Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Top Chef Finale Part 1: When Dead Pigs Fly

Normally I’m jealous of my cats and wish I could trade places with them. But not tonight! As I was drinking a beer, white-knuckled with anticipation of how the first installment of the finale would pan out, my faithful furry friends H.J. and S. were by my side, their heads turning to and fro, looking at everything and nothing in particular. Not even four neo-cadaverous pigs could turn their attention to the television! But I have to admit, for the first time in my TC-obsession history, there were points during the episode that I had to turn away. More than ever, I was reminded of the moral conflict that accompanies any vegetarian/anti-specist when supporting a project, and an industry, whose primary function is to subordinate anything potentially edible for the good of a tasty dish.

Stephanie won her first Quickfire Challenge of the season, just when the Quickfire immunity clause expired. But it bought her a much needed confidence boost and the advantage of choosing not only her own sous chef, but the sous chef of each of her competitors, from the four runner-runnerups: Dale, Nikki, Andrew, and Spike. I think she made the right choice for everyone involved. There is no question that Dale is the strongest, even though he almost ruined it for her by leaving the pork belly out overnight. Nikki is a sweetheart, and works better with women than men, making her the the best choice for Antonia - a more strategic, bitchier choice might have been to pair Spike with Antonia in light of past conflicts, but as Stephanie said, she wanted to create teams that would work well together and minimize unnecessary drama. Good on her - too bad if Lisa wasn't happy about being assigned Andrew. It's not Stephanie's fault that nobody likes her.

It was a really close call tonight. Not just between the bottom two, but between the winners and losers altogether. Every chef was aware that the slightest error can be a fatal one, at this stage of the game. I share the in the judges’ bewilderment that Antonia would choose to lump all of her dishes onto the same plate – that’s just asking for trouble, because it suggests that you aren’t taking your own work seriously enough to force a distinct response to each dish. But I don’t think it’s so terrible to cook pigeon peas al dente – anyone who has observed their own palate evolve will recognize the virtue of the slightest undercooking: Antonia’s failing was that it wasn’t slight enough – but her strength in the judge’s table faceoff was admitting openly to exactly what got her there.

Antonia’s behavior turned me off during the gorilla challenge in episode 2, and during the EC where she was really aggressive even though she had immunity. But almost immediately afterwards I swung to her favor – I really enjoy her snarky but spot-on assessment of her competitors in the confessional, and the fact that she saves her commentary for the private sessions. She opened a restaurant during the break, and has a young daughter at home. This cannot be easy for her. I was really starting to pull for her, and I never liked her more than I did tonight. If she had made it to the top three, she would have earned it fair and square – not by “squeaking through” as Lisa did, and admitted it herself.

But it wasn't to be: The judges couldn't get over the undercooked pigeon peas and the haphazard construction. Antonia really wanted to win this, and wasn't ready to go home. I was pretty disgusted that Lisa - after insisting that she would be the one to go - was expecting fanfare from her competitors for getting by. It made me think of the idiom of looking a gift horse in the mouth: And I can only hope that we won't have to look so closely at an animal's cadaver next week. The only thing I want to see dead is Lisa's chance of winning Top Chef.

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