So, the show leaves Vegas, and we rejoin the contestants some weeks later in unbelievably beautiful Napa Valley. The first thing you notice is the change in hairstyles for Jennifer and Kevin (really, Kevin looks more like a Montana freeman of some kind than ever before). As is the custom with all these sorts of programs – we meet each contestant as they arrive. What is unique about this season is that these four chefs were the ones that any viewer would have pegged to be in the final 6 weeks ago. This really is the epitome of chalk. While Jennifer had slowly broken down emotionally over the second half of the the season – she was so clearly the 4th best chef that it hardly mattered – and she was clearly Top 4 strong in the first half.
So the contestants meet at a train station in the A Walk in the Clouds level beauty and out comes, now pregnant Padma with Michael Chiarello – Napa Valley chef and runner up in the Top Chef Masters summer series. Padma, besides her pregnant bump, added short bangs – but the condescension is still there. The quickfire is 30 mimutes to get on the train and put together a dish based on the grape. The nice thing at this stage is that none of the dishes were bad – there were no spit-takes. But Michael’s grape leaf won the day. Given the criticisms of the other quickfires (Kevin not grapey enough, Brian using concord grapes and Jen just being a bit short), I suspect the quickfires were close.
The chefs of course are in Napa Valley for CRUSH – the harvest festival and celebration of the local ingredients. For the elimination challenge, each chef had to make two dishes – one with a protein, one veg – and cater a 150 person party. Really, at this point, recapping the rest of the episode is a little redundant – obviously there is the cooking, the judges tasting (Gail Simmons and her, um, brisket), Padma’s hideous dress (very tall and tartish and weird colored boots), so some basic highlights and reactions.\
- As Keith Law noted, it seemed Jen’s fate was preordained and driven by her confession about the grill. In reality, Chef Tom said it was much simpler than that. Perhaps to pimp their website – or perhaps just because it is an article of faith of reality television that some sort of suspense has to be created to hold the viewer to the end – the show made it closer than it probably was. Note her dish was the only one that got a visceral reaction from any of the judges, though the editing was careful to give each chef pluses and minuses.
- Kevin’s brisket was a bit stringy – 5 hours is a not enough time to go after the brisket the way you’d ideally want to. That said, the judges said the food was delicious and that more than offset it.
- Brian’s only mistake was undersalting – of all the gaffes on the episode, far and away the least egregious. Michael’s mistakes were portion control, though that egg grossed me out.
- Gail Simmons has large, err, brisket.
- It feels like body of work is considered – not just this week’s episode – which is theoretically a violation of the judge’s charge. However, in a close race, some of those human temptations are unavoidable. And often it is that week’s work – though sometimes it is not auspicious for TV to edit is like a blowout.
- Best talent ever this season – all 3 of these guys would make great executive chefs. My mouth waters for all of them – albeit Kevin slightly moreso.