Anti-Climatic Megalomania: Kevin Wins 'Top Chef,' Finale Lacks Ego-Driven Drama

September 16, 2010


Well, that was kind of boring.

No hostile rivalries, no smack-talk, no throwing each other under the bus. For a season that’s been marked by egomania and braggadocio from finalists Angelo and Ed and early-loser Kenny, last night’s season finale of “Top Chef D.C.” was actually quite tame, driven more by a trumped-up storyline involving Angelo’s health than any bitterness between the guys. And when the final man was named, it was smiles and back-slaps all around.

It’s a slow start in Singapore: We revisit Kelly’s departure and the cheftestants pull knives. They’ll get paired up with either Ilan Hall from season two, Hung Huynh from season three or Michael Voltaggio from season six — all previous “Top Chef” winners who will act as their sous chefs and help them shop, cook and prep. While Angelo is angling to work with Hung, whose cooking style most closely matches his own Asian-influenced methods, Ed and Kevin both hope for Michael — especially Kevin, who has worked with Michael before. They share “not just a work relationship, but a friendship,” Kevin says, so he’s ecstatic when he pulls Michael’s name from the block.

Angelo is equally psyched to get Hung, but Ed is a little peeved to get paired with Ilan. “I don’t know too much about him other than yes, he won ‘Top Chef,’” Ed says. But the pairs will need to work together for the final challenge, which Padma outlines as a four-course meal that must consist of a first vegetable course, a second fish course, a third meat course and a fourth dessert course. Tom and Eric Ripert will shop for the proteins for their fish and meat courses tomorrow morning. “I hear monkey’s in season,” Tom jokes. But until then, the pairs must think of what they’d like to make.

With Seetoh’s final words to them (“Sock it to me”) ringing in their ears, the pairs get back to the Singapore Hilton and start thinking of dishes. But Angelo soon feels “like garbage,” and despite wanting to make a good impression on Ilan, Hung and Michael, he goes to bed early. The next morning, Angelo doesn’t feel any better; as Kevin and Ed snack on a delicious-looking breakfast (so much tropical fruit!), Angelo is curled up in his bed, refusing to move. “I can barely even open my eyes, the pain is so excruciating,” he says. “I feel like somebody’s stabbing me in the stomach.” Dr. Gary Chee checks up on Angelo, who says he’s vomiting and feeling feverish. All signs point to the guy not getting out of bed that day, and maybe not the next. “I give you about a 20 percent chance of cooking tomorrow,” Dr. Chee tells Angelo, news the cheftestant calls “devastating.”

So Kevin and Ed, along with Ilan, Hung and Michael, meet with Tom and Eric Ripert to figure out what to do without Angelo. The judges say Hung will talk to Angelo over the phone while shopping and prepping to make sure his vision is followed exactly, and if Angelo can’t make it the next day, they’ll deal with it then. As for the proteins they’ll be working with, Tom and Eric show off the red mullet or rouget, cuttlefish, cockles, slipper lobster, pork belly and whole duck they bought at the market, and announce that each fish dish must be made with the rouget while every meat dish is made with the duck; the other ingredients must be worked into other dishes.

The group dashes to Vivomart (a snazzy Whole Foods-like grocery store) with an hour to shop and $300. Kevin and Michael seem to work together well. “I’m going to listen to Mike’s suggestions … at the same time, I got my own style,” Kevin says. But Ed and Ilan, not so much. Ed gets annoyed with Ilan pushing his own opinions on the dishes, mainly because in past seasons, finalists who listened too much to their sous chefs got booted. So, he ignores Ilan’s suggestion to make the dishes richer and keeps on shopping.

It’s Hung who proves his worth. First, he’s working the phone with Angelo at the store, then he’s swiping all the foie gras from the kitchen’s pantry so no one but Angelo can use it. “He’s an animal,” Ed says of Hung’s ferocity and work ethic, and Kevin agrees: “Nothing but props to that guy.” And though Hung gets caught up in the moment, he still remembers this isn’t his challenge: “My pork belly — I mean, Angelo’s pork belly,” he says while prepping, showing a selflessness unheard of during his own cutthroat season.

Meanwhile, Ed and Ilan keep sparring: “I know he’s a smart guy and he knows how to make a corn soup, but I want him to make the corn soup the way I want him to make it,” Ed whines. Ed puts Ilan in charge of the dessert course to get him of the way. Back at the hotel, Angelo gets a cortisone shot where the sun don’t shine, which Dr. Chee says will speed up his chances of feeling better the next day.

And voila, it works! Though it’s never quite clear what Angelo is sick with, the next day he’s feeling better enough to compete. With three more hours to prep, Angelo and Hung put their heads together and go over diagrams Angelo drew of his dishes while bedridden. “I got myself here — like, I dug so deep — I have to believe winning this challenge is meant to be,” Angelo says, guzzling fluids to stay hydrated. “Now it’s time to jump into my cape and go and be the chef that I am.” His returning health also brings back his swagger, as Angelo boasts, “I’m sure Ed doesn’t want me here, to be honest with you. I think he’s not too thrilled that I’m going to be competing.” Perhaps Angelo forgot that Ed won both challenges last week? Did his sickness also include memory loss?

We again revisit the Ilan-Ed friction, Kevin and Angelo talk badly of Ed’s plating (“Ed does overkill”; “I think it’s a bit convoluted,” they respectively say) and finally, it’s time to eat. To an array of different judges —Padma, Tom, Gail and Eric Ripert are there, along with street-food specialist Seetoh, Food & Wine editor-in-chief Dana Cowin, chef Paul Bartolotta, chef David Chang, chef Andre Chiang, chef Iggy Chan, chef Willin Low, food writer Su-Lyn Tan, chef and “Top Chef Masters” contestant Susan Feniger, pastry chef Vincent Bourdin and one guy sitting to Padma’s left who’s never introduced — the finalists present:

VEGETABLE COURSE
» Angelo: Pickled royale mushrooms, char siu bao pork belly, noodle and watermelon tea.
» Kevin: Eggplant, zucchini and pepper terrine, tomatoes, jalapenos and black garlic puree.
» Ed: Chilled summer corn veloute with fried black cockles.

» Judges’ thoughts: Seetoh and Iggy both like that Angelo dared to go extreme with his dish, and Su-Lyn adds that it’s indicative of local flavors you’d find in Singapore; Tom, however, thinks “this is a dish that needs work.” Over at another table, Susan talks about how Kevin’s dish didn’t have enough oomph, while David counters that he actually liked it. “It takes a lot of balls to do a vegetable terrine as your first course,” David says. Regarding Ed’s dish, Vincent and Eric Ripert like its strong flavors. Overall, however, Paul and Tom say all the vegetable offerings are a bit too restrained.

FISH COURSE
» Angelo: Sauteed rouget and poached cuttlefish with Asian-style bouillabaisse.
» Kevin: Rouget, cuttlefish “noodles,” pork belly, cockles, slipper lobster and cigala.
» Ed: Stuffed rouget, glazed slipper lobster and cuttlefish with zucchini pesto.

» Judges’ thoughts: Dana finds Kevin dish interesting and layered, and Willin loves the pork belly paired with squid ink. Ed’s dish gets more mixed reviews, as Eric Ripert finds it too complicated, but Seetoh thinks “this guy put in a lot of effort in here.” Angelo’s dish goes over well with everyone. “I think Angelo’s is the dish you’ll remember,” Paul says.

MEAT COURSE
» Angelo: Sauteed duck breast and foie gras with marshmallow and tart cherry shooter.
» Kevin:Roasted duck breast with duck dumpling, caramelized bok choy and coriander sauce.
» Ed: Duck two ways: roasted breast and braised stuffed neck with baby spinach.

» Judges’ thoughts: Su-Lyn, Paul and Seetoh love Kevin’s duck-all-over-the-plate technique, and Eric Ripert praises his treatment of the bok choy. People can’t seem to figure out Angelo’s cherry shooter, but Susan still loves it. And Padma and Andre praise Ed’s dish, both for its use of greens and various vegetables and the attention he paid to layering various flavors.

DESSERT COURSE
» Angleo: “Thai jewel,” or coconut-vanilla cream and crushed ice with exotic fruits.
» Kevin: Frozen “Singapore sling” with tropical fruits
» Ed: Sticky toffee-date pudding with fleur de sel creme Chantilly.

» Judges’ thoughts: Mmm, fruit. Gail and David can’t stop praising Kevin’s dessert, with David exclaiming that the dish should become Singapore’s new national dessert. Gail also enjoys Angelo’s dish, finding it “really comforting,” but Tom and Su-Lyn think it comes dangerously close to becoming too savory. And Ed’s dessert… Well, Ed admitted earlier in the episode that he was disappointed in Ilan’s work and didn’t like it, and reactions are mixed. “It’s sort of like a ‘[expletive] you,’” David says. But Gail thinks everyone stuck to their own cooking style while still getting “down and dirty.” How dirty does the judging get during the…

JUDGES’ TABLE
Well, not at all. Only Tom, Padma, Gail and Eric Ripert show up for final judging (seriously, what was up with all those extra people at dinner?), and it’s all about small details now, with only one instance of backtalk.

They start out with Angelo’s seafood broth, praising it for the broth and vegetables but criticizing the cherry shooter, which Angelo can’t really explain too well. Tom isn’t amused: “I don’t think dishes come with so much instruction,” he shrugs. Then there’s Ed’s duck dish, which was “excellent,” according to Gail, and Ed’s dessert, which is less awesome. Gail tries to explain why it worked — “It felt interestingly like you. … Just eat it ’cause you’ll enjoy it,” she says — but Tom disagrees. Though he liked the salty-sweet contrast, “If this is a close competition, which it is, it doesn’t make or break my day.”

Ed, perhaps still peeved for getting critiqued for a dish he left up to Ilan, immediately gets all defensive. “What am I supposed to do?” he asks the judges, explaining that he wanted to make a lemon curd but was afraid of screwing it up.

Then it’s on to Kevin’s vegetable dish, which Eric Ripert thought lacked spice, but he and Gail admit to loving the duck dish, especially Kevin’s dumpling. And lastly, there’s Kevin’s “Singapore Sling” dessert, which Gail gushes over. “I went to the place where the ‘Singapore Sling’ was invented, and I’ll take yours — I mean, bring it on!” she says. Kevin looks feverishly pleased.

So what’s the final verdict? As Angelo says, “it’s really just so subjective.” Finally, it’s time: Tom plays it nice, saying “I wish all three of you can take home this title.” But that’s not how it works.

In a surprising moment, Kevin is named Top Chef — a decision he can’t even believe. “I am?” he asks Padma, bewildered. Tom calls this “the best reaction ever.” Angelo and Ed look pained, but they hug Kevin and praise him like troopers: “I didn’t win ‘Top Chef,’ and there’s absolutely zero regret,” Angelo says. Ed says, “I’m happy that he won. He definitely deserves it.”

Where was all the big game they were talking earlier in the season? Gone, at least until next week’s reunion show. But really, it’s nice to have seen Kevin persevere over the last 13 weeks to pull out the final win, especially since he was never as obnoxious as Ed or Angelo. “Jersey’s taking that belt home,” Kevin says of becoming the first African-American Top Chef and winning the title. Jersey now has one thing it can be proud of!

QUOTES OF THE WEEK
» “It’s not just about me. It’s about my wife and my daughter and my son and my father; it’s about my mother that passed away; it’s about so many people,” Kevin says, explaining why he wants to win “Top Chef.”

» “Whatever is going on in the body, tell the body, ‘[Explietive] you! Get out of the bed,’” Ed says of Angelo’s sickness.

» “So, you’re not sick anymore, huh?” Ed asks Angelo in the kitchen after they’ve presented some dishes to the judges. “I’m sick of your attitude,” Angelo snaps back. Such tension!

» “Aw, this mother[expletive],” Kevin grins when Michael Voltaggio, leaving the kitchen after all the dishes have been presented, comments, “That was the second-best food I’ve ever seen on ‘Top Chef.’” His cockiness is always so appealing — and part of what this finale was missing.

Written by Express contributor Roxana Hadadi
Photos by Joan Leong/Bravo

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express | September 16, 2010