When “Top Chef: Texas” lead judge Tom Colicchio remarked that the final showdown between Sarah and Paul was “about as close as it can get,” we were inclined to believe him.
While it may seem a little unfair—especially to Sarah, who not surprisingly couldn’t take her loss gracefully—that either chef had to lose, Paul cooked a dinner whose only apparent error was that his first course couldn’t be served at the right moment, as the judges were switching restaurants.
Sarah, on the other hand, made a couple of actual culinary blunders that while individually small collectively added up to defeat. Raw beets pickled overnight in the refrigerator seem like a fundamental error of both invention and execution.
Judge Gail Simmons complained, “What we saw from Paul is what Paul does every day,” suggesting that he didn’t take enough risks, a risible conclusion given that two of his courses were the egg custard dish chawanmushi and the rice porridge dish congee. Yes, that might be within his ethnic range, but one false step, and you have got a plate of curdled eggs and a bowl of unset cement.
We’ve complained a lot this year about how “Top Chef” could have been better, and we're happy that it's finally over, even if the last night's cooking was as superb as the judges kept saying it was.
Admittedly, it wasn’t the strongest cast, and even the judges in the middle weeks seemed to sense it—the cooking was nearly as lifeless as the chefs’ personalities. When he was crowned the winner, Paul looked about as excited as someone at a soda fountain who discovers there are free refills.
But as with many Quickfire tests, sometimes necessity is the mother of invention, and the show’s producers should have come up with better challenges to expose the contestants’ true skills, rather than swamp them with silly gimmicks.
The time pressures have moved from frustrating to ridiculous. Speed is important in horse races and fast-food dining, but hasn’t “Top Chef” heard about the slow food movement? If diners can linger over a meal, why do the people preparing it have to work at the speed of sound? Chefs need to be agile, but the “Top Chef” tests force them to be superhuman.
There are a number of inspired challenges from past seasons we would have loved to have seen repeated in the just-concluded ninth season.
In season three, the chefs had to take a handful of the simplest ingredients—chicken, potato, onion—and make a dish, which Hung won with butter-poached chicken and Pommes Dauphine. We loved the blind taste test in season five, where chefs had to guess ingredients in a sauce to prove how sophisticated their palates were, with Stefan and Hosea detecting an insane amount of the components in Thai green curry and Mexican mole. In season seven, the contestants were asked to prepare a meal from exotic ingredients such as yak, crocodile, duck tongue and ostrich, with Kelly’s emu egg omelet beating all the challengers.
These tests were of course a bit impractical, but they weren’t nearly as absurd as what we saw in “Top Chef: Texas,” which included chefs competing in a biathlon to get ingredients.
And one final note. We understand that product placement makes a ton of money for Bravo. But if “Top Chef” goes one step further with its brand-name plugs, it risks becoming the television equivalent of David Foster Wallace’s satirical novel “Infinite Jest,” in which even the years were sponsored.
Photo: Sarah and Paul in "Top Chef: Texas." Credit: Virginia Sherwood/Bravo.