E: Since last we’ve mentioned this show, the number of cheftestants (M: Argh!! Stop saying that!) has gone down to 10, and the level of drama has gone up. Some seasons on Top Chef, it’s hard to say who the winner might be. This year, however, there are four very clear contenders, and a whole lot of cannon fodder. Now it’s always possible that someone could surprise us, but thus far these 4 contestants have uniformly made brilliant dishes for each and every challenge.
Kevin Gillespie – a James Beard finalist, this genial bearded Southerner created the first dish in the history of the show that head judge Tom Collichio loved so much he had to make his own version of it. (Bacon jam, in case you were wondering.)
Jennifer Carroll – She runs a restaurant for Eric Ripert. Do I need to say more?
Brian Voltaggio – 3 elimination challenge wins say he’s the man to beat.
Mike Voltaggio – so, fine, he doesn’t know how to properly cook cactus. I still think he’s a huge threat. His Michelin star backs me up.
Between them these four have won every challenge but the last two quickfires. There was Robin’s salad and apple crisp win, but I think the rest of the cast would braise themselves to death if she managed to make the finale. The other was the cactus quickfire taken by Mike Isabella. I’m not including him with the top four, despite several good finishes, because he’s also been on the bottom several times. And possibly because he’s a complete sexist ass and I would be spitting mad if the man won.
M: I actually find his arrogance and cockiness really entertaining, only because he doesn’t seem to realize how much of an idiot he is. That said, I think you’re right on with the top four. I like a few of the other contestants, like Eli Kershtein, who was worried that being forced to sleep in a tent last week will make his girlfriend think that he’ll go camping with her, but the above four are clearly the cream of the crop. (E: Really? I find him rather mean spirited. Although I do love that he and Kevin “bond on a fat kid level”. M: I don’t find him mean spirited most of the time, and he seems to make food that’s really good, just not quite to the level of the top four) I have really enjoyed watching Kevin’s humble and jovial approach, the competition between the Voltaggio brothers, and Jen, who is a total take charge, don’t-take-any-$#@!-from-anyone badass. (E: Yet also very soft spoken out of the kitchen, even goofy – funny, that. I love that even food she was horrified to serve makes the judges favorites. She’s very hard on herself, that one.)
And for those who do not regularly watch the show, a few things to note about E’s above comments:
- The James Beard Awards are awarded annually to chefs in several categories, from best chef to rising star, and so on.
- Eric Rippert is a world renowned French chef, currently based in New York
- Michelin Stars are awarded VERY sparingly by the Michelin (yes, that Michelin) Guide, which was started by the brothers that started the tire company to let people know where they could stop for gas and for good food, in France. It has since spread across the world, and awards no, one, two or three stars to restaurants in the cities it reviews. As an example of how tough it is to get a Michelin star, last year in Tokyo less than 0.1% of all restaurants in the city received any stars. In New York only 4 restaurants received the full three stars. Its a very big deal to restaurants, and chefs, to receive a star.
Ok, back to the show…. This season, the stakes have been kicked up a notch, with the host M casino (no relation… sadly) providing $15,000 for the winner of many of the quickfire challenges, and in another quickfire a contestant (note the lack of “chef-” as the prefix for that word!) was eliminated for losing, which had never been done before. Overall, the talent level has been really high, with not as many clunker dishes, and in some cases the judges being left to choose who got eliminated based on dishes that were good but more ordinary and lacking wow factor. Heck, only once so far this season has a judge had to spit out food. Ok, so that’s not a good sign for the talent (E: nice standards, M! M: Hello, sarcasm!), but if it makes you feel better, the guy that cooked – or in this case DIDN’T cook – it was eliminated a few minutes later. (E: Honestly, who thinks raw fish in the desert is a good idea? M: An overly cocky Frenchman, and a Hatian who can’t make a mojito to save his life, apparently.) Plus, it was Mattin Noblia, who was a sneakily smarmy Frenchman who repeatedly talked about how everyone loved him and how he was better than other contestants.
Personally, I find myself rooting for Kevin, Brian and Jen, not necessarily in that order. Their mixes of personality and cooking intrigue me the most, and have me hoping they win.
E: But wackily, it looks like everyone DID love Mattin (M: Yes, I wrote the above before watching last night’s episode, which started with Mike saying “everyone loved Mattin”). I agree, he seemed smarmy, but they all wore those little boyscout neckerchiefs in remembrance of him. And they all really seem to have it in for Robin Leventhal. Why IS that? They’re all so ready to kick her to the curb, every single one of them – even Ash Fulk, who seems really nice, and Laurine Wickett, who did well last week but in general hasn’t exactly been lighting up the place. Is it because she’s too chatty? For real, I don’t get it. And frankly I think Eli’s assertion that she won immunity because she mentioned having had cancer was way below the belt. What an insult to the intelligence and integrity of guest chef Michelle Bernstein! Do they honestly think that was a magic password to a win? I think they just refuse to admit she might just be able to cook well, and that’s unpleasant.
M: I think that some of them don’t respect her in large part because she doesn’t do hoity-toity “cuisine”, and does mostly simple food. And I actually don’t think the cancer comment was below the belt. Heck, we discussed this with the SYTYCD segment with the cancer theme, and you were the one arguing that it could be cheating. I don’t think she won because of that, but I can see where someone who doesn’t respect her cooking could come to that conclusion.
E: Okay, first, I wasn’t arguing that the cancer dance was cheating, I discussed the issue and explained why I DIDN’T think it was. Second, while I don’t think Robin was trying to garner sympathy, I think it shows an appalling lack of respect for the guest judge to assume she would be so swayed by the mere mention of cancer that she’d swoon over inferior food. And that’s just ridiculous. Eli might have thought he was dissing Robin, but it comes off as a slap at Michelle Bernstein’s professionalism instead.
On a lighter note, Brian is your favorite Voltaggio brother, huh? Why is that? Because he’s more mellow and mature? I like Michael, and I like his need to prove himself, although sometimes I do think his competitiveness masks an ugly insecurity. I think his food might be more exciting than big brother’s, though. And like he said, Brian has his own restaurant, and Michael doesn’t yet, so Michael needs to win more. Though I suppose that shouldn’t matter.
M: Yeah, I’m not sure exactly why. I think Brian’s food, based both on looks and judges comments, seems so incredibly, um, precise, like he knows exactly what he wants to do and exactly how to accomplish it. And in the competition with Michael he is understated, but when her lets things out you see that he’s just as competitive, if not more so. If he had a little more charisma he might be alone as my favorite, despite how much I like both Jen and Kevin.
E: Ashley Merriman is fast becoming a dark horse, in my opinion. I don’t know if she can beat any of the fab four, but she’s proved she can hang with them, and that makes me happy. All these people are here for a reason, and it makes me happy to see people do well after a shaky start – when you see them learning to trust themselves.
M: She is definitely coming on strong. I think she needed to find her feet in the competition, but is now up to speed and making really good food. Two top fours in a row is a pretty strong statement in this bunch.
E: I was a bit relieved to see Ron Duprat leave over Ash and Laurine. Ron puzzles me – he cooks classical french and has made frogs legs hundreds of ways, he’s the clam chowder king of Montauk, and he makes paella in his restaurant? I can’t get a grasp of his style at all. And I feel like he’s only cooked one thing the judges actually liked (during the bachelorette party), although to be fair Ash and Laurine haven’t exactly be stars, either.
M: Yeah, he was a tough nut to crack. A Haitian refugee, so he has both Carribean and French influences and training, but unlike Ashley he didn’t seem to ever find his footing in the competition. He was fairly consistently at or near the bottom, and Ash and Laurine have been more consistently in the middle. Speaking of the middle, I kind of feel bad for some of the chefs that have been in the middle this year. They are getting nearly no screen time, as the same people have been consistently at the top and bottom, so not only are they not part of the judging at the end of each episode, but are often hitting the editing room floor during quickfires and eliminations. For example, I think Eli went three of four challenges without even having his finished dish shown. But they are the middle, and will each fall by the wayside as we approach the finale.
E: That drives me crazy! I HATE when we don’t see what people are making. And when they have a quickfire where we only see the top 3 and bottom 3 – well, I get the time constraints, but I’d way rather see the food than hear Eli whining about how someone whose food he didn’t taste didn’t deserve to win.
Ahem. Okay, back to the show as a whole. What I really can’t tell is this. Four chefs go to the finale, but only three actually get to compete in the last round. How will they ever choose between these four? It may just come down to that old football adage – when you’re competing on this level, on any given Sunday, anyone can win. While you’re handicapping the odds, you should definitely check out Bravo’s Top Chef site – the blogs are fantastic. Even the ones by former contestants (especially Richard Blais!) give great insight into the challenges and the workings of the restaurant world, but it’s Tom Collichio’s blog that leads the pack with intelligence, clarity and a characteristic ruthless honesty.
M: And they have every recipe that have ever been done on the show on the website! Just last weekend I made this one for my wife’s b-day brunch. Mmmmmm.
E: I’ll second that – it was amazing!