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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Commercial Interruption: Vicious Voltaggio?

Sometimes there's just too much television for one Channel Surfing blogger to handle. That's when we need a break to sit back, relax and indulge in some friendly back-and-forth (via email, of course — we don't actually like to speak to one another in person). Bloggers Thomas Rozwadowski and Kelly McBride have nothing but kitchen kudos for last night's episode of "Top Chef." This season is shaping up to be the toughest contest yet for the cheftestants, notably the dueling brothers Voltaggio. Smart money's on both to make the finale, but who will emerge victorious is anybody's guess.

Thomas: Last night delivered one of the most memorable episodes in "Top Chef" history. Not because anything particularly earth-shattering happened -- although it almost did if Jen had been given the heave-ho -- but instead, because it was thoroughly entertaining and lived up to the promise and hype of previous Restaurant Wars installments.

First things first: I LOVED the new blindfold Quickfire challenge. Inventive, challenging, fun, and even downright quirky when you consider how each contestant had to assemble a food puzzle in their heads. Oh, but it was a classic example of the agony and the ecstasy as the same teams assembled for Restaurant Wars with far different results.

While the competition itself was fairly anti-climactic considering team Revolt (yeah, Noah Webster isn't fond of that name choice) destroyed team Mission, there was definitely some tension regarding Jen's fate. I had a feeling Laurine would take the fall for basically pulling a Radhika, but Jen botched two dishes -- and her brown butter trout honestly looking like it had been sitting in a Glad trash bag for days. And no, even George Costanza wouldn't take a bite out of that.

But the strong survive another day, and I'm certain Jen will bounce back from what ultimately turned out to be a case of really poor planning in the kitchen from team Mission. When both Jen AND Kevin are flustered, you know it doesn't have much to do with the complexity of a dish so much as timing and harried execution.

That said, the real storyline seems to be "Top Chef's" continued push to make Michael Voltaggio this season's Stefan-like villain. Last night saw Mike bullying fellow bo-ring brother Bryan in "revolting" fashion. At the end of their victory, the Bry-Guy didn't even want to make eye contact and take some pity cash for Vegas strippers after Mike -- yet again -- earned the judges' raves. I love the competitive aspect of having siblings on the show, but I'm not really buying that Mike is a truly bad guy. Yeah, he's a hard ass in the kitchen. Yeah, he pushes buttons to get things done. That also makes him a phenomenal chef.

As Tom Colicchio pointed out, someone on the Mission team needed to step up and be a bad-ass leader. Mike did that for his squad. Still, does his pushy attitude make you root any less for him, Kelly? Last night's poll results from the "Top Chef" audience would seem to suggest Mike isn't a fan favorite these days.

Kelly: Might I first say that I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of last night's episode. It was a phenomenal success (TV-wise, if not dish-wise for some unfortunate cheftestants), from teamwork quickfire to "letting it ride" and, of course, the culinary cage match that is restaurant wars.

As for the brothers Voltaggio (who I still have trouble telling apart), I'm still loving the sibling rivalry and tension they bring to the kitchen. It seems they're definitely playing up Mikey V's jerkishness (yeah, it's a word), but that doesn't take away from him being a.) a great chef and b.) semi-entertaining to watch. The recent badass anger display only serves to makes Brother Boring a bit more interesting in my eyes, so I'm all for it. I also don't buy that he's suddenly become this complete jerk, but I have no problem with Bravo playing up that angle. He was clearly an effective leader for team Revolt (agreed -- HORRIBLE name), and in the end, that's what matters.

A few other notes about last night's episode: One, it's about time Laurine was sent packing. She's been decent but never very impressive and I was frankly getting sick of her. I think Robin's still around largely for the drama factor, but she still surprises with the occasional knock-it-out-of-the-park dish. That said, cobbler isn't going to get her the finale. My only beef with last night's Restaurant Wars (and it's a small beef) was that decor wasn't part of the challenge. What happens in the kitchen is obviously the most important element, but one of the things I've always loved about Restaurant Wars is that the chefs start literally from scratch.

Thomas, you seem pretty sure about Jen's impending bounce-back, but this isn't the first time we've seen her falter. I think she's a phenomenal chef (and my personal favorite at this stage of the game), but I wonder if the subtle cracks in her confidence will become more pronounced after last night's trouncing. Is the game's most solid female chef finale-bound?

Thomas: It would have been perfectly justifiable had Jen been knocked out last night. Before the elimination was announced, I actually said aloud that her two dish blunder was a more egregious mistake than Laurine's forgetfulness/lack of assertiveness on the floor. But Jen has certainly carried her weight this season, so she deserved the benefit of failing during a more challenging kitchen role than just going through the front-of-house motions like a brain-dead zombie (though Eli was definitely a powerhouse for his team. I mean, geez Laurine, how hard is it to pour on some charm for what, two hours?)

This season of "Top Chef" has always been about the top four: Jen, Kevin and the Voltaggio Brothers. Sure Robin's annoying, but unlike say, Ariane from season's past, she doesn't pull enough dishes out of her backside to even make a dent in the standings. She's a goner. Soon. (Please, God?) Eli and Mike I. have talent, but in this loaded field, they're merely bit players. They should have signed up for Hosea's season.

At the same time, I wouldn't be shocked if Mike I. cracks the top three due to a sparkling run of inspiration, but I have a harder time believing that the Fearsome Four won't actually get to compete in the grand finale. In fact, it's such a travesty that one of them will have to go, I'm hoping "Top Chef" plays the "bring back Mimbo Jeff" card and uses a wild card strategy. Really, all four are phenomenal, and on their best day could stack up with some of the best chefs in the country.

So, I haven't adequately answered your question, but I think Jen is finale bound. My guess -- or perhaps hope -- is that it comes at the expense of Bryan, though the dramatic part of me really wants to see two brothers duking it in the finale. All that seething anger over banging each other's girlfriends in high school or one getting a Sega Genesis for Christmas over the other will be on grand display for the world to see. Honestly, I just want Mikey V. and Kevin to be in the finale because they're both my personal favorites and have proven to be the most "Top Chef" worthy at this stage. Jerkishness vs. non-jerkishness. Riveting stuff.

How about you, Kelly? Who are you rooting for? And honestly, has there ever been a "Top Chef" competition with this many potential winners?

Kelly: I'm all for my girl Jen -- in part because she's the only female contender, but mostly because she can cook like nobody's bidness. She's clearly a talented chef (last night's debacle notwithstanding) with a real passion for what she does. Of course, the same can be said of either Voltaggio and our favorite jolly lumberjack, so I agree -- it's going to be one heckuva race. I predict a Mimbo Jeff curveball squared for the finale -- this is Vegas, after all -- and I can't wait to see how it all shakes out.

I can't remember seeing a more solid field, and not even the best Vegas oddsmakers will be able to call this one. Hopefully Robin packs her knives next week so the rest of the chefs can get down to business.

-- Thomas Rozwadowski,; Kelly McBride,

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