Moments before last night’s penultimate Top Chef started, I posted my Final Four rankings. How close did I come to being stupendously wrong? Soooo close.

Quickfire: In the most welcome “twist” of this season, Padma, Goddess of Cephalopod-Themed T&A, and Tom C., the Patron Saint of Dissatisfied Grimaces, met up with notably sedate Emeril Lagasse in the front yard of what looked like a setpiece from Double Jeopardy. I could shoot you in the middle of Mardi Gras, and they can’t touch me!

Twist, right: The Final Four learned that they would not be cooking. Rather, three exiled cheftestants would be battling for a spot in the second-to-last challenge. In the running? Surly Sue Jamie, more formally known, in all her regal mollusktisity, as the Duchess of Scallopshire; my Dr. Robert Chase-ian dude Jeff, who recently came out saying that he felt producers exploited him for his boyish, narrow-hipped appeal (well-played); and … Leah, who made awkward middle school flirty faces at Hosea. Nonono evilevilevil. Emeril told them to get busy on a crawfish dish.

Jeff ended up impressing the most with a crawfish/grits/andouille combo, earning him a chance to cook alongside the Final Four in the Elimination. (He would have to win the challenge, not just sneak through in the middle, to make the finale.) “Jeff’s mind has a couple people talking in it,” explained Jeff about himself in third person. I wonder what kind of people?

Elimination: Stefan, Carla, Fabio and Hosea, with their little Jeff +1, were given six hours to prepare two dishes (at least one Creole) and one cocktail for a 100-person masquerade ball organized by Mardi Gras parade brigade Krewe of Orpheus. (Go to their Web site ? you’ll be pleased to learn that the closeted Italian dude Salvatore from Mad Men is one of their special celebrity guests this year.)

Carla fun facts! She does not drink and cannot shuck oysters. (She also used to be a model!) She still managed, though, to complete an oyster stew and a shrimp/sausage beignet, and made the strange-at-the-time decision to offer a teetotaler’s cranberry/lime spritzer as her cocktail. Stefan, who made it a point to taunt Hosea repeatedly with phallic andouille portions (above), came out with a duck/rabbit gumbo over grits, an apple beignet and some cherry/cran/rum drink. Jeff offered a fried oyster with from-scratch sausage (impressive), a crawfish pot de creme and a smash-hit cucumber mojito. Hosea did a pecan-crusted catfish, a Hurricane and stirred his roux for 20 years like an old scoliosis-stricken Cajun lady to make his centerpiece gumbo. Fabreezy, who likened the masquerade ball to an “old porno movie” (borrow please? thx), went slightly Medi with it, cooking crawfish/crab caserecci pasta with his a sausage/rabbit maque chouxÿ and a macerated red bell pepper tipple.

Despite her inexperience popping shells (girl coulda just steamed them, said Tom C.), Carla took home the win (and a Toyota) by impressing Emeril with her refined plates and shockingly successful non-booze beverage. (That’s truly a testament if she came out on top lubricating the judges with cups of juice.) Jeff (oh, Jeff) was so very close to winning, but came up just short ? all the textures/flavors were there for the panel (now featuring Gail!), but he didn’t bring it home quite as strong as the last lady standing. Hosea, OF COURSE, snuck by in the middle, but to his credit, Emeril gave him daps for doing that gumbo the right way. Right now, he is probably wearing a stupid three-quarter-sleeve baseball T-shirt with a picture of the “Chocolate Rain” guy on it.

Bottom two: Fabio and Stefan. Oh, the foreign-born humanity. Judges had some nit-picky stuff for Stefan, but they were mostly sour on his attitude. (Why now? He’s been acting like this the entire season.) Gail also felt that his food “didn’t have soul,” which is a preposterous and amazing thing to hear Gail say. For Fab, the pasta sauce needed more heat and the bell pepper cocktail was too sweet, and that was enough to send him on his way. What do you think? Did the right Euro go home? I’m inclined to say yes, but that’s mostly because I dubbed Stefan the champ before the fact.ÿ

Next week: Finale Part 2. I’ve always admired the format of the Top Chef season ender ? no flaming hoops, Diet Dr. Pepper desserts or wriggling invertebrates. Just cook us the best meal you’ve ever cooked. As impressive as Carla was in E13, I’m sticking to my swami guns: Stefan will just barely edge out Carla to take the title, and Hosea will present something perfectly good, but not life-altering. How are y’all seeing it?

Posted 2009-02-20 02:00:36
Love the Dennis Miller-esque (-ian?) references - keep 'em coming! "3/4 baseball T-Shirt with the Chocolate Rain guy on it"! Yes! That is Hosea!  Hilarious.

Yes, I think you called it right, and I love Carla too (though the Didi Pickles reference is now lost since she's straightened her hair).  Hubert Keller is the guest judge in the finale, so the cheftestants will definitely have to bring it (though he seems to have mellowed a bit since Season One).  I'm concerned Carla will be a little rattled by the pressure, as she seemed to be earlier in the season.  Hosea is good, but not great.  I thought Fabio deserved to go - he was on the edge a few times.  Stefan takes it all in a nail-biter.

I love Gail.  Like, "Stop the wedding!" love.  Sigh. Oh well.

Posted 2009-02-20 10:03:30
I suppose Stefan has to be the favorite going into the final, but for the last 2-3 weeks has clearly been one of the worst. The only reason he was allowed to stay on the show is because of his previous victories. No way his over cooked salmon earned him a spot. From the start I liked Jamie, and still feel robbed that she was booted. I have never been a fan of Carla, who reminds me of the mortician from The Wire, although i will admit she is growing on me. Regardless, Stefan is a joke, and sadly I would rather see Carla, or even Hosea, win.

Posted 2009-02-20 13:21:46
Regardless of his attitude, Stefan has been the most impressive chef in all the Top Chef seasons so far. In case you've forgotten, he has a total of 10 wins this season (4 Quickfire, 4 elimination and 2 team) including 2 episodes where he won both the quickfire and elimination. That has to be the season record, by a long shot. Regardless of his cockiness, he has the goods to back it up. I don't even imagine his recent dishes have been that bad, just a case of the producers nitpicking to create some drama and tension for the final, which he is odds on favorite to win and has been for much of the season. All anyone had to do was read his bio to realize that this competition is his to lose, although Richard Blaise did lose Top Chef 4 as the odds on favorite for most of the season. Is his occasional arrogant attitude offputting? Definitely, but the man has mad skills, and doesn't actually appear to be an ogre as often portrayed by the editing, evidenced by the warm partings he's had with nearly all of the eliminated chefs.

Drew Lazor
Posted 2009-02-20 14:43:34

Is his occasional arrogant attitude offputting? Definitely, but the man has mad skills, and doesnƒ??t actually appear to be an ogre as often portrayed by the editing.

Well-said. Though the argument can be made that Stefan's best challenges are behind him, I'm sticking to my original prediction that he's going to take the final. I think the "cook us the best of your life" format is perfect for him. Most of his stumbles have taken place with simple dishes. The overcooked salmon during the "Last Supper" challenge was definitely his most egregious screwup. With a blank canvas, I see him excelling.

One other interesting thing I haven't heard a lot of people considering: Everyone is talking about the finale like it's a two-horse race, Stefan vs. Carla. Is there anyone who's thinking Hosea might continue with his duck-under-the-radar success? What if Stefan and Carla somehow cancel each other out in the eyes of the judges?

Posted 2009-02-20 15:33:46
I agree that stripped of show-provided contrivances, Stefan could very well romp. But Carla's been on a hot-streak ƒ?? like white hot, pretty much unconscious, turning impossible situations into winning dishes. The thing is, Stefan's a technician, Franz Liszt if you will (hence his lack of soul?) and Carla's, like, touched by the muse, a riffer (hence her inconsistency). I think if Carla's "in the zone" she'll be unbeatable. if not, she'll finish third. I don't think Hosea's ceiling is higher than second place. He'll be too bothered with what Stefan's doing. And I neither of the baldies considers it an even remote possibility that Carla can beat them ƒ?? despite the fact that she's schooled them like three weeks running ƒ?? which works in her favor. I'm calling it for Carla.

Posted 2009-02-20 17:01:56
So Stefan survived the chopping block, but it can't be because of his previous victories. They're pretty clear that contestants are judged solely on their performance in that week's elimination challenge. Remember when Padma got snippy with Toby in the farm-to-fork ep judging? Ariane buthcered (literally and metaphorically) the lamb, Toby dissed her skills, and Padma said that, no, Ariane had also cooked some really delicious things in the past. Toby countered, saying that aren't they supposed to be judging the chefs on that particular challenge only? Ergo, Stefan's food had to be better than Fabio's even if it had "no soul"--good one, Gail. But you do have to wonder, even subconsciously, if the judges take past performance into consideration. I don't know. I just hope Hosebeast (Drew, I'm running with it) doesn't win. He's this year's Lisa, only with a better haircut.

Posted 2009-02-21 00:39:23
I really hope you're wrong, Drew, with the possibility of Hosea winning. How he's even made it this far is only a testament to the lackluster talent this season's chef's had to offer. That said, I'm also having a really hard time routing for either Stephan or Carla. I was glad to see Carla winning the last few rounds (and a car!) maybe only for her homespun charm and kookiness. I do believe Stephan will take the prize tho because I really think that every season the producers pick their winner mid-season (and yes I realize that's a conspiracy theory). Can't wait till Wednesday - sort of.