Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having interest in Top Chef Season 7 D.C., are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the season is now screening. God save the burnt ends, the offal, and us all.
The private dining entrance to Tom Colicchio's restaurant Craft is a storefront east on East 19th street from the public entrance. Last night, for the final episode of Top Chef Season 7 D.C., the most underwhelming of seasons, Colicchio—as is his custom—threw a party to celebrate it. Girls with clipboards stood outside in the chill air. Inside, harsh lights—set up to capture on camera forever fleeting entrances and momentarily smiles—bathed the familiar step-and-repeat set up, yawning red carpet and be-logo'd backdrop. Dresses were shiny; suits were dark; palms were pressed. Through this sea I swum with no small amount of apprehension. Top Chef contestants would be there, I was told and, though I have always been fair, I have not always been kind to them. Padma Lakshmi would be there and, as mentioned, I greeted our inevitable meeting with electric apprehension bordering on lust-tinged terror. But I figured, if one can't be in the same room with the people about whom one writes one shouldn't write mean or lascivious things in the first place. Such are the wages of snark and lust.
A couple of television screens were set up in the back but by and large people ignored the rerun of last week's episode—as well they should have—in favor of snacking. I downed a Singapore Sling—the party was co-hosted by Food & Wine, the magazine, and Singapore, the country—and mingled. There was Gail Simmons in signature blue dress—she's like the Yves Klein of food television—and there was Dana Cowin. There was Ed Cotton, sweating on screen. A few inches away, in the flesh miraculously unsweaty, Ed Cotton gently squeezed passed me muttering "'Scuse me" in Massachusettsian. There was Padma and, between us, a pregnant moment.
"Hi," I said, "I'm Joshua David Stein."
Padma smiled and shook my hand. "Who?" she asked.
"I write the recaps for Gawker."
"Oh, that's nice," she said absently, much like a grandmother, lost in the fog of forgetfulness. I half-expected her to add, "dearie" to the end.
Flaubert was right, "Il ne faut pas toucher les idoles," not for the gilt that remains on one's fingertips but for the diffuse depressing reflection of oneself one sees through their dull eyes.
Thus it was: simulacra flickering on the screen, quarantined in time and space, lurking behind the backs of their real-life dopplegangers. One vision was phantom; one was real though which was which was anybody's guess. Soon enough 10 o'clock rolled around and I turned toward the screen. Still, the screens displayed only the logo of the Singaporean Tourism board. I turned toward a friend, panicked. "Oh, they delay it so we don't have to watch commercials," she said. Panic subsided. 10:23 rolled around and the screens sprang to life. (Bereft of commercials one realizes how paltry each episode is, like an issue of Vogue denuded of ads, skinny as a model and equally anemic.)
The familiar shhhp of knife penetrating the orifice between Top and Chef could barely be heard over the general hubbub. No one quieted down. No one was watching. This, the culminating coup de grace was passing by as the flickering backdrop behind small talk. The actors seemed uninterested in the play in which they starred. Was it because they knew the end? Probably. Was it because the episode was as flat as Iowa? Likely. Was it because they had all read Baudrillard and realized, "The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none." Almost certainly. At any rate, I fled to the house of a friend, to watch the episode in isolation and unmolested by the flesh-and-bone epigones. I prefer the simulacra for it alone is true.
It turns out I needn't have bothered to watch at all. The episode, like the season, was a wash. We find our three heroes in Singapore still. Angelo mutters on a couch, "It's all so subjective," belated satori. Kevin, a hovel of flesh and trim beard, and the yeasty Ed Cotton sit in chairs in the stew room. Padma enters and in that strange grave tone she takes, summons the three. "Even me?" protests Ed. "Even you," affirms Padma. Padma comes for us all. The three are told to cook the best four course meal of their lives and to base it on the same four ingredients, picked for them by Messrs. Colicchio and Ripert. Oh, and in a dramatic twist - shhhhp goes the knife; boom the dynamite - each is given one of three former Top Chef winners as sous chefs. They are Michael Voltaggio, Hung, and Ilan. The assignments would be determined by random knife drawing. Ed picks Ilan. Kevin gets Michael. Angelo gets Hung. (I was still at the party at this point and as Ed Cotton TV approached the knife block, Ed Cotton real-life whispered to his companion, "Oh no! Here it is.") This was all pretty standard and couldn't have worked out better. Though that's not to say it worked out well. For Kevin—who has worked with Michael before—it was a boon. For Angelo—as will be made clear—Hung's assistance was immeasurably helpful and absolutely necessary. And as for Ed, "Oh noes!" is right. Ilan Hall is a dick. It was a cruel magic trick. Ed pulled a knife and got a dick. Ilan was born a dick and he'll die a dick. He has dick glasses and a dick head. Ilan Hall, a piggish priggish brat, a stubble spectacled prat. Twat plucking numbnuts, know-it-all bumlicker. (I've printed this out on a business card so if I ever see him, I can say this to his face verbatim. Though I hasten to add, I suppose it is towards his simulacrum I feel such animus and perhaps not him but I'm sure there's enough of an overlap to warrant a few insults lobbed.)
Angelo falls ill and takes to bed like Proust or Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Hung, his sous and a real mensch, steps up and does all the shopping and much of the menu conceptualizing as well as all the prep work. Ilan Hall, a pox on his house, second guesses and undermines Ed Cotton. One doesn't and needn't hear a peep from Voltaggio and Sbraga. They are the very model of cooperation. Angelo whimpers in bed and gets a needle in his ass. Kevin, in talking head interviews, repeats like a mantra he feels bad for Angelo but more for himself because, "I want to compete against the best," which, in true Sbragarian fashion, is self-serving bullshit. Only Ed Cotton—of whom I've grown fond—is honest. "I think it's cool it's just Kevin and me." But of course, that's not entirely true either. Cotton is ankled by Ilan's obstreperous ego whereas Kevin is elevated by Voltaggio's focus. It's funny that victory has rendered Ilan even more insufferable but has imparted to Voltaggio to surrender his own ego after mounting a successful campaign for recognition. And Hung—small man of great speed and tremendous skill—is twice the man Ilan will ever be. Angelo is slightly more the man Ed is. The differential, man-wise then, between the two teams is only about half the man they used to be. This I feel as the dawn, it fades to gray.
Angelo magically recovers in time to actually cook the meal. Questions linger—in my mind at least—if he didn't cannily exploit Hung's talent and speed, surrendering his place in the kitchen during prep to the greater more experienced talent with a feigned illness. Or perhaps, uncertain and uneasy at the prospect of defeat, Angelo surrendered to the illness as a means to maintain a plausible excuse for potential failure. "So I'm too sick to cook, right Doc?" Objection. Leading the witness! Nevertheless, Angelo put out four good courses. Ed put out three good courses. Ilan made a sticky toffee pudding and salty whipped cream that looked like square poop with a bit of cum-cum-foam dollop. Kevin put out four good courses as well. Ed was out of the running immediately, due to the Ilan's paw paw negro blowtorch. Angelo seemed in the running. Kevin, blob, was the frontrunner.
"It's just so close," everyone from contestants to judges murmured. "So very close." The murmur spread through Singapore, a wistful bewildered blanket of sound, rising above the buildings like a mackerel sky. This was, one supposes, meant to build tension. Hair-splitting! Rigorous criticism! Robust dialogue! In the end, of course, none of that transpired. It wouldn't have mattered anyway. Putting lipstick on a pig is putting lipstick on a pig, no matter how punctiliously applied. Flaccid and worn, the season met its long overdue demise. We got some music, a commercial break and an announcement. Kevin Sbraga is Top Chef, the first African-American (!!!) winner. There was no outrage nor anger nor sadness nor despair. I couldn't even summon up the spectral nothingness of apathy. Kevin has inherited a debased crown. His kingdom, such as it is, is mere illusion, a simulacra as real as Terabithia. And, as I clicked the television off, it disappeared in a flash, silently and forever.
[Video by Matt Toder]