Tuned In

Why Top Chef Was Right to Pick the Wrong Winner

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We’re out of the reasonably-expect-to-avoid-spoilers zone on last week’s Top Chef, but the rest of the post appears after the jump anyway: 

I watched Top Chef a day late last week, but immediately had the same reaction as apparently much of the rest of the world did when Hosea was named: Worst Top Chef champion ever. In the ensuing days, I’ve seen people argue that the show did not reward the best chef, and that Carla and/or Stefan was robbed. (Most of Bravo’s web site voters disagreed with the call.)

Much as I agree with the first point, I think the second is wrong. Yes, Hosea was at best a middling-to-goodish contestant for the entire season. Yes, he was memorable for little more than arguing with Stefan, hooking up with Leah and (seemingly) not being as hot at cooking seafood as he claimed. Stefan, on the other hand, dominated challenges from the beginning to (nearly) the end, while Carla, seemingly cannon fodder at the show’s outlet, revealed herself to be not just likeable, but a chef who combined French training with a home cook’s warmth. 

Judged over the season, Carla and Stefan each had it easily over Hosea. However, it’s hard to argue that—based on a final meal in which she made the mistake of listening to sous chef Casey and wasn’t even able to send out a complete dessert—Carla could be judged winner of the final. And if there was no editing sleight of hand, it seems clear most if not all the judges believed Hosea’s meal was superior to Stefan’s (even Fabio, Stefan’s Euro-bro, had to agree). 

The question, then, is whether Top Chef is a job interview or a game. As a TV show, it has to be the latter—a game that tries to reward the best chefs, but a game with the possibility of upsets nonetheless. 

Actually, maybe it’s better to think of Top Chef as a sport. And rather than being, say, auto racing—where competitors accumulate points over a season—it’s the NFL. An NFL, that is, with a season-long playoff, in which one competitor is eliminated every week, leading to the Super Bowl, or in this case, the finale. 

Now, like any sport, Top Chef would not be legitimate if the worst team in the league could somehow run away with the title. That’s what the playoff is for: contestants are rewarded for their cumulative performance, in that you have to have survived a season of eliminations to get to the final. But once you get to the Super Bowl—or World Series, or whatever analogy you want to draw—there needs to be the sense that on any given day, an underdog could just win. Otherwise, you might as well just give the crown to the team with the greatest win percentage and call it a day. 

So like a sport, Top Chef, and shows like it, have to balance rewarding talent (for credibility) with the chance of an upset (for suspense). Sometimes that means you get a Hosea. (My bigger problem was not so much that he won but that there were other contestants who deserved to make it into the final more, like Ariane, Jeff and Jamie.) If you ignored it—and, say, crowned Carla after what even she knew was an inferior meal—you’re saying that you may as well never have watched the finale. Even though we all knew that if she had just made that damn cheese tart, she’d have had it in the bag. 

Once you turn a competition into an entertainment, in other words, you have to leave in the possibility that the wrong guy will win sometime. Rewarding people on sheerly on the basis of their ability, and making sure that the most deserving come out on top all the time—that’s what the rest of life is for. And if it doesn’t always work out that way, that’s our problem, not the Top Chef judges’.