09.15.10

Top Chef's Surprise Finish

The much-maligned season ended with a twist Wednesday. Jace Lacob spoke to executive producers Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz about who won, what went wrong, and… Justin Bieber?

Bravo's Top Chef ended a contentious season last night with a surprise win by a chef that many viewers believed to be all but out of the running, considering the fierceness of his competition. Perhaps due to the unexpected illness faced by Angelo Sosa, the jaw-dropping overconfidence of Ed Cotton, or his Singapore Sling-inspired dessert, contestant Kevin Sbraga sailed to victory.

However, it wasn't such smooth sailing for Top Chef itself this season.

The Washington, D.C.-set seventh season opener ranked as the lowest rated premiere in the series' history, next to the very first season. In its 9 p.m. Wednesday timeslot, viewership this season was off by an average of roughly half a million total viewers from Season 6. If the audience erosion weren't enough, the show—which last month became the first reality series to defeat six-time Emmy winner The Amazing Race—received flak from critics and viewers alike, who pointed at uncharismatic contestants, lackluster challenges, and some shaky editing.

The disappointment felt by fans of the show has been palpable, even as Bravo has rolled out spinoffs like Top Chef Masters and Top Chef: Just Desserts, which premiered last night.

So what happened? And are the show's executive producers—Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz of Magical Elves— aware of the cacophony of audience criticism? The Daily Beast caught up with the pair for an exclusive interview, in which they talk about Kevin's victory, the language of reality television, culinary tourism, and the Justin Bieber concert film they're producing.

The Daily Beast: This week's finale of Top Chef featured a surprising victory by Kevin, who seemed to fly under the radar for much of the season. Were you surprised by Kevin's win? What went wrong with Angelo and Ed?

Cutforth: We've had this happen a number of times where someone who was a runaway favorite didn't quite deliver in the final reckoning.

Lipsitz: It's anyone's game because the people you expect to do incredibly well [don't always]. We've had a couple of people that choke ultimately. I think we have learned that anything can happen in the finale.

Cutforth: It was really, really, really close.... I don't think it was a case of Angelo being too sick or Ed slipping up. It was a case of someone who was first among equals in that group. Kevin slipped under the radar because he doesn't really trumpet his own victories... He's had his ups and downs through the season but he provided a lot of highs during the season as well. It wasn't like he was like the slug who came from nowhere exactly. It was a surprise even to him, to be honest. You can see it on the show.

Jane Lipsitz: We can listen to the blogs, but at the end of the day we have to go with our instincts and make the best show that we believe we're making.

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The Daily Beast: The trip to Singapore for the two-part finale really invigorated the season. What was behind the idea to go international for the first time in the series' history?

Cutforth: It was something we wanted to do because there is so much culinary tourism now. It's so much a part of the story of fine dining... It's hard to up the stakes every season and make the show feel bigger and bigger and that was one thing we could do this season.

The Daily Beast: Having now done it with Singapore, is it something you would consider doing again with a different locale?

Lipsitz: It's something we've been talking about for a while so there's definitely been other international locations that we've discussed.

The Daily Beast: What did the show do right this time around and what did it perhaps not do as well as before?

Cutforth: We really have no control over who stays and who goes and which personalities make it all the way through and which don't. I've heard from people that with the location of Washington, D.C., we were a little late to the game. There was so much excitement in the aftermath of the inauguration with D.C. and now, seeing politicos and political journalists as guests on the show, maybe we're reminding people of stuff that they don't want to be reminded of at this particular moment in time. I think we have just gotten a bit unlucky with the location, although we were able to do amazing challenges there: the CIA challenge or the NASA challenge, the Nationals… I can't beat down on D.C.

Lipsitz: I heard that people weren't that interested in this cast, but I thought there were some amazing characters. We can listen to the blogs, but at the end of the day we have to go with our instincts and make the best show that we believe we're making. If you listen to critics too much, you find yourself making a show for too many people.

Cutforth: We found over the years—whether we were doing Project Runway or Project Greenlight or Top Chef—that people tend to have a memory of what the show was like in the very last few episodes of the season… At this point, people are going to have a good feeling about the cast of this season because they've just been watching the last episode. When you're doing those early episodes when there are 17 characters to introduce and all these stories to tell, it's never quite as engaging.

Lipsitz: Season 6 is a perfect example of that. The negative criticism on that was that you knew who was going to win from the very beginning… But there's no better story than those two [Voltaggio] brothers going head-to-head at the end. And it won an Emmy, so there you go.

The Daily Beast: How would you respond to complaints that the editing this season was on the nose or you could instantly tell who was packing their knives within the first five minutes?

Cutforth: I've seen that critique of the show and ultimately when you have a lot of people involved in an episode you do have to focus, to a certain degree, on the people who become relevant at judges' table, because otherwise you are setting up a whole bunch of stories that just end two-thirds of the way through the episode. For the show to be satisfying, you really want to be tracking those contestants. People have said to us, you always focus on someone's dead grandmother while they're brushing their teeth in the morning and that's the person who's going home. Obviously, we're smart enough not to do that.

People have gotten very focused on the type of criticism that the judges use and maybe that's gotten a bit predictable... So, if you under-season some food for Tom Colicchio, he's going to let you know it, and that's really going to count at judges' tables.

Lipsitz: The language of reality [television] is so ingrained in the fabric of society that if you have a character who says, "Oh, my god, I did such a bad job, I'm definitely going home," you can say, oh, that person's definitely not going to go home because they said that, or you can say that person is definitely going to go home because it was a ruse. No matter what the outcome is, you can always prove yourself right as a viewer.

The Daily Beast: It would appear that next season of Top Chef is an All-Stars edition. Can you comment at all on whether that's true?

Cutforth: We can't comment on the next season. I believe an announcement about that is being made next week.

The Daily Beast: You're both producing a Justin Bieber concert film that's slated for release in February. What can you say about the project and its current status?

Lipsitz: My ears are still recovering from the concert and the screaming fans. We were on the road for two weeks with them. He's a real phenomenon. It's a really amazing time to document this 16-year-old's journey... I haven't seen anything like this in a very long time. The scenes that we've seen are reminiscent of A Hard Day's Night. The fans and these girls are rabid; they love him. It's been an amazing experience so far.

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Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment websites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.