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After we knew who the final contestants were going to be in last night’s competition, several people asked me whether all three of them were better than the winners of previous seasons. I’ve only been a judge for two seasons, so I can’t comment on the strength of the winners in the first four seasons, but in a sense the question is meaningless. As judges, we’re asked to assess a contestant’s performance on that night, completely disregarding how well or badly they’ve cooked before. So, in the case of last night’s episode, the question isn’t whether all three of the contestants were better than previous winners of Top Chef, but whether they performed better on the night than the previous winners performed on the night. And the answer is no. Kevin choked.
In saying that, I don’t mean to disrespect Kevin. I think he’s a very talented chef — in some ways more talented than either of the Voltaggio brothers. Both Michael and Bryan are cutting edge chefs, incorporating the very latest techniques in their cooking. Kevin, by contrast, is much more of a traditionalist. He’s unimpressed by things like molecular gastronomy: he prefers a good sauce to a good foam. That shows a single-mindedness and strength of character that are great qualities in a chef and I firmly believe Kevin will go all the way. He may not have won last night, but in the long term I wouldn’t be surprised if he emerges as the biggest winner of the group.
But he did choke. By far the most surprising thing about last night’s episode was how poor Kevin’s dishes were compared to the dishes he’d cooked before. Remember, Kevin entered the finale with the most wins under his belt. I had him down as the favorite. So what went wrong?
Watching the episode, it was clear he was disappointed with the sous chefs he was saddled with, particularly Preeti. But it’s hard to dismiss the suspicion that that was merely an excuse.
My hunch is that the pressure just got to him. Sitting at home in your Lazy Boy, you have no idea how intense the atmosphere is in the kitchen. Not only are the chefs in the final furlong, desperately competing against each other as they approach the finish, but they’re under all sorts of time constraints. Their reputations are on the line — they want to be seen to succeed. Being named “Top Chef” is a huge win — it can completely transform their lives — so the stakes are high. As Tom said, “This meal can make your career.” In those circumstances, some people thrive, others don’t. Clearly, Michael and Bryan soaked up the pressure, while Kevin found it a bit too much. It probably didn’t help that he his mother was watching him from the wings.
The decision to give the win to Michael was not unanimous. Tom initially thought I’d be rooting for Kevin because he knows what a fan I am of Kevin’s cooking, but I quickly made it clear that I thought Michael was the better chef on the night. Gail wasn’t as convinced of that as I was and Padma wanted to give it to Bryan. That made for a lively Judges' Table. After we’d made the relatively easy decision to eliminate Kevin, we then got into a proper debate. We started out by trying to judge it like a boxing match — there was no knockout so it came down to who won on points and we assessed it round by round.
But that didn’t give us a clear winner. For me, Michael won the first round with his spot prawn and the second round with his rock fish, the third round belonged to Bryan, whose venison was marginally better than Bryan’s squab, and the fourth was won by Bryan with his cheese cake. So, in my opinion, that meant two victories a piece.
In the end, it came down to a combination of technique and creativity. While Bryan’s technical expertise is slightly ahead of Michael’s, Michael’s boldness — his willingness to take risks — gave him the edge. But make no mistake: both the Voltaggio brothers are great chefs and it was a pleasure to have them cooking for us this season.