When Top Chef first started airing, I thought, “Okay, I’ll bite, but it’s just a Project Runway ripoff.” Now with the fourth season, I think that I might actually find it a better show than Project Runway, and the reunion special that aired this week confirmed why.

Top Chef guest judge Anthony Bourdain noted in his book Kitchen Confidential that the restaurant industry – with its odd hours, grueling environment and attendant occasionally laissez-faire hiring policies – is one of the last remaining places in American life (besides prison) that hasn’t been totally sanitized by corporate culture. It attracts the incredibly talented and intelligent, but also the misfit, rebellious and maladjusted. Sometimes these traits can all be found in varying degrees in one individual.

So bring a group of people like that together – and add in the requirement that you have to have the kind of questionable judgment or willful self-delusion required to agree to be on a reality show in the first place – and you are looking at a formula for some good television. The Reunion show brought us some highlights of the most entertaining moments and personalities we saw this season.

The show starts with Bravo honcho Andy Cohen letting us know that Richard Blais couldn’t be there as his wife was in the hospital about to give birth to one of those baby Blaises he said he wanted during the show.

Then it was time to go over the final moments for the final three. They all congratulate winner Stephanie Izard, and noted her special reaction to all of her wins. As Ted Allen remarks, she always looked like she thought she was about to be killed. Then the judges talk about the surprising moment when Richard admitted he felt he choked, and the all seem to agree that Richard is just a straight-forward kind of person. Lisa Fernandes says she felt like she had pulled out a strong performance at the end.

Tom Colicchio asks Stephanie if she feels like it matters that she is the first female Top Chef winner. (Tom has seemed to be irritated in interviews with the idea that the judges would be influenced by gender or that the producers would prod them to pick a woman.) She says she’d rather just be thought of as a winner. She also says she is opening a restaurant, and that she likes the hometown support, but it’s weird to encounter fans while walking a dog and “holding a poop bag.”

The chefs talk about regrets; they are mainly about the actual competition – Dale Talde regrets his butterscotch sauce (so do the judges) and Jen Biesty regrets saying the bread was phallic.

Then we get a little package about the “bromances” on the show. Richard and Dale had a special bond, which, apparently, included Richard calmly admiring Dale’s nipples. Of course, who can forget Spike Mendelsohn and Mark Simmons sharing a bubble bath? Andrew D’Ambrosi and Spike had their “Vanilla Love” which apparently inspired Andrew to say “I’m not gay but I would probably let him bang me.” I find this oddly touching.

As we learned when we interviewed Mark, he was just married, and so is staying in the States.

Another relationship might not be having quite such a happy milestone, or at least if it is, we won’t know about it. Zoi Antonitsas and Jen have decided to neither confirm nor deny current rumors that they have split up, but both think they could have done better in the competition without the other there, despite the fact that Spike thought they had an advantage.

Speaking of Spike, we’re treated to a recap of his more devious moments, and Stephanie admits she hated him at the start, but later found out he’s a good guy. This kind of mirrors the audience reaction to him during and post-show as well.

A fun tidbit: apparently the chefs all had weird dreams while they were there and some continue to have Top Chef nightmares afterwards. They say they woke up every morning terrified, and the pressure of time, competition and then performing in front of the biggest names in food was overwhelming at times. It was not what anyone was expecting going on the show.

We get a few other recaps – one of Ryan Scott’s salesmanship and verbosity, and another of Antonia Lofaso, “The Black Hammer,” who seemed able to hammer out anyone on her team. There are also some fun moments from the apparently wildly unpleasant Stew Room where the chefs wait to hear their fate. The product placement plastic wrap is used to mummify Mark, something the Glad family of products was probably not anticipating. Also: the chefs get drunk.

While the chefs stew, the judges judge, although Gail Simmons once took advantage of some judging down time to take a quick nap. We get a recap of some of the harshest judging, and Spike says Anthony Bourdain is definitely the toughest of them all.

The chefs get to ask the judges some questions. Lisa wants to know if they really thought her cake was that ugly (Tom basically says yes), and Spike is still a little hung up that Richard stuck around after the fish scale incident. Tom defends that decision, saying the scales were only on some fish while Zoi’s mushrooms were all bad. Zoi said she’s made peace with that call.

Tom admits he disagrees with one decision made while he wasn’t there. He thought it seemed like Lisa had two failed dishes to Dale’s one when Dale was sent home. But Dale is philosophical, and says he thinks he should have gone home for that dish. I continue to heart Dale.

Lisa’s scowl is discussed. She doesn’t really explain what was going on behind her body language all the time.

We get a recap of Andrew’s most entertaining moments. Andrew says people have been talking about him and ADD and he’s confused because it’s been a while since he played “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.” Tom cracks the heck up, which makes me wonder if Tom Colicchio played Dungeons and Dragons. We get to see Andrew’s “tigre” growl, his boundless energy and him getting stuck in a helmet. Andy asks Gail about her special connection to Andrew and she says he always made her smile. She gets a little girlish and blushing about it; it’s also very cute.

Then a montage of the fights: Dale vs. Spike; Dale vs. Lisa; Lisa vs. Andrew; and the big one: Antonia vs. Spike vs. Jen + Dale vs. Lisa. Jen admits she was irritated that her fight over her partner being sent home was hijacked by Dale’s inexplicable outburst. Dale laughingly admits he was bitter about not getting the trip.

Then Tom gives all the chefs a lecture about all the swearing. Okay, Dad.

We see a recap of Richard Blais – this season’s own “Willy Wonka” – in all his geeky adorableness. Then Richard joins by satellite from Atlanta where he is (was at the time) awaiting his daughter’s birth. He talks about his difficulties at the end, but we end on a happy note when he gets a Top Chef onesie for his new baby. The knife is replaced by a silver spoon in the logo.

So who will be the fan fave? “Not Lisa” guesses Tom, and laughs while she smiles wanly. Ouch.

Nope, it’s the winner, Stephanie! She immediately tells the other chefs she is buying dinner, and she says all this success is helping her boost her confidence and lose that self-doubt she’s talked about.

With that, Tom says this is the strongest group of chefs yet, and tells them how much he enjoyed getting to know them, as did most of the viewers, as well. And with that, season 4 of Top Chef comes to a close.

– Leslie Seaton, BuddyTV Staff Columnist

(Image courtesy of Bravo)


Staff Columnist, BuddyTV