated by the Top Chef producers or the judges. If a chef were to make those kind of agist comments in their kitchens they would be violating Equal Employment laws, and creating a hostile work environment, which is totally unacceptable for an executive chef or anyone in a supervisory position. I am disappointed with Top Chef for not discouraging that behavior, and for airing those inappropriate comments on the show. And for what it’s worth…my favorite was Kevin. He was a talented chef who was able to develop complex flavors with simple ingredients (“less is more”) which I believe requires far more skill and finesse than some of the gimmicks used by the Voltaggio brothers. But all-in-all a good season with a lot of real talent.

Marcel was a villain? He was harassed and bullied all season, held down and his head forcibly shaved. Ilan was the villain that season, among others.

Top Chef can be infuriating but also great fun. I have never enjoyed Padma and feel she adds nothing that someone really knowledgeable with food and still charming with guests couldn't offer easily. Tom C has mellowed out and I have come to appreciate him especially when he makes weird faces if he thinks the chefs are way off base. How long before the Britt is sent home to Merry England?

The right man won last night although I was cheering for the V Bros Show to go down. Why? Kevin cooks what I would love to eat on a regular basis and he proved himself to be someone I would share a kitchen happily with. ( who can be against this chubby porkologist?) I would love to taste the food of the V Bros but I probably would not a regular at their tables. Michael was too annoying for me to celebrate him. Brian is an excellent chef and will have a fine career. I thought he would win.

The format for the final was exasperating.
1) There was not enough time dedicated to watching them cook and seeing the process they used to manage the kitchen with their former competitors. 2)Why was there no recognition that Kevin would have had better luck grabbing any homeless person to help him instead of who he got? That surely influenced his choice of menu and the execution! Each of the brothers got chefs that had a chance to win.
3)In each show I like to hear the view of every judge and every guest on every dish. In the finale I think that should have been mandatory - just extend the show to 1 1/2 hrs.
4)86 Padma - please especially now that she will have a spawn!

Michael is the type of chef other highly sophisticated chefs and critics would love. Kevin is the type of chef that regular people would love. I can see myself enjoying Kevin's food considerably more than Michael V's. That's not to insult Michael, it's just clear that he's never found a complicated technique he doesn't like. I've never been into that. I look for taste first, complexity second and presentation/style a distant third.

You can see evidence of this in Michael's elitist statements regarding Kevin, and I'm sure some of that "food snobbery" went into the decision of the judges. High-end chefs and food critics want things that seem challenging and innovative, even if those dishes are not as flavourful as more conservative food.

That's not to disrespect Michael, who clearly had an impressive array of skills. I just think with a different panel, Kevin could have easily taken the competition. He'll win fan favorite for sure and I'm sure his resturant business has/will explode.

Stephanie won Top Chef because of the bold good tasting flavor revealed in the pistachio infused dish she presented near the end of the cook off segment of the finals. Her pistachio dish propelled her to victory. Did Mike have her pistachio dish in mind when he prepared his pistachio cassoulet?

I loved this season! I liked all 3 of them. I was rooting for Kevin at first, but he just seemed frazzled for the finale and I don't think he had enough trust in his sous chefs and that didn't help him. I would have liked to see Bryan win over Michael, but Michael did have great dishes. Michael was arrogent, cocky and full of himself the entire time, but he did deserve his win! Sorry Kevin & Bryan but......Congrats Michael! :)

It was indeed wonderful to have these three in the finals ... Jennifer would have been a nice fourth.

I am curious why the producers tossed the sous chef wild card into this. It was grossly unfair to add randomness to the most important competition of the season.

There was enough pressure without be paired with a weak contestant versus a stronger one (think Eli and Jennifer).

It's not to say the result would have been different, but ...

at Klachy Kitchen
atErica Stephans

Very surprised to see you write about Padma as you have; she's been a big part of the show's success, and she has loads of class and charm in all the areas that count.

Nobody cares how she fits in your view of motherhood.

I have to say I am surprised and a bit saddened by the opinions in the comments and off this story.

Watching the episode, I was rooting for Bryan or Kevin, although I expected Mike to win.

When it came down to it, the comments by the judges seem assuredly swayed toward Bryan. He made the best main course with the venison and his only knock was that he didn't season his first two dishes enough. One judge even liked his first dish better that way.

Mike had a suberb second dish and glamored his main course, but Gail said he screwed up on the aspects of it besides the squab.

And the desert. He screwed up. That is two episodes in a row where he screwed up and excuses were made for him by the judges. Jennifer really had no critques on her food in the previous episode but seemingly was sent home because she let the coals go out on the stove and had to cook her duck differently while Mike completely messed up a dish.

In this episode, he overcooked the dessert. A huge mistake that in other seasons would have automatically eliminated him. Yet all the judges did was make excuses by saying if he had done it correctly it would have been great. Well, yeah, we can assume that about every chef. If they cooked it to perfection, it would be great, but he didn't so you lose.

For what was a GREAT season with some of the best chefs yet, it was a very disappointing finale. So much so, I may not invest in another season of Top Chef.

I have no problem with Michael's victory. I would have been fine with any of the final three (or Jennifer) winning the competition, because they were all worthy. That said, I would be most likely to patronize Kevin's restaurant - although I really, really wanted to eat that venison Bryan prepared last night.

The comment mentioning Tom C's "confused face" is right-on. If you are in the bottom three, you never want to see Tom's furrowed brow.

Denise, you make a fine summary of the season finale. Some of the comments submitted by your readers, however, are way out there. While it is fair to call Michael 'arrogant' has anyone seen Gordon Ramsey in action? It's a term that easily applies to many great chefs... like Tom Colicchio, perhaps.

Overall, I thought the contestants were respectful and supportive of each other. By comparison, has anyone seen Project Runway? Robin was far more irritating to me than the pregnant Padma, who I dearly missed while enduring Kelly Choi's turn hosting Top Chef Masters. Erica, what's offensive about a pregnant woman? Maybe next season we will be treated to Padma breast-feeding! Her hair was a bit weird, that's all.

The format of the show works for me with three contestants at the end. However, more time devoted to the food as it is being prepared and better coverage of the judges comments would certainly improve the viewing experience.

While Kevin was my personal favorite, like others in past finales, he didn't bring his full game to the table. And bacon on a banana attested to his admitted lack of skill with desserts. Call it luck of the draw, or whatever, but the best chef won.

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