Blais of glory
Before Richard Blais was crowned the winner of Bravo's excellent "Top Chef: All Stars," he uttered four words that may haunt my culinary dreams forever: Cap'n Crunch Ice Cream.
Alas, this magical creation wasn't meant to be. Though Blais ditched the Cap'n in favor of the riskier -- but considerably more disgusting -- foie gras ice cream, I must believe in my heart that I will one day be able to buy a pint of crunchy goodness at my local grocer.
But until then, I will continue to enjoy Bravo's best reality franchise for the vicarious meals. In a television landscape where food porn is as prevalent as "Law & Order" reruns, "Top Chef" consistently delivers the goods. And the all-star season was its best in a while, since Chicago's own Stephanie Izard won on her home turf. (These days she's the proprieter and chef at the city's hottest restaurant, Girl and the Goat.)
For the casual "Top Chef" viewer, Blais' ultimate victory probably doesn't come as a surprise. From his very first appearance on "Top Chef: Chicago," it was apparent that Blais was the most talented chef that had ever participated in the game. He lost to Izard in his first finale partly because of his nerves, and partly because Izard does simple comfort food better than just about anyone. When the all-star season's cast was announced, three favorites instantly jumped out at me: Tiffani Faison, the tough-as-nails finalist from Season 1; Jen Carroll, an arrogant perfectionist who works for the world-renowned Eric Ripert; and Blais, a worry-wart with his eyes on the future of cooking.
Faison and Carroll flamed out early, leaving Blais with what looked like an easy path to domination. I would never have pegged Antonia Lofaso or Mike Isabella as finalists, but they -- and Richard's nerves -- gave Blais a run for the money. The result was a truly suspenseful march to the finish, which is nice considering this TV watcher had just come off a "Survivor" season with the most obvious outcome imaginable.
To me, the strangest thing about last night's finale was Richard's extremely emotional reaction upon learning he won. This is a guy who, as head judge Tom Colicchio said, already owns four restaurants. He already has his own TV show on the Science Channel. He is, by every measure, one of the country's great chefs. But winning this relatively low-rated reality show seemed to outweigh all of that.
That speaks not only to the quality of the product that Bravo has given us these last eight seasons, but also the quality of the competition Blais has faced. When we watch "Top Chef," we can be sure we are watching people who actually the deserve the title.
And the franchise shows no signs of slowing down. The latest edition of "Top Chef Masters" gets started next Wednesday at 10 p.m. after the all-star reunion hour. "Masters," which exclusively features cheftestants who are already established names in the industry, ditches its original host (Kelly Choi) and its annoying five-star rating system in favor of Australian celebrity chef Curtis Stone and the traditional "pack-your-knives-and-go" format.
"Top Chef: All Stars" has given Colicchio and Co. a great shot at winning their second straight Emmy for best reality competition program -- but "Survivor: Redemption Island" won't go quietly. That show has been downright delightful so far thanks to colorful characters like Phillip the federal agent(?) and Stephanie the scheming cutie-pie.
They all pale in comparison to Boston Rob Mariano, though. (This week's highlight: Throwing the clue to the immunity idol into an active volcano. Hilarious.) I don't know if any "Survivor" jury in the world would give him the million bucks, but I do know that my television is way more interesting with him on it. Throw in a Wheeling High School graduate impressing the "American Idol" judges on Elton John night, and you get a Wednesday night that makes the best of what reality TV has to offer.