There didn’t need to be a coin toss, pyrotechnics or a giant table laden with stacks of cash for the air to be thick with competition during part 1 of the "Top Chef: Las Vegas" season finale last night. If it weren’t such an unforgivable pun, I’d say you could cut it with a knife. A cheese knife.
Unlike some other seasons, the Las Vegas edition of "Top Chef" has seen a consistently high level of cooking from more than one or two dominant hands. But only can win. (And only one has a Facebook page in support of his bushy red beard. Not that that guarantees the $100,000, but it’s a different kind of victory, if you ask me.)
Just as I was getting nostalgic over the past weeks of "Top Chef: Las Vegas," a train pulled up. Game time. An obviously pregnant Padma, joined by guest judge and Top Chef Master Michael Chiarello, instructed the chefs to prepare a meal for them showcasing Napa’s most revered fruit: the grape. And oh yeah, they’d have to do it on the moving Napa Valley Wine Train.
To sum up the Quickfire, I offer my own Quickfire recap that should take you less than 30 seconds to read: Kevin and his beard felt motion-sick while Jennifer cooked chicken live, and Bryan banked on Concord grapes. Michael went holistic, cooking with grapes, grape leaves and even a stem or vine of some sort. Winner: Michael. Enjoy your new Prius, sir.
For the elimination challenge, the chefs explored beyond Napa’s most famous crop to tap into its rich array of locally grown produce and locally raised meats. Other than salt and pepper, everything on the plates would be grown with 50 miles of where it would be eaten. Kevin and Bryan jump for locally sourced joy. Or in Bryan’s case, his face might have broken into a smile for just the tiniest fraction of a second has he noted that was his, and not his brother’s forte.
The challenge had Kevin, Jennifer, and the V bros catering an end of season “crush party.” Each chef had to prepare two dishes – one vegetarian – for 150 guests. There to compete, they were also on hand to work.
And the fantastic four definitely got down to business. Each chef showcased what he or she does best, playing the parts they’ve been developing all season to a perfect T.
“The right thing to say is, ‘That’s my brother, and I’m proud of you,’ but I want to beat my brother and I’m not going to play nice,” Michael V. said as the challenge got underway. A classic comment from the younger Voltaggio.
As the judges ate, discussed and eventually confronted the chefs, it was clear that the caliber of cuisine had reached a level where criticism can literally come down to an extra flake of salt. Dishes that were enjoyed during the party were dissected at judges table. Michael’s playful turnip soup with (more) foie gras and pear made to look like turnip and turnip disguised as pear wasn’t properly proportioned, and Bryan’s boneless short ribs with fig glaze weren’t “figgy” enough. Jennifer’s braised duck legs with confit duck breast and brown butter foie gras, meanwhile, were complemented as being very “ducky.” The food might be fancy, but the vocabulary certainly isn’t.
After a judge’s table where it seemed any of the chefs could be on the chopping block or taking home the win, Chiarello, Padma, Tom and Gail came to a decision. The stoic Bryan was named winner. “I totally fell in love with Bryan’s ravioli,” gushed Gail, sounding a bit as if her husband should be checking the kitchen for late night pasta trysts. Stony-faced, Bryan accepted the win.
And so, left in front of the judges were three talented chefs - Kevin, jolly and confident, the guy you’d want in your kitchen after a long day at work, Jennifer, the woman with hands practiced in the classics and an eye towards innovation, and Michael, whose irreverent style and experimental drive has wowed the judges again and again. Any of them could leave or stay and win it all … but there’s no such thing as a "Top Chef" tie.
So, Padma delivered the news:
“Jennifer, please pack your knives and go.”
Ever the competitor, Jennifer’s tearful goodbye was expressed both gratitude at the friends she had made and regret that she didn’t showcase her best work.
“The top four is nothing to me. I want to win,” Jennifer said at the beginning of the episode. Even without the title of Top Chef, Ms. Carroll has proved that she was capable of taking home the crown. I’m sure that she’s back at 10 Arts right now, cooking something fabulous, keeping her kitchen in order and making Eric Ripert very, very proud.