In part one of the finale the four chefs cook on a train and then head to Napa Valley before one is eliminated

By Archana Ram
Updated December 03, 2009 at 02:47 PM EST
Trae Patton/Bravo

Okay, before we get to all the ”and then four became three” business, I have to talk a little about what really threw me for a loop last night — everyone’s whacked-out hair. Jen’s was frizzy, Kevin’s was flat, and Padma had bangs — and a baby bump. I can uniformly say that whatever time they had off had changed their hair for the worse, and Bryan’s monstrously large umbrella was like a cherry on top of this weird first five minutes of the episode. Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I can continue.

The gang was in Napa Valley for part one of the finale, and for their last elimination challenge, Kevin, Jen and the Voltaggio brothers had to create a dish using Napa’s signature crop — the grape. The whole ”but there’s one catch” was that they’d be making their dishes on a moving train, which made for a bumpy ride and some motion sickness for Kevin. Swaying was of course an issue, as was space, but in true Michael V.-style, the younger Voltaggio hogged the largest tabletop area on the train, leaving big bro stranded.

As for the dishes themselves, Bryan and Kevin didn’t seem to get the memo that they were supposed to highlight the grape. Bryan’s was a roasted hen with a concord grape reduction along with bacon that overpowered the grape and Kevin’s was a honey and fromage blanc mousse with glazed grapes that needed more ”grape love,” according to guest judge and former Top Chef Masters contestant Michael Chiarello. So they weren’t terrible, per se, but next to Michael’s couscous-stuffed grape leaf, which used also had a grape kebob skewered with the vine itself, they might as well have dropped a dollop of Smuckers grape jelly on their plates and called it a day.

Chiarello fawned over Jen’s sautéed chicken liver enough to admit that he would yank it for his own menu. I figured that compliment alone would give her the win, especially considering how much the show has been building her comeback. But no, it was Michael and his grape-tastic dish that won the last quickfire challenge of the season. Chiarello waxed poetic about Napa and its grapes, and since Michael’s dish told the best story about the squishy little thing, he won, which was a sweet deal for him not only because he won a Prius, but also because that meant that Bryan would never win a quickfire during their run on the show.

In case we hadn’t noticed, Michael pointed out later in the episode: ”There’s definitely a sibling rivalry.” Well, you don’t say, Michael! But it was kind of sad for Bryan when he said they both wanted each other to do well and move on to the next round only to be followed by Michael saying he’d do whatever it takes to move on, even if that left Bryan in the dust.

NEXT: Local flavor

Michael’s win meant an extra boost of confidence for an elimination challenge that put him in unfamiliar territory — locavore land. The cheftestants had to create two dishes — one vegetarian and one using local protein — for 150 guests at Napa’s Crush Festival, and the only ingredients they could use, except for salt or pepper, were things raised or grown in Napa Valley.

Kevin is big on locally grown food, as is Bryan, so it was pretty much just Michael in left field, but he wasn’t necessarily nervous. He left that to Jen, who seems to be on edge and without a game plan a lot lately. Doesn’t she know that when you’re on Top Chef and you take a trip to Whole Foods, or in this case, the local market, you’re supposed to be feverishly crossing things off your list?

She ended up going with duck and was pretty happy about her decision, but not as happy as Michael, who thought cooking an egg for his veggie dish was some sort of newfangled idea. As editing would have us predict, it didn’t create the wow factor he had hoped for. In fact, the judges shook him off his high horse for the egg ultimately overpowering the other ingredients in his vegetable pistou; it didn’t help that Padma’s was a little runny. No raw eggs for the pregnant woman — duh! And even his turnip soup, which, I admit, sounded pretty cool with the whole everything-is-not-as-it-seems factor, didn’t have the judges fawning. In fact, Gail thought it was bitter, so there.

Ironically, it was everyone else’s dishes that had a wow factor. Kevin for his simple but ”stellar” carrot and beet salad and pumpkin polenta (minus points for ”tinny” brisket), Jen for the ingenious combinations in her chevre mousse and the ducky-ness of her braised duck legs, which is apparently a good thing, and Bryan’s pasta, which Gail was totally having a culinary boner over.

Add to that Chiarello’s admiration for Bryan pulling off two difficult dishes — and well — and that was a recipe (har har) for a win, a spot in part two of the finale, and a smile. Bryan finally cracked a smile!

As for the loser, this is where the season finally got interesting, where the chefs who we knew would be in the top four all along finally battled each other. If I were at that judges’ table, I really don’t think I could’ve picked. No one’s dish was perfect, but no one really stood out as totally bad either. Still, I knew the person going home was clearly going to be either Jen or Kevin because if Bravo knew anything about ratings — and The Real Housewives of New Jersey proves they do — the sibling rivalry would be played out until the bitter end.

In the end it was Jen who was sent packing back to Philadelphia, hopefully with a flat iron. I don’t know if her bit-too-salty chevre and coal mishap were egregious enough to send her home but on she went.

Dare I say that I’m actually kind of on the edge of my seat for next week’s episode? That’s a first for this season!

What did you guys think of the episode? Who do you think will take home the gold?

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