‘Top Chef’: And the winner is ... Stephanie!

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In the end, it wasn’t even close.

Oh, you sneaky “Top Chef” producers. Trying to make us feel like it was a dead heat between Stephanie, winner of four elimination challenges (and several quickfires), and Lisa, winner of one elimination (you know, where she glazed some bacon well).

You weren’t fooling anyone. The viewer poll they flashed at the bottom of the screen before the final commercial break said that just 3% of the viewers thought Lisa should win. This, in spite of the judges generally liking her first, second and fourth courses. I’m partial to Asian flavors myself and must admit that I would like to have tried any and all of her dishes. I don’t think she should have won by any means, but I would have happily tried them.


But before we talk about the mechanics of the unusually drama-free “Chef” finale, I need to address Richard. Poor Richard! Before the show started, I, along with most viewers, assumed this would be a battle between him and Stephanie. Richard and all his wacky gizmos and gadgets vs. Stephanie with her homey finesse. Both of them, upright and consistent competitors throughout the competition (except for last week, where Richard let loose on Lisa. Not that I minded. His “You won the ... bronze medal -- congratulations!” is the quote of the season as far as I’m concerned.)

Still, when Richard fell on his sword up at the judges table and said “Yeah, I’ll say it. I feel like I choked a little bit,” my jaw dropped. True, he had not cooked the meal of his life -- none of the three had -- but all I could think was: HUH? WHY ARE YOU TALKING? JUST BECAUSE THE OTHER TWO TALKED DOESN’T MEAN YOU HAVE TO! YOU’RE STILL WAY BETTER THAN LISA! (And yes, I thought in all capital letters in my head.) At this point in the show, my gut was certain Stephanie had this one in the bag. Clean slate or not, the judges would in no way be able to ignore her impeccable track record in the face of Lisa’s. But Richard, why did you need to be such a stand-up guy? The result was that stuffed-up comment from Lisa in the stew room. No Lisa, just because Richard lost it a bit does not mean there was a real chance you could have won.

While I’m on the subject of Lisa, I thought I’d address comments made on the blog with regards to producers finagling Lisa into the finals as a way of keeping a villain on the show. I don’t think that’s the case at all. I remember talking once to Ted Allen, who told me the decision is entirely the judges’ (disclaimer about producers having a say or not). More to the point, the judges are not allowed to fraternize with the contestants so they’re not aware of who is or isn’t a “villain.”

Anyway, the always eloquent Ted felt even worse for Richard and devoted most of his finale thoughts to him and what might have been. A very good read for fans.

But getting back to the episode itself, it was pretty much smooth sailing throughout -- which is why Stephanie deserved to win regardless. True, the “twist” was having their sous chefs “call in sick” -- but none of them were too shaken up about it. These were pretty much their dishes on their terms. If you think about it, they had seven total hours, three of those with help, and a set of finite ingredients. I imagine that’s more than enough time to create four courses for chefs of their caliber. And again, it was a real shame to watch Richard get slammed for something like poor seasoning. Those nerves must have been high.

Otherwise, definitely a treat seeing April Bloomfield and Dan Barber go to work, even if it was brief. They’re both culinary gods in their own right, but neither is a Food Network who’s who, and probably not recognizable to most. Watching Eric Ripert work as a sous chef was also fun (especially for anyone who missed the episode of “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel where he and Anthony Bourdain attempted a night as line chefs at Bourdain’s old stomping ground, Les Halles.) Funnier still was seeing Stephanie hover over him handling a fish -- and subsequently getting red when she relived it for the producers.

All in all, not the most exciting finale ever, but the right person won. And she’s a woman. Bonus!

Watch for my interview with Stephanie. Should be coming up shortly.

--Denise Martin