I am most definitely a cook, not a chef. I like the security of a recipe, I like flipping through cookbooks, and I am not particularly good at whipping the odds and ends left in the fridge into a gourmet meal. Nevertheless, I can’t help but like Bravo’s Top Chef , even if, as a semi-vegetarian, I wouldn’t eat half of what they cook. I certainly watch my fair share of television (including, guiltily, reality television) and there is something remarkably compelling about watching people compete at a task they love and consider their calling. The fabulous Project Runway started this trend and though it is still foremost in my heart, Top Chef is pretty great, too.
Last night, the final four chefs in the competition (Sam, Elia, Ilan, and Marcel) headed to Hawaii, where they were told that two of them would be eliminated and two would go on to the finals. They were instructed to make a traditional Hawaiian meal, but to put their own personal twist on it and modernize it. The four judges agreed that each of the finalists stepped up to the challenge and made a great meal, but they were left to decide which two contestants made the best meals. There were reasons to choose, or not choose, each of the contestants- Elia, for instance, put so much of her own Mediterranean flair into the meal that its Hawaiian roots were virtually unrecognizable.
From practically the first episode of the season, Dylan and I agreed that Sam was the one to beat, and watching him cook each week only strengthened our convictions. His dishes were always creative, visually appealing, and apparently, delicious. But beyond that, he seemed to have an intuitive grasp on food and rarely made a misstep. Beyond that, with the exception of his outburst at Marcel, he showed a maturity and responsibility that made the others look like a bunch of sophomoric hotheads. So when Marcel and Ilan were chosen to continue to the finals, while Sam and Elia were told to pack their knives, I was astounded. And from the sequences and conversations that were included in the final cut, I got the sense that judge Tom Colicchio had strong-armed the decision. Padma Lakshmi (the host and Salman Rushdie’s wife -wha?!?!) looked like she was about to cry when she sent Sam packing.
I will agree that based on the dishes they cooked last night, Sam’s were no better (though maybe no worse) than Ilan’s or Marcel’s. (Elia seemed the clear loser in this bunch, based on that meal.) And presumably the judges are supposed to based their decisions on that round of cooking alone, not their prior accomplishments. But I would be shocked if Sam wouldn’t have easily beaten either Marcel or Ilan in the finale. So why send the best chef of the group home? Is anyone with me on this? Did they forget that Sam has been the strongest competitor throughout the many weeks of competition? That said, Sam’s career will probably flourish regardless of the fact that he didn’t win the competition; he seems like a chef you would want in your kitchen, not one who is going to lose it under pressure or rub people the wrong way.
So while I’m still looking forward to the finale, I’m a little disappointed that the top chef has already packed his knives.