Top Chef wraps up its solid fourth season tonight, which means that by the end of the evening, one of the three remaining “cheftestants” will be walking home with the proverbial gold medal. By most accounts, it’s a tight race between the affable Richard (he of the oft-maligned faux-hawk, the dorky puns, and the generally well-executed dishes) and the dark horse Stephanie (really? I keep thinking she got eliminated five weeks ago). However, there’s always a chance that the bitter, living incarnation of Cookiepus, Lisa (best known for her perma-scowl, greasy hair, and gruff attitude) will serve as the spoiler yet again. Most people are shocked she’s made it this far as it appears there have been a host of other chefs seemingly more deserving of a shot at the finals than she. However, this is Top Chef, a show that hasn’t been afraid to knock frontrunners out the competition following one bad pilaf. Remember Sam? How about Tre? Anything goes on Top Chef, and it got me thinking: what have been the most surprising exits in the series’ history? Who have been the chefs that we thought had a true shot at the finals, only to come up short?
8. Lia, Season 3
Maybe not the most shocking ouster ever (that’s why she’s last on this list), but Lia had the potential to be season three’s equivalent of Stephanie: benign, unassuming, but quietly excellent. Plus, her background as a sous chef at Manhattan’s top tier restaurant Jean Georges couldn’t be ignored. But she never quite won any challenges, and ultimately, she fell victim to the Casey Curse (anyone Casey announced she was becoming really tight with would immediately pack their knives and leave by the end of the episode). We really thought she’d go farther; so her weak showing was kind of a shock.
7. Elia, Season 2
Elia started off in the middle of the pack, but she grew stronger and stronger until finally, it seemed as though she might just sneak into the finals. As we approached the final four (which yes, I understand was part of the finals, but in name only), a Sam vs. Elia showdown looked to be in order. The Ilan and Marcel moved ahead instead. Marcel wasn’t that much of a surprise, but Ilan? Really? He only cooked one thing: PAELLA! (as my friend Jash loves to point out) Whether it was a choke on her part, we’ll never know. But conspiracy theorists fret that she fell victim to the producers’ desire to see the Marcel/Ilan rivalry play out in the final two. Hmmmm….
6. Andrew, Season 4
Manic, bizarre, outspoken, afflicted with culinary priapism, Andrew was a one-of-a-kind character. He also seemed like he was at the top of his game, and as a sous chef at Manhattan’s famed Le Cirque, he had better have been. With his sharp technical skills and innovative ideas, he seemed like a lock for the final four, let alone the top two; however, a healthy challenge slipped him up, and he was sent packing before any of the notorious bottom dwellers (Lisa, Dale, and Spike). We love Spike, and Dale had his moments, but it seemed unfair that they outlasted Andrew. At the very least, Lisa should have gone home first (shaking fist). Then again, we don’t taste the dishes, and the judges do. So what do we know?
5. Lee Anne, Season 1
Coming down to the final three in Top Chef’s first season, the judges faced a difficult decision: they had to drop Harold, Tiffany, Dave, or Lee Anne. Harold was a lock, but the rest had their pros and cons. Tiffany seemed to be very good, but when she missed, she crazy missed. Plus, her personality was dreadful (I’d love to see her and Lisa in a room together). Dave meanwhile was the lovable underdog whose food always looked delicious, but he lacked the refinement or poise that might have made him deserving of the top three. Then there was Lee Anne. She had been steady and reliable all season. If anyone seemed like a sure thing to join Harold in the finals, it was she. But alas, Lee Anne was cast aside like a wet rag, off to spend her reality star afterlife as the host of Bravo’s pun-tastic “The Wong Way To Cook.” I’m glad she got a backup gig, but I still think she should have had a shot at the first Top Chef crown. More so than Tiffany. Oh well…
4. Antonia, Season 4
She had a perfect palate. A PERFECT PALATE! Antonia spent much of the season dwelling on the fact that she was a single mother, but this wasn’t tiresome. It was inspiring. She drew on her experiences as a way to deal with the show’s obstacles, and as a result, she excelled — winning umpteen Quickfires and regular challenges. Plus, there was that whole perfect palate thing. Everything about Antonio was likable, and her food always seemed spot on; so it was a true stunner when she was unceremoniously dropped from the competition just before reaching the final three. Thanks to some bad beans and poor plating, her dreams came to an end while Lisa, with her arms crossed and mouth tightly pursed, managed to waltz to the top. Hey, I haven’t tasted Lisa’s food; so I can’t say with total authority that she doesn’t deserve to be there, but… she doesn’t deserve to be there.
3. Tre, Season 3
Tre always seemed so cool and collected, and his food by and large looked to be the best (or close to the best) on any given episode. Plus, he had won the season’s first challenge, and for the past two seasons, whoever had accomplished that feat went on to win the whole damn thing. We just ASSUMED the pattern would hold: Tre vs. Hung in the finals, with Tre FTW. However, Tre fell victim to Restaurant Wars, a grueling challenge that can destroy even the most capable of chefs. He didn’t even get close to the final four. Howie got further. Brian MALARKEY got further. Heck, even Sara M. (the Caribbean chick) got further. This was not the way things were supposed to work out.
2. Sam, Season 2
The resident dreamboat of the series, Sam looked destined for the finals. I personally thought he was super cocky, but I guess that doesn’t matter when food is king. He served his dishes with authority and confidence and rarely messed up (a certain watermelon gnocchi was his lowest point, I believe). As much as his quiet haughtiness irked me, I couldn’t deny that he filled the role of Top Chef easily and comfortably. AND YET, there he was, packing his knives and going. Like Elia, he fell victim to the Marcel-Ilan rivalry and wound up nixed from the finals. It also didn’t help that he served up one of his more lackluster meals for the judges. Oh well. The point is he was out way sooner than anyone expected, even if he still made third place.
1. Cliff, Season 2
Biggest. Shock. EVER. Cliff was absolutely unstoppable, unflappable, and unsinkable in season two. Everything he made launched him to the top, and not even Mia ordering him to “stop swinging his dick around” could make him flinch. The question was not if Cliff would win, but who he’d win over. By many accounts, it was Sam. Maybe Elia. Perhaps Marcel. Either way, Cliff was in the finals without a question. Then came a drunken night with an electronic razor, and next thing we knew, Tom was sending Cliff off into the sunset. That’s right, thanks to Cliff’s boisterous wrestling match with Marcel (who perceived it less as jolly good fun and more as life-threatening assault), the frontrunner was suddenly gone. It turned everything upside down, and left us (let alone him) wondering what coulda been. Tough breaks…