Top Chef 4: Finale Part 1 Recap
It's Part 1 of the Top Chef 4 finale, and the cheftestants have had months off to hone their craft, travel, work, gain/lose weight and cut their hair. For Stephanie Izard, it's been travel; she's spent time in Asia. Antonia Lofaso has just opened a restaurant and has been working 100 hours a week. She says her daughter is getting used to her not being around in the evenings. Richard Blais is feeling a little cocky tonight, saying that he, Stephanie and Antonia were some obvious picks for the top spots. With Lisa Fernandes though, he says, not so much.

So it's on! This is the second existential showdown this season on Top Chef. Will the near-universally-disliked Lisa Fernandes (who has also been on the bottom five times so far this season, three of which were in the last three episodes) finally not manage to scrape by? Will she pull something out that's so fantastic it wows the judges and wins some grudging respect even from the detracting viewers? Or will she simply not be the very worst this episode and squeak through again? Once again, Top Chef asks the viewer to wonder, “Is life fair?”

The chefs all arrive in Puerto Rico and head to their Quickfire Challenge. Padma Lakshmi is there with their guest chef judge, Puerto Rican cuisine expert Wilo. Their task will be to work with a Puerto Rican staple, the plantain, to prepare a Puerto Rican staple, the crispy fried snack to eat with beer.

(In announcing the challenge, Padma – whom I normally find utterly adorable – makes a vein in my forehead throb dangerously when she asks the chefs to make this snack “for Wilo and I.” It's “ME.” “Wilo and me.” America, please: it's okay to use me when it's following a preposition. This grammatical error is the scourge of reality television stars who want to seem smarter than they are. But frankly, I expected more from Padma. She was married to Salman Rushdie after all.)

The chefs get to cooking. Stephanie has experimented with plantains, and Lisa feels confident about her familiarity with the starchy, banana-like produce. And they are right to feel good heading into the challenge, as their dishes are considered the best. Richard and Antonia were the worst, with some slimy raw texture compromising their dishes. Stephanie wins! It's her first Quickfire win!

The chefs now head to a welcoming party, where to no one's surprise, Richard refuses to dance. They also get the scoop on the next Elimination Challenge: make three dishes for a dinner party using a whole pig.

Working with a whole pig can be quite challenging, so the chefs get their helpers: Nikki Cascone, Dale Talde, Andrew D'Ambrosi and Spike Mendelsohn. Lisa is apprehensive; she's had run-ins with Dale and Andrew isn't exactly her fan after his elimination panel.

Stephanie's prize for winning the Quickfire is to assign everyone their sous chef. She decides to play nice, or at least create the most harmonious kitchen environment, so she aims to match people up well and not sabotage anyone. She picks Dale for herself, having known him for ten years, Spike goes to Richard, Antonia gets Nikki, and Lisa gets Andrew. Well, three out of four ain't bad.

After a pow wow on ideas, The chefs are told they need to send their sous chefs to the market for ingredients while they stay and butcher the pigs. The chefs would rather shop themselves, but the pig is a big job. The sous chefs head out while the chefs start butchering. Lisa is hacking away and Antonia finds this confusing since you can usually just use a sharp knife, cut along the bone and then, essentially, dislocate the animal's joints in order to get the meat butchered. Yum, dislocation.

The sous chefs seem to have an easy time at the market. Dale picks up some black plantains for Stephanie, and Richard calls Spike with his idea to braise the pig in a malted beverage he remembers from childhood.

The kitchen is a bit chaotic, and Richard notes that he brought some bright green tape for labeling things to help keep him organized. Lord is he getting a stick-in-the-mud edit tonight. What is up with that? He couldn't possibly be going home tonight, could he?

In the frenzy of prep, tragedy strikes Stephanie: Dale leaves out a pan of pork overnight. He is devastated when he realizes his error could have screwed his friend, and his reaction shows why I like Dale. He seems just as purely horrified and pissed off at himself for a failure as he ever was at anyone else. He doesn't seek to make excuses, he's just mad at himself and I think that's what some of us responded to in him, this kind of hardcore loyalty to doing the best over everything else, including being likable at times.

Stephanie doesn't want to risk using it, and for a bit, she seems shaken. Then Dale suggests making a crispy pork skin salad, and Stephanie responds with a smile that seems to say, “That's it!”

Meanwhile, Nikki notes that Antonia seems a little off her game this night, and both Andrew and Richard note that it's business as usual for Lisa: they still find her abrasive and unpleasant in the kitchen.

The chefs set up at the party, and in interview, we get two more chances for the Top Chef drinking game as the chefs continue to point out that “There is no room for error/mistakes!” Drink 'em if you got 'em.

The chefs serve, and the show seems to be tipping its hand pretty early. Once again, Stephanie's flavors wow the judges, with a pork satay, tropical salad and black plantain pancake that win praise. Richard, too, gets good feedback for his series of dishes, which have his usual thoughtful take. Each one incorporates some element of his past and then the current Latin environment. His pork braised with the malted beverage is a hit.

Lisa and Antonia, on the other hand, receive a sort of chilly silence from the judges. Lisa has a tostones dish and a pork and yucca rellano. Antonia has pigeon peas (that appear to be underdone), a honey pork salad and a curried pork dish.

Everyone heads back to the judging room, and to no one's surprise (even their interviews didn't attempt to build suspense, with both saying, essentially, “Yeah, I did pretty well.”), Richard and Stephanie are called back for praise, with Richard being called the winner…and the winner of a new car, which is driven into the judging area. He's kind of speechless.

Lisa and Antonia are sent back to answer to the judges. Lisa's tostones are criticized for being cooked too soon, and her puree was too sweet. Also, the judges felt her pork was not the center of the dish, the garnishes were. Antonia had a rustic plate that was not refined and her peas were undercooked.

And after deliberation…it's Antonia that's going home. Somehow I am not surprised the way things went this episode. There are going to be some angry viewers. She's understandably sad in interview (after all, her own daughter said “Don't come home without a win”!), but she's not the only one who's unhappy with the end of things tonight.

Back in the judging room, Lisa tells Richard and Stephanie that she understands that they are sad their friend is gone, but congratulations would be in order. They both apologize, plead fatigue, but it's an awkward moment. Should they congratulate her? As Richard says in interview, “You got the bronze medal, congratulations.”

That might still be premature, but nevertheless, there is the plain fact that this is the fourth episode in a row where she was on the bottom and avoided being sent home because the flaws of her dish were less than the flaws the judges saw in the other dish. Of course no one gets to Top Chef without some talent, so it's not to say that Lisa is not a good cook. But if you did just slide into the finals Wendy Pepper-style, maybe demanding recognition from others isn't really the bestest of moves right that sec.

Here's my prediction for next week: oh no, it's not about the show, mind you, it's a prediction of my usual Predictions column. Maybe I will be struck by some fresh new insight into what this season of Top Chef is all about, but I suspect that the column will be yet another musing on how much I want Richard or Stephanie to be on top (with maybe a smidge more of me leaning towards Stephanie because I can identify with her kind of scrappy seat-of-the-pants place in the competition), and how deeply dissatisfying it will be to me if either is displaced by Lisa.

So that's it for Part One, folks. Feel free to let loose with your displeasure in the comments, but here's a challenge for someone. Anyone want to play devil's advocate and make the case for Lisa deserving to win? Any aspiring defense lawyers amongst the readers of this recap? Have at it!

- Leslie Seaton, BuddyTV Staff Columnist

(Image courtesy of Bravo)