The story of Food Network’s Tournament of Champions IV has been its many upsets, and the question is: Would that continue through the final episode? Would the winner be considered an upset, too?
Would there be the first two-time winner in the history of the competition? Would a chef new to this competition win against a veteran competitor?
The final four had two TOC alum, season-two winner Maneet Chauhan and final-four regular Jet Tila, plus two new competitors, Top Chef Boston winner Mei Lin and Food Network regular Britt Rescigno.
In a change from last season, the final three battles were judged by five judges, meaning each chef had plate six dishes (the sixth is used by the production to film close-ups and other hero shots of the dish).
Guy Fieri previewed the finale’s judges by calling them “the most impressive panel of judges on TOC yet” and “five of the greatest culinary icons in the food world.” They were:
- Nancy Silverton
- Ming Tsai
- Cat Cora
- Lorena Garcia
- Daniel Boulud
That’s an impressive group, even if we’ve seen four of them before on TOC.
Speaking of the judges: This season, the judges seem to have drifted more into Chopped territory for me.
In season one, I remember being surprised at how often the judges just spent their time praising a dish, deconstructing everything that worked. This season there’s been a lot of if I had to say something bad… comments, which strikes me as possibly the result of a directive, or perhaps just an editing choice to include more mystery.
In other season-four changes, I like how the show experimented with the randomizer this season, removing time (which keeps each round a little more even) and replacing it with a re-spin wheel.
The actual re-spin options were hit or miss. Re-spin? Great. Move up or down? Nah. The drama of the randomizer is seeing what it lands on, so the one up or one down options effectively allows the chefs to choose something, and that takes a little fun out of it.
The ongoing TOC mystery is why Hunter is, sigh of all sighs, still there, though his presence has been greatly reduced. I applaud the editors who cut around him and/or feel for them when they have to insert more Hunter.
In the finale, they used him to add deep insight, such as when he told Maneet, “This is real real right here. Real real.”
But now I’m doing what I accused the judges of doing, and mentioning the negative. Like the dishes on Tournament of Champions, the season was excellent overall.
TOC IV winner’s journey through the finale
I continue to be amazed at how quickly the chefs devise creative ways to deal with the randomizer’s produce and techniques. People are not generally not losing because they’ve massively screwed up, but because their excellent dish was bested by one that was outstanding.
Tournament of Champions has winners, but no real losers, unless you count Brian Malarkey. Oh, I kid Malarkey and his malarkey!
The first battle of the TOC IV finale was Maneet versus Britt, who had to cook a deconstructed dish with kanpachi and celtuce, things I had never heard of before. They also had to use a Himalayan salt block, which I actually got as a gift once thanks to my love of salt.
During the season, Britt Rescigno beat Tiffany Faison, Darnell Ferguson, and Jose Garces. While I basically don’t care about the seeding, Britt was the first #8 seed to make the finale, and was responsible for the biggest and most noteworthy upsets.
Britt’s impressive run ended, however, when she faced Maneet, who took her down 87 to 80.
In the second battle, Jet Tila and Mei Lin had to confit wild partridge and yuzu, and use a katsuobushi shaver.
By a score of 90 to 87, Mei Lin beat Jet Tila, keeping him as a perpetual final four.
Backstage, Jet was emotional—though more about Mei Lin’s win than his loss. “I was her 10, 15 years ago,” he said, crying. “I remember being young and poor and an immigrant, and looking at our idols, and now there’s another round. It’s more important that young people that look like us have something to aspire to.”
As Maneet said from backstage, that left “two minority women going head-to-head on Tournament of Champions.” Maneet told us that, after winning in season two, “the number of people who reached out to me, especially young kids who look like me, and told me, seeing you gave us the hope they could also do it, so that is a huge responsibility.”
So it matters that two women of Asian descent were in the finale—and on a show where no white male chef has ever made the final four.
Tournament of Champions begins with an initial field that is much more diverse than, say, early seasons of Top Chef.
But it’s still remarkable that, in 19 seasons of Top Chef, only six women have won (three of those were in the last six seasons), while Tournament of Champions has only had female winners in its first four seasons.
I’m not sure if we have enough data to know definitively, but I wonder how much of a role blind judging plays in that, since it completely removes the possibility for implicit bias. After all, the judges don’t even know who’s in the competition until they watch it on TV.
In the final battle, Maneet and Mei had 60 minutes to cook one hot dish and one cold dishes—12 plates of food each—using a side of lamb, shiso, and an ice cream machine.
Maneet described that combination as “the hardest randomizer I’ve ever received.”
About Mei’s final plates, Ming Tsai said “this is a spectacular dish” and “such a fantastic balance,” while Nancy Silverton said, “I’m besides myself when I look at the amount of work.” Lorena Garcia said “this is a dish I will remember for a long, long time.”
Maneet’s final dish was dinged for the presentation—”brown on brown on brown,” as Cat Cora described it—but then Cat called it “worthy of the finale.” Ming Tsai said he was “just blown away.”
While watching the judging, Maneet said “I think I was just too ambitious and wanted to do too much, but it’s the finale.”
The final scores: 89 to 91. The winner: Mei Lin.
Earlier, Mei said, “There’s been a lot of insane upsets, and I want to be one of those upsets,” and she was.
The show didn’t actually give us the final scorecard, which was unusual, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that difference was entirely in presentation.
Mei Lin is now the second Top Chef winner to win Tournament of Champions, and when Guy Fieri asked if she’d return for season five next year, she said, “Hell yes!”