Top Chef: Season 9, Ep. 17
Michael Richardson
Season 9
Episode 16

So it comes to this. In a particularly poor season of Top Chef, the final two competitors are two chefs who might not have been memorable had they been from any other season. In one corner, we have likable if not a little boring Paul. In the other, we have Sarah, who, if the "if you can't say anything nice"¦" rule came into affect, would make it impossible to do my job. It would take an incredible episode to fix what has been a season of bad Texas clichés, obviously manufactured drama, and poorly designed challenges.

And they provided"¦ a very good episode, albeit one that was never going to redeem the season. Let's start at the beginning. The chefs are reminded for what they're playing for: $125,000 and that precious spread in Food and Wine Magazine (the inflection Padma uses always implies that the latter is infinitely more prestigious than the money or even putting fucking Top Chef on you resume). To do so, they'll have to create a four-course tasting menu, each cooking in one of Canada's best restaurants. It's Restaurant Wars all over again, minus all the other contestants. Even more so, because they're cooking for more than 100 people. I ranted last week, so I'll keep this short: nobody fucking cares that these guys can cook for a large group of people. Pretty much any smack can cook a tray of meatballs. It's perfectly fitting that one of the best episodes would continue this season's terrible trends.

But then there's the twist. It's fairly normal for prior contestants to come on and work as sous chefs for the finalists, but this one was special. The producers handpicked a number of contestants (including Nyesha, Grayson, Chris, Heather, and Ty-Lor), three of the people eliminated in the very first episode (including Tyler Stone, he of the mid-challenge ousting that gave me such high hopes for the season), plus two highly acclaimed professional chefs. The show says their names like I should know them, but I never do, and looking up their names would just be me covering up my own ignorance. We'll call them Lady Chef, and Glasses. Each of them gets to create a quick dish to be tasted and dissected by the finalists. Back at the house, Paul and Sarah wonder who it will be. Sarah can't get over how hot Malibu Chris is, as if he is some kind of phantom limb. Then they have to choose based on the dish alone who will be chosen. Paul picks Lady Chef right away, followed by Ty-Lor, Malibu Chris, and Keith. Sarah wants Heather on her team, so she picks a dish she thinks she remembers from the menu at Heather's restaurant. Turns out it belongs to Tyler Stone, and my face brightens immediately. She rounds out her team with Nyesha, Heather and Grayson.

In between the two cooking segments, Tom and Emeril invite Paul and Sarah to taste wine with them in some lodge. I cannot express how pointless this scene is, except to illuminate what type of wine everybody likes the best. For disclosure purposes, I will admit that I was drinking Jim Beam, which is hillbilly wine.

For better or worse, each chef designs their menus around their heritage - Southeast Asian for Paul, and German-Italian for Sarah. I'm pretty sure there's an inverse proportion to how authentically ethnic you try to make your food and how good it tastes. Just because someone has a goddamn vowel at the end of their name doesn't been their "mareenara" will be good. And for all the lip service the show pays to stories like "I'm going to cook sauerkraut just like my great-uncle we used to visit in Venezuela before the Mossad agents came and took him away," the judges aren't there to provide feedback on whatever country your great grandparents were so eager to escape. But go ahead, make German-Italian food and try and trace your family line back to Brennus for authenticity. That is to say, I don't have much to say about the food they cook. As with this entire season, it's pretty boring.

But the kitchen dynamic is fun. Well, Tyler Stone is fun. He would have been infuriating if he was around all season, but the show nicely edits his incompetence to fit in a delightful little montage. Sarah isn't having it. She also has some problems on her hands. Apparently her fish still has some bones in it, which is basically the only thing you have to prevent if you want to cook good fish. Paul's second course comes out a little overcooked in one batch - a batch that happens to go out to half the judges. He also needs to replace his crab early on with shrimp - shrimp we had previously been told were for just such an occasion (foreshadowing!). And in a nice touch as always, the families are there being served by their loved ones, and holy shit does Sarah's mom look exactly like her or what?

Then it comes down to the judges' table, where Sarah receives effusive praise and Paul gets a bit more reserved praise. Tom says it's the best food in a finale they've ever had, and I think it's totally cool how he can say that every year, implying that our progress with food mirrors our progress with science - ever creeping forward. They bring out the families and contestants again, to look on their favorites as their dreams are severed or justified. And then, with a few sweet words, Padma tells Paul he is the newest Top Chef. And with that, a very poor season of Top Chef is slightly redeemed. We'll always have Tyler Stone to remember, at least.

Grade: B+

"I tried to make an Asian inspired dish to lure Paul" said Chris, quite racist-ly.

"We're gonna jam out with our clams out!" WHY DID YOU EVER LEAVE GRAYSON?!

Tags: Top Chef
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