This season, Top Chef has gone from the Big Apple to the Big Easy. Tonight, we'll see which of the final three "cheftestants" — Hosea, Stefan or Carla — will impress the palates of judges Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi and their assembled culinary royalty. (And will regular judge Gail Simmons return to the lineup or Season 5 newcomer Toby Young?) So let the good times roll. (No matter who is seated at the judges table, the safe money is on Stefan to win — if he can just keep his ego on simmer.) So before the finale airs (10 p.m., Bravo), staff writers Peter Couture and Steve Spears — two of the biggest Top Chef fans at the Times — square off in a Quick Fire challenge to answer the question: Does Season 5 merit a four-star review or did its menu of personalities and challenges fall flat?
Spears: Best season yet
THINGS GOT SPICY: A spark, some heat and things finally boiled over. And I'm just talking about the forbidden kiss of Hosea and Leah. A little Survivor-style romance always helps (though the pair's significant others probably disagree).
GREAT CHALLENGES: From the opening challenge — just peel an apple (albeit really fast) — to re-creating the masterpieces of legendary chef Eric Ripert (left), contestants have had to keep their knives sharper than ever.
THE CAST OF CHARACTERS: Brit food critic Toby Young sliced and diced at will from the judges table. Stefan and Fabio formed a nearly unbeatable European Bloc. And even Martha Stewart popped in stir emotions into a froth. Maybe it was the Big Apple rubbing off on everyone's patience, but there was more backstabbing than a Madonna divorce hearing. Delish!
BUT I HATED: The crazy disparity in gifts awarded to challenge winners each week. Yay, an iMac! Boo, an autographed copy of another cookbook.
Couture: Season lacked spice
BALD ISN'T ALWAYS BEAUTIFUL: Chrome-domed critic Toby Young annoyed with all-too-rehearsed wit. Then there's the whiny Hosea (Stefan is trying to distract me!). And snooty Stefan's ego is so inflated that he tried to woo Jamie. ("Does the word lesbian mean anything to you?")
WHERE'S NEW YORK? How come we never get a sense of the city? Is it because the cheftestants are housed in a Brooklyn high-rise condo? Sure, the trip to Le Bernardin was fun, but bringing the Harlem Gospel Choir into the kitchen? Why not bring the cheftestants to Harlem?
THREE SIMPLE WORDS: No … Tony … Bourdain. The culinary bad boy (right) is the best guest judge. There's even a section in the Top Chef Cookbook devoted to his best lines (study up, Toby). Last season, Bourdain even subbed for an absent Colicchio in one episode. Tony, we hold out fading hopes that you'll make a surprise appearance tonight.
BUT I LIKED: The wacky Carla, who is known in my house (affectionately) as "Crazy Eyes." Sending the love back at ya, Hootie Hoo.