I’ve been asking myself a question throughout virtually the entire season of Top Chef. Namely, who should win?
When watching any show like this, audiences inevitably develop rooting interests; it’s a main reason we watch in the first place. This year was no different—all season, people on the web and in the comments have cheered for Adam, Doug, and others who caught viewers’ attention. Even Aaron had fans! Sometimes an awesome personality draws us to a cheftestant. Sometimes it’s a riveting story of overcoming adversity. Sometimes it’s about physical attractiveness. Before all’s said and done, viewers will even have voted for their Fan Favorite, and someone will pocket $10,000 simply for being likable.
This all creates a bit of a conundrum for me, at least—do we want the best chef in the competition to win? Or do we want our favorite chef to claim the prize? What happens when the chef we want to win isn’t the most deserving one?
Even though I’ve been recapping the show and have tried to give all of the chefs (Aaron aside, I admit) their fair shake, I’m not immune to picking favorites. After the first episode, I predicted Mei would win (I’m standing by that), but generally speaking, I was all over the map on projections for other chefs. I even called Melissa a “root vegetable.” But throughout the season, I clung to a straightforward way of deciding my rooting interest—I wanted the person who seemed the most like the “top chef” to win. Simply put, if all 16 chefs cooked their best meal at the same time, whose “best” would be the best?
Through the season’s first half, Gregory was an obvious choice. First episode scotch bonnet peppers fueled his hot start, and his cuisine seemed to be globally inspired and forward-thinking. Winning five of the first six elimination challenges and conquering addiction made him even more likable. In short, based on the judges’ feedback, he seemed like the best chef in the competition.
But since the Thanksgiving challenge, Gregory’s been undone by, of all things, his cooking. On multiple occasions, it has seemed like he’s served the judges’ least favorite dish, surprisingly surviving and making audiences wonder if his past performance was saving him in spite of his present miscues. Last week, the only reason he wasn’t eliminated was because no one was. While other chefs—namely Melissa and Mei—have turned up the heat, Gregory’s left me feeling lukewarm. For a while, I believed he’d be the “winner” in my hypothetical challenge; now, I wonder how high he’d even finish.
For now, though, as always, all that matters is surviving and advancing. We’re down to four chefs remaining and only three plane tickets to Mexico, making this the cruelest week for elimination. But first up is the final quickfire in Boston, and Padma’s guest is an old favorite, Wylie Dufresne. An early proponent of the science-focused molecular gastronomy school of cooking, Wylie is always an interesting guest because he pushes the chefs to think differently about their food. Usually, this means ill-conceived incorporations of agar-agar and foams on foams on foams.
Surprisingly, though, for the quickfire, he’s keeping it simple by asking the chefs to use beans, a food near and dear to Boston and a fitting final test. Quickfires this late in the game can often seem a bit unnecessary (though the free trip to Napa sounds awesome), and the chefs seem to be lacking a bit of inspiration as their focus remains on the following challenge. Even with the hour-long time limit, no one seems all that interested in elevating Beantown’s namesake product.
Given that her ticket to Mexico has already been punched, Melissa should be the only one not stressing, but her seared pork tenderloin with a bacon butterbean puree, roasted carrots, and fried chickpeas relegates the bean to second-rate status. Gregory’s navy beans with sake, ham, avocado, and carrot chips are a little better, but he’s again undone by poor cooking—his beans are overdone. And in between fart jokes (he would), George plates a plaki of chickpeas, tomato, cumin, paprika, leeks, and pork tenderloin that earns positive comments on its texture from Padma and its spice from Wylie, but isn’t really all that exciting.
The only chef who really seems to take an interest in winning this thing is Mei, who takes a risk by going gastronomy with a pinto bean “foam” (it looks more like a cream to me) covering black beans and corn with chipotle peppers, bacon, and a Wylie favorite, a poached egg. Despite its very-brown appearance, it’s the only dish that seems like it’s trying to win, and Mei finally takes a quickfire.
NEXT: Boston’s last battle