"Top Chef" finale does a disservice to its incredibly talented and deserving winner

"By nature, what we do is ephemeral, but the experiences will last forever"

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published June 21, 2024 3:00PM (EDT)

Kristen Kish and Danny Garcia on "Top Chef" (David Moir/Bravo)
Kristen Kish and Danny Garcia on "Top Chef" (David Moir/Bravo)

First off, of course: Spoilers abound, truly.

What a peculiar ending to one of my favorite "Top Chef" seasons in a while (I joked with my brother that the subtitle for the season could've been "a preponderance of aguachile"); I'd argue that the way the judges' feedback was shown and edited in this finale felt like it was building to a Dan win, while the season editing at large seemed to favor Danny initially, and then Savannah in the back half. Not that he didn't deserve it, but the way that the episode was shaped didn't lend itself to a Danny win, quite frankly. As a result, the momentous "you are 'Top Chef'"! moment from host Kristen Kish — her first time delivering the line! — almost rang a bit hollow, unfortunately.

But we'll chat more about that momentarily.

We have a new "Top Chef!" That's something to celebrate. Danny is the first, as he put it, "Puerto Rican-Dominican-Muslim winner" and he walks away with over $300,000, staggeringly enough, which I do believe is the most any cheftestant has ever won. 

I think after two back-to-back Buddha-led seasons, in which he was ostensibly the clear frontrunner for two years straight, this season may have sort of thrown the editors for a loop. I remember after "Top Chef: Texas," when Colicchio said that eventual winner Paul Qui was so far ahead of everyone else that both production and the judges' kind of had to tamper his amazing showing down in order to make the show feel competitive, but I don't think that was the case here. Danny wasn't leagues and leagues ahead of Dan and Savannah, which further complicates and confuses all the more, unfortunately muddying what should be a celebratory, jovial winning moment. 

There's a difference between misdirection and outright misleading edits. It's never appealing to be fooled, if you will. To be honest, it felt like a bit of a bait-and-switch between Dan and Danny, actually. And for me, who rooted more for Savannah than I have for any cheftestant on this show in a very long while, I was doubly disappointed because she had so clearly come in third place. 

It’s really all just a disservice to Danny, actually, who truly did earn that win.

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I think the other thing that's frustrating, for me at least, is that Danny is immensely capable, talented and worthy of a win. For all of this squabbling now — primarily because of editing, at that  I mean, Danny is one of the most prolific challenge winners in the show's history, with seven or eight wins under his belt (I'm never sure how to include his "win" with Rasika, especially since she technically won the challenge). He deserved the win and then some and I wish the reception had been better for him, but that's not due to him, or Dan or Savannah, or even the judges for that matter.

Also, the fact that this win was aired just days after the passing of his mentor, Jamal James Kent, makes it all the more bittersweet and tragic, yet still special. Danny now has a larger platform to promote, espouse and specialize in the facets — both culinary and otherwise — for which Kent was so loved and cherished. 

This, combined with the outright misleading edit (and Savannah’s being completely out of contention due to a series of silly mistakes) certainly didn’t make this my favorite conclusion to a season. So thrilled for Danny, though — and so extremely happy with Kristen's performance as host. Hasn't she been just stellar? What a remarkable showing from her and I find her unvarnished sentimentality, enthusiasm and emotion to be so refreshingly lovely.

Tom himself has even taken to Twitter/X to vociferously defend the win. (This isn't entirely a rarity; I remember some comments from him after last year's finale, too. I think he stays pretty mum on Twitter until the entire season concludes.) What was most interesting was his concurring with random Twitter/X users that the edit was less than ideal, to put it lightly. He also reiterates just how much the judges truly disliked Dan's first course, which again makes me wonder: Had he not cooked that tuna that way, would we have had a different winner? 

Colicchio also noted "I'm not involved in the edit" and said that Danny "cooked a better meal." He also responded to a tweet that said "Dan was the winner for me" by saying "I don't remember you at Judges table," which got a chuckle out of me. He also noted that judges "really disliked the tuna course" and said that he agreed with the second sentence of someone whose tweet read "Finally watched @BravoTopChef finale. Must have been horribly edited" — which really speaks volumes, does it not?

I also generally didn't love that this great, expansive season concluded on a cruise ship with ostensibly no one else on it, but that's neither here nor there.

Anywho, let's get into my other takeaways — and stay tuned for some exclusive interviews with our winner, our finalists and some of the other top cheftestants this season: 


I guess one could argue that while Dan's menu on the whole was more consistent, Danny may have had higher highs? But I don't even know if that rings true, especially with his under-seasoned first course and his under-cooked lobster in the third. I thought Dan's third course, with the oxtail, was probably the highest-rated dish overall (for me, too, at least in terms of how it looked and sounded), though I guess Danny's dessert probably also came close. Tom really had a winning quote for it, too: "What I liked about this dessert is why I love food." And you really can't argue with that one, can you?


Danny's dishes may have had more flaws, but from a conceptual perspective, the judges may have deemed them more impressive or successful. The finale's coming down to two men named Dan(ny) was somewhat reminiscent of American Idol 7 when the final two were David Archuleta and David Cook. 


I also didn't know until literally this moment that Danny is a fellow New Jersey native, who graduated from Freehold High in 2010. You learn something every day! I wonder if he's the first winner from New Jersey?


I loved Danny's throughline of "first, significant food memories." His lobster dish with squash, persimmon, chaaza and salsa matcha was inspired, as was his dessert, which conjured images of "an eight year old kid walking through the city" with a simple treat. 


Also, just like in the prior episode, Danny's proclivity for lemon (in this case, a relish) seemed to really come in the clutch after Manny accidentally used all of the cantaloupe for juice and they weren't able to make compressed balls for the dessert. Also, I fondly thought back to his love for carrots; it would've been fun to see more carrot in his finale menu! 


I think most future cheftestants would be wise to steer clear of soba cha, the buckwheat tea, right? It didn't seem to do Dan or Danny any favors in its three appearances this season. 


I loved seeing Kristen, Savannah and Gail get a bit teary at the breakfast. Succeeding in such a way on "Top Chef" is truly a significant moment that could vastly impact a career, so I like seeing that so clearly acknowledged. Lastly, it was so cool to see everyone's legitimate awe and respect for Emeril. 


I am still struck by the vast juxtaposition between Danny's meticulous, outlined, prep list approach with Manny to Savannah's very loose, much more freeform partnership with Michelle. There’s a difference between micromanaging and leading outright and unfortunately, I think Savannah blurred that line  and ended up doing neither. At times, it even felt like Michelle was in the lead: the Epis, the pasta, the plantain (or the "mofong-no" bastardization).


This was supposed to be Savannah's moment in the sun, her time to shine, and I felt that she withered a bit and gave some of the big decision making to Michelle, unfortunately. She, at points, almost seemed to be giving Michelle more ownership over the menu and the dishes than she had herself, bouncing ideas off of her but almost always with a question mark at the end. Michelle would then be the more declarative one, often to the dishes' detriment, and then Savannah had no recourse when critiqued at judges' table because, of course, her name was on those dishes — not Michelle's.


Savannah could’ve put together a stunning meal and, to be frank, I don't understand how or why she came up with what she did. I loved the idea of her gustatory journey as a theme throughout, but why not incorporate some more Japanese food since that has been the focus of her career in recent years?


Danny, who was admittedly a bit brusque with Manny, was an undeniable leader.


Dan/Amanda was also interesting: She did indeed note the tuna texture to him as if they were trying, but he said it was what he intended on and that was that.


I will also note that I found it odd that no one picked Laura or Soo as a sous? Laura is so meticulous and Soo was clearly very talented. I knew Dan would go for Amanda, but peculiar picks otherwise. 

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I liked how in the breakfast scene, Dan talked about making the most out of his elevated platform and talking more about what he cares about, "making a difference beyond just food" and spreading awareness about Kennedy's. His note that he loves cooking "but also advocacy" was so telling for what he'll be able to bring to the industry and to those afflicted (and also those unafflicted) with Kennedy's or other mobility-impacting ailments.


I am obsessed with the myriad ways that Dan uses labneh — such fascinating applications and usages across the entire season!


Amanda did note the odd grapefruit/tuna consistency issue but Dan clearly wanted that  I’m curious, had he not served the tuna in that way, if he may have been told “You are Top Chef” instead. Could that have been the variable that shifts the win? I'm sure Dan asks himself that on the regular, but regardless, he did incredibly well throughout the entire season, cooked remarkable dishes, won a bunch of challenges and really showed up as someone who could be a genuine motivation for so many.


As he told me a few weeks back, he "always wanted to challenge" himself (he tried out for the show eleven times!) and also "inspire differently-abled people on this national scale." And he did that and then some. 


Lastly, I just adored that little moment of Manny's being so sweet to Dan at the end, calling him an inspiration. That was lovely. 


I usually like the loftiness and weight of the prompt of "make the best meal of your lives" in a finale, but I immediately did think about how Savannah noted in a recent episode that she performs better with more limiting circumstances. Unfortunately, this hunch did play out as anticipated.


I already noted her missteps in menu planning and her not-exactly-leading Michelle, but I also want to reiterate that I have long maintained that the break between the main competition and the finale can hinder some people, but I can't recall the last time it really threw someone into a tizzy like it did for Savannah  especially after completely dominating the last few challenges in Wisconsin.


Also, for me, the entire second half of the season was literally "The Savannah Show": I felt as though her sheer amount of screentime, her multitude of confessionals and her barrage of winner-adjacent quotes all would inevitably lead up to a victorious conclusion to her story, and I feel a bit robbed that ultimately, her finale performance was anything but. What was the payoff in giving her such a redemptive, "I've found my voice" storyline only for it to falter at the end? 


I liked the idea of Marcona almonds and marinated, gossamer slices of red grapes in her pasta course, but alas, it wasn't enough to counteract the less-than-ideal pasta and the overcooked lobster inside. Gail's comment about that course was so damning in an almost uncharacteristic way. There was no coming back after that. Also, Kristen really did her predecessor proud when she asked Savannah "...do you make a lot of pasta?"


I knew in that moment she had lost.


I was so happy that her first dish received great feedback, but unfortunately, that level of excitement never returned. Wish the rest of her menu had followed suit. Of course, we've discussed her mid-courses, but her dessert did indeed sound lovely: An elevated take take on a hummingbird cake/upside down pineapple mashup — but the resulting dish almost looked deflated on the plate, which I thought sort of mirrored her demeanor in the last 20 minutes or so of the finale. It must be pretty demoralizing to be standing between two men who you know have a better shot at winning than you do. I hated that for her. 


At the same time, though, I loved seeing the incisive takes on her food and approach. When guest judge Justin Pichetrungsi said she "has a kindhearted style about her food" that helped sum up some of her hard-to-pin-down allure. I loved her ending quotes that she looks at herself differently now, feels more confident and more willing to take chances.


I maintain that Savannah will go on a Melissa King "All Stars"-level run if she came back a few seasons from now. I loved how bold and inventive her food was: the jelly cake, the pave, the cheddar Caesar, all of her fried components, even the meat raffle Quick Fire dish. 


A few weeks back, I compared Savannah's trajectory on the show to Carla Hall's arc in her original season, and this finale performance sort of reminded me of hers, too — unfortunately. But regardless, it was a pleasure to watch how Savannah grew and flourished as the competition went on, truly coming into her own and showing her immense talent, but clearly the 6-week break totally brought that to a screeching halt and reverted her to a place that was lacking in culinary ingenuity  which we know she has in spades. I'm so excited to see what's next for her. I know she'll be an enormous presence in the culinary world, whether that's at a Japanese restaurant in North Carolina or anywhere else she might wind up. It goes without saying, but she was obviously my "fan favorite" of this season. 

Tom's quote at the final judges' table (which was actually included in one of the early-season promos) is magnificent and really sums up the entire series on the whole. He said: "By nature, what we do is ephemeral, but the experiences will last forever." 

I absolutely adored the last few minutes of the show, with Kristen's acknowledging the cast, crew and judges and with Danny's pretty remarkable concluding confessional. It was so terrific, for even just a fleeting thirty seconds or so, to see him sort of let down his bravado in the final moments of the season. He noted how he puts such pressure on himself "all the time" and how he felt good to "put up the food [he] wants to put up." He also said how proud of himself he was.


So honest — he has astonishing talent and I wish him the best. I know his mark in the industry will be something impactful and special and I'm so looking forward to seeing that come to fruition. 

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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