So this is it. Tonight is the big night for Nick Elmi and Nina Compton. They have made it through what feels like 300 weeks of challenges and weirdness and product placement and Tom’s smirking, all to make it to this moment: the Top Chef finale. One of them will be walking away with $125,000 and the title of Top Chef, and we here at Foobooz World HQ have gone through all the footage, all the recaps, all the speculation to lay odds on who is going to walk away with the big prize.
So are you ready? Let’s start by looking backward…
Nick Elmi: We know what Nick has done here in Philly. He ran the kitchen at Le Bec Fin during its downward slide, opened the Rittenhouse Tavern to solid early reviews only to see it also slide under his command. Not so good. But he also did time at Guy Savoy in Paris, Lutece in Manhattan, and he now has Laurel right here on East Passyunk which is getting all kinds of love--most recently from our own Trey Popp. So in addition to all the wicked French-y skills Nick picked up while bopping around the East Coast and Paris (and, to put a pleasant spin on it, the humility we assume he learned over the past couple years in Philly), there's something to be said for a guy on the upswing.
Nina Compton: Nina has French, Caribbean and Italian kitchens in her past--two mother cuisines and a one-off. She trained under Daniel Bolud (which is no small thing) and Norman Van Aken (another big name), and currently is the chef de cuisine at Scott Conant's Scarpetta at the Fountainbleu in Miami. From everything we understand, she is in her professional life the same way she comes off on TV--smooth, controlled, competent and successful. There appears to be as little drama in her rise through the ranks (no closures, no firings, no riding restaurants down in flames) as there is in her on-screen persona. But then, on the other hand, she has never really opened or run a restaurant all on her own--both things that Nick has done.
The Verdict: We're calling this one a draw. Nick is on the upswing, but Nina appears to have never really been down. Where Nina is calm and competent, Nick's career has been a bit more fiery. But on the other hand, being the boss of a place changes you, and there is no better education for a chef than to be the man in charge of, well, everything.
Nick: Quickfire challenges have not been Nick's strong suit. It took until episode 5 for Nick to even be on a winning team during a quickfire (Team Lakshmi, during the aluminum foil challenge, and Nina was also on that team), he didn't get his first victory until the highly controversial Episode 13, where he won Jacques Pepin's Dover sole challenge (which came with immunity), and then went on to make some totally weird corn-pubes-and-chocolate nightmare during the elimination round, where he was asked to give up his immunity, throw himself on his sword and go home in place of Stephanie. He didn't (because Top Chef is a game, haters!) and lived to fight another day--and to also win the quickfire in episode 16.
All told, Nick took home two quickfire victories, was in the top tier twice, and ended up on the bottom four times. Not a great record--except that he won when it really mattered.
Nina: She won the Creole tomato quickfire in episode 6, she was on the winning team (with Nick) in episode 5, and that's it. Except not really. Nina only had two wins during the season, but she placed in the top tier 4 additional times and only placed in the bottom twice.
So that gives Nina 2 wins, 4 times in the top tier and twice in the bottom.
The Verdict: Nina edges out Nick here with a more solid record, but the Quickfires? They're gimmicky and don;t matter much when it comes down to the big night. They prove that Nina can cook, sure. That she can think fast and pivot when something goes wrong. But in looking over all the Quickfires, we think her record shows something else as well--that she understands when to show restraint. When something isn't completely in her wheelhouse, she goes the safe route and seems happy to land in the middle. This is a lesson that Nick has never learned. He swung for the fences every single time in the Quickfires and doesn't seem to have any sort of defensive strategy at all.
This is the telling category. Elimination challenges are the real challenges in Top Chef because, in a good season (and season 11 wasn't bad) they are less crazy and product-placement-y than the Quickfires, and allow the chefs to really show what they're good at, without getting in their way too much. And, on the surface, Nick and Nina are evenly matched in terms of elimination wins. Nick won the Elimination round in episodes 9,10 and 16. Nina won it in episodes 1, 6 and 13. That's 3 apiece. But then you look at the hi/lo stats and a different story emerges...
Nick made his trip to see Happy Tom 5 times during the season--5 times in the top 3, of which he won on 3 occasions. He also made 5 trips to see Angry Tom, but managed to avoid elimination on each occasion. In the other six episodes, he stayed comfortably in the middle.
Nina? She placed in the bottom and risked elimination only twice the entire season. And she was in the winner's circle a remarkable 10 times. She only spent four episodes total drinking beers in the stew room with the middle children, but cooked well enough to impress the judges into considering her for the win in more than half of all the episodes.
Which is why Nina wins this category hands-down. On a pure numbers game, she is a better cook than Nick--or at least better at impressing the judges--and that is really all that matters here.
How will the stress and pressure of being in the finale affect the chefs? Who will be able to handle it better? Anecdotally speaking, Nick seems to have it under control. In keeping with his habit of winning the hell out of things when it really matters, he won BOTH the Quickfire and the Elimination in last week's penultimate episode. Plus, it appears that he spent the break learning how to put salt on things, so that can only help him.
Nick won Restaurant Wars. There is no better preparation for the finale than winning Restaurant Wars. In particular, this finale because...
We don't know much about what's coming for tonight's final challenge, but we do know some things. One, Padma will be in a bikini at some point. Two, we know that each chef will end up cooking with three eliminated contestants--either friends or foes, according to the teaser trailer. And three, we know that the two chefs will be opening and running their own pop-up restaurants. Which, not for nothing, sounds a lot like a second Restaurant Wars, doesn't it?
Nick stands a chance. He stands a good chance of coming through and winning it all. Depending, of course, on his team, his concept, the vicissitudes of fate and blah blah blah, he could--as he has done before--pull out the clutch win.
But looking at the odds and the data, my handicapper's heart says that Nina has the edge here. She has the victories on her side. She has a proven ability to be able to cook what the judges want, and to perform under pressure. What Nick has going for him is somewhat more esoteric--the momentum, the big wins, the drive to leave it all out there on the table no matter what the challenge is.
It's going to be close, that's for sure. And I really want Nick to win--not just because he's the hometown guy, but because I think he's the better and more interesting chef. But if I had real money riding on it, I'd put it on Nina by a slim margin.
And in just a few hours, I guess we'll all know for sure.
UPDATE: Man, I have never been so happy to be wrong. Congrats, Nick, on bringing home the win for yourself and for Philly.
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