Top Chef is dead; long live Project Runway!

>> Wednesday, October 3, 2007

SPOILER ALERT - Don't read any further if you haven't seen the final episode of Top Chef Season 3 and care about the outcome.

Well, Season 3 has come and gone, and Hung is the winner. Wendi and I won't mince words; we're disappointed. Not so much in the decision of the moment--Hung certainly deserved the trophy based on tonight's performance--but Hung has never been our favorite chef. Far from it in fact. Hung is cocky and arrogant, constantly telling us that the judges don't get him and his food when they don't like it, and lapping up their praise like they are the arbiters of all that is right and good about food when they praise him.

Oh Hung, how do we dislike thee? Let us count the ways. You never help others in the kitchen. You always think you're better than everyone else. You put things on a plate a dog wouldn't think looked appealing. You run around with knives. You dis the other chefs. You work so fast you never stop to consider your dish, your decisions, your customers.

Who can forget your arrogance in the food quiz Quickfire Challenge when you decided to hastily identify an ingredient without tasting it and crashed out? Or the semi-final Quickfire challenge where you finished your lemon trout six minutes early and stood around acting all smug, only to realize you had forgotten the lemon juice after your time was up? Or the frozen dinner elimination challenge where you knew how to win it but let Joey--Joey!--hustle you?

Hung just isn't the kind of guy you stand up and cheer for when he wins. He was certainly a master of making adjustments. All along I thought Hung was going to be the Austin Scarlett of Top Chef--someone wonderfully talented but locked into a very specific creative mode that would see him eliminated--albeit late in the game--for his inflexibility. Hung bucked that though, and took his "your food has no soul" scolding to heart for the finale.

Wendi was rooting for Casey, while I had a soft spot for Dale. Casey certainly looked strong in the last few episodes leading up to the finale, while Dale has always found a way to turn disasters into triumphs--including his "make it work" elk dish that won the final elimination challenge before the finale.

After watching tonight's judging, it was clear that Casey was not going to win. I have a pet theory about these kind of shows--particularly Top Chef and Project Runway, both of which we love. My theory is that there is always one episode per season where a contestant breaks down and loses it. I call this the contestant's Waterloo. Unlike Napoleon's Waterloo though, a contestant's Waterloo does not always mean defeat. Sometimes the contestant rises above the Waterloo, and it's a steeling, energizing moment for him or her.

This season, we saw Micah's Waterloo in episode three, when she had a minor meltdown and decided that the whole thing was pointless and that she'd rather be back with her family. It broke her. We saw Sara N. freak out over having to cook in her clubbing clothes and meet her Waterloo (and elimination) in episode eight. We saw Sara M. take an absolute beating in the elimination judging for episode seven (and we actually thought she was a goner!) only to rebound and grab the competition by the balls until her elimination in the final episode before the two-part finale.

One of the most obvious and dramatic Waterloos in either show has to be Andrae's complete and absolute breakdown on the runway before the judges in Project Runway Season 2. Andrae sobbed and sobbed, working through a choking, tear-filled story about the loss of his store and the ruination of his life just before the taping of Project Runway began. The Waterloo was brought on by the necessary destruction of a meaningful denim jacket in a horribly mangled effort to win that episode's elimination challenge--which was to create new couture using only the clothes on the contestants' backs. And the reunion episode revealed that the breakdown we saw on TV was only the tip of the iceberg! It ran for several minutes, and had to be edited down just to fit in the episode. It was both horrifying and riveting--but Andrae survived it! And never again did he break down like that. He made it through another seven episodes until bowing out gracefully just three shows shy of the finale.

During a Waterloo, a contestant usually can be heard to say things like, "You know, I don't need this competition to know I'm a good chef/designer," "I really miss my family and friends right now," and "You know what, I've had a great run, and I stand by all my decisions." There is gloom in the contestant's face and doom in his/her voice. You can often see it coming from the opening minutes of the show. A lot of this is good editing, I know--but the Waterloo is always there if you're looking for it.

These competitions must be grueling. What we see on a weekly basis happens on a daily basis for the contestants. It's get up in the morning for a Quickfire challenge, face an elimination challenge in the afternoon/evening, and crash back in a suite with all the other contestants that night, only to get up and do it all over again in the morning. There is very little down time for these guys, and absolutely no time when there isn't a camera there to catch them brushing their teeth or sitting in the hot tub or grabbing a smoke out on the balcony.

So of course there is a breaking point for every contestant. They may even see it coming. The look on CJ's face as he stepped off the plane in Newark and saw Padma in the airport told you right away he was the one who would go, long before he ever put that slimy broccolini on a plate. He just didn't have it in him to compete right then. He had visions of New York pizza in his head, and his fear that he wouldn't make it across the river to Manhattan for just one day consumed him--and defeated him.

Most of the time the contestant is well aware of the Waterloo. They are overwhelmed, frustrated, mentally blocked. They begin a dish or a dress with absolutely no idea where it's going, and it does, in fact, go nowhere. If the contestant survives this momentary weakness, the chances are good that they will rebound stronger than ever and never have another Waterloo--even should they be eliminated later. A Waterloo does not always mean elimination, and elimination is not always precipitated by a Waterloo.

Tonight was Casey's Waterloo, and it was a very, very bad time to have one. It began early in the episode, when she confessed that she was having trouble breathing in the high altitude of Aspen. Was it just the high altitude, or a mixture of anxiety and altitude? She looked nervous and unsure of herself from the start. Her celebrity sous chef was even nervous for her, confiding to us that Casey kept adding, adding, adding, even though the guest chef clearly shared our empathy for Casey. (In fact, a text poll during the commercial breaks revealed that a whopping 68% of viewers wanted her to be the Top Chef.)

And yet it was not to be. In the judging, Casey blamed the altitude, the additional dish they were told to prepare, even Howie--Casey, for shame!--until forced to confess that her only successful dish of the night had been prepared by Howie. All night Casey was off her game, making changes and additions to her dishes on the fly when preparation and execution had been her fortes all season long. It was Dale who had always been the master of improvisation, and he was again tonight, pulling perhaps his best "make it work" dish out for the surprise fourth dish.

Even through the final judging, I thought Dale might pull it out. He had two tremendous successes and had taken chances with all his dishes, but Colicchio hated Dale's lobster dish and that seemed to seal it. One inedible dish out of four was the killer for him, as Hung put together two stellar dishes, one passable dish, and a phoned in chocolate cake desert. I held out hope that the judges would give Dale credit for taking a chance and dock Hung for playing it safe. As I said to Wendi during the commercial break, it was as though Hung had gotten a weak base hit while Dale had hit a screaming out to the shortstop. To which would the judges give more credit? Rightfully so, I suppose, they gave credit for the base hit. (Sorry--it's also the first night of the National League playoffs.)

And so Casey met her Waterloo and Dale was bested by Hung. All along Hung had proven himself a technician of the first degree, and tonight one bad dish from Dale--one of those seat of the pants fiascoes that he had always mixed in with those fabulous impromptu victories--meant the difference between $100,000 and second place.

Congratulations to all three finalists, and, begrudgingly, to Hung--who after all deserved it. We may not like you, Hung, but you have our respect.

We've had so much fun watching this season and breaking it down afterward that Wendi and I have decided to blog about Project Runway Season 4 each week there is a new episode. Often one of us is on the road during the week, and we'll sit at the computer e-mailing the other one with comments and questions while we watch, so blogging about the episodes one at a time seems like a natural extension of that. We hope if you share our passion for Project Runway you'll tune in and share in the discussion!


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