Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Best Top Chef, Ever!

Not only does Michael Voltaggio become Top Chef, he bests his older brother and overcomes both the reality TV car curse and the dreaded "douchebag edit" to do so.

For their final challenge, Bryan, Mike, and Kevin got assigned a Chopped-like basket for one of their courses where they had to utilize rock fish, crab, lemon, squash, matsutake mushroom, and anise hyssop (WTF?) in their dish. Then, they were allowed to cook whatever they wanted for a second course, and then a mandatory dessert.

First they drew knives, and Kevin obviously got the dull knife when he pulled Preeti as his first sous chef, and he simmered in rage about it and lost a lot of time the first day due to her sub-par skills. This was strikingly reminiscent of the first episode when Preeti bombed out on the relay race by being unable to shuck clams. Luckily for Kevin, he had Ash for the second day, and Ash was superstar for him. Bryan, meanwhile, drew Ashley and Jennifer, so he was set up perfectly, and Mike got Jessie and Eli, which worked out well for him.

The twist arrived early on the second morning of their prep when their mothers showed up at their hotel. Kevin's mother was absolutely lovely. A redhead, natch, and southern lady who obviously adores her son and they were just too cute for words. Then we got the requisite comments about how poor Mom Voltaggio must feel proud but also torn, seeing her kids compete against each other. Seriously? This isn't something to cry about, producers. They're competing against each other in a cooking show, not fighting against each other in fucking World War II. This angle was also exploited later at the dinner table. When the chefs arrived at the kitchen, they were told that they now had to do four courses, and the first one must be be reminiscent of their childhood, and their mothers ended up at the table to taste the first course. It was like Sophie's Choice when Padma asked Mom V which of her son's dish was better. But, unlike Meryl Streep, Mom V just wouldn't choose.

Kevin stayed true to his roots all through the meal, serving up a first course of crispy chicken skin with tomato and squash soup which was well received, while Bryan served up ostensibly under-seasoned sardine with panko to honor his mom's tuna casserole. Meanwhile, the dish that Mike served was textures of broccoli with a spot prawn, which looked characteristically goofy and interesting, which is another way of saying it had Mike V seasoned all over it. These spot prawns are also rapidly becoming a Top Chef suicide dish, as the entire table never agrees if they're cooked properly. Someone is always bitching about undercooked while someone else likes it.

But as much as the dish itself was interesting, what grabbed my attention was something that Michael finally articulated, which I'd somewhat suspected, and which is probably why I tended to connect with his food ideas from the start. He said he had always been a picky eater and doesn't really like a lot of food, so he approaches a lot of cooking as a way to create the ingredient in a manner that he'll like. I just totally get that. I love food and I love to eat, but I've also been somewhat narrow in my likes/dislikes, so I really respond to different interpretations that can introduce me to ingredients. It's like when someone says, "I don't like tuna." Okay. So you don't like tuna from a can, but how about seared ahi? Whole different world. And that's what he does with food -- opens up new and unexpected avenues.

So then they kicked the moms off the table so that they could talk nasty about their children's food without making the moms feel bad. Or, perhaps, they just sent them away because they sadistically like to keep people hungry. Either way, the moms made a trip to the kitchen, hugged goodbye, and were sent away without any supper. Second course came, the one with the rock fish and mushroom, and everyone agreed that Bryan's was nice, if slightly underseasoned again. Kevin fucked up his matsutake mushroom and made it tough. And Mike seemed to do the best overall by crisping the mushroom and making the lemon pop and cooking the fish correctly.

The third course was probably the most indicative of each chef's true culinary personality. Bryan cooked a venison saddle that was extremely well received. Not the least bit shocking, Kevin cooked pork belly, which, completely shocking, didn't go over exceptionally well. Some of the judges thought it was a bit undercooked, or just didn't pop. At this point, I knew Kevin wasn't going to win. He's got a pig tattoo for Chrissakes, so if his slab of bacon in this dish didn't connect with everyone, he was a goner.

Mike served fennel squab with pistacchio cassoulet and real and fake mushrooms, and there was, as is customary for his dishes, both high praise and some criticism. Donatella Arpaia dinged him for his mushroom puree that was shaped into a mushroom and called it a gimmick, and it was at this exact point that I realized I was really rooting for Mike because I wanted to pop her in the face for it. I don't mind her when she's contrary to Jeffrey Steingarten on Iron Chef, but otherwise, she generally bugs me. Nevertheless, it's not even just Mike's cooking in general that polarizes, or even specific dishes, but even elements within each dish that causes dissent in opinion, and that's when I knew that he was definitely going to win.

When dessert came down, Bryan's was the most well received, as it was the most balanced and sophisticated with his dulce de leche cheesecake with a fig sorbet. Kevin then delivered himself the death blow by serving a chocolate-bacon sauce along with roasted banana and bacon sprinkles. Okay, look. This is what sums it up for me with Kevin. An awesome chef and cook, he most certainly is. But I never connected with his dishes, and a big part of that is because -- go ahead and get ready to hiss at me here -- I don't really like bacon. I know, that seems like an unreasonable statement, but it's true. I don't mind pork belly, per say. Sometimes I like some pancetta. But American bacon is always too smoky and too salty and I dislike it as an element in dishes because it's all I end up tasting. Most people say that any dish can be improved with bacon, whereas I think it ruins most stuff. And though I do enjoy sweet-salty flavor combos for some dessert, I don't ever want bacon near my chocolate. And, apparently, Stephen Starr of Buddakan agrees with me on that point, so he dinged Kevin's dessert.

Michael's dessert looked like it could be his undoing. It was a chocolate cake with a caramel-lava filling accompanied by pumpkin ice cream and candied pumpkin seeds. He fretted about overcooking it, and, indeed, everyone agreed that the cake was too dry. However, everyone also went to great lengths to rave about the flavor combos and the idea of it and the candied pumpkin seeds and it was all over except for handing out the prize money.

At judges' table, they were asked to speak about why they should be chosen Top Chef. Again, a bullshit little factor for television sake, as I don't care if the chef is sometimes a dickhead (obviously) or if he/she can eloquently argue their worth. The decision should come from the food. Bryan looked flustered at having to give this speech, and he rambled on a bit about his reasons with the usual stuff that should be said.

Then, when they asked Michael why he should be Top Chef, he said, "Because I don't want Bryan to be Top Chef." Outstanding! It was funny alright, and Bryan got cracked up, and finally one of his "tacky" cocky comments came off the way it was intended.

Then Kevin said something, but he was mostly feeling sad that his bacon wasn't well received, and I think he knew at that point that he was going to pack his knives. And, indeed, it seems as though poor Kevin may have paid the price for drawing Preeti as his sous on the first day and having to do too much himself and therefore not having the perfection factor that he usually had. So he was dismissed in third place, leaving the brothers. Kevin was, again, adorable, as he put his head on his mom's shoulder in consolation.

Bryan was squirming like crazy. Usually so composed, the tension just oozed out of him by this point, and that's when I felt a little bad for him. At least Kevin had wracked up some nice cash and prizes along the way, and he's definitely a shoo-in for fan favorite. Meanwhile, Bryan got the goose egg all season, and I'd actually peg him as my fan favorite at this point, but he doesn't have a shot in hell at it. He picked up that stuffed shark for his son and is going home empty handed other than that. On the upside? I wasn't kidding about wanting to dine at his joint, Volt, but it seems I can't get a reservation until 2011. 2011. He says his restaurant is now operating at 100% capacity, every night. Good for him. Fucking, good for him. I guess maybe that goose egg was actually the goose that keeps laying golden eggs for him. (too forced a metaphor? tough shit, it's all food related, so cut me some slack!)

So then Padma said, "Michael, you are top chef." And the hugs ensued and I don't think she ever got to tell Bryan to pack his knives, because Mom V was there, hugging Michael but giving the cow eyes to Bryan over Mike's shoulder. Bryan was super-classy and stoked for his brother, and meanwhile, Mike cried and said he wished that they could have both won!

I shit you not. And it was totally believable. After all the trash talk all season and pumping himself up to beat Bryan, it was as though he hadn't finally slayed the sibling birth order disorder, but instead was just watching his beloved brother lose. Awwwww. I have a feeling that within three seconds he was over that, though, and rubbing Bryan's face in it, which is exactly as it should be.

And, finally, the bitter taste of last season is washed away. I know, I know Michael gave a couple of quotes that gave people the ammunition to dislike him personally. But, seriously, he split up his $10k prize and shared it with his teammates. Would a genuine asshole do that? There are a lot of nice people who wouldn't do that. In the "actions speak louder than words" department, that was pretty damn generous of him.

The knives are all packed up now, and save for the reunion next week, we don't have to see Tom's twatty face for another year, and we won't hear Padma's slow-talking, or see Gail's boobs or horrible dresses.

Mike Voltaggio was a perfect match for the flash and sass of the Vegas setting with his sexy and often funny plates. But, also like Vegas demands, it was his willingness to take big risks that put him over the top to cash in with the big reward.

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