“Top Chef” — Finale, part 1


Welcome back into the kitchen, chef-lovers! While we were all indulging in our own “Top Chef” fantasies (and sweet potatoes by the pound), our favorite cheftestants were busy as well. Wednesday night was the first of the two-part finale featuring the strongest group of finalists the show has ever known:

• Kevin, the jolly red-bearded Southerner with a pig tattoo and a penchant for wowing with simple food.

• Jennifer, the former cold-as-ice competitor whose confidence has gone more off center than her ponytail despite oodles of talent (and a reality TV-ready bikini bod).

• Michael Voltaggio, the hot-headed younger brother who would be an evil jerk everyone would love to root against if, A. He weren’t so darn good and B. He weren’t hiding a likable guy under an über-perfectionist facade.

• Bryan Voltaggio, the straight-arrow older brother who seems like he should be cooking in military fatigues rather than a stark white chef coat.

So, Wednesday, months after the main part of the competition, the chefs gathered once again for the finale. And I have to say, I always love when the chefs get back together after a few months apart. Something’s always changed and things are awkward but familiar in that sort of “What did you do with your summer?” way that we all remember from our school days.

In this case, Kevin came back from his break with a Facebook page dedicated to his beard, Jen came back with confidence and curly hair, and the Voltaggios came back utterly unchanged except for their renewed urge to get each other’s goat. Host Padma Lakshmi came back rocking chic bangs and a pronounced baby bump, which everyone acknowledged with sheepish congratulations while probably mentally deleting recipes from their arsenal that might upset a woman in her delicate condition.

The producers, though, probably didn’t think about Padma’s possible morning sickness when they set up the show’s final high-stakes quick fire challenge. You see, the contestants, competing for a shiny new Prius, were charged with creating a meal celebrating the grape (you know, since Napa is wine country and all) while on a MOVING TRAIN. But Padma was clearly more of a trooper about the whole train thing than the chefs, who were visibly thrown by working in cramped quarters on something that swayed and rocked way more than could be safe with four full sets of knives in the kitchen.

Hopping right back into the competition despite some time away were Michael and Jennifer, both kicking butt and taking names with their grape-inspired dishes. I was kind of hoping Jennifer would win, just to send a message to the boys, but Padma and guest judge Michael Chiarello (the jerkwad George Clooney impostor from “Top Chef: Masters”) gave the keys to Michael, who no doubt will fit in tooling around in his Prius in his current location of L.A.

The chefs’ next task was to hop off the train and head to a farmers’ market to create dishes for 150 people using local ingredients. One dish had to be vegetarian, while the other had to use a locally produced protein — a challenge that served as a nod to Chiarello’s sustainable, local, seasonal model of cooking as well as Napa’s fall bounty.

All the contestants seemed a little shaky with having to make 300 portions in just a few hours after returning to their real lives for a bit, but I was quite pleased at the fact that no one completely bombed out. It seems in season’s past many of the chefs psych themselves out or are clearly out of practice, but these folks almost seemed like they went home and did quick fire drills in their restaurants every night.

Therefore, by the time the contestants finished serving and made it to the judge’s table, it was anybody’s to win and anybody’s to go home. All had made small errors, none seeming bigger than the others.

• Bryan’s dishes weren’t salty enough.

• Jennifer’s vegetarian dish was too salty.

• Michael’s local eggs were a bit runny.

• Kevin’s local beef wasn’t as soft as the judges’ would have preferred.

Bryan’s lack of seasoning ended up being the least egregious error and he seemed shocked to be the week’s winner, leaving his brother, Kevin and Jennifer to await their fate.

Now, here’s where I think it gets a little tricky. As you all know, there was some major controversy last season when Hosea beat out Stefan for the title, despite the fact that Stefan clearly had performed the best all season long. I think that criticism was playing heavily on the judges’ minds during this elimination.

In my opinion, feeding rawish egg white to a pregnant lady, as Michael happened to do, was the biggest error hands down. The second biggest error was Kevin’s choice of technique to cook his beef because he didn’t have the time to do it correctly. With those two errors in play, Jennifer’s slightly salty goat cheese salad doesn’t look half bad, especially when you consider that pretty much everyone actually liked it despite the salty texture, which Chiarello himself said can be tricky.

I think that Jennifer was discounted not for that salt but because she had been the least strong of a very strong four during the final few episodes of the season. Kevin and Michael have won countless challenges and have consistently been in the top, while Jennifer had been making errors all over the place since mid-season.

So, Jennifer was sent packing and I will miss her awesomeness, despite the fact that I’m sure she’ll show up in some capacity next week to help out the three remaining contestants.

Of course, with Jennifer gone, the final is set up to be a war with many fronts: There’s the brother vs. brother battle, the simple (Kevin) vs. complex (brothers Voltaggio) battle, the Voltaggios vs. everyone else battle. There are many story lines and colorful combinations of what could make up the “Top Chef” finale next week, each as exciting as practically possible for this show.

I still stick to my assertion that Kevin will win with his simple food. I have a feeling that the Voltaggios will be so focused on beating each other that they’ll beat themselves. However, I’d be pleased with any of them as winners, as they’re all uniquely awesome, even if only one of them has a Facebook page dedicated to his facial hair.

Random thoughts:

• Why must Gail Simmons always thrust her boobs in our faces during the “Top Chef” finale? Don’t they get in the way of her fork?

• Um, goat cheese is awesome.

• Love how Bryan, the “grown up” remaining on the show, is the only one of the chefs to show up in the rain with an umbrella.

• Nothing says “my time here is short” as saying in the first minute why you chose to do the show (a la Jennifer’s “I’m here for my mother”).

• Bravo, why on earth would I ever, EVER, want to watch your new fashion show “Launch my Line”???? The people in the commercials are so grating, I wouldn’t even want to tune in just to make fun of them. Yes, they’re that bad.

• I kind of felt that Jennifer was discounted at judge’s table for something the judges are usually pleased about: She found out something wasn’t working and changed her concept when the wood-fired grill didn’t heat properly. Normally, if she had forged ahead, she would have been annihilated in judging for not being flexible. Instead, she was pretty much chastised for not completing her dish as it was original conceived. What’s up with that?


foreign_exchange 13 years, 6 months ago

you are clearly right. jennifer was cut because she was the "weakest" of the four. her exit is so disappointing too; her food looked great. the judges constantly try to defend their decisions weekly (or weakly, omgpun) by saying they judge purely on food, but it ends up being a decision based on what makes a good story line. we don't have to talk about robin's prolonged stay (made for a great temporary villain, eh). for the final, all the story lines are in place like you put forth: simple vs. complex and voltz vs. the world. it's frustrating that it ends up being so predictable, but i'm with you: kevin's winning it. my only question is which quickfire wine am i going to drink to celebrate his victory.

meowllory 13 years, 6 months ago

I'm going for Mike on this one! Who, by the way, had an umbrella but wasn't using it.

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