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Someone please explain how Top Chef’s winner won

The final part of Top Chef New Orleans‘ Hawaii finale opened with the judges deliberating and deadlocked, and then flashing back to show us what led to that point. It was surprising and smart editing and made for an episode that was probably the strongest of this weak season, even though its conclusion was maddening because that close decision led to Nicholas Elmi defeating Nina Compton for the title and lots of product placement prizes.

Let’s set aside that Nicholas came across as a complete and total asshole for much of the season, blaming others for his screw-ups and even letting others take the fall for failures. As a viewer who succumbed to the narrative the editors provided, I wanted him to finally fail instead of being rewarded for his awfulness–which continued right up until the final service, when he screamed at the people working for him in the kitchen so loudly that those in the dining room could hear. Let’s also forget that Tom Colicchio said in the final moments that both chefs were “humble,” because bullshit.

The series has had several asshole winners, but as frustrating as that can be, it’s one of the show’s strengths: This is not a popularity contest, it’s a talent competition. Today, however, I just want to know why the asshole won.

The judges initially tied on who’d won each course. Tom insisted they compare the worst dishes, and both Emeril Lagasse and Hugh Acheson were pretty clearly saying that Nicholas had the worst: Nina’s worst dish, they said, was something they still ate. Only Tom and Gail seemed to be pushing for Nick–Tom especially–which would make it a 3-2 decision. Yet they judges still ultimately chose Nicholas to win.

Tom Colicchio revealed how the judges scored the dishes with the chart below, but this isn’t much clearer than the actual episode. First, they only had to make four dishes, but Tom lists 1, 2, 4, and 5 here. Presuming that’s just a typo, not some kind of accounting for Nina’s bonus dishes. Then there’s the actual scoring:

I first read this as presenting the collective judges’ scores, which makes it seem like a zero-sum game, but of course, scoring a subjective competition should not be a zero sum game. (In other words, for every point Nina gained, Nick lost one, and vice-versa.) But it’s probably each judge giving a point each round, which makes a lot more sense: the judges all agreed on the first and fourth rounds, and split on the middle two, but in such a way that two thought Nick was better. But why?

Let’s turn to the other judges for insight. (Warning: very little is coming.) While Hugh Acheson writes that “it was as close as the show makes it out to be. It really was,” and also discusses the food, the only information he offers about the decision was that “It came down to which food was more memorable and enjoyable in the moment.”

Gail Simmons said in a Q&A “in the end we thought that the full experience that Nick gave us and the strength and highlight of just a few of his dishes — really the last three courses of his — were really exceptional.” But she also said that the judges’ experiences were so different it wasn’t “fair”:

“We couldn’t agree, quite frankly, and mostly that’s because we had very different experiences between the two tables. Padma’s group was five people while we were four, so what became very complicated was because we had different experiences eating our meals because service went differently for the two tables, it made the comparison sort of skew — as there were five of them. So it wasn’t necessarily a fair and even discussion.”

Or, as it turns out, a coherent or explainable one.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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