In the hotly-contested conclusion of the culinary franchise’s 12th season, Los Angeles-based modernist chef Mei Lin out-dueled globally minded Gregory Gourdet. Both chefs impressed the judges throughout the season, but Mei’s menu—thanks to an unexpected choice—came out on top, winning her the $125,000 prize and the coveted title. Fresh out of the kitchen after her win, she’s still digesting what it all means—and took the time to talk about it with EW.
EW: Going back to the beginning of the season, what was it like to step into the Top Chef kitchen for the first time?Mei Lin: Walking into the Top Chef kitchen is one of the most nerve-racking things I’ve ever done. I was just super, super nervous, but you can’t let your nerves get to you that much or you’ll cut yourself in the kitchen or something. And that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do on the first challenge, so I had to stay calm.
It’s a fun exercise to go back and watch a season’s premiere before its finale. Four months ago, we watched 16 nervous chefs arrive in Boston, shuffling awkwardly at their stations. Now we’re in Mexico, with only two remaining in contention. Between then and now, there would be 30-plus challenges, 14 eliminations, four pigs, two if-by-lands, and one winner.
Although 16 chefs stood ready in the Top Chef kitchen that day, Gregory and Mei were literally the first two chefs we heard from. It’s only fitting that they get the last word.
On Top Chef, three wasn’t always a crowd. In fact, during five of the show’s first seven seasons, trios of chefs battled head-to-head-to-head to see who’d take the title and the coveted feature in Food and Wine magazine. Hung and his knife skills outlasted Casey and Dale in Aspen during season 3. Stephanie fought off arch-villain Lisa and the smoldering remains of Richard in season 4. Michael Voltaggio beat his brother Brian and fan favorite Kevin in season 6.
If there’s one thing that might be harder to describe in written words than food, it’s art. Asking an artist what their work is “about” is like asking your dad what goes into his secret family meatball recipe or querying a barbecue restaurant on what spices go into their rub. You might be able to glean a thing or two from the placard (or menu) that accompanies the piece, but cooking and eating are both personal mediums.
I’ve been asking myself a question throughout virtually the entire season of Top Chef. Namely, who should win?
Sometimes on competitive reality TV, the dismissal of a cast member marks a sea of change for the audience. The tenor of how we engage with the competition shifts as more-skilled contestants establish their bona fides and settle in for the long grind. Earlier this year, as the crowd of people aspiring to be Top Chef thinned, so too did the unnecessary noise. In-fighting decreased as the chefs moved one step closer to victory each week, and Aaron’s welcome exit signaled the end of the “personalities-driven” block.
Post-Top Chef holiday break, we’re back with only five chefs remaining. Things are starting to approach boiling point in the Top Chef kitchen: It’s almost finale time.
“My softer side? I mean, I like to snuggle.”
So said 6-foot-6-inch, 265-pound New England Patriots Tight End and, now, Top Chef guest judge Rob Gronkowski this past week in ESPN the Magazine. In culinary TV, there’s only one Top Chef, and in football, there’s only one Rob Gronkowski.
To sports fans, the giant pass-catcher’s outsized personality is fairly well-known—he’s a hard-partying dance freak who loves spiking footballs, hanging with Justin Bieber, and taking off his shirt. In some order.
These poor chefs don’t get a break, do they?
This week on Top Chef, the remaining seven cheftestants are still licking their wounds after Restaurant Wars, but the ranks are thinner than ever. With Keriann’s elimination last week, we’ve hit a point where there are few, if any, obvious candidates for elimination. At seven, there’s hardly a middle-ground left when it comes time for judges table—you’re either safely ensconced in the top tier or shifting awkwardly before Padma tells someone to pack up and go.
The last six weeks were just battles—opening skirmishes in a conflict that would stretch onward for weeks to come. The lesser players were eliminated. Only the strong remain. Now it’s “war.”
Restaurant Wars is a favorite Top Chef tradition because of its absurd conceit: Open a restaurant in 24 hours. In the real world, chefs invest thousands and thousands of dollars and hours and hours of time in planning, preparing, and conceptualizing before opening a restaurant. In reality TV-land, chefs get one day.
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