'Top Chef' Finale: Better safe than savvy

Marcelvigneron_topchef_s2_240Want to know why the America's Next Top Model staffers think they're entitled to call themselves writers even though their show is unscripted? Look no further than Wednesday (Jan. 31) night's finale of Bravo's second season of Top Chef to see some vintage reality TV storycrafting at work.

I went into the finale rooting hard for Marcel Vigneron (left) to win, which makes no sense given that in the premiere there was nobody I wanted eliminated quite so quickly as the Wolverine-coifed scholar of molecular gastronomy. Despite the fact that Marcel didn't change throughout the season -- he was still every bit as self-centered, obnoxious and pin-headed by the end -- the Top Chef creative team shifted my allegiances bit by bit. As the other contestants went from general, well-deserved teasing to near-psychotic abuse and hazing, Marcel went from villain to victim. Ilan, my favorite at the start of the season, went the other direction, falling off the radar with his liver-in-chocolate disaster and reaching a nadir last episode with his utterly bush-league attempt to throw Marcel under the bus at the judging table (I lost the last of my respect for Elia at the same time). It was the show's writers (and editors) who supplied Marcel with a winning story arc even if I'm still not sure I'd want to eat his foams, gums and gelees.

So that's where I started the finale.

Ilanhall_topchef_s2_240With that out of the way, congratulations to Ilan Hall (right), the second Top Chef winner.

To some degree Marcel's inability to win friends and influence people ultimately doomed him. The six most recent losing chefs were asked who they'd like to sous chef for and Betty (Boo!), Elia (Boo!) and Mikey (Burp!) all were eager to work for Ilan, while Frank, Mia and Sam said they'd work with Marcel, but didn't sound enthusiastic. So Ilan picked Elia and Betty and his kitchen ran smoothly. Marcel picked Sam (smart choice) and Mikey (bizarrely bad choice) and got resistance and veiled apathy, which led to mistakes in preparation and mysteriously missing fish. He wasn't a very good leader, but they weren't going to want to work with him anyway.

The results were still two five-course meals that looked rather spectacular. If I'm going course-by-course, I'd have picked Marcel's uni and gelee, Ilan's moi with gazpacho, Ilan's squab with shrimp, Marcel's beef loin and Marcel's bellinis with chocolate mousse and coffee-caviar.

The judges praised Ilan for achieving what he wanted to achieve, for staying in his comfort zone. Marcel was praised for his originality, his aspirations, his potential. The judges decided to go with the chef who was closest to ready now.

"I thought it was going to take more than saffron and paprika to beat me, but apparently not," was Marcel's sour grapes response.

Some thoughts from the finale:

  • Could there have been a better metaphor for the season than Marcel having to urinate on his own hand after pricking himself on a sea urchin? Or Ilan's response: "In the end,  I didn't pee on Marcel, but I would have loved to pee on Marcel."
  • Even if the encapsulated isomalt thing had worked, Marcel was still making a salad for his second course. Dude. How could you not have stuck some foam on it or something?
  • Once I stopped rooting for Ilan early on, I started rooting for Elia. But how obnoxious was her telling the judges that Marcel's meal hadn't been as good without even knowing what the guy served?
  • If anybody wanted to shake Marcel's hand or hug him afterwards (including the victorious Ilan) the cameras sure didn't catch it.

    Do you think the judges made the right choice? Who were you rooting for in the end?

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