E: You know that phrase, “any given Sunday”? The one that means on any given day, all football teams are equal. Any of them could take any given day, because the general level of play is so high and the game is so complex, so unpredictable, so subject to chance and luck and heart and the mood of the crowd and injury and weather. Even in cases where one team is the better team on paper, you can’t assume they’ll win.
Well, that’s how I feel about the season 6 finale. The four contestants in the finale are the four (Bryan, Kevin, Jen and Michael) who’ve been the clear frontrunners all season. They’ve won the most challenges. Each has beaten the others multiple times. They’ve garnered accolades we’d never thought to see from a bewildering parade of culinary celebrities. I loathe the idea that one of these four won’t get to cook in the official finale, which airs next week. I honestly believe that these are the best contestants (at least collectively) the show has ever seen. I honestly believe that any one of them could win. I can’t imagine, going in to it, who will lose.
It’s fall in Napa Valley. This episode was a great commercial for wine country. I want to go, and I don’t even like wine. Those rolling hills! The occasional brightly colored leaves, the sunlight, the stone buildings and the wine caves! The wide stone bridge in that cute, European looking town! It’s all too much. And what more romantic way to see wine country than on a train? But not just any train – apparently, it’s a gourmet train. Do you see the drool on your computer screen? Oh. No. That’s good.
Um, anyway. The fantastic four arrive on the platform. They greet each other enthusiastically. Jen inquires after Kevin’s beard (was he thinking of shaving it off? she seemed surprised to see it – I have real trouble imaging his chin, myself) and we find out that there’s an entire Facebook page devoted to it. You can become a fan of Kevin’s beard, y’all. After all, it’s “majestic art.” That is outstanding. Less outstanding; the Voltaggios, in full sibling rivalry mode. They’re amazing chefs, don’t get me wrong, but I’m long past wanting them to grow up and get over it already.
M: See, I disagree with your depiction here, and this leads into why I liked Bryan more right from the start, and now really want anyone by Michael to win. Michael had signs of it from the start, but over the course of the season has become an arrogant prick. Bryan, when talking about one of the four going home before the finale said that of course he wants to win, and to beat his brother, but he wants Michael in the finale, too. Michael, who has been insulting Kevin’s food all season, even when (especially when!) Kevin beats him, said that he wants to win, so he wants Bryan to go home. So Michael appears to be an amazing chef, and a culinary genius, but I want him to lose. Badly.
E: Michael is super rude about Kevin, though I don’t know that it’s personal – he’s so focused on his own style of cooking that he doesn’t get simpler styles. I don’t mean to excuse him at all, just to say that his critique is focused on the food more than it is on Kevin as a person. His sniping at his brother, however, is all personal, and it’s all annoying. I don’t want him to win, either (though I suppose that he and Jen need it more than Kevin and Bryan who already own their own restaurants). I just don’t think Bryan is guiltless in their unpleasant and childish dynamic. Later Bryan brings up sabotage to Michael. How adult is that?
M: Anyway, beck to Napa….
E: The train pulls up to the station, and out pops guest judge Michael Chiarello (the affable host of a tv show devoted to Napa Valley cooking, forever ruined for me by Top Chef Masters. (M: Just one episode of it, too, when he pulled the “do you know who I am” crap on the former contestants. The rest of the show he was the affable guy we expected. It was that moment of seeing beyond the TV persona that killed him) and Padma. Who has, herself, popped. And cut some bangs, too. (I know straight short bangs are very high fashion right now, but they’re so Cindy Brady, I have trouble taking them seriously.) Anyway, wow. She looks fantastic as always in a white sweater dress, light brown leather boots, and baby bump.
M: Ahh, Mrs M begs to differ. She spent every moment of the episode that included Padma on screen complaining about how awful the bangs looked. Every moment!
E: I didn’t like the bangs, either – witness my comment above about them looking childish – but I’m glad to hear Mrs. M agree, because she’s much more fashion forward than I am. That doesn’t stop me from thinking Padma’s stunning, though, or liking her outfit.
Anyway, the fab four are invited to cook on the train some sort of treat using only local products, but based entirely on Napa’s chief crop – the grape. Oh, and just in case you were wondering whether the high stakes quickfires were over? The winner of this one gets – you guessed it – a car. A 2010 Prius, no less (the perfect car for an episode about cooking local. M: I beg to differ. How is a Japanese car the perfect car for a “cook local” episode? E: Hybrid! M: Which is… NOT LOCAL!).
Kevin immediately explains that he gets motion sick easily and is queasy at the very thought of standing up and running around on a train. Kevin, man, even your weaknesses make me love you more (in this case because I’m subject to pathetic bouts of motion sickness). Jen is a afraid – not without justification – of cutting her fingers off as the train lurches; he car is ten years old, however, and she wants to win bad. All the chefs manage to put dishes that impress the judges. See? How do you choose? There’s a honey and fromage blanc dessert from Kevin, of which Michael Chiarello says “love that olive oil.” I am struggling, even now, to imagine olive oil being a good thing in a dessert, but that seems to be what he meant. Brian gets dinged for using Concord grapes with his game hen. Now, granted, they were on the table of produce available to them, but apparently this was a trick to snare unwary contestants who were concentrating on flavor and not on using the most Napa-ish grape possible (M: A cheap trick, if you ask me, but overall they weren’t wow’d by his, so I don’t think it mattered). Jen, on the other hand, makes some sort of soup out of clams and chicken livers that Chiarello loves so much he says he’s going to steal it for his restaurant. But Michael V wins for going grape-nuts; he does a couscous grape leaf roll (yay!), and kabobs grapes and scallops on a piece of vine (M: Yeah, the stuffed grape leaf – the second appearance of Lebanese cuisine this season – and the use of the whole plant got me over my building dislike for Michael, at least for a few minutes). Sorry you didn’t get the car, Jen, Brian and Kevin, but don’t you know that the one who gets the car never wins? Might have been a good idea to throw this one. (As if! These guys are waaay to competitive for that.) So. Hmmm. Does that mean we should count Michael V out? Or will he be the exception to the rule? (M: We can’t count out anyone. Any given challenge…)
None of the contestants can guess who will go home. Hilariously, as M referred to above, Bryan says in the confessional that he and Michael both want to be there to compete against each other, to make the final victory sweeter. Michael, in his confessional, says it would be a relief to have his brother gone. Hee hee. Bryan’s manner is so mild (and Michael’s so aggressive) that it makes me laugh to see Bryan being more competitive and confident.
Padma tells the fab four they’ll be cooking at Brix Restaurant and serving a group of 150 guests at a Crush party – a harvest event which celebrates the picking and crushing of this year’s grape crop. They’ll be responsible for two dishes (150 portions each – eeep! I could never be a chef) made from entirely local ingredients, one vegetarian and one containing a local protein. Bryan and Kevin are enthused about the challenge, because they and their respective restaurants are both committed to fresh local foods. Michael doesn’t care, but once he gets a hold of some farm fresh eggs at the Long Meadow Ranch farmers market, it turns his thinking around and he decides that this crazy “freshness” concept could change the way he cooks.
The party is outside, nestled in amidst glorious hills. There’s a sign for Napa Valley Vintners which reads “and the wine is bottled poetry.” Napa is certainly visual poetry, and looking at it makes me hungry.
M: Yes, that setting, with their white-clothed stations in front of the symmetrical rows of green vines, with the orange and brown hills in the background? Stunning.
E: Totally. So, the dishes. Bryan decides to make short ribs with a fig glaze for his protein and a goat cheese ravioli with squash puree as his vegetarian option. The judges think it’s underseasoned (except Chiarello, who had a grain of salt which brightened his portion immensely); the ravioli and squash were wonderful, but they couldn’t taste the fig in the fig glaze. Jen has a chevre mousse with mushrooms, radish and basil; Michael thinks the basil was inspired, but Padma and Gail find it overly salty. (Michael notes at judges table that she used a particular salt which intensifies in the dish, implying it was probably seasoned correctly when she made it.) Her protein is duck, which she wanted to grill but, due to the wood stove not being hot enough, she had to confit. She’s served it with foie gras as a “whole duck” plate, and Tom especially praises the ducky-ness of it. Jen says it’s unctuous (have I ever heard anyone use that word aloud?) and that will be good for Padma’s baby; she’s the only one we hear suggesting wine pairings with her dishes, though I don’t know that we should assume that no one else did.
Kevin knocks it out of the park with a deceptively simple carrot and beet vegetarian creation (sauced with salsa verde made from carrot tops which I, for one, did not know was edible). It’s incredibly colorful and a perfect answer to the local produce challenge. His ropey brisket is less of a success, especially because the judges can’t get him to admit (as we see him do in the kitchen) that it wasn’t as tender as he’d have wanted. (M: The whole conversation back in the waiting room about him calling it “toothsome” instead of “chewy” was hilarious!) He claims that otherwise it would be too close in texture to his much praised pumpkin polenta. Interesting. Michael, on the other hand, had a playful and wildly flavorful beet, pear and foie gras terrine soup for his protein, but ran into trouble with his minced vegetable and poached egg pistou. Padma, especially, found her egg to be undercooked, and Michael wanted the vegetables served in more rustic chunks.
The judges are all over the board, first when they’re eating and then at judges table. There’s no cohesion; one likes something about a dish that the others think is a flaw, and that’s not just true of one dish, it’s true of all of them. It strikes me that the food is SO good that they’re reduced to nit-picking minor problems. I truly have no idea, going into it, who will win and who will lose (M: My thoughts exactly. These four were so evenly matched that trying to figure out which of them would go was next to impossible). Tom says it’s a question of who made the biggest mistake. Is it Bryan’s under seasoning? Michael’s undercooked egg and tiny vegetables? Kevin’s underbraised brisket? Jen’s salty soup? Michael Chiarello announces the winner, and lauds – among other things – the perfect seasoning. Which would be who, Michael or Kevin? No. Bryan. Not that Bryan doesn’t seem to be an amazing chef, but that’s a bit baffling. Bryan feels happy that his time away from his wife and young son has been justified by this validation. And Jen goes home. Sniffle! I’m glad it wasn’t Kevin, but I’d rather have kept her than either of the brothers. Obviously, M would have rather seen Michael go. To judge by the personality poll Bravo did during commercials, we’re not alone.
Jen, I’ll miss you! I’m glad to hear you say that your mentor, Eric Ripert, is proud of you. Keep showing her off, Eric – she’s a keeper. Now, Top Chef history tells us that if Michael won the quickfire, and Bryan the penultimate challenge, then Kevin is more likely to win it all (M: Yes! Go Kevin!). I would love that, but there is just no way of knowing with these guys. Like I said – any given Sunday. Good luck, boys, and see you next week.