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'Top Chef': Taking odds on the final four

August 19, 2010 |  6:00 am

The primaries are nearly over, the leading candidates rising above the also-rans like cream to milk.

In just two more weeks, “Top Chef D.C.” will have settled on its final four contestants, as Season 7 draws toward its culinary conclusion. With the bombshell ejection of Kenny Gilbert a week ago and the nearly fatal stumbles of Angelo Sosa on Wednesday night, the early and confident predictions of who would be a  lock for the final episode have fallen as fast as a 1-inch-tall soufflé.

Bookmakers might establish playful odds for the Academy Awards, but as far as we can tell, there is no handicapping for who will be shortlisted for “Top Chef’s” final bake-off. Given what’s transpired (and, as was disquietingly true Wednesday night, perspired) in the show’s Washington, D.C., kitchens recently, it feels like the right time to rank the remaining field, from favorites to long shots, to make it into the ultimate showdown.

1 2-1: Tiffany Derry.
She’s only 27, but the native Texan is not only unflappable but also consistently brilliant. She has won the last four individual challenges (last week’s Restaurant Wars being a team competition), including Wednesday’s “Mystery Box Quickfire Challenge" fish test and the inspired winning elimination dish by reinventing a gyro as herb-roasted lamb. Two weeks earlier, she scored a similar daily double with her Ethiopian beef goulash in the Quickfire Challenge and the winning chicken tamales in the elimination round. Not once has Tiffany had to do the perp walk in front of the judges as a candidate for elimination. She’s this year’s Carla Hall from Season 5: A lot of Tiffany’s love ends up on the plate.

5-2: Kevin Sbraga.1
Many would say Angelo goes here, but just as Jennifer Carroll started fast and collapsed under pressure a year ago, Angelo is showing signs of cracking. Store-bought puff-pastry dough for his beef Wellington pizza? Kevin, on the other hand, might be hot-headed emotionally but is much steadier with a saucier and cooks simple food well, as did Kevin Gillespie a year ago. Kevin's marinated flank steak in Episode 3 was a bust, but he’s been peaking at just the right time.

1 7-2: Angelo Sosa.
Yes, he’s the show’s alpha male and the only contestant with a Michelin star, but he’s wilting like arugula left in the sun. His beef Wellington fiasco nearly cost him a ticket home Wednesday (Alex Reznik was sent packing instead for his inedible veal nuggets), and history has proven that chefs who try too hard often end up on the outside looking in: Remember the super-talented Richard Blais from Season 4? And with just one early-elimination challenge win, Angelo has fewer triumphs than either  Tiffany or Kelly Liken, who each have two victories.

5-1: Ed Cotton.1
He talks as if his brownies were laced with more than a dash of Cannibas sativa, but the guy is remarkably consistent and does not panic under pressure (maybe that’s where the brownies really help). His slow-baked turbot with eggplant caviar and black olive jus was a Restaurant Wars winner, but equally important, he’s only faced elimination twice so far this season. His most recent marks from the judges have been good, and his inside-out chicken cordon bleu on Wednesday blew the judges away. If you look over his recipes, he’s more daring than you might think, something that might prove critical down the line.

1 10-1: Kelly Liken.
It often seems she is thisclose to suffering a psychotic break from reality, and people who lose their composure often lose their invitation back for another week. That said, Kelly knows her limits, and as Wednesday’s episode proved (when she craftily read label ingredients from prepared sauces to learn how to season her kung pao shrimp), she knows how to solve problems.  Her Achilles’ heel (hard to get to with boots like that) is simple dishes that she can’t execute, such as her porterhouse steak in Episode 7. And how has any professional chef never cooked Chinese food?

30-1: Amanda Baumgarten.1
We adore her enthusiasm, camaraderie and humor, but it’s like being set up on a blind date with a woman who has a great personality: There’s got to be a little sizzle in her saucepan too. Amanda has  never won an elimination challenge, but she’s been shortlisted for elimination four times, including twice in the last two weeks. She was asked to reinvent onion soup on Wednesday and served … onion soup. Very few of her other dishes have stood out for either their conception or execution. Right now, she’s clinging on, that lone piece of spaghetti that resists being pushed into the boiling water below.

-- John Horn

Photos, from top: "Top Chef's" Kelly Liken, left, Tiffany Derry and Ed Cotton.  Tiffany Derry, Kevin Sbraga, Angelo Sosa, Ed Cotton, Kelly Liken, Amanda Baumgarten. Credit: David Geisbrecht / Bravo