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Return of the Jews

The final week of ‘Top Chef D.C.’

Len Small
September 16, 2010
Angelo, sick at heart (and in actuality).(The author)
Angelo, sick at heart (and in actuality).(The author)

So let’s get the obvious over with: There is no Jew left in this season of Top Chef. Amanda Baumgarten, the “I’ve-been-a-bad-person-but-now-I’ve-found-soufflé” chef, could sometimes be charming and remind us of someone we knew in school, but eventually she left us. Alex Reznik, the wiry and unpredictable chef-nik gave us the season’s trademark scandal, but again, didn’t seem to ever be ready to take it the whole way, and faded soon after the green pea incident. So where does that leave us? Considering the time of year, I think this second half of the finale is looking like the Kol Nidre of Top Chef: Time to atone.

The first half of the finale happened to air last week during the Jewish new year (which is why there was no post on it), and it felt refreshing. After watching every previous season, I can now say this series in Washington, D.C., was the least inspiring; the chefs, while brimming with taut résumés and impressive skills, back-stabbed like Survivor castaways. There were no clear up-and-comers like the Voltaggios from the Las Vegas season, no underdogs like Stephanie from Chicago, no scrappers like Hung from Miami. Most of the characters kept their single dimension. So how fortuitous that 5771 rolls in with the final contestants landing in Singapore. The Rosh Hashanah episode gave us a great spirit for the new year to come: Vibrancy, an anything-goes attitude (set in the Asian market), and a short window to consider transgressions before part 2, the Yom Kippur closer.

At the very end of the previous episode, the three remaining chefs, Angelo, Ed, and Kevin, are called back to Judges’ Table, to face another block of knives. In classic contest-show form, we get a return of three previous winners, who will be chosen to assist the finalists. So many men—where’s the minyan? Ed picks Ilan, and now we have someone Jewish on the show again! The curse is broken! Kevin gets Michael Voltaggio, which makes them Camp Attitude. Angelo and Hung are together, which will work out later … when Angelo comes down with some TV-inspired 24-hour flu. What, no Jewish penicillin in Singapore?

The next day, Angelo wakes up pasty and bedridden, and elicits the first note of sympathy I’ve had for him all season. The other finalists head toward the kitchen, where judges Tom Collichio and Eric Ripert have fetched them the trayf—I mean, the proteins—that all the chefs will be required to use. (It’s like they went out of their way to find the most goyishe shellfish and pork in Asia.) In Angelo’s absence, Hung has returned to his competitive vibe. Hung actually cooked at Solo, the famous New York kosher restaurant. Does that make him, and therefore Angelo, the official Tablet Magazine contestant? There, we got someone to root for … even as Angelo stays in bed the whole first day of shopping and prep.

On the day of the contest, the nice doctor gives Angelo the go-ahead to re-enter the kitchen. Ed complains that he’d rather compete only against Kevin, but Kevin realizes that having Angelo back will fuel his competitive fire. Angelo, for his part, is “grateful for what I’ve been given.”

In the kitchen, as they prep their big meal, Ed’s needling attitude is coming out. “You know what Jesus did with these?” he asks Ilan, his Jewish sous-chef. “Fed a whole village with three duck necks.” Is Ed on the pulpit? Angelo, with eight minutes to go, says “fuck the gloves,” and proceeds to do just that (well not literally), while every Jewish hypochondriac mother sucks in a bucket of air.

When the three finalists enter the dining room, here’s the spread of superstar eaters: David Chang of Momofuku; Susan Feniger, that crazy chef from Top Chef Masters; Eric Ripert; Dana Cowin; Singaporean chef Seetoh; a bevy of Singaporean superstars I don’t know; and all those hard-staring judges: Tom, Padma, and the lovely Gail Simmons. Time for a schvitz! Before we know it, the plating begins. Angelo starts with a soup and a big hunk of pork belly (wasn’t this supposed to be the veggie course?), but the chefs all know that to a cook soup is actually a challenge. Not that Ed’s stuffed duck-neck doesn’t come with it’s own risks. But course after course, we start to see that it’s anyone’s game. David Chang, stop licking the plate!

The final Judges’ Table is a little spotty, as the narrative bounces around among chefs and courses. In seven seasons, it’s still the desserts that weigh heavy. Ed, don’t sass Chef Tom about your dessert! The real way you can tell someone is in the lead is if Gail likes your dessert. And Kevin killed with his take on a Singapore sling. I was sold, bring the Slivovitz!

So, after a suspense-filled commercial break, the winner is … Kevin!

“Jersey’s taking that belt home!” he exclaims. My wife, born and bred in the Garden State, comes up for a high five, and I deliver. Tonight we celebrate; Friday, we daven.

Len Small is Tablet Magazine’s art director.