With a heavy heart and a quivering hand write I this tale of woe. Season VI has fallen before us. Its crowning moment and incandescent guillotining cruelly coincided. Now there's nothing left but remnants and leftovers, day old hardened regret to skim from the surface and reserve for stock. Three chefs and four dishes, four judges and two brothers. Knives were drawn there, between the vines, yonder. For this the final finale, at the very moment when it was most important all variables remained constant as to distill the plasma of the the remaining three competitors, as to avoid tainting the original source, that which would be judged, with the backwash of masses of questionable molarity, by definition a flawed and uneven bunch, Bravo rounded up the once dismissed chefs of episodes past and, through the cruel illogic of knife block paired them in malevolent covalent bonds with the remaining three. So from behind the vine they came, feet first, like benighted children of the corn, The brothers Voltaggio fared not too poorly. Bryan received Ashley and Jennifer, who should have taken from him the knife with her name therein transcribed and stabbed repeatedly Mike Voltaggio about the head and heart and stood in his spot—Michael meanwhile bodily picked up like so much karmic dry cleaning and dragged by Hell's hounds southbound—grinned maniacally, her red face covered in red blood justly spilled. Mike Voltaggio received Fat Cry Baby Boy Eli and Fat Cry Baby Girl Jess. Friar Kevin received Ash, a benediction, and Preeti, the Top Chef equivalent of the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, tuberculosis or of a profound disagreement between husband and wife about circumcision. Blows all latent, patiently waiting, felt only later in action and application but when felt fatal.
The chefs' courses numbered three and their choices somewhat circumscribed: For the first course chefs would be forced to use all the ingredients from their identical mystery boxes. For the second course, chefs could do whatever they please. The third course must be dessert. Into the kitchen to see the box. Not much doing: a rockfish, a crab, some anise hysopp, a man, a plan, a canal, Panama. Mighty were the prep lists; scant was the time. Fat Cry Baby Eli creamed his pants with servile Oui, Chefs, delighting like the old ghost of Foucault on the Tenderloin, in the erotic charge of the self-abnegation. Jennifer expertly cleaned Bryan's rock fish. Preeti, stuck in sweet molasses, pondered the carrot, considered the lobster, sought satori in the hysopp and left Kevin in the weeds, his tender angel belly to be feasted upon by vultures.
That night, toothsome Kevin stewed in a funk and the brothers Voltaggio planned their range management. There was a knock at the door. Would it be Tom adding a twist. "Good evening, Chefs. Here's the thing: In addition to winning the title of Top Chef, there's another prize. We'll be inserting a glass rod into the urethras of the erect penises of the losing two chefs. Then we'll be screening for the new Robert DeNiro comedy Everything's Fine. A note to the chef who loses his erection first: We'll take a small hammer and break that glass rod inside his penis. To avoid a similar fate, the other chef must maintain an erection for life." Or would it be Padma, not wearing much of anything at all. "Good evening, chefs. The producers forwarded me your Google searches. "9 mo pregnant"+"indian"+"hirsute" Bryan, I am shocked!" The chefs look around uncomfortably. Kevin starts giggling and buries his head in his hands. Bryan looks helpless, wide-eyed and scared. A mischievous smile creeps across Padma's face. "Well," she says, "you sought it and here you have it," stepping from the hallway into an erotic coupling no words could capture save, perhaps, in a magic combination "iridescent" "filthy" "weird" and "creepy". No! It would be neither of those things. Instead, there are two nice looking old ladies at the door. Shit's either about to get real fucked up ["grandmother"+"senior'+"swingers"] or real warm. Thankfully it was the latter. ["mothers"+"reunion"+"crying"]. Mama Gillespie hugs Baby Kevin Gillespie. Mama Voltaggio hugs both the boys.
The stakes are raised. Moms are now involved. It's like when you're a kid in Junior High School, say Abington Junior High School, and you see a kid who makes fun of you at the Willow Grove Mall and you're with your Mom coming out the World of Science and he sees you (he's coming out of Challenges, the arcade) and your eyes meet and you just hope that the bully respects the rules of adolescent warfare and doesn't humiliate you in front of your parents because what could be more devastating to a child than to be a loser in the eyes of his parents? But his eyes are dead to you, glazed over by one too many rounds of Street Fighter, and you exhale as you walk away and walk towards the Wall because Ugly Kid Joe has a new single you want to get on cassette. And then the word "Loser!" hits you like shrapnel, peppering your skull. Your palms sweat and the cookie scent piped out of Mrs. Fields is now mixed with the acrid tingle of fear. But you don't dare turn around because for all your mother knows, that "loser" wasn't meant for you but some other loser, hopefully a Momless one. You are still simply the Secretary of the Key Club, well loved and eager to please. Or at least you hope you are.
To lard the good cheer of unexpected mom presence, that fortifying maternal element, the judges demand the contestants create a fourth dish: A Mom Dish. Sigh. Let's cut the crap and skip ahead.
The producers have now roped in a Voltaggio Mom as an anabolic boost to a fading season and a fraternal rivalry assiduously cultivated at great cost. This brings the body count that has fallen victim to this belabored narrative to two: Jennifer Carroll and now this Lady. Not cool: Moms are civilians.
As for their food, the best I can remember: Kevin's red balls in yellow custard was the best Mom dish. Toby Young liked Bryan's sardines but that's because he's an asshole. No one really liked Mike's broccoli. For the second course, Kevin's dish was, again, the clear favorite except he botched his mushroom. Bryan's was bland and Michael won by default. Third dish, Bryan's venison was hands down the favorite and for dessert, his again was the only offering both well executed and well thought out. Kevin's was lacking a central focus and Michael's flavors, though bold and strong, were offset by an over and improperly cooked cake. The breakdown of judges' opinions is illustrated in this amateur grid below.
As the diagram makes heartbreakingly clear, Bryan should have been the winner. Kevin pulled a Casey, unfortunately, and though he could blame Preeti he doesn't and, furthermore, shouldn't have. The fault was his own. He had, by his own admission, a bad day on the worst day to have one.
Instead the winner is Michael, the Roman-looking one. Certainly a good chef, Michael Voltaggio, but not worthy of the by now dubious honorific of Top Chef and certainly not by the logic to which the show itself supposedly clings. I'm not quite sure now, sorting through my gripes, which ones are valid and which ones aren't. I suppose, for example, that it doesn't matter that Mike is a dickhead for this is, after all, a cooking show. He isn't, in the reality tv show cliche, "there to make friends." On the other hand, character is the currency and the bungee that bind us week after week to the show's and Padma's heaving bosom even though, increasingly, other things happening at Wednesday night at 10 pm seem more appealing [cf. toe clipping, looking for an accountant, reading up on circumcision.] Furthermore, character, as much as salt and pepper, is what gives food flavor. In dinner too, character is the narrative. But good artists are often crummy people. Alexander Pope was a bitter little man. Picasso was no great shakes himself. Celine was a fucking Nazi for Christ's sake. I love Roald Dahl but he wouldn't love me because I'm a Jew but do I still read The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar? I do.
I suppose, therefore I can dismiss that gripe. Though if I see Andy Cohen, I'll tweak his nads (in a not nice way) for cross contamination of two currencies in a single market. But that Michael won in a way that was so clearly at odds with both reality and the completely isolated but nonetheless self-contained terrarium of reality television is a gripe that has the added, if coincidental, value of being true. Is it only the $125,000 prize awarded to the wrong Voltaggio that so irks me? No, it is not. The crushing moment isn't when Michael wins but from when his mother from the shadows comes to embrace her son, the winner, while Bryan, back to the camera, with his neck stiff—for heavy is the crown and heavier is not having one-watches stoically at a distance. Though it is Michael Mama Voltaggio embraces, it's to Bryan her eyes turn and there they stay. And as Mother and Sons leave the studio, the thunderous fact that one's a loser, no matter how unjust the outcome or the panel deciding it, surely crashes heavy on Bryan's soul, sweeping him and us out to sea.
This is Joshua David Stein. Thank you for reading. I'll see you next year and thank you to Yoni Lotan, again, for your wonderful work.