Who’s Going To Win Top Chef?


This season of Top Chef has been my favorite so far. The chefs are more talented than they’ve ever been, the focus has been on the food not chef antics (well, except for everyone’s conflict with Robin) and somehow the Vegas setting, which might’ve undermined the shows credibly, has allowed for some of the world’s great chefs–Joel Robuchon, Thomas Keller–to act as judges. Today, I join my blogging friend Mark Blankenship (check out his great blog, The Critical Condition) for a discussion about this season of Top Chef and our predictions for who will win.

Adam: Hey Mark!

Mark: Hello Adam!

Adam: Are you ready to chat about Top Chef?

Mark: I think so… now that I’ve finally calmed down about Jen’s departure.

Adam: Oh yes, I was sad to see her go…

in fact, the other night I had pizza with a food blogger

and we were talking about our Top Chef predictions

and I predicted that after getting some rest

Jennifer was going to pull ahead and beat everyone.

Clearly, I was wrong.

Mark: That’s what I was hoping for.

But she just kept psyching herself out.

I’ll tell you, though, that her self-defeating attitude added to this season’s deliciousness.

The human drama!

Adam: Oh yes!

But in the last episode she was pretty positive about her food

and I felt that the reasons they sent her home

were pretty shady…

like why did they mark her down for not using the wood-burning grill

if the duck tasted good it tasted good

Mark: Do you know about my whole conspiracy theory for this season?

Adam: What is it?

Mark: If you recall, the first, oh, eight or nine eliminated chefs were all women or men from foreign countries.

Adam: Oh right, I do remember that


Do you think it’s a Top Chef conspiracy or do you think it reflects an actual bias that exists in kitchens across the US?

Mark: There was a time when I thought former Louisiana politician David Duke was a producer.

Adam: Ha

Mark: Good question.

Adam: If you asked me

How many women chefs I could name

I could probably rattle off 5 or 6 names

(Nancy Silverton, Suzanne Goin, April Bloomfield…..)

Mark: Paula Deen!

What what!

Adam: She’s not a chef!

Mark: She is to me!

Adam: Chefs don’t have hams thrown at them

What was I saying?

[brief pause, craig stepped on cat poop]

Mark: [awesome!]

[now you have officially christened your new home]

I think you were saying something about Paula Deen, and I was refusing to hear it.

Or… wait. Maybe it was something about gender bias in American restaurants.

Adam: Ok, I am back

That was pretty gross

but it segues nicely back to Paula Dean

Just kidding!

Mark: Don’t dis my girl, Adam.

Adam: I like her

She’s a good entertainer

Though she does lend her image to Smithfield Ham

and if you saw “Food Inc.”

they were the most nefarious company in the whole movie

the pig torture scenes in that movie

Mark: Ooh. I’ve been avoiding that movie on purpose.

Adam: are pretty disturbing

Mark: I have so much liberal guilt connected to my shopping and eating choices that I’m not sure I can take anymore.

But to get back to your point about gender bias…

Adam: Yes

What were we saying?

Mark: We were contemplating whether the apparent “no women, nor foreigners” rule this season was a quirk of the show or a reflection of the larger culinary world.

Adam: Right

Well, I think it’s a fact

that most chefs in America are male

and probably white

Mark: You’re probably right. Even for someone like me,

who doesn’t have the experience to parse “chef” and “entertainer,”

I can only think of a few cooking-related female names.

Meanwhile, I feel like I can name tons of men.

That suggests (to me, at least) that the “stars” of food are just as likely to be white men

Adam: What’s interesting for me

is that my favorite cookbooks

Mark: as the artisans.

Adam: are all by women

Mark: Interesting!

Adam: Lydia Bastianich, Alice Waters, Edna Lewis, Suzanne Goin

Mark: Paula and Sons, Too.

Adam: I think I prefer home cooking to restaurant cooking at home


So perhaps there should be a show

Top Home Cooking Female Chef

(catchy title!)

Mark: I would watch that. Especially if they had Biscuit Week.

But of course, we’re talking about Top Chef.

Adam: True

and on that note

I think we should ask the question

everyone’s dying for us to ask:

Who do you think’s going to win?

Mark: Well, keeping in line with your statement about preferring “home cooking” at home,

I think “home cook” Kevin could nab the prize.

Because honestly, I think the Voltaggio brothers are going to psych each other into oblivion.

Kevin’s just so laid back and awesome, and it seems to come through in the confidence he brings to his dishes.

Whereas as Mike Voltaggio sometimes gets overwhelmed by his need to outdo his big brother by making elaborate scientific meals

(that I assume he believes will make his mother finally love him more)

and Brian, too, gets wrapped up in fancy detail.

Adam: Hmmm

Mark: Not to say I don’t respect the V. Brothers, you understand.

Adam: Well I think it’s clear, at this point, that Kevin cooks from the soul

I think Michael cooks from the brain

Mark: Agreed,.

Adam: and Brian somewhere from both

The strange thing is you really can’t quantify food that comes from the soul

the way you can food that comes from the brain

And so I think its’ easier for them to criticize the Voltaggio brothers

than it is for them to criticize Kevin

Mark: As in, it’s easier to judge technical percision than emotional investment?

Adam: Yes, absolutely

Like last week

when they ate Kevin’s beet and carrot

and raved about how amazing it was

I had absolutely no idea what made it so good

they barely even described it

they just loved it

whereas Michael’s egg had some raw bits in it

and that’s a technical mistake

Mark: But I feel like they’re always more specific with their criticism than with their praise.

Like, we knew Kevin’s brisquet was poorly cut (or whatever)

Adam: That’s true

But the thing about soulful food

is that it is sort of ineffable

It’s sort of like criticizing the Italian grandma who stirs her sauce all day

Mark: So do you think that will work for or against Kevin in the end?

Adam: That’s a great question


Well I have a few thoughts about who will win

I think that the one thing we haven’t seen yet

from any contestant

is what they will cook given absolutely no constrictions

And I think having a totally blank canvas to work with

is actually just as much of a challenge

as being told only to use local ingredients or to bake a Glad bag into a pie

Mark: Sure sure.

Adam: So, the question is

will we see a different side of each chef

when they have no constraints

and I bet Michael Voltaggio

will make something more soulful

than we expect him to

at least he will if he’s smart

I think that’s his best bet to pull ahead of Kevin

but, ultimately, I think the game is Kevin’s to lose.

Mark: Let me ask you this: Are you rooting for anyone?

Adam: I was rooting for Jennifer

and I’m probably rooting for Kevin

Mark: He is from the ATL, after all.

Adam: though sometimes it’s fun when the villain wins

How about you?

Mark: Are we agreed that Michael Voltaggio is the villain?

Adam: Yes

Mark: Because honestly, boo on him.

Adam: He seems like an awful person to know

but, I will say

he may be the most talented.

Mark: It seems like his cooking is actually pretty good… like, it would be interesting to eat.

But his personality gets in the way

and makes me want to throw his stuff in the sink, just to prove a point.

Adam: Well ever since Paul Simon was once mean to my mom

I’ve learned to separate the artist from the art

and if I love somebody’s work

I don’t really care if they’re a nice person

Mark: Ah!

See, I almost feel the same way

In the sense that if I’m experiencing an art directly, I really do try to separate the artist from the art work.

Adam: Right

and aren’t there countless stories

of how terrible famous artists were

to their loved ones

Mark: Yes!

But here’s the thing…

With “Top Chef,” I can’t experience the art directly. I can’t actually taste the food.

Adam: Now you can with Top Chef frozen dinners! But I see your point.

Mark: So for me—and maybe this is just for me—my sympathies go much more to the person than the art.

This may also be because I am not as well versed in the art of cuisine, so I also lack some of the language and experience needed to really evaluate food in this format.

Meaning, I can’t talk about and imagine some of these experimental dishes,

but I can talk about and imagine a jerk.

Adam: Haha

but not a jerk chicken?

ba dum dum

Mark: Zing!

Adam: Hmmmm

Well I’m no culinary authority

so I think we’re in the same boat

and i totally defer to the judge’s reactions

sort of like the few times I watch those dancing competitions on TV

Mark: Really, Adam? You went to Spain and ate, like, 30 courses of whipped air.

To me, that’s expertise.

Adam: Eh, I only pretended to eat

I brought the rest home for my cat

But in all seirousness

Mark: Yes.

Adam: you’re absolutely right

the thing that makes top chef fun

are the personalities

if we just watched plates of food

come out of a kitchen

and never saw the people who made them

it’d be the most boring show on TV

Mark: True enough.

But I do think part of the show’s success is that it can play to both groups.

Or that you can approach it from a foodie mindset or a personality mindset

depending on your mood.

I think we’re basically saying the same thing.

Adam: What I love about it


is watching really talented people’s process

how they work with ingredients

and deal with pressure

and conceive of their dishes

and overcome hurdles

That’s actually one of the things I loved about Top Chef masters

you really got the sense that a Top Chef Master

really was a master

in how cool they remained in the face of crisis

like the time Hubert Keller’s waiter dropped a dish

Mark: Like Keller cooking in a bathtub.

Adam: and he had an extra one waiting


Mark: I hear you there.

That’s the allure of that whole stable of Bravo reality shows.

They respect the craft and take it seriously…

… whether the craft is fashion design or cooking or hairstyling.

Adam: Right

And honestly

the challenge they just did

having to cater a party for 150 people

in 5 hours

making two dishes, one vegetarian

was so inconceivably difficult to me

that I was in absolute awe that they could accomplish what they accomplished

it was kind of insane.

Mark: I wonder if the judges were reaching for a reason to boot anyone.

Maybe that’s why they decided to harp on Jennifer about the wood issue.

Because you’re right—to bring it WAY back—that was kind of a bogus complaint.

Adam: Ya, i mean the editing is tricky too

b/c you don’t get to hear all the judging

so who knows, maybe it was clearer

before it was edited

why Jennifer went home

and why Brain won

which surprised me

b/c I remember from the judging, it didn’t seem they loved his so much.

Mark: Hmm…

that brings me back to the finale.

Is it possible that Brian, with his heart-head mixture that you mentioned before, will win?

After this conversation, it almost seems like I should be betting on it.

Adam: It’s very possible

And also, in terms of narrative

it might not be a coincidence

that they keep having him talk about his children

and how badly he needs the money

it could be that the editors know who wins in advance

and they’re laying the groundwork

for a happy ending.

Mark: True. As an added narrative bonus, they’ve also been setting up Michael’s little brother insecurity.

Adam: and how much Kevin loves his wife

so i guess my theory doesn’t hold much water

Mark: But with Michael, whose insecurity (we’ve been led to believe) makes him a jerk, a loss to Brian could also be a comeuppance.

So Brian’s win could be a double-victory.

Adam: Whoah

I think this is starting to give me a headache.

Mark: It’s deep, man.

It’s Bravo.

Adam: True!

Ok, so let’s make a wager

to make it interesting

Mark: Sure.

Adam: I will bet you $5,000

that the winner will be male

and non-foreign

Mark: Okay.

I’ll take that bet.

And as a side-bet

I will wager two honey-roasted hams that the winner will not name Paula Deen as an influence.

Adam: Whoah!

Ok you’re on.

Thank you for engaging me in a Top Chef chat!

Mark: Right back at you!

Now I feel even more prepared to watch the finale.

Adam: Me too!

[Ok, readers, now it’s your turn. Who do you think will win?]

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