For an episode set in New Orleans, a city infamous for its partying and bare chests, part 1 of the season 5 finale of "Top Chef" was severely lacking in the fun department. Gone were the chatty asides, nonsensical sound bytes from Fabio, and inappropriate snuggling on the couch. The final four chefs, Hosea, Fabio, Carla, and Stefan, arrive in the Big Easy with their game faces on -- they are all there to win. And maybe look a little snazzier on camera now that they are all big, quasi-famous reality stars.
Carla's makeover, complete with a sleek new hair cut and fierce hot pink jacket, is a definite "do" for the bug-eyed underdog. Fabio's mohawk and pale pink pashmina scarf, on the other hand, needs to pack its knives and go. Now. Bald boys Hosea and Stefan look the same (bald and slightly angry), though Stefan's cap that reads "Suimi," a Finnish word that can be translated to mean "a style of free-form psychedelic trance" (Wikipedia), makes me wonder what he's been up to these past few months...
My guess is skinning eels (or children) back in Germany.
After flying in, the chefs are immediately shuttled to a random picnic area for their quickfire challenge that is to be judged by the "King of Creole," Emeril Lagasse (aka the king of kicking things up to notches unseen by man). But wait a minute -- something is weird. Hosea can count and notices that -- gasp! -- there are only three tables of food! Padma informs them that they will not be cooking in the quickfire challenge -- Leah, Jamie and Jeff will be. The three formerly disgraced chefs are paraded out and told that they will be competing against one another for one last chance to make the final. The winner of the quickfire to create a dish with crawfish will join the four remaining chefs in the elimination challenge, but to move on to the final, that chef must win.
In other words, they are being used as sneaky plot devices to amp up the tension and stakes. Because there really isn't enough on the table already, and it's just so much fun to see the chefs, "our heroes" sweat and get in a tissy over yet another obstacle on their path toward Stefan's imminent greatness. I suspect that it's mostly to see Hosea get all awkward when he sees his long lost lover Leah, who still can't like stop saying "like" and like has "never worked with crawfish before" like. She makes "like a crawfish soup," Jamie does some weird egg thing that looks really complicated, and pretty boy Jeff whips up a shrimp and grits with Andouille sausage. Emeril says it's really hard to pick one dish because "they're all winners" (he must have missed the memo that "it's 'Top Chef,' not 'Top Pussy'), but ultimately awards Jeff the win. Just in case everyone didn't catch it the first five times, Jeff now must win the elimination challenge to move forward. But don't worry, that will come up another twenty times before the Judge's Table.
In the spirit of Mardi Gras, the elimination challenge requires the chefs to cook two dishes -- one in the Creole style -- and create one cocktail for 100 people attending a masquerade ball at the New Orleans Museum of Art. The winner will not just make the final, but also win a (drumroll please) brand new Toyota Venza! Fabio's car is "a piece of poop," so he's really excited about that. I'm really excited that someone is saying "poop" instead of to win "will be the answer to everything I need" and I'm doing this for "my husband and step-son" and the rest of that sentimental hogwash meant to get me all teary-eyed and attached to someone. Hey guys, this is "Top Chef," not "Top Pussy," remember? At least Stefan is aware of that. He knows "this is not a butt-rubbing contest. There will be a slaughtering." Hosea?
The chefs then head down to Emeril's restaurant, Delmonico, for five hours of prep. It's about as entertaining to watch as it sounds. There are no broken fingers, no refrigerators left open so everything spoils, and it seems as though all the cheftestants are actually... cooking? Well, except for good ole Stefan who is giggling over the shape of sausage links and taking a break to smoke a cigarette, and poor Carla who just learned to shuck oysters a week and a half ago and is struggling to get those suckers open. But not to worry -- she's got love on the menu, and begins asking them to, "please open for [her], little oyster."
Prep complete, it's time to head down to the ball where the chefs are then introduced to their four judges for the evening -- Emeril, Tom Collichio, Padma, and... Gail Simmons! I squeal at this one. As does Carla who screams, "Girl, love you!" Really starting to come around to Ms. Hooty-Hoo and her crazy love voodoo...
Everyone is decked out in masks which "kind of [reminds Fabio] of like an old porno movie with just kind of a mask on it." Totally making the sense there, Fabio, but boy, I still love you even if your haircut reminds me of like an old New Kids on the Block video.
Service starts and the chefs are frantically dishing out their plates and drinks to the masses of really hungry people -- ie. the krewe of Orpheus who are never fully explained. Everyone loves Jeff's mojito and fried oyster with homemade sausage, goes gaga for Carla's soup, enjoys Fabio's rando Italian-Creole crawfish pasta, and seems to appreciate both Stefan and Hosea's gumbos. With no major disasters (aside from some misses on the cocktails - bell pepper martini, anyone?), there isn't much to knock these chefs on.
Of course, the judges do find one or two things worthy of negative attention. They find Stefan's attitude that Hosea accurately described as his "Achilles heel," off-putting, and aren't completely smitten by the flavors in Fabio's maqux choux and creole pasta. It's clear from the outset that either one or both of Euro boys are going down. It's also clear that Carla is a favorite for her belabored oyster stew that Emeril declares a "home run." Even Tom is impressed, saying, "her food had a certain level of care." Ahem, Tom? Not just care, looooove. She walks away the winner of the evening, and the Euro boys are left to meet their fate.
I know before it happens what's coming. Stefan's "laissez-faire" attitude may be his greatest weakness, but he's still a talented chef. At this stage in the competition, it no longer matters that Fabio has a face and voice that could charm the pantaloons off a nun. Funny one-liners no longer fit into the equation. It ultimately comes down to the food, and Fabio's just isn't quite there. He is sent packing, and the humble Italian chef bids a sincere adieu to the judges and final three chefs, Stefan, Hosea and Carla.
Turning to Stefan with a twinkle in his eye, he says, "If you don't win, I will kick your ass. You have no idea."