Well, since we forgot to write a sexy blurb about the penultimate Top Chef all stars finale, we’ll roll in the last two weeks into ten random items. Suffice to say the winner was hard to dispute – Richard Blais has geniusness in him – and it’s nice the best guy got the ring. Also, it helped prevent a possible suicide or nervous breakdown, so much the better. As for the rest:
- Was the final challenge between Mike and Antonia a contrivance? Absolutely. However, it seemed fair – the challenge Antonia got (to cook a meal for Masaharu Morimoto) was so much harder than Michael’s that it made sense.
- Michael did have more technical knowhow and sophistication, so the elimination made sense, but would have been nice to see Antonia go further.
- Loved the finish this year – instead of the meal of a lifetime, the restaurant of your dreams. The blind choosing of sous chefs was cute, but unfortunate. One has the sense that Fabio would have been picked if it was not a blind test.
- Richard’s team was a lot stronger than Michael’s … Antonia, Spike and Angelo just knew more things – it seemed like Richard had the luxury of running a more democratic, idea-centric kitchen than Michael.
- Padma and Gail stepped up their game too … that is all.
- Both restaurants looked remarkable. Richard is just a genius – and Mike has been dominant since the scene switched to the Bahamas. The hamachi Richard had put out – I just wanted to reach into my TV for.
- Mike’s pork shoulder on the other hand made me grateful I’m not a vegetarian.
- Really, it is amazing it came down to dessert. On the other hand, it was just. Richard made a bad dessert – but saved it after feedback from the first batch of judges. That might have been the cheffiest moment of the entire challenge. Richard rescued a bad dish – and kept the restaurant performing.
- Michael is a douchebag – or at least the character he is manifested as on the show. So it is hard to weep for him. Zaitinya, his restaurant in DC (well Jose Andres’) is not especially good for the price – but Graffiato seems promising if for no other reason than a charcuterie bar.
- Richard though … he choked in season 4 – he didn’t this time. I want to go to Flip Burger right now … but it’s a long drive .
Spike Mendelsohn, the quirky, talented but not THAT talented cheftestant on a couple different versions of Top Chef, has established a couple of places doing upscale (well, it’s all relative) versions of iconic American. For example, his first joint, Good Stuff did the shakes and burgers thing – but at a higher level. Right next door to that place on Pennsylvania Avenue is We The Pizza, which is of course, a pizza place. Burger joints are a dime a dozen, and Good Stuff is a pretty good version therein (though the rosemary fries were kind of offensive), but when Ray’s Hell Burger is around, well you can tell where I stand.
Like Good Stuff, We the Pizza is fashioned after a 1950s sort of motif. You see the pies right as you enter and then order in line, get the beeper, then eat upstairs. I took advantage of the surprisingly good $10 value – two slices and a homemade soda. I had an orange cream and the slices are mozzarella and roasted tomato, and the Forest Shroom, a wild mushroom white pizza with truffle oil. Across the board, the crust was thin, and crispy – not a cracker type crust, but more traditional – definitely good. The margherita type pizza was very solid – with the additional depth of the roasting, it is pretty good. On the other hand, the forest mushroom might have actually been too “mushroomy” which I cannot actually believe I am writing. The truffle oil was a bit heavy-handed, and kind of obscures everything else. Without a creamier, milder counterbalance, the mushroom is overbearing.
In some ways though We The Pizza is hurt by the existence of a similarly hip upscale pizza place in Pupatella, in Arlington. Pupatella serves similar pizzas, but the brie gives its wild mushroom some smoothness that Spike’s place lacks. The margherita at Pupatella is more traditional – with the chewy foldable slices and brick oven. Obviously I should not hold Pupatella’s greatness against We The Pizza – you can only be what you are. Spike’s place is a good pizza joint, but does not have the wow factor that makes it that urgent to go to the Hill for.
Another day, another elimination. The scene shift to the Bahamas has not really done anything for me (ok, one important thing – more on that), and ultimately the Final 3 are the right Final 3 – based on what has happened.
- Quickfire was smart this time and had some added value. Precision and consistency are what make restaurants work – that what I order is what they wanted. It was an interesting challenge, although the result was shaky. Clearly Mike and Richard made a trickier dish – their dish was much harder than Antonia and Tiffany’s. But yeah the latter looked yummy anyway. I am not sure the quickfire judgment was correct – but who knows. The random selection of plates was a nice touch.
- After being much hyped – we get the Padma in a bikini scene. On the down-side, it was no more exposure than what we saw in the previews, but then … it’s Padma in a bikini for crissakes!!
- A desert island challenge was almost preordained here. The fishing for the conchs made for terrific television. There is always something mysterious about watching stuff shot underwater. However, I am not sure swimming should have been a requirement of the chefs. But it was a nice touch.
- Mike of the overrated Zaitinya, deservedly won. He had the combination of flavors for the judges and challenge and thematic coherence. Richard was brilliant of course, but I can see why Mike got the nod. Of course if this sends Blais into a confidence death spiral, it will make good TV. Antonia seems to be lacking a level of creativity and imagination to step up the game to contest winning level.
- Tiffany’s elimination made sense. Everybody did well, and she might have been victimized by the weather. However, the dishes are close enough and she was just a little less good than the others.
- Power rankings: Blais > Isabella > Antonia. I want Antonia to win, and I really want Isabella to not win … but Blais is pretty clearly the cream here.
After the diabolical (but ultimately probably not that helpful food-wise) quickfire combined with the great elimination – this week we get sort of an exact reverse … a combination of one of the best quickfires in the season’s history with one of its least inspired eliminations. The bullets …
- I am still not 100% sure about The Bahamas’ merit as a finale location. Is it a sudden hot food locale, like Singapore or New Orleans was? Was it just a blatant excuse to get Padma in a bikini – and let’s face it, is an excuse necessary for that?
- The quickfire was an all-timer. A 40 minute iron-chef like challenge pitting each chef against his or her season’s winner. Pretty clearly Carla had the easiest opponent with the lucky-to-win Hosea Rosenberg. Her struggle in the basics (like the rice) was a harbinger. Similarly Michael Isabella – who had boasted about the work he had done between NY and the islands – delivered a major shock by knocking of Michael Voltaggio. You beat the best former winner that, and no worse than the second best Top Chef in general, that is a good sign.
- But alas, there was the elimination challenge. First of all – the misdirection was odd. Should one of the chefs have known that the Bahamas do not have a monarchy? Probably – but stranger things are possible. But where was the flair here? It just seemed like a typical challenge – there was no real twist or “so-what” to the challenge. The women all seemed tripped up – but the show did a poor job making me care. Even the fire – obviously a serious wrinkle competitively – did not get projected with the requsitie oomph.
- Hard to have a problem with the elimination. Tiffany skates by again – her dish was somewhat tasty albeit lacking in ambition. I really was worried Antonia would go out – although she did a poor job. Carla just made bad pork – and to whatever degree sensible, the judges held to their promise of judging on this week’s dish. Carla did what Carla does – when it’s good, it can win it all, when it’s not, this happens.
- Blais’ self hatred – well LG and I discussed. It’s not self hatred (well maybe a little) – but supreme self confidence. Richard is convinced he should crush these people, and so he only sees negatives in his performance, because for him only negatives prevent him from winning this in a walk. He could get paralyzed by this mental unhealthiness, but it drives him to be as good as he is. That said, the big mover in my power rankings now is Mike Isadouche. He has command over more technically than anybody besides Blais, and he has only had a couple of truly bad performances. He looks very strong on the Island.
- Blais > Douche > Antonia > Tiffany … I still have the Antonia pom poms out, but this is an uphill climb.
With a freshly minted – either the best episode of the season or … well, let me give another spoiler alert. If you have in on your DVR, why are you reading this? Top Chef in the can, let’s get right to it:
- The quickfire was total genius – and almost certainly the least appetizing quickfire of the season, maybe any season. Having all processed food, and only microwaves and a rolling hotdog griller to cook on (you know what I mean, the thing that rotates the hotdogs and taquitos so seductively to drunken customers at 7-Eleven) – Tom Hanks had an easier culinary challenge in Cast Away. Throw in the the indefinite duration and we had a real McGyver problem.
- Of all people, who’da thunk that Carla would have the MacGyver solution? She just planned well and her dish seemed easily the best of the bunch. Mike Isadouche’s soup was a heartfelt attempt but looked pretty disgusting. Richard was angry about the loss – which inspired a snappy comment from LG. Honestly chefs have such massive egos – of course they think they are brilliant.
- The Ellis Island challenge was cool. You always get the weepies when the cheftestants get to see loved ones. This was no exception – although Carla’s husband did not resemble what I had in my mind’s eye, while Tiffany’s mom absolutely did.
- Antonia’s dish looked brilliant. The risotto and … well, I don’t do veal for moral reasons, although it clearly has the characteristics as a protein of the sorts of meats that I would LOVE. It is a clear winner. She has been strong the last month – and she has sort of moved to tops on my rooting list.
- The prize this challenge might have been the sickest product placement in television history. Tiffany in particular in a confessional gave a virtual TV commercial testimonial.
- The elimination – well the judge’s decision was not a surprise. Considering the quality the judges got to taste – and their raving comments – how can you tell someone they cannot advance to the finale set? That said, eliminating nobody was a bit of a cop out. These people are pros – shouldn’t Tom Collichio be able to identify someone slightly worse than the others? But this is better television.
So, how to we rank order the chefs at this point – the same Furious Five?
- Richard – he can do things nobody else can do. His creative brain creates ideas nobody can create. He is not a slam dunk, but he has it all.
- Antonia – the big closer, has been rock solid since early in the season. Has a lot of versatility, and is peaking. Of course there is a time gap with the change in venues, so as long as her life did not fall to pieces in the interim, she should be a serious contender.
- Carla – deciding between Carla and Isadouche is a matter of ceiling vs consistency. Carla has won three times this season, but she also has been on the chopping block a lot. At this point, where you only need to be great twice, I’m betting ceiling. After all, last season’s Top Chef won on the basis of a single great week.
- Mike Isabella – Isadouche has been pretty steady. He has been in the bottom a couple of times, but most of the time has been solid. Solid won’t get a win.
- Tiffany – she has been the clear borrowed time cheftestant all season. That said, her performance was heartening. But I cannot see her winning, while the other four all could.
No point messing around here. Another week, another stunning elimination. The last two weeks, we did not just lose two possible winners. We lost two guys who could say “I’m the best chef here” and not be wrong. And now, the observations:
- This is one of the quickfires I would have given a limb to attend. The best “deep fried” dish? Come on. Was amazing that Carla mucked it up – although she just gets off track so easily. I felt for Antonia – just such a mistake.
- Mike Isabella winning the quickfire stealing Richard’s idea IS kind of bullshit. On one hand, hey, it’s all fair – when originality is such a factor, not using your own concept is a big no-no to me.
- Paula Deen is of course an icon of Southern cliches. So why is she the obvious lead for a Louisiana challenge? I mean gulf coast is a different animal. John Besh – I understand obviously.
- For the challenge itself, using a former contestant sous chef made was a fun contest. It is amazing how many of the chefs and sous chefs did not fully click. I mean after watching this show for 8 seasons, it’d be hard for me to let the sous chef do a lot without my input. Granted I’d probably get a punch in the face – but still.
- Carla should have aced this – she knew it, but of course that means she put a lot of pressure on herself. Her sous chef Tre was of little help, but ultimately it was on her. In the same vein Tiffany gave Marcel, her sous chef, too much power (HE COOKED THE PROTEIN!!). Honey shrimp sounds disgusting to me – that’s what she gets for following him in any way.
- Antonia and Richard were in the top once again. Antonia’s crabcake in particular looked brilliant. But Richard won – on skill and variety and “shock and awe”, he just has abilities nobody else has. He can absolutely not win this – but he just has more outs than anybody else, in poker parlance.
- Really, what might help Richard the most was Dale’s shocking ouster. It was a bad dish, but I felt bad for him. This was a cuisine he was out of his depths in. At this stage of the competition, you’d like to lose because you were good enough – not because the challenge was not in an area of strength. His tears were hard not to empathize with – because he clearly could have won this thing.
- At this stage, your power rankings have to be Richard -> Antonia -> Carla -> Isadouche -> Tiffany, right? The Carla choice is shaky given the last two weeks, but her best is better than Michael’s best – just a matter of whether she can coax it from herself.
First – a couple more food trucks have been added to the grand list: you can access that here. Now, to the important stuff. Some random observations as we hurtle towards the finale:
- The Sesame Street characters were obviously a glorious touch. Cookie Monster is, I think, right up there with John Blutarsky as the greatest hedonists of American culture – his tacit endorsement of irrational devotion is inspirational I think. Kids should take note – though he could end up at Betty Ford someday. On a serious note, the show never fully explains how the Muppets fairly “judged” this competition. On the other hand, the chefs did not complain – so one has to surmise it was reasonable.
- Between the shot of Buitoni last week and Padma declaring how EVERYTHING you could ever want you’d find at Target – the product placement is at a new high/low.
- The elimination challenge itself was fascinating – the time frame, the chefs physical exhaustion – and it was interesting to see the chefs lean on soup for the most part. Antonia’s dish looked the ballsiest to me – although she didn’t win. Dale’s innovation with the iron is the sort of McGyver thing you expect from a college student. It was a masterstroke. He has been up and down lately, so this was a big week for him.
- This was a less good week for Carla who did not get the timing of the challenge down. This was particularly disappointing – as her usual bad weeks are related to simply not being able to deliver. This was more controllable.
- But, see #1. And you know what? Angelo’s ouster was right. The judges held to their criteria. I do think they care about the entire season of work, but only to break ties. That is, I don’t think it is a conscious criteria, but if you are torn on two contestants, you’d lean on the one you thought was “better”. Angelo’s dish was too salty – a mistake he should have known and tasted. Baked potato soup has so many of “those” sorts of ingredients from cheddar to bacon that it can go off the rails so easily. If the dish was as horrible as the judges experienced – they had no choice. Yes, he was the 2nd most talented guy in the field (and judging by Mike I’s reaction, the chefs agreed) – but … wow. Tiffany is very lucky. She might be able to pull of the Kevin (one good week) from last season – but it’s going to be tough.
- The power rankings from most to least likely: Richard, Dale, Mike, Carla, Antonia, Tiffany.
Two weeks left us with two of the best challenges of the year. Some notes:
- Mike Isabella – the DC entrant – is a douchebag. His comments about Antonia, who managed to win the Italian challenge were obviously sexist – although there was some false bravado in there. Seeing his squirm in the elimination was legitimately great television. His take that being eye-talian that he was a perceived favorite was sensible – but then does that mean he would have been challenged by The Situation?
- By the way, how horrible was it to see chefs of this caliber completely bollocks a PASTA COURSE. All three chefs made bad pasta/rice. Yeah fresh pasta is tougher than dry – wah wah wah. But this was appalling.
- On the other hand – the antipasti courses were awesome. All the dishes showed simplicity.
- Usually, I want to hurt Jimmy Fallon – but to their credit, the show did not ham it up too badly. The challenge really was interesting. Carla’s hysterical performance from start to finish was loveable. Her third win of the season – she still needs to be comfortable to succeed, but when she is – look out.
- Big bounceback for Angelo – he is still my #2 favorite, but he is so high maintenance that he needs some momentum. One gets the sense Richard, by contrast, is just breezing along.
- The elimination for Jimmy Fallon’s event was interesting – a classic case of service people forgetting their jobs – a mistake consultants, engineers, artisans make so frequently. The chefs (Tiffany and Fabio in particular) were so intent on creating a culinary wet dream that they forgot to actually deliver the product. You can take liberties with hamburgers and chicken n dumplings – but the dishes have personalities that can’t be toyed with too much. I’ll miss Fabio – but at the same time he probably got as far as he really was meant to . He is a restauranteur more than a chef’s chef – but nothing wrong with that.
With Jamie and Tiffany the Red Head gone, that leaves us with ten contestants remaining … five other random observations about the season now that we hit the busuiness end?
- This has been a better season than I expected. The challenges have been novel and interesting – including this past week’s fish challenge. This is a stark contrast to the show’s tentative usage of the DC location of last season.
- Compared to the insane asylum of Top Chef: Just Desserts, it is nice to see it about the food again. Obviously there are personalities (Marcel as a douche, Angelo as a weirdo, etc), but all these guys clearly got skills – and with the expunging of Tiffany and Jamie, it feels like we are left with ten cheftestants who can win this.
- Bravo seems to be in an unfortunate bait and switch. They advertise Anthony Bourdain as their big special judge, but he has only appeared in two episodes. That said, his blog is invaluable.
- Best episode this season might have been the dim sum episode. Starting with seeing Chef Tom rip off a dish in eight and a half minutes all the way to their disastrous performance in just getting food out for customers – a corker all the way.
- One of my readers thought this season was all about Richard Blais, indeed a TV celebrity in his own right. While he has been good, Dale Tilde has shown a bit more thunder with two challenge wins. Sure, Carla Hall has the wins too, but her range has seemed to be narrow. She gets something in her wheelhouse, look out. Looking at the remaining ten, all capable of winning, I’d line them up in this order (least likely to most): Fabio, Tre, Tiffany D, Carla, Marcel, Antonia, Mike I, Richard, Angelo Dale T.
Of course, I would not bet anything important on anything I say.
After two fascinating episodes of the high stakes, returning contestant version of Top Chef, what have we learned?
- After the culinary psychiatric ward that was the Top Chef: Just Desserts monstrosity, it seems clear that Bravo is teetering towards drama again. There seems to be a particular emphasis on cattiness – especially in the confessionals of folks like Jamie from the Really Untalented Season (hello, Season 5).
- Anthony Bourdain is of course an inspired pick as a regular guest judge (though he was not there this week while Gail Simmons’ fake eyelashes were). The first episode jousting between poor Fabio and Tony was just about perfect. Who wants to hire Tony without getting his eviscerations of awful dishes? He was downright docile a season ago, even if his referring to Eric Ripert as “my pal The Ripper” might have been the single funniest line in the show’s history.
- As always the first few episodes are notable for the truly undeserving chefs to disappear. It sure seemed that way in Week 1 when the eliminated did not bother TASTING HER FOOD. However Week 2 …
- … featured Jennifer Carroll going home! This was particularly shocking as she was representing the Vegas season, hands down the best cast in the entire show. Sheepishly, I admit she was my pick to win this whole thing. Given her snappiness with the judges, she was picking herself too. However, (at least as far as the editing indicates) she had some very serious lapses in taste and palate. Although the judges were subjected to a salt lick in the previous dish maybe. Considering how brilliant she was in the Vegas season before fading away to 4th, I did not see this coming at all. However, she started getting agitated down the stretch in that season – so maybe I should have noticed.
- Luckiest people were Tiffany from the DC season and her cooking compadre (forget the name). How do you screw up frittatas? The lapse there for such an easy dish is hard to forgive. But alas they survive.
- Richard Blais, Mike Isabella (however detestable) Angelo Sosa might be the favorites now to me (even if Angelo is a grade-A nutcase). Tiffany from DC is still the dark horse – but she hasn’t proven my faith to be well placed yet.