Thursday, December 10, 2009

"Why do you want to be Top Chef?"

"I just don't want Bryan to win."

The words were almost whispered. And there was a moment (just a moment really) when they were met with thundering silence. Then came the laughter of the judges, as well as the man it was directed at.

"Good answer," Bryan Voltaggio replied, good-naturedly.

But at that moment -- when Michael Voltaggio looked a little scared, when he knew he had ruined his dessert, when nothing was assured and everything hung in the balance -- he used the opportunity to take a swipe at his brother.

Briefly, this schlub was in love.

Having never tasted any of the food that appeared on this season of Top Chef, I can only say that Michael had been my favorite to win it for a while.

He wasn't as likable as, say, Eli. He wasn't as sturdy a technician as his brother. And Kevin (also good natured) seemed to be his equal in terms of putting out food that drove the judges wild. But there was something about Michael that I found much more fascinating.

There seemed to be a real edge to Michael. "Kevin cooks the kind of food I cook on my day off," Michael once said, which is both cruel (Kevin seemed like a real sweetheart) and probably untrue (Kevin was consistently one of the judge's favorites).

But these are the uncompromising cruelties of an artist. Which was certainly on display in his put down of his brother. And what followed Michael's put down -- his reasons for why he should be crowned Top Chef -- was as fervent a statement of artistry as any I ever expected to see on Reality TV.

But it was the joke that really made me admire him. No joke is ever made entirely in jest. It was one more in the long list of putdowns Michael had been making against his brother all season long. And I think every artist feels not just the creative impulse, but also the destructive one. There is a demon on every creative person's shoulder, whispering in his ear.

Congrats, Michael. You were the best Top Chef, on the best season ever of Top Chef.