It is hard to watch last night’s episode and not feel sorry for Carla. Her cooking got stronger and stronger as the season progressed and she looked poised to cause an upset. Her appetizer was delicious, her first course was even better, and, for a moment there, all the judges thought she was going to win. So what went wrong?
Two words: Casey Thompson. OK, that’s a bit harsh. It’s more like Casey was sent to test Carla: Will she or won’t she follow Casey’s advice? And she failed. Not that Casey is a bad cook. It’s just that her style is completely different from Carla’s. Carla stated at the outset that what she wanted to do was give us her version of meat and potatoes — and if she had only done that she might have gone on to win Top Chef. But Carla listened to Casey when she told her she needed to make her meal more complicated, that her simple, down-home style wouldn’t be good enough to win the competition. That was crazy, since it’s precisely that style that had got Carla into the final, but for some reason — whether because she lacked confidence or because she was too nice to tell Casey to take a running jump — Carla abandoned her plan and went with Casey’s. Result: Carla’s second and third courses were a disaster.
Eliminating Carla was the easy part. Deciding between Stefan and Hosea was fiendishly difficult. For the first time in Season 5, Tom and I were completely at loggerheads. We’ve disagreed before at Judges Table, but never like this. In tonight’s episode, you get a glimpse of this when my voice suddenly goes all high — it’s the moment when I’m defending Stefan’s dessert, but that scarcely conveys just how passionately we disagreed. It really was a bun fight.
I asked Tom at the outset whether the same rule applied to judging the finale as it did to all the other challenges, namely, that we had to disregard everything the chefs had done before and judge them entirely on their performance that day. He said it did, but with one caveat: if we whittled the finalists down to two, and there was nothing to choose between them, we could bring in their past performances as a tie-breaker.
As far as I was concerned, that was exactly the situation in last night’s episode — and, for that reason, we ought to give it to Stefan, who clearly performed better over the course of the season than Hosea. My argument went like this: Stefan and Hosea tied the appetizer and the first course; Stefan won the second; and Hosea won the third. So that was one win each, deadlock. Tom countered that Hosea’s margin of victory in the third course was so much greater than Stefan’s margin of victory in the second that there was no need to bring in past performances — Hosea was the clear winner. And, in the end, Gail and Padma took the same view. They all thought that Stefan’s dessert was a big letdown — that his vanilla ice cream, chocolate mouse, and banana lollipop was precisely the kind of non-descript trio that you’d get at a catered event. It was wedding food, basically, and you can’t hope to win Top Chef by serving up something that is usually eaten under a marquee.
I didn’t hate Stefan’s dessert nearly as much as they did — it tasted pretty good to me, but, then again, I haven’t been to as many American weddings as them. On the other hand, venison is a very trendy protein in the UK right now so I’ve certainly had my fill of that. And I thought it was disappointing of Hosea not to at least attempt to cook something sweet. As Hubert Keller pointed out, being a great chef involves mastering a broad range of skills, including how to make desserts, and for that reason he preferred Stefan’s meal to Hosea’s.
But Tom made it plain that we couldn’t penalize the chefs for serving three savory courses since that was perfectly within the rules — and while I tried to argue that acknowledging Stefan’s range of skills would be rewarding him, rather than penalizing Hosea, that argument didn’t cut much ice with the other judges. Bottom line: Hosea cooked a marginally better meal than Stefan on the night and for that reason he was declared the winner.
Judging food is a very subjective business. There are a few basic parameters: There should be a mixture of textures on the plate, the bold flavours shouldn’t overwhelm the subtle ones, every ingredient has to be cooked just so, but beyond these it is not at all clear-cut. Sometimes arbitrary factors come into play: Did I want Stefan to win because, like me, he’s an obnoxious bald guy? — and you do your best to discount these. The fact is, neither Stefan nor Hosea made any obvious mistakes in the finale because they’re both good chefs. Either one would have made a worthy winner, and I accept the majority verdict. I have no doubt that Stefan will milk his second-place finish for at least as much as Hosea will get out of his victory. Good luck to them both.
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