Who Will Win Top Chef Season Seven? Who Cares?
Top Chef, Season Seven
Last Sunday at the 2010 Emmy Awards, Bravo’s Top Chef took home the award for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, the first time a show other than The Amazing Race has won the category since its inception seven years ago. The win marked a well-deserved recognition for-in my mind-the best reality food program on television in what has become quite the cluttered landscape, but ironically, I believe it also did more harm than good to the current season as it rounds the corner towards its finale on September 15.
I’ve been enamored of Top Chef since my wife introduced me to it mid-way through its third season, but no question, the show hit a new peak last year with its Las Vegas-based sixth installment. Undoubtedly the choice location played a role as it provided flourishes like the “High Stakes” challenges with additional cash prizes on the line, proximity to great restaurants and guest judges such as Wolfgang Puck and Todd English, and some unique challenges like basing dishes around various casinos or needing to utilize cactus as a key ingredient.
However, while the Vegas landscape provided the sizzle, the steak of season six unquestionably came from the epic brother vs brother rivalry between Bryan and Michael Voltaggio. Not only did it mark the first time siblings had competed against one another on Top Chef, from very early on it became clear that the Voltaggios possessed more-than-impressive culinary skills that could easily land even-keeled and hardworking Bryan against risk-taking and self-assured Michael in the finals, a prospect that appealed to the base intrigue that has sprung from every family feud since Cain took out Abel.
And yet while it did ultimately come down to Voltaggio vs Voltaggio in the grand finale with Michael eking out an extremely hard-fought win, the presence of an especially gifted field of competitors made that showdown anything but a foregone conclusion and packed each episode with plenty of drama as well as provided viewers with a wide range of personalities whom they could choose to back outside the fraternal standouts.
Indeed, at least the top five finishers, if not the top seven, would not have seemed out of place in the winner’s circle-and in any other season perhaps could have easily claimed the crown-and presented a wide range of personalities to boot. Bronze medalist Kevin Gillepsie’s easygoing nature and humility plus affinity for taking down-home Southern cooking and putting it shoulder-to-shoulder with more sophisticated fare made him the guy many hoped would pull an upset on the Voltaggios. Fourth-place finisher Jennifer Carroll had a rough second half of the season, but provided a refreshingly take-charge female voice in the kitchen before that. And number five, Eli Kirshstein, with his quirky humor and bold flavor choices presented a fun wildcard.
From pretty much anywhere beyond the first few episodes, you never knew who would go home on Top Chef season six because weak links were hard to find, and while a Voltaggios showdown presented the most dramatic possible finale, it hardly seemed guaranteed amongst such a proficient and competitive group.
Now that brings us to Top Chef season seven.
Credit where credit’s due: I’ve still watched and enjoyed every episode this season of Top Chef, a testament to what a well-oiled machine the show has become and how good the folks producing it remain at their jobs, but frankly it’s always tough to follow-up something as special as what the Vegas crew provided.
The current season emanates from Washington, DC, a great choice as it has provided the inspiration for challenges set in CIA headquarters and NASA as well as spotlighted the unique and tasty cuisine of local areas stretching to Maryland and elsewhere. The contestants have also made for some of the more memorable characters in recent Top Chef memory, with standouts like self-professed “alpha male” Kenny Gilbert, questionable conniving Alex Reznik, and even kooky seeming flower child John Somerville, who got eliminated way back on the season premiere.
Perhaps the most engaging personality belongs to current final four frontrunner Angelo Sosa, who swings between a manipulative villain type and spiritual warrior relying on self-help mantras; he’s definitely got an odd charisma and his early clashes with Kenny made for some of the season’s most memorable moments thus far.
In large part season seven has relied on interpersonal drama to fuel the storyline of the show, be it the Angelo-Kenny clashes, Alex seemingly swiping dishes from other competitors, or the flirtations between engaged Tiffany Derry and everyman Ed Cotton (“flirtations” that seem heavily manipulated by editing, but hey, you work with what you’ve got). It’s worked, since as I’ve noted the show has remained compelling, but all the contestant conflict in the world can’t mask the fairly undeniable fact only emphasized by last week’s Emmy win: these guys simply can’t cook like their season six predecessors.
As somebody who struggles to heat up his ramen noodles I’m certainly in positions to say the season seven crew lacks talent, and indeed from what I’ve observed on television-which is all I can do until one of them sees this column and invites me to their restaurant-there’s no lack of skills amongst this bunch, but they have the misfortune of following a group in which even the folks who didn’t make the finale had a great case for being there, and the final three may well be the best chefs the show has ever seen. Again, no offense intended to the current Top Chef contenders, but it’s not hard to imagine even the sixth-runner-up from last year dominating this season’s competition.
For the most part, this hasn’t mattered hugely in my enjoyment of this current stretch of Top Chef. The competition has still been compelling, even if it doesn’t seem like the contestants break cooking paradigms and blow the judges’ minds each and every week the way the Voltaggios and friends did. There’s also a thing to be said for parity; if a single chef stood far in front of the rest from day one, it wouldn’t make for a very interesting race to follow, and Top Chef’s producers have been nothing if not diligent in making sure we’ve never had a season that became boring by the second week.
The problem lies in the fact that now that we’re down to four I don’t feel like I have a real vested interest in who wins. All of the contestants certainly feel like they deserve to be here, but none stands out for me. A week ago I would have told you my support would go to Tiffany, as she seemed by far the most likeable and had really emerged as a strong competitor in recent episodes, but she got cut on a fluke mistake in the last challenge (such is life and cooking). There’s some drama left in rooting against Angelo, who has been set up as the ostensible bad guy, but frankly none of his three opponents leap out as an equally compelling “good guy,” or at least none who I feel deserve the win as much as he probably does (again, Tiffany would have been a great fit).
Will I be watching the Top Chef finale? Of course. Will I enjoy it? I’d be shocked if I didn’t. Do I care who wins? Not really.
Of course, that could ultimately be considered far more a compliment than a detraction: the show itself has now transcended the individual personalities of the chefs involved, and I’m more a fan of the brand and its quality than anything else.
I still wish we could have had a hidden third Voltaggio brother this year, though.
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