Top Chef: 'The Thin Lisa Line'

Wow. Okay. Everyone visiting here knows -- so this shouldn't be a SPOILER -- that Steph won, fulfilling pretty much the popular consensus from forever. And that Richard -- who looked to be the favorite early -- "choked," by his own description. Am I the only one who thought that the teaser from last week with Richard just saying what had to be said at judges' table was going to be a repeat of Season 1, when Tiffani got called out for being evil? I seriously believed he was going to trash Lisa. Major kudos to Richard for being gentlemanly to the end and trashing himself instead. And big smile when he talked about having the baby on the way -- given that he finished the earlier kid challenge by saying he wanted to make one. Still, a little Lisa-trashing would have brought up a grin.

So, let's get to Lisa. Much ado on the "Top Chef" discussion universe last week about how perhaps that tagline about producer input was invoked to keep her. As in: Antonia was better but Lisa made for TV-inducing controversy and the panel bowed to the powers that be to keep her. Um, I have to say (protecting myself with elbows up) that I think the far more likely producer-induced interference came tonight. Not that I'm not happy about it. As Richard aptly put in the beginning of this show, there is still confusion on how Lisa made it this far. And, again, when I interviewed Tom C., he swore that being told whom to eliminate had never happened except over the Cliff-trying-to-scalp-Marcel thing. But Tom C. also swore that the judging was on the individual competition, and had no reference to previous performance. So, just wondering: Was Steph's lamb really that fantabulous?

To recap: The final challenge is always making your own menu, which would lead me to believe that the cheftestants (at least at this point) are home-practicing and perfecting the entire time between the main show arc and the finale. If anyone comes in at this point without something they want to showcase, what's up? This time, though, the ingredients were more limited (in fact, this does seem to be a trend). Instead of just making whatever they want with a huge vat of stuff to pick from, they have to pick the stuff in front of the corresponding sous chef (the celeb sous chef being the new trend from Season 3, which I actually like way better than bringing back the recent losers) and have a defined progression of courses: Fish, Poultry, Red Meat, Dessert. DESSERT. Ha!

Unlike Hung from last season almost killing his win because he chose a dessert (and a ridiculous chocolate cake thing, at that), Season 4 chefs MUST make one! Because, you know, actual people who go to dinner and pay for four courses would like one!

So in the first knife to Lisa, the choice of sous-chef and protein goes to the person who has won the most previous challenges. Which would be a tie between Richard and Steph, with Lisa somewhere clinging by her fingertips to some plankton.

Steph pulls the final No. 1 knife from the knife block and takes Eric Ripert, and it's really uncertain whether it's about the protein or the man (um, chef). Richard goes for Dan Barber and Lisa gets April Bloomfield, which immediately makes one wonder whether April is going to get hazard pay from Bravo.

Only this week we have Happy Lisa! Fun Lisa! Bond with my chick chef Lisa!
It's as if she watched herself in previous episodes and said, um, okay, I have to have a personality transplant. Which works right up until the traditional Lisa arms-crossed scowl-a-thon takes place at Judges' Table, but I digress.

Anyway, Lisa decides to make a totally Asian menu, Richard has a theme-a-thon I never really get and Steph wants to be kinda simple and clean (is there any show in "Top Chef" history that doesn't use the phrase "simple and clean flavors"?)

On to the course-off:
FIRST:
Lisa does a shrimp thing (of course, it's called "prawns," being that "prawns" are all more exciting in theory unless you're dealing with a bad takeout Chinese menu) with spicy spicy to start. Richard does scallops and Steph some red snapper.
SECOND:
Lisa goes for a Tom Kha Gai soup that is a staple of Thai delivery menus but upgrades it with her own special dumpling. Richard goes with guinea hen and about nine other things and Steph does quail.
THIRD:
Lisa: Wagyu beef
Richard: Pork belly (the undoing of Casey in Season 3, alas)
Steph: Lamb
FOURTH:
Lisa: A black rice Thai pudding
Steph: Ricotta poundcake
Richard: That banana scallop thing AGAIN (really, is that going to win you any points, no matter HOW good it is?) and bacon ice cream. Yes, bacon ice cream.

This is one of those times where you wish you could taste straight through the TV screen because while I'm all about bacon (and, very briefly, actually liked Lisa for her bacon-syrup heaven earlier this season) it's really, really hard to imagine wanting bacon in my ice cream.

So on to Judges' Table and here's where it gets messy. Lisa describes her menu as reflecting the fact that she is a "spicy kind of person." Because, you know, when she earlier describes herself with words that include "sweet" and "sour," the whole viewing public laughs until their Coke comes up their noses. Richard tries to explain his thesis; Steph just stays on the same keel.

Steph kinda gets credit for winning course 1, but there is a clear divide and Mr. Wonderful Ted Allen actually is very up for Lisa's shrimp. Lisa's soup runs away with the competition for course 2, and in fact gets some of the most positive comments of the night. Course 3, Lisa's lamb, is decribed by Eric Ripert as the first time the word "love" is used to describe the food. And the dessert course is a Lisa win again, with Steph's essentially a failure. Richard, meanwhile, is a total nonentity in all of this despite teaching Eric Ripert how to use liquid nitrogen on his ice cream.

Everybody gets a chance at Judges' Table to put in a last few words and Insecure Steph second-guesses her dessert and Lisa does a version of the Titanic "I'm King of the World!" speech, which just makes you want an iceberg to rise up and sink her. Then Richard -- in that much-hyped moment -- declares himself to have choked. Which would be dramatic if we weren't already in the point in the show where it's very very clear there's going to be a first-ever woman winner.

So, as they tell us, the whole who-wins discussion takes forever and ever until the birds start chirping in the morning. Which, back to the original point, is probably understandable. Because, um, Tom C. consistently makes the point that it's about the best dish/meal of the moment. And, um, if you digest the analysis, it would very much seem like Lisa "killed" on two courses, all but tied on another but lost to Steph on best dish of the night (that lamb thing
with braised pistachios, which everyone couldn't stop raving over so make them for your next dinner party). But Steph truly crashed-and-burned on dessert. And Lisa didn't crash-and-burn on anything. So, it SEEMS like the "best meal" assessment came down to whether Steph's lamb was so incredible it aced out the fact that Lisa's cohesive progression of undeniably solid courses -- save for the disappointment of the Wagyu beef.

It did. And, like the voting public, in the poll, who wanted Steph to win at 60 percent and Lisa at 4! (Seriously, Lisa, are you listening? You must open one of those restaurants with the open kitchen, then you'll get customers who come to gawk at the devil in a chef's coat. It's really your only hope of capitalizing on this experience.) Steph took the crown. But, really, don't you wonder what Tom, Gail and Ted would say if told they could only have one meal out of the three? Sounded to me--at least from the way it was cut -- that they would have gone down the Lisa path. Of course, then they might have burned in eternal hellfire and all. And Bravo might have, um, lost more than a restaurant full of viewers.

-- JENNIFER FREY


Jennifer Frey  |  June 12, 2008; 12:19 PM ET
Previous: 'Top Chef': Hogtied in Puerto Rico |

Comments

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Spot on - was thinking that Lisa could actually pull off a win based on the tasting panel comments. Would be interesting to see the finale be based on a truly blind taste test...

Posted by: Rob Iola | June 12, 2008 12:42 PM

I don't know if the results were influenced. After all, Ilan did win in Season 2. Then again, maybe that's the reason the producers didn't want a repeat of that mess.

And, yes, bacon ice cream is delicious. It's on the dessert menu at Blackbird in Chicago, paired with a fresh fig beignet.

Posted by: M Street | June 12, 2008 12:45 PM

I was really glad that Lisa didn't win. I know they say they base it only on that night's performance, but it's hard not to look at the whole season and know that Stephanie deserved it more.

I don't buy that the producers influence the actual judging, but they do influence what we see--which means that if they want us to be shocked, they may deliberately choose what they show us from Judges Table so that we will all be on edge and surprised at the final result.

That said, Lisa's soup from last night looked wonderful, and looks like a recipe I could actually make, so I might have to give it a try.

Posted by: HM | June 12, 2008 1:41 PM

Um, did this person watch the same episode I did? She got the two women mixed up. I could keep their names and personalities straight, and last night was the first episode of this season that I've watched!

Posted by: ML | June 12, 2008 1:44 PM

Here we see the inherent disaster that "judge each episode individually" can be. As with Lisa, all you have to be each week is second worst and you are sure to make the finals. Meanwhile, if you score first each week, but have an off-week, you're out of there.

They need to implement a cumulative scoring system -- giving a score for that week's EC, plus some score from previous weeks (perhaps an average of prior weeks), so that the lousy do not squeek by and the awesome get tossed because of one mistake.

Posted by: Bender | June 12, 2008 3:02 PM

By the way, Stephanie is a pretty yummy dish all by herself.

Posted by: Bender | June 12, 2008 3:05 PM

I'll be the first to stand corrected. I posted last week that although I was rooting for Stephanie, I though Richard had won on the basis of an interview I'd read with him where he was talking about his new restaurant in Atlanta. This is one time when I find myself glad to be wrong because I've been a Stephanie fan since the first episode this season. When her hand was shaking as she was saucing her duck a l'orange, I thought she was just adorable and a darn good cook.

As for the hideous Lisa, she is just astoundingly lucky that every week someone s*cked worse than she did. My take on her not winning is that even though she somehow managed to pull a decent meal out of some bodily orifice I'd rather not think about, there really wasn't anything original about it. Her execution may have been stellar but seriously, I can get Tom Kha Gai at any Thai restaurant anywhere and some of it can be pretty darn good.

When it came to Stephanie's dishes I was thinking, braised pistachios? Never heard of them and never seen them on a menu anywhere. From the way the judges raved about them they must have tasted fantastic. To me, the introduction of new tastes and innovative ways of delivering great food are what make a Top Chef, not just good execution of classic dishes of any cuisine.

I was sorry to see Richard tank but he did it with integrity and class. Methinks he will do just fine in the culinary world in the future. And now that his baby has been born, we know what he did during the break. I guess that challenge with the kids really gave him some ideas.

All in all, a great season on TC. Can't wait for next time.

Posted by: MCWolfe | June 12, 2008 3:25 PM

"I don't buy that the producers influence the actual judging..."

There is a disclaimer that runs at the end of EVERY episode that says the judges' decisions are made in consultation with the producers.

Posted by: mark | June 12, 2008 3:27 PM

I must have been watching another show too, because it sure seemed like Lisa could be said to have "crashed and burned" on her beef dish. At least to the same extent that Steph's dessert was a crash and burn. I didn't get the sense that the dessert was horrible - it just seemed to not be presented well and some components didn't work as well as the judges would have liked. I'd rather have a somewhat ugly cake that at least tasted okay, if not stellar, than undercooked Kobe beef. Have you had that? It's nasty!

The comments about Stephanie's dishes were much more positive at the dinner table. Clearly, the editing on the show was designed to create suspense over who might win. Unfortunately, this plays into the hands of the conspiracy theorists. The truth of the matter is that the better chef won.

Posted by: OH | June 12, 2008 3:29 PM

I wonder if I watched the same show as the reviewer..
Lisa's Wagyu beef was totally f*d up. Chef Tom said it's would be hard to mess up Kobe beef and and it would be by undercooking it, which Lisa did. He also said about Stephanies dessert, it was adequate, never said she crashed/burned with her cake.
Also, the meat course is the most important course. Do you go to a restaurant for appetizers and dessert or for the main course? Congrats Stephanie!

Posted by: NanFan | June 12, 2008 5:04 PM

If it had been a blind tasting, Lisa would've won. No surprise they couldn't make her the winner. But I like her. She's real. Real women who work in kitchens are bada**.

Posted by: dynagirl | June 12, 2008 5:44 PM

The headline: Pudgy, gay, pierced woman with bad attitude wins Top Chef.
Eh, I don't even think Bravo could endure that. While it's plausible that Antonia should have been there instead, almost all Bravo reality series live or die by snark and venality.
Lisa was obviously the lesser cook, but how much better was Steph?
The restaurant industry and food critics thrive on the next new flavor of the month. They bow to the up and coming culinary god - and then rip his/her guts out. Voila! Controversy reigns supreme.
Based on what was shown on TV, Richard definitely "choked." Whatever happened to his nitrogen Tabasco-flavored pearls anyway?
So, the producers only had one option left: Stephanie.
That headline reads: Short, pudgy, straight woman from the Heartland is Top Chef. That's much better.
Top Chef is a great show, but TV's bottom line is about advertising and ratings. I just can't see too many advertising execs endorsing Lisa. And I didn't see even a spark of brilliance in her performance.

Posted by: Wonch | June 12, 2008 6:45 PM

It was all editing to make it look like Lisa was ahead, to keep the tension. At the dinner table, no one liked the shrimp (except, I guess, Ted). I came away from the dining part thinking it was really clear that Steph had won. But I don't believe there's not some influence from past performance or else Richard would have gotten the boot early on due to the mushy fish with scales still attached.

Posted by: Aquagirl | June 12, 2008 7:37 PM

Wonch, I'm curious as to how you know Stephanie is straight? I don't know whether she is or not, but Bravo is the least likely of any channel to make a decision influenced by sexual orientation. They were the original home of Queer Eye, for heaven's sake. Stop looking for conspiracies, especially since you acknowledge that Richard choked and Lisa didn't display "even a spark of brilliance."

Posted by: Wikijen | June 13, 2008 10:28 AM

I was surprised that Lisa was not the winner based on the judges'overall comments, as it seemed that overall she prepared a better meal. Of course I adore Stephanie as she seems to be a lovely person, and may wind up as fan favorite. However, since dessert ends the meal and it is the last course to make an impression, I consider it extremely important. Quite frankly, if my dessert for a dinner party came out looking like Stephanie's, I would consider serving store bought ice cream instead.

Posted by: Baiba | June 14, 2008 2:42 AM

DId anyone else see Tom C.'s face when Richard made his choking comment?

I thought that face said, "What the hell? I was going to go to bat for you but now I can't!"

I'm looking forward to the reunion show to see if they talk about that at all.

That said, Stephanie pulled off a well deserved win as the first female Top Chef.

Posted by: Ryan | June 15, 2008 8:27 AM

I do think Steph is the best chef overall, but I liked Lisa. The editing is the main reason for the hatred focused on her. First we had Dale, one of the most controlling people ever on the show, saying she's "negative" in the show where she became upset because Jennifer was sent home. The producers used that to set the stage for her "bad attitude." Frankly, if you look at her stance and expression at judges table and compare them to Spike and Andrew's, there's not much difference, but because she's female the viewers get more and more hostile to her by the week. We also had Richard (right after getting beaten by Lisa in the semi-finale quick fire) commenting on it.

The issue to me is whether someone who is consistently at the top of the losing team or the one selected to stay when others go home is really a lesser cook. I thought that it showed tremendous growth, and she took a lot more chances than someone like Antonia, who basically cooked the same foods she makes for her kid week after week. And frankly, Lisa can at least do a tasty dessert - which Stephanie can seem to put together. Her cake was much better than Steph's in the wedding challenge, but since she was on the losing team, everyone seems to have forgotten that. I've also see a lot of criticism that Lisa only knows how to do Asian food, but she did Latin for the semi-final and was criticized by Tom C. for going that route. I think the editing was just designed to underplay her strengths and magnify her assertiveness. Lisa did Italian, Asian, Latin, and the groom's cake. The one who did nothing but Asian was Dale, not Lisa. But it's no surprise that everyone loves passive females and hates assertive ones, and the judges seem no different. I was impressed that in one elimination Padma stood up for Lisa, saying she has an amazing palate; but I thought Tom tried really hard all season to give Richard more credit than he deserved week after week, and probably influenced the other judges toward Richard as well.

Posted by: Terry | June 15, 2008 7:40 PM

I have to disagree with Terry a bit on the overall impression of Lisa. First, on the wedding cake challenge. What I remember is that the groom loved his cake (by Lisa) yes, and the judges said it was "tasty" but that Stephanie's cake blew them away. Lisa's was described as ugly, and messy looking, even though it tasted good. Steph's was beautiful and tasted wonderful--so much so that Richard gave her his win because she took such a risk with it--as well as taking on other food.

Also, Lisa's attitude went beyond just not being able to take criticism at judges table. It wasn't just the crossed arms and scowl (and I will admit Andrew and Spike had similar attitudes, and I similarly disliked them). She also blamed her poor performance on others, up to and including sabotage--when there was no evidence of that happening. Everything is filmed--they would have shown us if it had really happened. And she was unable to adjust to the challenge of whatever the problem was (undercooked rice, or the "wrong" rice).

Compare that to how Stephanie handled the issue with the pork belly in the semi-final. She didn't scream at Dale, she didn't blame anyone else. And she didn't serve it anyway. She threw it out and figured out something else to do. That's why she is Top Chef and Lisa is so disliked.

Posted by: HM | June 17, 2008 11:56 AM

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