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.
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!
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]
[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
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…
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.
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
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
Mark: I would watch that. Especially if they had Biscuit Week.
But of course, we’re talking about Top Chef.
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.
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
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?
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
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.
and aren’t there countless stories
of how terrible famous artists were
to their loved ones
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.
but not a jerk chicken?
ba dum dum
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
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.
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.
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.
I think this is starting to give me a headache.
Mark: It’s deep, man.
Ok, so let’s make a wager
to make it interesting
Adam: I will bet you $5,000
that the winner will be male
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.
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?]