Wednesday, February 18, 2009

STARCH MADNESS: Last Minute Thoughts on Top Chef's Final Four

As I catch a quick breather between a giant client project, the loads of laundry in the washer and dryer, and a sleeping 20-month-old poised to get up at any moment, I figured I'd dash off some last minute thoughts about the four competitors left in Bravo's fifth season of TOP CHEF.

I'm not sure where I'd rate this season. Frankly, I kinda miss Gail, and it seems like sub-judge Toby Young is trying too hard to be a mean, snarky Brit – sorta like the lead judge on some other reality show, if you catch my drift.

Even Colicchio seems taken aback at some of Young's stinging put-downs, and this is a man who once sat there as guest judge Anthony Bourdain (sadly MIA) remarked, "It's got a home cooking thing, but a home I wouldn't want to live in."

And so, with my afternoon coffee in hand, let's take a quick look at the four finalists, ranked – as I see 'em – in order from least likely to most likely to walk away with the Glad bags filled with cash. Or whatever the prize is. [Ed. Note: Ryan woke up at this point so I'm trying to cobble my thoughts together as we watch some DVDs. Forgive me if I pick Abby or Elmo to win the competition.]

This Boulder-based chef who supposedly excels at seafood has sort of been like the ugly American version of super-chef Stefan over the course of the season. Stefan excels at challenge after challenge, while poor Hosea keeps finding himself at Judge's Table trying to explain himself. Silly Stefan endlessly flirts with Team Rainbow's Jamie, so Hosea goes out and swaps spit with fellow contestant Leah... despite the fact that both left significant others at home in order to compete on the show. (Ooops!)

Most telling, though, has been Hosea's apparent obsession with beating the Frying Fin. I rarely hear him talk about winning the competition but he sure wants to beat Stefan. Stefan, on the other hand, knows he's the best chef in the bunch (which might be his downfall) and even suggested last week that Hosea doesn't have the "balls" for the gig.

While I have to give Hosea credit for lasting this long he's been on the chopping block the last two weeks after preparing seafood – his alleged strong suit. With the finale set in New Orleans he's going to have to do a bit more to impress the judges and special finals guest judge Emeril Lagasse. Frankly, I just don't see it happening. Projected Finish: Valued Participant.

First impressions led me to believe that this charming, smooth-talking Italian and California chef-owner would be little more than Stefan's sidekick (a Eurotrash Beavis to Stefan's blistering Butt-head, perhaps). Nothing could be further from the truth as I've come to both like and root for the Fab One.

I was thrilled that Fabio not only overcame a serious handicap last week (a broken finger) but also cooked with his heart and prepared a dish I'd love to have tried (Roasted Chicken with Carmelized Onions and Roasted Potatoes). If Fabio can cook with his heart and soul I wouldn't be surprised to see him win this competition. Alas, the mohawk he was sporting in the clips for this week's episode make me think he got some sort of weird pep talk from his client William Shatner. Hopefully that's the only advice he took from the Priceline Negotiator. Projected Finish: Miss Congeniality.

As recently as a few weeks ago I'd have never picked this bug-eyed oddball to make it to the Foodie Final Four, let alone emerge as my dark horse pick to win the whole thing. But something strange has happened over the last couple episodes. Carla seems to have gotten in touch with her simple (and I mean that in a good way), classic influences. Never was that more evident than last week when she wowed Wylie Dufresne with her take on Green Eggs and Ham (and shut up bottom-feeder Hosea in the process), then followed through by preparing a squab and peas dish that legendary chef Jacques Pepin seemed to simply adore.

I've gone from exasperatedly wondering how she was still around to quietly applauding her dishes and approach. If Carla keeps it simple and doesn't get too weirdo-New-Agey she just might be able to top you know who. Projected Finish: Runner-Up.

This has been The Frying Fin's competition to lose from the very start and I firmly believe that Stefan's the only one of the remaining contestants that can actually beat Stefan. (Make sense?) His two miscues of late – during the Super Bowl-themed chef-off and last week's last meal challenge – have largely been due to his Achilles heel... over-confidence. He figured he'd whoop the chick from Season 1 (and maybe get in some flirting while he was at it) in the cook-off and might have been sent home if Jeff The Winker hadn't screwed up.

Last week he off-handedly remarked that there was no way he could screw up the salmon because it's something he's been making for 23 years. So what does he do? He overcooks the fish but gets saved because Leah's lame Eggs Benedict failed to impress.

Stefan's over-confidence and Euro-ego – helped along with some judicious editing, I'm sure – have certainly established him as the show's villain du juor. But I'd much rather hang with him for a few beers than previous TOP CHEF super-villains like Marcel and Hung.

What does worry me, though, is that you rarely (ever?) hear Stefan talk about his passion for cooking. He's a great chef but I don't see the secret ingredient – aka love – showing up in a lot of his dishes. One phoned-in service can send you packing (as we've all seen in the past) and it's up to Stefan to channel his inner Klaus Kinski and make sure that doesn't happen. Like last year's New England Patriots I think we all expect Stefan to win. The question is, will one of the other Fab Four be able to catch a ball against their helmet? Projected Finish: Big Winner.

So, there you have it. Insightful analysis drawn from spending one heavily-edited hour per week with these people. Considering how bad I am at picking winners in something I follow closely (ie, sports), please take these predictions with a very large grain of salt.

1 comment:

Kate said...

I'm totally with you on most of this. Have become a big fan of Carla. But I really believed Stefan deserved to go home on Wednesday.