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

December 10, 2009 |  6:18 am

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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

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