And then there was one. After a semigripping season of staged drama, incidental stress, and good-natured joshing, Top Chef Masters has come to a close, and one person stands alone as Master Top Chef Masters Chef or whatever it's called. The episode was cleverly constructed, with each chef making three dishes. The first was inspired by their first food memory. The second, by the food that inspired them to be a chef. The third, by the career-inspiring dish of one of three critics (James Oseland, Gael Greene, or Ruth Reichl).
Mary Sue recalled being served steak tartare on Christmas Eve, and picked that as her early food memory dish. Her next dish saluted a mentor who whipped together a brilliant shrimp cocktail on the fly and inspired her. And she was paired with Ruth Reichl, who had some incredibly good lemon soufflé when she was in Paris at age 12 or 10 or thereabouts.
Traci decided to play off of shrimp creole, cooked by her grandfather from Louisiana. Her next dish was something something blah blah California cuisine roasted quail. Finally, she was paired with Gael Greene, who remembered this insane roasted duck with béarnaise from 1960.
Floyd cooked a quiet, subtle vegetable and porridge dish that hearkened back to his childhood, and a rice-crusted fish dish that recalled the first time his father took him out to a formal restaurant. He was paired with James Oseland, who gifted this spice-loving chef with the task of doing an Indonesian rendang equal to the vivid rendang of his youth.
And then, like the air hissing out of a deflating tire, the tension went out of the episode. The big crisis, milked within an inch of its life, was that Floyd got stuck in Los Angeles traffic and got about an hour less prep time than the other chefs. Mary Sue was brought in by the producers to do some desperate reinflation of the dramatic conceit, but her forced monologue ("This has been a hundred times more intense than my final test in chef school!") recalled the "kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life" ode to Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate.
And then, just when you thought the episode couldn't possibly get any less dramatic, Curtis Stone brought the three chefs to a secret location. The twist? He was going to cook them a nice breakfast so that they could relax and get off their feet for a bit. You can just imagine the conversation that set this up:
PRODUCER 1: I'm worried that the audience is going to be too excited by this episode. There's a lot going on, what with the slow-moving traffic and the fact that Mary Sue had to rewhip some eggs for her soufflés.
PRODUCER 2: What if we gave everyone on the show a little breather? You know, a chance to just relax and get along with each other?
PRODUCER 1: Perfect. That's perfect!
The chefs presented their dishes to the judges, and the judgment was just what we've come to expect from these shows: a big muddy mess, with no real indication of who was ahead and who was behind. The only dish that really shined was Mary Sue's amazing lemon soufflé, the only dish to win 100 percent praise from its respective critic and the dish that everyone couldn't seem to stop raving about.
So, there was our clue: It was close, everyone cooked well, but ultimately Mary Sue sneaked out a big win. Except, no, she didn't. The prize went to Floyd. And that was it. Floyd won. Why did Floyd win? Well, we can guess, but that's fruitless—the judgment took place inside a sealed black box, so we can't really know.
That's kinda where this season proved to ultimately be a bust. When it comes to judging this sort of thing, viewers need to be clued in to the actual positions judges are taking and why—when everyone metes out praise and censure in equal measure, you lose confidence that you have any idea as to what's going on. Lock the viewer out of the process, lose the viewer's affection. To its credit, for an elimination-based reality show, Top Chef Masters generally felt real, in that its cheftestants weren't coached into talking trash and undercutting one another. But the professionalism of its contestants and total lack of personal stake meant that the contest could be treated like summer camp with cameras.
All that said: Floyd seemed like a hell of a nice guy, and a good chef. It was nice to see him win $100,000 for his charity. But the same would've gone for Mary Sue or Traci. And at the end of a saga, that's not a reasonable place for us to be.