Word of Mouth

Top Chef D.C., round nine: Colorado loses a contestant

Are the folks at Bravo as bored with Top Chef as some viewers have started to be? No photos of the food on the website this week. No insider blogs. No Michael Voltaggio telling us how to make the winning dishes, which is the only way I can figure out why they won or whether -- in my strictly lay opinion -- they should have.

Fitting, I suppose, since this show is less and less about food, and more and more about ... I'd say personality, but why should chefs have particularly arresting personalities? Despite Anthony Bourdain's macho declamations (and manifest intelligence) and Gordon Ramsay's psychotic rages, most chefs are craftspeople, not posturers. They spend their time with their heads down, grilling, braising, sauteeing, roasting, chopping, butchering. Still, if you put them under enough pressure, they'll gossip and bicker as mindlessly as the real housewives of any place.

Possible producer disinterest aside, however, this turned out to be one of the most interesting episodes this season because -- in a scandal that eclipsed even the great pea puree dispute -- Kenny Gilbert got sent home.

Kenny of the superheroic efficiency in the kitchen. Kenny who saw himself as a beast and an alpha male and confided to the camera at one point that he was a cancer survivor. Our Kenny. Leaving Colorado represented only by Vail's Kelly Likens -- who's obviously a terrific cook, but who tends to clutch under stress.

Was it fair? Much of the blogosphere says no, and so -- in post-show interviews -- does Kenny himself. It should have been useless Alex who got sent home (some bloggers darkly suspect he was kept on just to continue providing drama). Or scatty Amanda -- though I can't help thinking some of the criticism of Amanda is chauvinist. Despite all, she has turned out some excellent dishes.

The contestants were divided into teams for a blindfold Quickfire relay race. No one wanted Alex on their team. He ended up with Angelo, Tiffany and Ed, and sure enough, fucked up right out of the gate by salting the snapper. People usually season right before cooking -- and remember, his teammates were blindfolded, so naturally Angelo sprinkled more salt. Nancy Pelosi judged. She was diplomatic, kind and charming, but the fish was indeed too salty, and the non-Alex-encumbered team won.

Restaurant wars. His team assigned Alex to the front of the house, reasoning he'd do less damage there than in the kitchen. Bad call. He yelled at waiters, stuttered at guests and judges. The other team -- Kenny, Kevin, Amanda and Kelly -- worked together calmly and beautifully. This was a direct face-off between Kenny and Angelo, since each had been chosen as executive chef by his team. Kenny was strong and calm, Angelo frantic. Frank Bruni, who recently retired as the New York Times restaurant critic (and who has clearly won the battle with weight he wrote about in his memoir), joined the judges. And to everyone's surprise, despite all the chaos, Alex's team won. Ed's was the winning dish of the night.

So now you had Kenny, Kevin, Amanda and -- again, alas! -- Kelly lined up grim-faced in front of the judges. Kevin really had nothing to worry about, everyone having loved his halibut. Amanda had grilled her beef badly. We knew she'd battled a temperamental grill and wasn't used to grass-fed -- which does seem strangely ignorant for a Top Chef contestant. Kelly had worked front of the house. Bruni praised her warmth and added a truly odd compliment: "It was a clumsy charisma that you had, but it was a charisma." She also contributed a tasteless, watery soup and a delicious dessert that featured the kind of velvety ganache -- here enhanced with salt crystals -- she'd been praised for in an earlier episode.

Bruni had nothing kind to say about Kenny's beet salad, however: way too many ingredients (and I'm a bit tired of those candied nuts you keep finding in salads myself) or his honking great wedge of fried goat cheese on greens. The interesting thing about Kenny is that while other losing contestants usually know what they've done wrong, he just doesn't seem to get why anyone would think any dish of his wasn't working. It doesn't bode well for his growth as a cook. He could barely contain his rage while his food was being critiqued, and afterwards he and Kevin erupted, listing Alex's sins and yelling that it was he who should be sent home. There's no need to justify anything, Angelo advised Alex quietly.

I know Angelo lost his cool earlier in the kitchen, but he does seem to be getting kinder, even a bit wiser, as the pressure comes to a boil.