Top Chef: 'The Thin Lisa Line'
Wow. Okay. Everyone visiting here knows -- so this shouldn't be a SPOILER -- that Steph won, fulfilling pretty much the popular consensus from forever. And that Richard -- who looked to be the favorite early -- "choked," by his own description. Am I the only one who thought that the teaser from last week with Richard just saying what had to be said at judges' table was going to be a repeat of Season 1, when Tiffani got called out for being evil? I seriously believed he was going to trash Lisa. Major kudos to Richard for being gentlemanly to the end and trashing himself instead. And big smile when he talked about having the baby on the way -- given that he finished the earlier kid challenge by saying he wanted to make one. Still, a little Lisa-trashing would have brought up a grin.
So, let's get to Lisa. Much ado on the "Top Chef" discussion universe last week about how perhaps that tagline about producer input was invoked to keep her. As in: Antonia was better but Lisa made for TV-inducing controversy and the panel bowed to the powers that be to keep her. Um, I have to say (protecting myself with elbows up) that I think the far more likely producer-induced interference came tonight. Not that I'm not happy about it. As Richard aptly put in the beginning of this show, there is still confusion on how Lisa made it this far. And, again, when I interviewed Tom C., he swore that being told whom to eliminate had never happened except over the Cliff-trying-to-scalp-Marcel thing. But Tom C. also swore that the judging was on the individual competition, and had no reference to previous performance. So, just wondering: Was Steph's lamb really that fantabulous?
To recap: The final challenge is always making your own menu, which would lead me to believe that the cheftestants (at least at this point) are home-practicing and perfecting the entire time between the main show arc and the finale. If anyone comes in at this point without something they want to showcase, what's up? This time, though, the ingredients were more limited (in fact, this does seem to be a trend). Instead of just making whatever they want with a huge vat of stuff to pick from, they have to pick the stuff in front of the corresponding sous chef (the celeb sous chef being the new trend from Season 3, which I actually like way better than bringing back the recent losers) and have a defined progression of courses: Fish, Poultry, Red Meat, Dessert. DESSERT. Ha!
Unlike Hung from last season almost killing his win because he chose a dessert (and a ridiculous chocolate cake thing, at that), Season 4 chefs MUST make one! Because, you know, actual people who go to dinner and pay for four courses would like one!
So in the first knife to Lisa, the choice of sous-chef and protein goes to the person who has won the most previous challenges. Which would be a tie between Richard and Steph, with Lisa somewhere clinging by her fingertips to some plankton.
Steph pulls the final No. 1 knife from the knife block and takes Eric Ripert, and it's really uncertain whether it's about the protein or the man (um, chef). Richard goes for Dan Barber and Lisa gets April Bloomfield, which immediately makes one wonder whether April is going to get hazard pay from Bravo.
Only this week we have Happy Lisa! Fun Lisa! Bond with my chick chef Lisa!
It's as if she watched herself in previous episodes and said, um, okay, I have to have a personality transplant. Which works right up until the traditional Lisa arms-crossed scowl-a-thon takes place at Judges' Table, but I digress.
Anyway, Lisa decides to make a totally Asian menu, Richard has a theme-a-thon I never really get and Steph wants to be kinda simple and clean (is there any show in "Top Chef" history that doesn't use the phrase "simple and clean flavors"?)
On to the course-off:
Lisa does a shrimp thing (of course, it's called "prawns," being that "prawns" are all more exciting in theory unless you're dealing with a bad takeout Chinese menu) with spicy spicy to start. Richard does scallops and Steph some red snapper.
Lisa goes for a Tom Kha Gai soup that is a staple of Thai delivery menus but upgrades it with her own special dumpling. Richard goes with guinea hen and about nine other things and Steph does quail.
Lisa: Wagyu beef
Richard: Pork belly (the undoing of Casey in Season 3, alas)
Lisa: A black rice Thai pudding
Steph: Ricotta poundcake
Richard: That banana scallop thing AGAIN (really, is that going to win you any points, no matter HOW good it is?) and bacon ice cream. Yes, bacon ice cream.
This is one of those times where you wish you could taste straight through the TV screen because while I'm all about bacon (and, very briefly, actually liked Lisa for her bacon-syrup heaven earlier this season) it's really, really hard to imagine wanting bacon in my ice cream.
So on to Judges' Table and here's where it gets messy. Lisa describes her menu as reflecting the fact that she is a "spicy kind of person." Because, you know, when she earlier describes herself with words that include "sweet" and "sour," the whole viewing public laughs until their Coke comes up their noses. Richard tries to explain his thesis; Steph just stays on the same keel.
Steph kinda gets credit for winning course 1, but there is a clear divide and Mr. Wonderful Ted Allen actually is very up for Lisa's shrimp. Lisa's soup runs away with the competition for course 2, and in fact gets some of the most positive comments of the night. Course 3, Lisa's lamb, is decribed by Eric Ripert as the first time the word "love" is used to describe the food. And the dessert course is a Lisa win again, with Steph's essentially a failure. Richard, meanwhile, is a total nonentity in all of this despite teaching Eric Ripert how to use liquid nitrogen on his ice cream.
Everybody gets a chance at Judges' Table to put in a last few words and Insecure Steph second-guesses her dessert and Lisa does a version of the Titanic "I'm King of the World!" speech, which just makes you want an iceberg to rise up and sink her. Then Richard -- in that much-hyped moment -- declares himself to have choked. Which would be dramatic if we weren't already in the point in the show where it's very very clear there's going to be a first-ever woman winner.
So, as they tell us, the whole who-wins discussion takes forever and ever until the birds start chirping in the morning. Which, back to the original point, is probably understandable. Because, um, Tom C. consistently makes the point that it's about the best dish/meal of the moment. And, um, if you digest the analysis, it would very much seem like Lisa "killed" on two courses, all but tied on another but lost to Steph on best dish of the night (that lamb thing
with braised pistachios, which everyone couldn't stop raving over so make them for your next dinner party). But Steph truly crashed-and-burned on dessert. And Lisa didn't crash-and-burn on anything. So, it SEEMS like the "best meal" assessment came down to whether Steph's lamb was so incredible it aced out the fact that Lisa's cohesive progression of undeniably solid courses -- save for the disappointment of the Wagyu beef.
It did. And, like the voting public, in the poll, who wanted Steph to win at 60 percent and Lisa at 4! (Seriously, Lisa, are you listening? You must open one of those restaurants with the open kitchen, then you'll get customers who come to gawk at the devil in a chef's coat. It's really your only hope of capitalizing on this experience.) Steph took the crown. But, really, don't you wonder what Tom, Gail and Ted would say if told they could only have one meal out of the three? Sounded to me--at least from the way it was cut -- that they would have gone down the Lisa path. Of course, then they might have burned in eternal hellfire and all. And Bravo might have, um, lost more than a restaurant full of viewers.
-- JENNIFER FREY
June 12, 2008; 12:19 PM ET
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