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Top Chef
Carin Baer  /  Bravo
Ilan Hall won the "Top Chef" title in a season filled with vitriol and personality clashes.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/12/2007 3:58:13 PM ET 2007-02-12T20:58:13

In its final episode, "Top Chef 2" was finally about food. The finale was not without the interpersonal conflict that has dominated this season, but the focus on cooking was a welcome change.

After two five-course meals were served to the judges and guest chefs, the judges determined that Ilan Hall defeated Marcel Vigneron. Unlike the frenetically edited earlier episodes, the finale spent a lot of time focusing on Ilan and Marcel as they selected their menus, prepared and plated their food, and explained it to the judges. There was also extensive discussion about each dish from the judges and guest chefs that helped communicate what viewers at home can't experience: the food's taste.

As a result of his familiar but well-executed dishes, Ilan, a 24-year-old New York line cook, won the title and the show's prizes (including $100,000). But he lost many viewers' respect because of the way he treated his fellow competitor throughout the season.

Marcel, a 26-year-old Las Vegas chef fond of molecular gastronomy, often came across as brash, controlling and arrogant. But he could also cook, and that combination enraged many of his fellow competitors, particularly Ilan. This season's winner relentlessly criticized, mocked and ridiculed Marcel, both to his face and to the cameras.

More disturbing was the way Ilan appeared to revel in his bullying of Marcel, and the way the editing of the show worked hard to support Ilan's thesis that Marcel deserved what he received. Compared to Harold Dieterle, the affable, pleasant and talented Season One winner, Ilan's behavior was often disgraceful. Then again, as head judge Tom Colicchio said during last week’s episode, "We're not judging your behavior in the kitchen; we're judging your food."

While Marcel at first appeared to be this season's annoying villain, by the end of the show, the hostility and aggression aimed at him engendered sympathy where there otherwise might have been none.

Top Chef
Carin Baer  /  Bravo
'Top Chef' runner-up Marcel Vigneron was often subjected to taunts and ridicule by other contestants.

A hairy situation
The defining moment of the season came a few weeks ago when some of the remaining five competitors decided, after a night of drinking, to shave their own heads, and then shave Marcel's. At least, that's what viewers saw. After Ilan and Elia shaved their heads, Cliff woke Marcel, and as Ilan cheered him on, wrestled Marcel to the ground and held him in a headlock. As a result, Cliff was sent home for violating the show's rules.

That wasn't quite what happened, however. Careful viewers noticed that, in one of those scenes, Elia still had all of her hair, and was on the floor laughing as Marcel angrily stormed off. In other words, she and Ilan shaved their heads only after their attempted hazing of Marcel went awry. Editing the scene out of order seemed designed to protect the show's integrity, which was waning episode by episode as interpersonal conflict took over.

After the incident, the producers refused to allow head judge Colicchio to dismiss all four participants, like he wanted to do, and thus let Marcel win the competition by default. On his BravoTV.com blog, Tom wrote that "[p]roducers stepped in with a veto. Sending all of the chefs but Marcel home wasn't going to happen."

Of course, the departure of those four contestants would have prematurely ended the series on a low note. But it would have also been a fitting note, as the competition and cooking often fell away in favor of "Real World"-style immaturity and unnecessary drama packed with deceptive editing.

Less about food, more about drama
In its second season, "Top Chef" became more of a soap opera set on a reality show than a competition about cooking. Otto quit the competition after admitting to have taken food from a store that his team didn't pay for, although he did return it. Mia quit to save Elia from elimination. Michael used his budget for one challenge to buy beer for himself. All the chefs were spared elimination but put on probation after accusations of cheating during a challenge. Cliff was sent home for his part in hazing Marcel. Betty fought with Marcel. Frank fought with Marcel. Ilan screamed at Marcel. Elia accused Marcel of cheating but offered no evidence.

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The vitriol toward Marcel even spilled over into the world outside of the show. Ilan, Sam and Elia have continued to disparage him in interviews conducted long after the finale was filmed, and, in a Las Vegas bar, one viewer hit Marcel in the face with a bottle. Apparently, the show's editing made her think that Marcel was a terrible person worthy of 30 stitches in his face.

Sometimes, the drama seemed to overshadow the actual cooking competition. Sam, who consistently won competitions and produced outstanding dishes, was sent home in the penultimate episode, angering many viewers. The judges said that, of the four final contestants, Sam took the fewest risks during that challenge, and thus sent him home.

The effect of that decision — whether or not it was the right call — was to leave the two chefs who had the biggest rivalry as the finalists. Although Sam didn't hide his dislike for Marcel, Ilan's invective was much more direct, and that set up a battle between arch-nemeses that made for a more compelling narrative than a low-key chef competing against an annoying one.

That decision also left the show to be less about food and more about drama. Bravo's "Project Runway," the show that gave "Top Chef" its format, works because it's about talented professionals challenging themselves and intersecting with each other (both positively and negatively) along the way. Flipping that equation, as "Top Chef" did this season, makes for a much less satisfying meal.

Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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