Top Chef wrapped up its 10th season last night. Boston's Kristin Kish completed her big comeback, having fought through five Last Chance Kitchen episodes, to beat LA's Brooke Williamson in, what I thought, was a frustrating finale. Not because of the result, mind you, but because the Magical Elves production staff changed the finale format in a way which undermined the show's distinctiveness.
There are six things the show could do to improve next season:
Ditch the new finale format. As soon as the promos for the finale began, virtually every Top Chef fan said the same thing — why are they trying to be Iron Chef America? All of the elements were there: the kitchen stadium, the team of sous chefs, the panel of judges, cameras everywhere. In 2007, Food Network saw Top Chef's ratings and realized that it had a real rival to its cooking competition show and launched Next Iron Chef and then Chopped. By adopting the format of its competitor for the finale, Top Chef is forfeiting a decade of its own tradition. Secondly, the idea of voting after each course may have sounded good on paper, but it played out horribly. If it was an effort to force tension, it failed, because with 10 minutes to go (and there were a lot of us watching the clock last night) you knew that Kristin was the winner. There simply wasn't enough time to reveal two courses and the judges comments. The result? An anticlimactic ending and viewers being robbed of that great reaction shot when the winner realizes it's all over.
Kill the manipulative editing. There were little bits of this throughout the season, but the biggest one came when Kristin was originally sent off. Every episode to that point had pointedly been edited to make a villain out of Josie Smith-Malave, so when host Padma Lakshmi said the word "Josie" and it wasn't followed by "please pack your knives and go," it infuriated the fanbase. I can't find another instance in ten seasons of the show where the person announced was not the person sent home. If this was the producers' idea, it was a bad one. If it was Padma's idea, you should fire her.
Less Padma. Which brings us to the host ... I don't think I'm breaking new ground by saying that Padma was hired to bring a certain sex appeal to the show, and she's done that quite well. But nobody cares what she thinks about food (particularly the contestants or even some previous winners), and the more she is held up as an equal on a panel of really sharp culinary minds, the less the show succeeds. Why do cheftestants take sometimes withering criticism from the judges? Because the show keeps getting really outstanding chefs and restaurateurs to schlep all over the place (welcome to Juneau, Sean Brock) in order to eat their food and critique it. It's one of the best parts of the show and the reason it has such authority. So when a Judges' Table has a Brock, Danny Meyer, David Chang, Michelle Bernstein or Jonathan Waxman on it, I'd like to hear a lot less of Padma unless it's for comic relief. If she's arguing with the chefs — as happened frequently this season — it's bad TV.
Keep Last Chance Kitchen, ditch #SaveAChef. Why was LCK a success? Because it put two chefs in a room with Tom Colichio and it was all about the food. It works because we trust him to be a fair and final arbiter of what's good. And, perhaps most importantly, it is a conduit to getting the best possible talent into the final, as this season proved. Top Chef is essentially a game and sometimes games don't always produce perfect results. Last Chance Kitchen is a release valve for that problem, giving someone who had a bad day or, in Kristin's case, someone who fell on their sword rather than bad mouth another contestant a second chance. It's a chance to let cream rise to the top. #SaveAChef, however, allowed fans to keep someone in the game who they really like, without the benefit of ever tasting their food. I know the producers want to let fans connect, but it runs completely counter to what Colicchio has been saying for years, that the show is all about the food.
Less stunt casting. At least two of the three cheftestants who were brought back for the finale (Josie and Stefan Richter) were clearly brought back because of personality. There's no doubt they can cook, but they had their shot and lost. Why, outside of an all-star season, should they get another chance? Ironically, they largely got the casting for this season right in terms of good personalities and really excellent cooks. The show has a proven track record of finding talent and turning them into culinary stars. You only need to look at the restaurants which the winners and other top competitors have opened to see that. But you should only get one chance.
More Hugh Acheson. He's funny. He's quick. And he describes what makes a dish work on the show better than anyone except Colicchio. While it was fun to see a "BAM"-free Emeril Lagasse, Acheson was the star judge of the season.