If we're being honest, we have to admit that we don't watch Hell's Kitchen to see who wins. Well, we don't watch any reality competition to see who wins. The producers wrap things up as quickly as possible once the winner has been announced. Nobody wants to just look at a winner. We want competition. We want conflict. We want suspense.
But there's even less interest in the HK winner than in, say, the Survivor winner. The Survivor winner gets a million bucks. The HK winner gets a supposedly coveted position at a supposedly prestigious restaurant, but as we all know, the winners actually disappear into the kitchen corps or (worse) return to HK as a sous-chef. So when we think about who deserves to win, maybe we ought to think not about our favorite contestants — the ones who seem, you know, competent or relatively well-adjusted — but about the ones who deserve that particular career arc.
In the first challenge, the contestants have to select a world cuisine and make a dish that matches it. Kevin thinks he got the easiest one — Mexican. Dave thinks he got the shaft — Indian. And Ariel is happy with her choice — Chinese — because she thinks Chinese food is "delicious." And there's a celebrity chef judge for each cuisine, causing Dave to self-consciously turn his stained apron around. Poor Ariel completely clams up when asked to describe her dish, and even answers Chef Ramsay's question about cooking Chinese food by saying that she eats it all the time, but that it's actually been a while since she had Chinese take-out. Needless to say, she doesn't fare well. Kevin was confident walking up, and then realized that he forgot to add his mole sauce. Dave's choice of pork as a protein didn't turn out to be fortuitous, what with the large Muslim population of India and all, but his execution on the lentils and spices impresses all three chefs — and he wins! His reward is a set of cookware and the chance to sit at chef's table with his sister and fiance and have the three judges cook for him. And the punishment is polishing silverware: "Do we really need all of it?" whines Ariel.
The reward-punishment dichotomy is intensified by the fact that both winner and losers are in the same physical space. As Kevin and Ariel crane their necks to see what's happening in the kitchen, Dave gets an up close and personal view of some pretty amazing dishes. It's not so much the silverware and the tablecloths that constitute the punishment — it's being this close to a great culinary and educational experience, but being unable to take part. In that respect, it might be one of the best competition outcomes the show has ever presented.
Service time, and that means everyone will get a turn at the pass. This is one of my favorite HK challenges, even though I don't always think we have a fair view of it. Kevin gets started strong, and when sous-chef Scott gives him halibut instead of sea bass, he catches it. Of course, I would mistrust anything the sous-chefs gave me, knowing they've got orders to sabotage; Scott and Kevin have a little cynical back-and-forth about it — "How did that happen?" "I have no idea!" But Kevin keeps sending lamb back to Ariel requesting it to be trimmed differently, and she gives him lip back; hard to say who comes out looking the worse in that encounter.
Dave's idea of running the pass is to completely take charge, snapping towels and swearing. The best moment is when he tells Scott to use a wooden spoon, and gets a muttered "Watch it!" in response. He's so busy pushing stuff out to exercise the quality control that's dear to Ramsay's heart, though, and after two big misses he has to rescue his stint with a couple of minor "this isn't seasoned" catches. Ariel can't tell the mashed potatoes she's supposed to get from the parsnip puree Heather gives her, but she spots the salmon masquerading as sea bass (prompting another great Scott deadpan: "I thought that salmon went with the sea bass garnish." But either she doesn't make sure that her brigade knows the order of requests, or Kevin is sandbagging her by pretending not to understand.
Then Ramsay asks the contestants to each name their comrade who shouldn't be in the final. That's not quite fair; do we really expect the two men not to stick together and both name Ariel? They also have to speak up for themselves — Dave with a crack in his voice as he claims to be capable of running the Araxi kitchen. Chef Ramsay lets Dave, not named by anyone as undeserving, off the hook first, then surprisingly doesn't generate any more suspense but sends Ariel home without further ado. And so the final that we could have seen coming by, oh, about week three or so, is confirmed.
The final hour starts off at sixty miles per hour, with the chefs whisked to downtown LA right after dinner service to cook signature dishes worthy of the Araxi. Dave makes a risky venison on parsnip puree; Kevin a lobster tail with clam, potato, and frankly it seems to me too many other things. Two food critics walk up and pick the venison. One throws a bone to Kevin. Then a chef picks Kevin as well. You know, one might be excused from thinking that all five judges wouldn't get their moment in the sun if it didn't come down to two-all. So Dave ends up winning on the final vote.
Now it's time to pick a team from among the losers. Dave picks Ariel, Robert, and Suzanne; Kevin picks Van, Amanda and gets stuck with Sabrina. Early advantage goes to Dave for his simple, rustic dishes that his team masters quickly; Kevin has beautiful food that will be difficult to execute. It's a classic matchup! Dave gets ahead quickly because Amanda can't get scallops cooked. Chef Ramsay quietly hints to him to switch personnel on the app station, and he finally switches Van and Amanda in an early example of running the kitchen rather than letting it run him. (Naturally Amanda then screws up the risottos which start coming back; a blind man could have seen that coming.) But then everything goes wrong for Dave with Robert's risotto when Dave tells his "ace in the hole" to go light on the mushrooms, then refuses to take responsibility for that order.
There's a table with the winner's future boss in the house, and Kevin gives Amanda conflicting temps on the beef (the narrator blames Amanda, and yeah, she's incompetent, but how about Kevin's confusion?). Kevin is about to lose it by overexercising control, and at the same time Dave has gone lax. But both kitchens finish strong and nearly together.
As the season began, I wouldn't have given a plugged nickel for anybody's chances other than Kevin. He appeared to be the only confident and competent cook in the bunch. Even watching how Dave battled all season, I couldn't see his stoner ass as anybody's boss. But Kevin's loss of cool while running the kitchen gave me pause tonight. I agree with Ramsay that they're damn close. And after tonight, I agree that Dave should win. He proved to be better at making practical decisions that make success possible. Dave, stay away from the snowboarders up there and stick to the commercially-available cigarettes, bro.
- Kevin doesn't smoke! What kind of chef are we supposed to think he is?
- "The main goal right now is to cook whatever animal India doesn't worship."
- How about that montage of fights and injuries to lead off hour two? I think in another life I'd like to be in charge of those montages. Adding all the fire and close-ups and knives and stuff, that's gotta be fun.
- A little-known qualification for head chef at the Araxi resort: You must not refer to yourself in the third person, e.g., "Kevin's in a deep hole right now."
- Dave is super-stoked at this point.