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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Top Chef Rehash

**SPOILER ALERT** I will be talking about what happened in last night's episode of Top Chef. If you haven't watched it yet, DON'T KEEP READING!

Now then. I assume we've all seen part one of the season finale of Top Chef, yes? Last chance to bail.

It was a tough episode for me to watch. This season is unique in that all of the final four chefs have been frontrunners at one point or another, and I actually think each of them is a talented chef who will go far in his or her career. Kevin is a sweetheart, although I think he sometimes plays it too safe. Bryan brings a level of professionalism and manages to combine technique with solid ideas. Michael, who can sometimes be a pain, does think about food in a way that appeals to me--for instance, in last night's Quickfire when the challenge was about using grapes, he took it to the extreme by using the branches, the leaves, and the fruit. I like how hard he works, and how risky he is, but I don't love his younger-brother attitude and the way he's always got something to prove.

And then there's Jen, who is the only one who rivals Michael in terms of intensity. In Hannibal Lechter's terms, she's a deep roller, someone for whom failure is personal and all-encompassing. No one is harder on Jen than Jen. She psychs herself out.

I loved her. Her food at the beginning of the season always sounded amazing, and very delicate--a thoughtful layering of flavors and textures that did her mentor, Eric Ripert of the perfect hair and sexy French accent, very proud. Then she make a mistake or two and went into a shame spiral, only managing to pull herself out of it by the skin of her teeth in time to make the final four.

I'd hoped the six-week hiatus would be good for her, give her a chance to get her confidence back, and that did appear to happen. She was like the old Jen last night, uncompromising and sure of herself, dedicated to winning. I was so happy--until I realized how much of her we were seeing; every other confessional was from her, which if you watch as much reality TV as I shamefully do, you know means we were being set up to watch her go. Still, I hoped against hope (even though they had her talk about why she was on Top Chef--for her mother--the kiss of death!) and the dishes she made for the crush party sounded fabulous. The judges didn't love her vegetarian option, sure, but they raved about the Sonoma duck. It's "duckiness," how the accompaniments supported but didn't overwhelm the flavor of the bird, etc. I had hope!

Until they got in the judging room and Tom asked her to talk about why she confited the meat instead of grilling it, as she'd originally intended. And Jen said she hadn't been paying close attention to the wood-burning grill and the fire died out, so she had to do something else. When asked if she was happy with the way the dish turned out, she said she wished she could've used the grill for the smoky flavor, even though she'd said while serving it that she loved the way it turned out and thought it might even have been better as a confit dish.

That was what did her in. She had the opportunity to cast her decision to confit the duck in a positive light, and instead she downplayed the dish and played up her own inattention. The story could've been that the grill wasn't working so she had to make a change on the fly, but hey! It came out so great, she ended up loving it more because the confit was part of what enhanced that duck flavor all the judges loved so much! Instead, the story the judges took away was that she was unfocused and scattered in the kitchen, and that maybe the duck could've been better.

It made me think about story, and the ways that memories and perceptions can be colored by the details we add later. The dish was the dish was the dish. They loved it when they were eating it, but by the time they got to Judges Table, they were looking for more details from her to bolster their opinion, which was based on a memory. And instead of giving them a positive story, she gave them a negative one.

I've seen this happen on other shows; on America's Next Top Model, often a girl who's consistently delivered better photo shoots will be sent home in favor of a girl who "wants it more." Gordon Ramsay, on Hell's Kitchen, is particularly susceptible to the story of an inexperienced young cook who works hard and learns a lot while on the job.

As much as the judges on Top Chef try to base their decisions on the food, they're human. And humans crave context.

So Jen went home, and I felt awful for her. But I also took a lesson from her--modesty is all well and good, but in a situation like that? Stand by your work.


Well said, Louisa! I was equally disappointed in her during Judge's Table. It makes me concerned about her running her own kitchen. I wonder if she has the wherewithall to haha.. stand the heat.

When you said long, I was expecting pages of stuff! That wasn't very long at all. Pfft. *G*

I was bummed to see her go too, especially when she seemed back on her game.

I think I'm rooting for Kevin. He's just so likable and grounded in the food he cooks. No, he doesn't take big risks, but the dishes he turns out always seem so complete and thoughtful.

Sometimes we women sabotage ourselves by trying to explain too much. Generally. Men don't do it so much and in that situation, that's why they don't go home.:(

Nice recap. The book sounds interesting although "Gordon Ramsay" and "Romance" aren't related in MY mind!

I agree and it bugs me how women always seem to be determined to apologize rather than explain, and qualify rather than defend.

Contrast her with Kevin, who played up the "toothsomeness" (awesome word) of his, hello, tough brisket. He's still there and she went home.

I've been rooting for Jen since the beginning and she never impressed me more than when she was in charge of the whole kitchen of very competitive chefs and was able to pull it off without a single prima donna meltdown.

DH and I were really sad to see her go.

I don't disagree with any of your points, but I think editing may have been to blame, too, making it seem the judges liked the duck dish better than they did. If you read Tom's blog, he says that both of Jennifer's dishes were oversalted, and they really had no hesitation about which chef would be sent home.

What annoys me is that this editing for "suspense" skews what really happened, and we have to go to Tom's blog to find the real story. Assuming he's telling the real story, and not just spinning it.

I was really sad to see Jennifer go, too. But I have respect for all four of them, so it would have been hard to see any of them go. I think they should have had a four-person finale.

Who wants to see Robin assigned as Mike's sous-chef in the finale? *waves hand* :D

Tessa, that's a good point about the editing--I think BRAVO plays pretty fast and loose, like all reality tv producers do. Witness the Great Michael Voltaggio Waffle! Is he hero? Anti-hero? Straight up brother-hating villain? They can't seem to decide how they want to cast him.

As a couple of people commented, I also wondered if Jen's self-characterization was gender based at all. Women in general are implicitly taught to downplay their accomplishments, from a very young age--I felt like I recognized some of that in the way Jen behaved before the judges.

I agree that her giving them the negativity didn't help her... but if you think back she's been that way all along. I truly think that Jen is a fantastic Chef, however, she needs to mature a lot before she can be a Top Chef. Throughout the season she's second guessed herself and has been known to become more and more scattered the more her stress level rises. I think that the majority of that stress is her own making. Being a perfectionist (especially as a Chef) is a great thing... allowing that perfectionism to bring you down in a "shame spiral" consistently is never a good thing, chef or not... something that she may learn with maturity. I've been expecting her to go so I disagree that it had anything to do with what she told the Judges...

Kevin *did* try to spin the tale in a good light for his brisket, however, he was still not chosen. They even mentioned that though he waxed poetic about it, didn't make it taste any better. I don't think he has what it takes either. He's a stupendous Chef... but as you stated, he's played it "safe" throughout. Simplistic is a great thing as we saw with his vegetarian dish... however, in my mind a true Top Chef will step outside the box now and again. Having said that, I <3 Kevin. He's just a *really* nice guy.

Michael... I agree with everything you've said about it. I don't think he's going to make it to the Top though. I think he's TO far outside the box on a whole.

Bryan. I LOVE Bryan. Truly. He's obviously a fantastic Chef, very professional. He knows when & how to jump outside the box and knows when to place it safe. I see him being this years Top Chef. He seems to have it all :)

I was actually pretty happy with the results. I think Jennifer's very talented, but her self-sabotage really undercuts her ability, in my opinion, to be a top chef. It's about more than just the cooking and she didn't seem to handle the pressure of the competition well at all.

I call Kevin for the win, have since the beginning. He's just too damn good and cool as a cucumber, has zero attitude and just does what he does best. As much as I love the Voltaggios, and god knows I adore them both, they seem to be more competing to beat each other, not to win the competition. Brian's said several times that he only applied because Michael had and he wanted to go head to head with him, and Michael's also said repeatedly that as much as he'd like to win, he wants to beat his brother more.

Kevin just wants to win and has been consistently brilliant the entire way through. I'm very glad it's the three of them to the end, it's exactly how I called it and I'd definitely lay money on Kev to take the prize.

If I had to call a winner now, I'd probably choose Kevin. Leave us not forget, dear readers, that head judge Tom Colicchio made his name on "simple" food--the fact that Kevin elevates his 3-4 ingredient dishes with fabulous flavor and technique is going to be a huge selling point with Tom. Plus, Kevin has been the overall most consistent.

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