When I first read the cast list for "Top Chef: Las Vegas," way before I'd ever heard of Jennifer Carroll or anyone had made a Facebook group dedicated to a certain red beard, two things jumped out at me: Voltaggio, and Voltaggio.
It took me half a second to wrap my head around the names. Brothers? On "Top Chef?" It seemed risky, improbable and even a little cheap. Bravo had already unsuccessfully attempted to drum up a drama with a pair of girlfriends, whose cooking chops fell well short of the finale. This seemed like another casting ploy to take attention off the food and shift it to more standard reality-show fare. However, picking two Voltaggios proved a casting gamble of the best kind — one that actually paid off.
Over the course of "Top Chef: Las Vegas," Bryan and Michael Voltaggio did more than just melt butter and share DNA. The pair emerged at the front of the pack almost immediately, and in the kitchen, at judges' table, in the house and anywhere else they appeared on camera, the sibling rivalry storyline had legs and danced.
Sure, Michael came off as arrogant and Bryan's on-camera personality was blander than dry toast, but every sarcastic comment and flash of annoyance was more exciting, because, well, they were brothers.
On the Wednesday night season finale, that storyline came to fruition as the brothers faced off against each other and Kevin in the final elimination challenge. The ribbing continued, but with a slightly softer edge, with the competitors bonding in their common states of stress. "The reality is really setting in that I'm competing against my brother," Michael said as if it had dawned on him for the first time.
Kevin, the lovable chef whose comforting food matched his demeanor, was almost an afterthought during the finale. Not only did cracks start to show in the front runner's confident facade, but he fumbled some of his usually Clydesdale-strong cooking and seemed to fade into a television side dish. Front and center for the finale, Michael and Bryan showed more humor, compassion and affection for each other than they had in the previous four months combined.
Sharing breakfast before the elimination challenge began, Michael and Kevin lamented Jennifer's questionable ousting in Part 1 of the finale, "Still sucks that it wasn't Bryan, ya know?" Michael quipped. Bryan even broke out of his near-military stoicism to laugh at the teasing.
When a surprise knock at the door brought the chefs' mothers into the competition, I finally got to check out the Voltaggio's Las Vegas-based mom. I'd wanted to talk to her since she commented months ago on a blog counting down to the season premiere, and there she was, not a culinary Olympian, but a supportive woman fussing over her two sons. So mom-like.
"It's heart wrenching at times," she told the camera. "You want them both to do well, but there can only be one winner." When the judges asked her to pick a favorite dish between her two sons later on, she wisely pled the Fifth.
She was right (moms often are). Bryan, Michael and Kevin each presented strong cases in their four-course finale dinners, and each exemplified the cooking styles they'd been honing for years. Bryan delivered refined, well-executed food that was sometimes restrained to a fault — as in his one-note Pacific rockfish sous vide — and other times masterful with subtle flavors and precise execution. Tom called his venison entree "flawless." Vision and creativity marked Michael's food, which hit the mark with dashi-glazed rockfish and unique plays on preparation and flavor, though it faltered on an overcooked dessert course and a fake mushroom that one guest judge called a gimmick.
Finally, Kevin cooked for his motherland, taking fried chicken skin out of a punchline and placing it firmly on the dinner table with delicious results. Unfortunately, a slow-roasted pork belly that would usually be a home run for the chef was undercooked and lacked the sophisticated flavors and impeccable preparation that had defined him in previous episodes.
The self-proclaimed underdog just didn't put on his best show. "I had a bad day and it just sucks that one day ruined it for me," Kevin lamented.
In the end, as in the beginning, two names stole the show: Voltaggio and Voltaggio.
"I just don't want Bryan to be Top Chef," joked Michael when the judges asked each competitor why they should take home the top prize. "Food, it's me," he continued. "It's how I express myself. I've never gotten a paycheck for anything else."
With the final decision nearing, Bryan and Michael faced the judges, arms clasped behind their backs like twins. I was betting on Bryan with his "flawless" meat course, sheep's-milk cheesecake and earnest, serious vibe, but the name on Padma's lips was Michael's. Creativity and risk taking had trumped technique.
The brothers turned towards each other and into a prolonged and tearful hug.
Like mom said, there can only be one. Bryan, it appeared, was OK with that. "I'd rather him than anybody else," he said of his Top Chef brother.
With the win in his pocket, a more-relaxed Michael seemed to finally let down his competitive guard and value for the first time the extraordinary achievement of the brothers Voltaggio.
"I'm more proud of the fact that Bryan and I made it all the way to the end than I am about winning," Michael said. "I wish both of us could win." What a brotherly way to close "Top Chef: Las Vegas." Wherever he or she was watching, Top Chef's casting director must have had a huge smile as the credits rolled.