This week, the Top Chef gang traveled to Italy for part one of the season 17 finale, the series’ first in Italy. I was hoping for some incredibly provincial Italian food criticisms, about how you should-a never cook-a this thing in-a this way, and we did get some of that, though not enough. Not that it’s ever enough. Frankly, I could’ve used more hand gestures, too.
Before they went anywhere though, the show had to squeeze in four or five minutes of infomercial content about how great the food is in the American Airlines Admiral’s Club and how comfortable the seats are on American Airlines Business Class while the contestants all smiled and gushed about what a great time they were having on American Airlines Business like some fresh-faced kids on the cover of a course catalog. Aw, see how much ass the show had to kiss in order to afford going to Europe? Basic cable productions are just like us!
Even after they arrived — at the luxurious Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa — the show had even more generous product placement to do for Birra Peroni. “I love Peroni!” Steph whispered, in what was surely a moment of pure spontaneity.
In the quickfire challenge, “Champagne Padma” from last episode became “World Traveler Padma” in the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro in Lucca, showing off her not inconsiderable Italian skills. Oh, did you not realize that Padma is fluent in Italian? The things one learns when one is an internationally famous model… You know what I learned at my first job? How to nap with my sunglasses on so it looked like I was awake.
The first challenge was to make an “aperitivo,” which we were given to understand is basically the Italian version of a tapa — something small you eat to whet your appetite for more food while putting just enough calories in your belly to provide ballast for your drunk ass to waddle from bar to bar. Ugh, stupid Europeans, always drinking and having a good time. I’m so proud we “won” two world wars. Meanwhile, they all spend three days a week (plus 12 random holidays) getting sloshed and eating cured meats and still live 10 years longer than we do. Wonderful culture we’ve got here. I’d probably resent them for their food, and scenery, and history, and ample vacation days, if we didn’t have so many beautiful cities here like, uh… Scottsdale, and… Topeka. Yeah.
Anyway, the contestants had to cook their aperitivo for 30 people in 30 minutes, continuing this season’s trend of impossibly hard challenges. The locals mostly went easy on them, with no gesturing or crotch grabbing or giving of the evil eye. Which was frankly very disappointing. After that, Tom showed up looking like he was auditioning for a Fellini movie:
Ay, Signor Colicchio, come fa? My man looks like he’s about to say buongiorno to all the bellisima lady and drive off in an extremely small car.
In the elimination challenge, the chefs got to tag along for a truffle hunt. That’s when a team of men in rubber boots and adorable dogs go snuffling around a forest in search of your mother’s panties. Jk, jk. I actually saw an incredible documentary at Sundance called The Truffle Hunters about this very thing — one guy sang songs on an accordion and another got a benediction for his truffle dog at a cathedral. It was incredible. Sony Pictures Classics, get off your asses and release that.
All of this was, naturally, a prelude for a challenge in which the chefs had to create a dish to showcase the flavors of Tuscany’s famous white truffle. Now, if you had “someone shaving $800 worth of truffle onto a dish with more spices than an average mole” on your Top Chef bingo card, you can definitely check that one off. Che peccato, non me piace, why you donna respect-a mama’s a-truffles?
(Don’t look at me like that, you knew this week’s recap would have lots of terrible fake Italian).
5. (-3) ((eliminated)) Gregory Gourdet
AKA: Kravitz. Aka Hepcat. Aka Lids. Aka Pollos Hermanos.
Yep, Gregory is out. Can you believe it? This one was both painful and shocking. Not since Stefan in season five have we seen such an odds-on favorite all season stumble in the finale. Gregory was also the second contestant eliminated this season after the end of Last Chance Kitchen — meaning he and Malarkey and the next few eliminated chefs will be the only ones not to get a second chance.
The Dish: Wild boar with tomato, prunes, cocoa, and white truffle polenta.
The Reviews: “The truffle was lost.”
According to some stuff I Googled just now, “cinghiale in dolceforte” is a traditional Tuscan dish made of wild boar and dark chocolate that is often compared to mole. Gregory’s version looks bomb as hell but yeah, I guess I can see how shaving a few hundred bucks worth of white truffles on top of something that resembles mole would be an elimination-worthy offense. Seems like Gregory would’ve been better off incorporating truffles into something Haitian-ish rather than serving the Italians his version of their food. Gotta keep them Italians on their heels, Gregory! You can never let an eye-talian get too comfortable, I always say.
I don’t know what’s worse, a clear favorite going home so early or that we only got half an episode worth of Gregory-in-Italy’s-fashion to enjoy.
4. (+1) Stephanie Cmar
AKA: C-Monster. Aka Underdog. Aka C-Truffle.
I nicknamed Steph “C-Truffle” for totally non-truffle related reasons, and this week it showed. She, like pretty much everyone else, made a dish that didn’t let the truffles shine. The C-Monster was actually in the bottom of both challenges this week, but somehow she’s still hanging on.
First, in the quickfire, she attempted a “venison en carrozza”, with venison stuffed into two slices of focaccia toast spread with gorgonzola and then deep fried. That actually sounded pretty good, though deep frying venison went as badly as you might imagine and the townsfolk nearly broke a tooth trying to gnaw through it.
The Dish: Squash and brown butter mezzaluna, porcini brodo, rosemary, braised radicchio & white truffle.
The Reviews: “Too much going on.” “Truffle gets lost.” “Please don’t make us any more pasta.”
The most Italian moment of the episode was probably when Steph served her elimination challenge dish and an Italian woman walked over to say “please, don’t-a cook us anymore a-pasta, we-a so tired of-a eating the pasta.” Hey, thanks, lady. Great timing.
At first, I thought Steph’s squash ravioli looked pretty good, but then when I read the actual ingredients I get mad that Gregory got sent home instead of her. Rosemary, porcini, and radicchio? What the f*ck? She also served the radicchio even after she tasted it and made a gross face. C’mon, C-Monster! There’s no rule that says you have to serve everything you buy! Was it because Kevin won the quickfire with a radicchio dish? Let this be a lesson, not every radicchio is a winner.
I’m half rooting for C-Monster as the clear underdog but she keeps sabotaging herself with these rookie mistakes. Clean it up, C-Monster.
3. (+1) Kevin Gillespie
AKA: Hops. Aka Oops All Kevins. Aka Thicc Kev. Aka Foghorn Kevhorn.
Thicc Kev screamed into an early lead this week, winning the quickfire with his creamy polenta with radicchio agradolce. In the elimination challenge, the editors would have us believe Kevin was undone by his lack of familiarity with Italian supermarkets, when he accidentally bought ground pork, wild boar, and veal instead of whatever single ground meat he intended to (unclear).
The Dish: Polpette with chestnut honey, roasted onion, pecorino, and white truffles.
The Reviews: “The spices he used are competing with the white truffle.” “It didn’t need the meat at all.”
When Gail asked Kevin why he chose to deep fry his meatball, Kev said “I didn’t want it too saucy, there was already so much fat elsewhere on the plate that I didn’t want to add more.” Which has to be the first time a chef said they deep-fried something in order to make it less fatty. Only a Southern chef…
Say what you will about Foghorn Kevhorn, if he was going to go out, it was going to be the way he came in — atop a shield of deep-fried meat. You gotta respect it. I want to see at least one tater tot dish out of Kevin before this season ends.
2. (+1) Bryan Voltaggio
Linkin Clark couldn’t speak a lick of Italian, but he oozes the kind of raw dadliness that requires no translation. The way the collar of his plaid shirt sticks out the neck of his sweater… it screams “quit messin’ with the dang thermostat!” in any language. Where nü metal meets New Balance, that’s where you’ll find Bryan Voltaggio.
Bry Guy blew yet another quickfire challenge (too many spices in the lamb tartare) but redeemed himself in the elimination challenge with yet another hyper-competent yet slightly boring white tablecloth take on the challenge.
The Dish: Braised veal shank ragu, chestnuts, white truffle, and aerated potato.
The Reviews: “It has the right classic flavors.” “I got the most pure truffle flavor from Bryan’s dish.”
Was this the first foam of the season? Do “aerated” potatoes count as a foam? I don’t know, but I do know that Bry Guy damn near won another challenge and his skill set seems well suited for pleasing these persnickety Italians. Have the editors and judges been sandbagging him all season? Or is he about to become runner up yet again?
1. (even) Melissa King
AKA: Zen Master. Aka Dimples. Aka Shutterstock.
Did you catch Melissa’s fantasy of riding through Italy on a scooter with a beautiful woman on the back? I think that was the first hint at Melissa’s sexuality this entire season and they moved right along. You have to admire the way Top Chef glosses right over the kind of human interest nuggets most reality shows would beat you over the head with in umpteen promos.
With Gregory gone, Melissa is pretty obviously the odds-on favorite to win it all. First she almost won the quickfire with a pickled mussel and then she won the elimination challenge with a rice congee.
The Dish: Truffle congee, salami, fried garlic, parsley, quail egg, and white truffle butter.
The Reviews: “I thought the quail egg was brilliant.” “If we remove the salami she made a really intelligent dish.”
Melissa did her own food with an Italian twist, rather than her own twist on Italian food, which seemed like the right move. She managed to win even as she pissed off an Italian for the unforgivable food sin of cooking salami. Once again, apparently without even breaking a sweat. How could she possibly lose at this point? I guess we’ll find out.