This blog is inspired by Dominic Armato and his terrific site Skillet Doux. I have been reading Dom's Top Chef Power Rankings since he started posting them and his analysis of the show is first rate.

I have created this little blog as a way of reviewing and posting of my own rankings - and not by way of competition with Dom, who is in his own league. Read him first and always and think of my own rankings as a bit of counterpoint.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Introduction to Top Chef Season 4

I recently purchased the DVD set for Top Chef Season 4, which has remained my personal favorite of all (presently) eight seasons of the show.
Produced by Magical Elves Productions (the little critters will be referenced a great deal in all of my reviews) and aired by Bravo TV, this series caught my interest from the very beginning.

Sometime in the spring of 2006, I was flipping channels one weekend and ran into a marathon of Season 1 episodes on Bravo.  I found myself immediately caught up in the terrific challenges and backbiting between the chefs.  This, I thought, is good television.  It turned out that the season was not over yet, so, being caught up with the series, I began to watch the new episodes airing on Wednesday nights.  At this point, I admit that I am a junkie.
Anyway, I was of course disappointed in both Season 2 and Season 3.  S2 had a lot of drama, but generally the quality of chefs was down from S1.  And I thought S3 was a total disaster.  I was ready to give up on a show that I thought was quite promising.  Suffice it to say, I’m glad that I stayed with it.
Season 4 was a knockout.
First of all, I think that the cast for Season 4 overall was one of the best ever, not just from a cooking perspective, but because there was a great mix of personalities among the chefs.
You had the brilliance of Richard Blais, who at that time was an exuberant food nerd, part chemist, part playful sprite and a proponent of Molecular Gastronomy.  Almost from the beginning, his presence created anticipation in viewers from episode to episode as to what new, interesting, even bizarre concept that he would come up with to wow the judges.  And he was fun to watch – sometimes way too nerdy, sometimes hilarious in his clunky humor.  But you could always count on him to think a challenge through, to approach a problem from a new and surprising angle, to create flavor combinations that startled even the most jaded of judges and to assist his fellow competitors in their own search for success. 
In terms of terrific cooking, Stephanie, Dale and Antonia were nearly his equals.
Stephanie Izard was a strong chef with a great personality.  Although she didn’t show the creativity that Blais did, she consistently won Elimination Challenges with dishes that were among the strongest on the show.  On almost every challenge, she was a bundle of nerves and it was easy to identify with her angst.  She took her losses in Quickfire Challenges with a dose of humor.  And when she won, she was almost always surprised and laughing.  She was fun to watch and to root for all the way through.  And in the end, she was named both Fan Favorite AND Top Chef.  She was really good.
Antonia Lofaso had a very relaxed personality and really enjoyed the challenges because they were fun.  A young, single mother from Los Angeles, viewers were able to identify with her struggle to raise a child and excel as a chef.  And where some chefs come across as pretentious, Antonia was the complete opposite: relaxed, focused and in control.  When Dale or someone else really went off, Antonia was just as apt to roll her eyes and smile.  And, during the course of the season, she acquired the nickname "The Black Hammer" because people who ended up on the bottom with her were inevitably sent home.  Was it a curse?  Who knows.
Dale Talde was an early favorite along with Blais.  A serious student of Asian cuisine, Dale was a perfectionist who was uninhibited in his reaction, glowing when he won and gnashing and cursing when he lost.  But it was obvious to everyone that Dale was the most serious competition for Richard when it came to the area of creativity.  And, not surprisingly, he worked extremely well with Richard throughout the competition.
And then there was Lisa Fernandez, who received the “villain edit” from the Elves as a reward for her mugging, profanity, and arrogance.  Add to this her tendency to barely survive elimination by not cooking the worst dish of any one challenge.  To her credit, she did cook a few really good dishes, but her tendency to be a bottom-dweller swelled viewers’ negative perceptions of her.  She was the chef that people loved to hate; and the longer she survived, the more they hated her.  The blogging was almost more entertaining than the shows when Lisa was being discussed.
Then there were a few strong cooks with equally strong and highly entertaining personalities, most notably Evangelos "Spike" Mendelsohn and Andrew D'Ambrosi.  They were both a little weird and – like Richard, but for different reasons – you never quite knew what they were going to come up with, especially behind the scenes.  Spike was a real player, seemingly always trying to manipulate the system to win and not caring who noticed.  He also had a rather inflated view of himself (“I’m a cool dude”).  Sometimes (to the viewers’ amusement) this backfired on him, but he was always entertaining.  Andrew had a stronger personality and also thought that he was far and away the best chef cooking, but that also got in his way.  As a self-proclaimed health nut, his focus was on “showing these people who is the best.”  Even though he seemed to take himself very seriously, it was impossible for the viewers to take him seriously.
Finally, there was a supporting cast of cooks who were just plain interesting, in and of themselves.  They were all fun to watch: there was the Lesbian couple from San Francisco, Jennifer Biesty and Zoi Antonitsas, there was a motor-mouth California treat, Ryan Scott, a cheeky New Zealander, Mark Simmons, who actually brought his own didgeridoo, there was Nikki Cascone, the pasta queen, and Manuel Trevino, a nice, apparently stable, Hispanic man in the middle of this madness.  The cast was very well filled out with interesting characters and every episode was fun to watch.
Complimenting this great cast was the assortment of regular and guest judges.  The series was – and is – hosted by the lovely Padma Lakshmi, who not only has a great background in food and culture, but who was also once married to the incredible writer, Salman Rushdie.  Head Judge Tom Colicchio of Craft has a pretty mellow personality and a great knowledge of cooking, but is definitely not afraid to express his true feelings.  If he has a downside, it is that he occasionally has trouble accepting really spicy foods.  He’d have a hard time of it here in New Mexico.  Third of the regular judges is my favorite, Gail Simmons, of Food and Wine Magazine.  Although Gail really knows her cooking, she has a most engaging personality and can actually see the humor in much of the competition.  In addition, I think she has a great sense of fairness, balancing the quality of the cooking against the difficulty of the challenges.  And the Guest Judge for the season was the always-admirable Ted Allen, of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and currently of Chopped.  Ted has a great sense of humor and really knows his food.  Fun to watch!

(It was during Season 4 that I caught a reference from Ted Allen at the Bravo site that there was a great blog offering Top Chef Power Rankings.  That site was – and still is – www.skilletdoux.com - the wonderful web site of Dominic Armato.  I still recommend it as anyone’s first stop on the road to understanding and appreciating Top Chef.  In addition, Dom has gained an amazing group of followers who post stimulating insights to the program.  It is a must read for TC junkies.)
The other guest judges who moved through various episodes included Rocco DiSpirito, Anthony Bourdain, Wylie Dufresne, Rick Bayless, Daniel Boulud, Ming Tsai, Johnny Iuzzini, Art Smith, José Andrés, and Eric Ripert.
As I make my way through the episodes on DVD, I’ll drop back here and post some reviews.  Maybe I’ll group a series of episodes together and maybe I’ll do some individual episode reviews as well.  I’m looking forward to experiencing Season 4 all over again and sharing my thoughts.
Until then, Guten Appetit!

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