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'Top Chef': Slow and steady wins the race

September 15, 2010 | 10:30 pm

Remember the fable about the tortoise and the hare?

Kevin Sbraga certainly does.

In what some might have seen as an upset victory (but we suggested was a strong possibility nearly a month ago) New Jersey’s affable Kevin won the title of “Top Chef” in the season’s finale Wednesday, proving that slow and steady can sometimes beat a whole lot of flash.

Not that Kevin’s cooking wasn’t exemplary. But when the arguably more creative Angelo Sosa overreached (his duck dish was too complicated by half) and the usually balanced Ed Cotton phoned in his dessert (which looked like a cafeteria sheet cake with some froufrou accompaniments), Kevin’s evenly excellent four-course meal clipped his challengers at the finish line.

Over the course of Season 7’s 14 episodes, Kevin won just one elimination challenge—way back in episode six, he triumphed with his tuna and veal with romaine leaves, pine nuts and Mediterranean condiments. Ed won twice as many elimination tests just in the last three weeks. What’s more, Kevin on five separate occasions was judged to have had one of the worst elimination dishes, making him shortlisted for ejection more often than Angelo and Ed combined.

Yet when it most mattered, Kevin didn’t falter at all.

It’s easy to say that Kevin was helped immensely before he even started dicing vegetables in the season finale, when through a random knife draw he was paired with last season’s winner, the exemplary Michael Voltaggio, as his sous chef. Angelo (as he wanted) was joined by third season victor Hung Huynh, while Ed was joined by second season champion Ilan Hall.

Both Ilan and Hung are fantastic chefs, but Michael, who once worked with Kevin, not only knows the judges’ tastes better but also can plate a dish with unmatched artistry. If you were playing a pick-up football game, and each team got an NFL quarterback to sit in, you’d probably want to be on the team with Peyton Manning in the backfield, not Matt Leinart.

In winning, Kevin toppled a narrative that looked almost foretold in the premiere episode: that Angelo’s winning, if not preordained, was inevitable. Angelo’s chances may have been damaged by his becoming ill just as the final test was starting, and we didn’t get much comfort from his hotel room doctor, who looked about as competent as the house-calling psychic expert in “Paranormal Activity.”

Ed, who had been the contestant with the most momentum coming into the finals, made only one material blunder, abdicating the dessert to Ilan (although Ed wins class points for not blaming his assistant for making the dish).

As judge Eric Ripert noted, Kevin “paid homage to every ingredient.” His menu was both exotic and accessible: a vegetable terrine, pan-seared red mullet with cuttlefish noodles, duck dumplings and a Singapore sling for dessert, which must have tasted far better than the fancier version of a Dole fruit cup.

In a fairly obvious epiphany, Angelo said just before Kevin was declared the winner, “It’s really just so subjective.” Like any reality show, “Top Chef” is just that.

But even if the current season started slowly and the caliber of cooking wasn’t always very high, it feels as if the best chef did in fact win. The tortoise beat the hares.

--John Horn

Photo of Kevin Sbraga in "Top Chef": Joan Leong/Bravo