Wednesday night's main event features Richard Blais against Mike Isabella for the title of 'Top Chef' in their all-star season.
Here are four key questions to consider before the action begins:
1. Is Mike Isabella's best shot good enough?
Before the start of the season, most people (including me) had a short list of who would be gone quickly: Elia, Stephen, Spike and Mike. I would have bet good money that Mike wouldn't make it past mid-season.
Isabella did two things very successfully. First, he was very steady the whole season. Only once, in an Italian challenge of all things, was he in danger of going home. Despite being on the losing Restaurant Wars team, he basically put the group on his back while Marcel melted down. He was never too high or low, picked up a couple of Quickfire wins and made the final group.
Second, he improved from season to season and from main competition to final group. With such a strong top group in season six, he was was good enough to hang around but never a threat to win. In this season, though, his dishes have been more competitive. Once the show moved to the Bahamas, Mike won the first two eliminations and acknowledged that he had done significant prep for the final.
Can he win? Maybe. He's going to have to show a new level of sophistication in his food and execute it well to have a chance.
2. If Mike wins, is it good or bad for 'Top Chef'?
It would certainly be good for him personally as his new restaurant, Graffiato, is about to open in D.C.
Would it be good for the show, though?
The first rule of television is to be entertaining and if Mike wins, it would certainly be surprising and most likely fun to watch. He's a funny guy and, from what others have said, a good guy.
But it is almost universally agreed that Blais is the better chef. He's performed much better over two seasons worth of 'Top Chef,' racking up 15 elimination or quickfire wins. He has a level of inventiveness and technique that are among the best in the show's eight-season run.
At some point, it diminishes the show's overall reputation when the best people don't win (ahem, seasons five and seven). If there wasn't out-and-out rooting for Richard going on amongst the folks at Magical Elves (the show's producers), I think there must be a strong sense that having one of the best chefs win what they have called their toughest season would be a better thing.
3. Can Richard Blais avoid choking?
Every time there is a confessional interview with Richard and the topic of season four comes up, he says he choked. As Antonia Lofaso pointed out in her exit interview with the Trib last week, that's patently unfair to Chicago's Stephanie Izard who cooked a fantastic final meal and, actually, outperformed Blais over the course of their season.
(For a scorecard of season four, look at the Trib's 'Top Chef' Power Index).
But the fact remains that Richard is getting a second chance. He's notoriously hard on himself. He has said openly that winning the title would be the pinnacle of his career so far. That's an awful lot of pressure to add to what is already a stressful situation.
He's one of the more talented chefs, conceptually, in the show's run. If he can execute, he has the best chance of winning.
4. Season Four vs. Season Six
At the start of the season, every cheftestant claimed that their season was the toughest won. Well, 'All-Stars' seems to have put paid to that idea. If you weren't on seasons four or six, you're in the second tier. Of the final three, two were from season four (Antonia and Richard) and one was from season six (Mike).
Honestly, I don't think this season has settled anything between those two casts. Season four can point to the highest-rated chef of all-time on the show (Izard). Season six advocates can argue that one of their best was eliminated in an awful challenge (Jennifer Carroll in the overnight breakfast at the museum fiasco) and that their season was so tough, Mike, a finalist now, couldn't even crack the top six.
What do you think?
Who are you rooting for?