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'Top Chef': Death by mushrooms

December 10, 2009 |  5:37 pm
Michael molecular

"Man, I never shoulda done those mushrooms," is a phrase you're more likely to hear on a Sunday morning in Santa Cruz than on prime time TV. Who could have guessed that it would be one funky little matsutake 'shroom that would bring down the fan favorite, Kevin Gillespie?

In a poll taken during the show, 58% of viewers thought that a more simple style of cooking would take the win. But Michael Voltaggio's victory signaled that concept and entertainment triumphed over simplicity. This year has, after all, been a big one for molecular gastronomy. You don't have to look much further than the Bazaar to see that. (And the National Post reported that the world's first molecular gastronomy school will soon open in Spain's Basque region.)

Don’t get me wrong: I’m proud that a local chef took the win to put another notch in L.A.'s culinary belt. But after watching the finale, I’m slightly miffed.

What’s with Sam Nazarian dining with the judges? Sure, many Angelenos might know that Michael was chef de cuisine at one of Nazarian’s most successful restaurants, the Bazaar by Jose Andres at the SLS Hotel, but the rest of America could have used some transparency there.  A possible conflict of interest perhaps?

That said, Kevin knew he was in trouble from the get-go. “If I was a betting man, [Michael’s] where I’d put my money,” he said.  He was down on his luck from the beginning when he got stuck with formerly ousted "Top Chef" contestant Preeti as his sous chef. She performed horribly earlier in the season, showing in the mis en place challenge that she can’t shuck a clam to save her life. He also drew Ash, who was so busy oogling at his man-crush Michael’s plates that he probably wasn’t much help in the kitchen.

If you're one of the 58% of viewers who wanted Kevin to win, fret not.  He’s already made it to the semifinals to represent America in the Bocuse d’ Or, and the oft-cynical Toby Young even stated that “Kevin is on a fast track to become a culinary superstar.” Last night just wasn’t his night.  What would have happened if he’d picked a different team, or if that Food Network-style ’Chopped’ box didn’t have those awkward matsutake mushrooms that he was clueless as to how to prepare?

The real question riddling us here in L.A. is: Will Michael stay to ride out the wave of his victory at the staid Dining Room at the Langham Hotel (which has planned a much-needed makeover in January), or will he take the money and run, perhaps opening a restaurant with his brother Bryan?  They did, after all, just launch their own joint website yesterday. If I were a betting woman, that’s where I’d put my money.

--Krista Simmons

Photo: Michael Voltaggio using nitrogen. Courtesy: Bravo TV