As much as I’ve liked the sense of calm, good-spirited professionalism this season on “Top Chef Masters,” I’ve gotta say I ate up the delicious drama in last night’s episode. A kitchen brouhaha was just what the show needed to kick it up a notch as we headed into the stretch run to the finale.
Of course, that doesn’t make said brouhaha justifiable. Dale proved he’s still just as much of an ass as he was on Season 4, throwing an adolescent tantrum over some perceived slight from Michael Chiarello (that’s pronounced “KEY-arello,” but don’t dare call him anything other than “chef”!). Was Chiarello being a domineering, overbearing ass himself? Yeah, pretty much. But as the actual contestant on the show, MC’s entitled to run his kitchen the way he wants. He’s earned that right. Dale was there to be the hired help, and came off looking like a petulant, immature brat.
Those two weren’t the only souffle-like egos in the kitchen. Spike from Season 4 had such a bloated sense of entitlement and was so lacking self-awareness that it was awkward to watch. The guy finished fifth in his season and was on the chopping block more than anyone besides third-place finisher Sourpuss Lisa; where does he get off acting so dismissive of Chiarello? And for god’s sake, lose the hipster hat – there’s only room for one ridiculous hat per episode, and that’s reserved for Gael Greene.
I know there’s a ton of hate in the blogosphere toward Season 2’s Ilan, but I missed that season and didn’t notice anything particularly egregious about him last night. (If you did, feel free to chime in.) But I was surprised and a little disappointed in the shots Richard Blais took. Seems like he still has a case of sour grapes from losing Season 4. Ripping Chiarello’s table as something out of a 1987 wedding banquet was . . . well, it was more appropriate for “Top Chef” than “Top Chef Masters.” It was snarky and maybe even accurate, but lacked class. But at least Blais was able to back it up with his mouth – his avocado ice cream made with liquid nitrogen looked hella cool. Anything that impresses Rick Bayless that much deserves respect.
So what else did we learn from last night’s episode?
— Hubert Keller rocks. And not just because he’s a DJ. He was inclusive with his sous chefs, got them involved and pulled off something like 17 individual dishes. Amazing. His personality is perfect for this show – always cool and calm, always smiling, willing to collaborate, and he seems to elevate the skills of those around him. Quite a talent.
— Rick Bayless might be the Ned Flanders of cooking, but he never fails to produce a fantastic dish. I think he’s been the most consistently excellent chef this season. At first I worried that his nice-guy personality would grow tired, but he’s so sincere and enthusiastic and knowledgeable that he’s hard not to like. Like Keller, he excelled in building a collaborative spread that utilized the skills of his sous chefs perfectly.
— I’ve liked Michael Chiarello up to this point, and I’m still trying to figure out if he was being a jerk or just a highly competitive perfectionist who wanted his kitchen run his way. Did he ask the Top Chefs to tell him his name out of ego or, as he claimed, so he could recognize those who were familiar with his style of cooking? Did he make them slice carrots just to show who was in charge or to see who performed best under pressure? Did he call Dale “young man” to assert authority over a young chef or simply because he forgot his name? I really don’t know. Maybe it was a little bit of everything.
— Poor Anita Lo. That raw bar was doomed once it the setting got moved outdoors, under the blazing sun. And ouch, that was a pretty damning comment about Jamie, criticizing her lack of speed and tendency to get overwhelmed under pressure – “I forgot that Jamie had limitations in the kitchen.” But maybe that’s why Jamie has made an early exit from “Top Chef” three times. Hey, at least Jamie didn’t try to convince Anita to do a scallop dish!
— Fabio still cracks me up. “I was sweating like a mountain goat at the beach.” Nice image.
— I loved it when Rick told C.J. that traveling to Cozumel “doesn’t count” as being to Mexico. Ha!
— I’m going to miss Jay Rayner as a judge when the real “Top Chef” starts. He’s a little pompous, but about 17 times better than Toby Young.
— Speaking of judges, what was up with the scoring? How did the diners only give Hubert 3.5 stars when he got the first-ever (I believe) unanimous 5-star score from the judges? Were the diners just idiots? (Oh wait, they said they were Hollywood bigwigs – I guess that answers my question.) Chiarello’s scores also surprised me. The judges criticized his dishes a lot more than Anita’s, and I really thought he was going to be the one to go. Those 4-star ratings seemed high, unless there was an awful lot of praise for his food that got left on the editing room floor.
— Next week: The big finale. I accidentally read a spoiler long ago about who wins, but I still want to see how it all goes down. Should be good. And even more exciting: The new season of “Top Chef” in Las Vegas will premiere before it. Can’t wait.