Top Chef Recapatini: Bears Love Tom and Other Reunion Revelations

Last week, several people told me I should have commented on the “Sexiest Judge” poll. I didn’t because at the time I couldn’t quite fathom what the results said about who’s actually watching this show. One of the few, albeit pleasant, surprises about this week’s Watch What Happens “special” is that it’s not only Top Chef’s gayest episode ever, it also offers some insights into those poll results.

Tom’s whopping 48% win does, it seems, indicate a major following of gay men — at least, those who are smarter than your average gay, if you get the Jellystone reference (more on that in a moment). We also learn — from a gay woman on this very show — that the lesbians salivate over Padma, which is probably a factor in her 38%. As for the 14% who voted for Gail, I’m still stumped. My best guess is they’re pragmatic straight male foodies who think that, should they run into them at the singles bar at the Food & Wine expo, they have a better shot at Gail than Padma, especially if they tell her they voted for her.

These numbers don’t, however, account for the percentage of masochists and insomniacs Bravo is apparently catering to with this snoozapalooza. Between a clip show and a reunion special, it’s pretty much a toss-up which is more pointless and boring, and Bravo in its wisdom has decided to give us a freakish hybrid of the two — with questions from viewers and “behind-the-scenes” footage thrown in just for the hell of it. Frankly, this whole season has felt like it’s been behind the scenes of a far more interesting show we’re never allowed to see.

Plus the timing of this — smack in the middle of Season 3 — is so weird. If I understand the thinking correctly, the geniuses at Bravo decided that the thing to do with a season completely lacking in suspense or drama was to bring it to a dead halt, putting off Sara H.’s inevitable elimination by another week. It just seems way too soon to be catching up with former contestants who were judged off the show about five minutes ago. It’s like having your high school reunion too soon after graduation, before the straight alumni have gotten a chance to get really unattractive so the returning gays can feel justifiably superior.

The special is part of some Bravo branding blitz called “Watch What Happens,” which is a pretty optimistic title given that it presupposes something will actually happen. It’s hosted by Andy Cohen, Bravo’s proudly out programming guru, whose friendly, easygoing demeanor here is a testament to that light and carefree feeling you experience after selling your soul to Satan in exchange for a life of complete leisure and media exposure. At various points, he calls the show “an extravaganza,” “a spectacular,” and “cheftastic,” and at one point upgrades it from a “special” to a “super-special.” More appropriate descriptors would be “coma-fest,” “time-waster,” and “instrument of assisted suicide.”

Andy introduces the panel from the show’s two and a half seasons on the air. He calls them Top Chefs, although I thought you were only a Top Chef if you’d won. Which means only two true Top Chefs are here – the rest are Bottom Chefs. From Season 1: Lee Ann, Dave, and Harold. From Season 2: Cliff, Ilan, Mike, and Sam. And the really ridiculous thing here is that they also have the ousted people from this season: Clay, Sandee, Micah, Camille, and Lia.

So some programming genius thought, “You know what reality TV viewers really love? Seeing even more of the losers who’ve been eliminated, especially in the first few episodes.” Personally, I think reality show contestants are like kidney stones — you wait in agony for them to be expelled, then marvel at how puny and insignificant they actually are and pray the whole ordeal will soon be forgotten. In fact, most times when I’m done watching a reality series, I feel like I’ve wasted my time with something dirty and shameful, like when my parents caught me reading Lace in 8th grade. So just about the last thing I want to do is spend any more time with these walking leftovers, especially when only two of them are remotely hot.

I also have to make a confession: I didn’t watch Season 1 or 2, so these people mean nothing to me. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I did see reruns every so often on the elliptical machines at my gym, where I learned that it’s possible to lip-read phrases like “Why didn’t you soak the kidney first?” and that the judges often make faces like someone’s dropped a stinkbomb in the kitchen. Or served them one on a plate. I also knew there was some sort of shaving incident involving a guy with lovingly maintained sideburns who looked like he could audition for the live-on-ice version of Ratatouille.

Ratboy doesn’t even show up here, and as far as my first and only impressions of the other previous contestants go, Sam is smoking hot. Way hotter than anyone on this season, that’s for sure. Also, Season 1 winner Harold seems, as the New York Times described his restaurant, “earnest, endearing, and just a bit of a snooze.” And Season 2 winner Ilan … well, I can’t say anything about him because I was so distracted by the fact he was wearing a tux but no socks that I could barely focus on anything else. I felt like Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom, where she decides to bludgeon Patty Hearst to death with a phone for wearing white shoes after labor day. I should add that “superfan” Tim Gunn shows up every so often, and why they don’t have him give a serious talking to to Ilan about this crime against fashion is beyond me.

What’s interesting here is that when Andy introduces these people, Season 1 is all stone-faced and miserable, Season 2 slightly more lively, and Season 3 absolutely giddy. Apparently, happiness is inversely proportionate to how long you’ve been off this show, an indication that the Season 3 castoffs still harbor delusions of extending their 15 minutes of fame, while Season 1 has finally figured out those 15 minutes never happened in the first place.

After introducing the panel of judges, who Andy calls the “Mt. Rushmore of food criticism,” meaning they’re at their best when stoned, he launches into the first of a number of montages, featuring a disproportionate number of clips from episodes that are probably still stored on your TiVO. Have you seen that great South Park episode when the school bus crashes and they pass the time remembering things, and the flashbacks get more and more recent, until they’re saying, “Remember that time when the school bus crashed?” Well, this is just like that episode, except less animated.

Plus, in addition to showing us clips of things that recently happened, they keep showing clips of things about to happen. Before each commercial, Andy pipes up to say, “Guys, we’ve got a lot more coming up!” This promise of more to come takes on the tenor of a threat, given that the montages we do see are organized around such scintillating topics as Chef Tom’s misuse of cutlery and the judges’ misuse of language (Gail: “Food is meant to be eaten!”). The panel has been coached to laugh uproariously at all this, but for viewers at home it’s like being forced to sit through the video of a wedding you weren’t even invited to, so you spend the whole time seething over why straight couples get all that free china.

The first montage is of Top Chef disasters, and the very first clip is of poor, sweet, deluded Clay, who was ousted in the first episode of this very season. I can’t believe this poor bastard is back for more. He’s like the younger sister begging for entry to the secret treehouse and constantly thrown back to the ground to soil her pretty party dress. He must have really pissed off somebody at Bravo to warrant this constant abuse. They show him preparing that Hindenburg of an amuse bouche — Remember? The one in the apple core bowl? — and even have the cruelty to inset a reaction shot of him watching himself fail miserably in front of an entire nation of judgmental viewers. Much to his credit, he is entirely goodnatured about all this, and his later comments show him to have no bitterness or bad feeling whatsoever. His behavior here should be required viewing for anyone who ever even considers going on reality TV.

He certainly comes across much better than the deservedly reviled Micah, who is given a chance to redeem her “you Americans and your simplistic food” statements — and screws it up miserably. Her tongue here becomes a kind of shovel, in that the more she says, the deeper the hole she digs. She starts by claiming that her remark about Americans and their ketchup-love was purely descriptive, the same as saying, she helpfully explains, that “Indians like their chutney with their curry,” which Padma is quick to counter, “Actually, we don’t.” Then she decides to go the “some of my best friends and family members are American” route, saying that she’s half American. Her other half is South African which means, she says, “I’m an African American … a pale African American!” And the show’s producers make the classy move of cutting to an immediate reaction shot from Cliff. As Strangers with Candy’s Jerri Blank would say, “Racism is hilaaaarious!”

Also not redeemed in the slightest in this episode? Howie, who we’re forced to listen to even during what should by all rights be a blissful week off from his charming presence. A few choice clips of him reveal something I hadn’t noticed before, that Howie is actually much more offensive than his partner in asshattery, Joey. There’s a montage of Top Chef feuds, and we revisit all that Joey-Howie macho “No, you’re my bitch” nonsense, and I forgot that Howie made a big point of Joey being a “little girl” and him being “a big man.” This misogynistic crap shows up on his audition tape too, where he says, “Sometimes, I feel like a woman. I get aggravated. I get stressed. I get emotional. They call me Hurricane Howie.” Howie, that’s not only an insult to women, it’s an insult to hurricanes, most of which, after blowing so much wind, have the decency to blow away.

About those audition tapes, they make it clear that the best way to get on this show is by being a raving psychopath. There’s lots of flames and knife sharpening and tae kwan do demonstrations, and Captain America shows up for some inexplicable reason, and CJ says something about opening beer bottles with his fake testicle. And in the midst of all this, we get an all-too-brief but tantalizing glimpse of Dale saying he “makes Fred Flintstone food because of these mitts … these huge caveman hands,” and he holds up his ginormous hands for us to admire their mittness. How many more gay fans did he win over with that announcement and everything it indicates about the rest of his anatomy, I wonder?

Speaking of gay, in another audition clip, we see Hung being questioned in an interview about whether he’s got girlfriends or boyfriends, and he says he goes both ways. I know! It proves he really will say anything or do anyone to insure he wins this thing. That makes him a Top and a Bottom Chef.

Now the other juicy gay stuff. At one point, they read a question from a viewer for Tom, asking, “Do you realize you’ve become an icon of the bear community?” While gay TV exec Andy is perfectly capable of doing this himself, he gives gay judge Ted the unwelcome task of defining for all the clueless straight viewers what a “bear” is. Why not force him to also explain such gay code words as “poppers,” “a**play,” and “personal hygiene” while he’s at it? Ted says his “understanding is extremely limited,” and goes on to define bears as “gay men who appreciate muscular, masculine, strong, very burly men.” Is that really an accurate definition of bears? It certainly isn't a complete one. I mean, if Chef Tom is such a bear magnet, shouldn’t he be a bit, I don’t know, furry? Are there hairless bears, like that hairless cat that Dr. Evil is always groping?

Chef Tom, at first, handles this well, saying, “Hear, hear to the burly gay men of America.” But then he has to throw in, “As long as I go home to my wife and son who appreciate me, I’m happy.” It’s the most gratuitous assertion of heterosexuality since Hugh Jackman hosted the Tonys and referenced his “lovely wife” after every chorus of “I Go to Rio,” so no one would suspect Wolverine might be swapping spandex with Harvey Fierstein. Yes, yes, we get it Tom! You’ve made it clear you’re straight, so all those bears out there will know not to attack you in public and start humping your leg or whatever it is you’re worried about.

In other gay news, at one point Ted asks if any of the former cheftestants are dating, and Clay laughs and says, “Yeah, Sandee and I are dating.” Her response: “Wrong gender, dude.” That’s such a shock … for no one (our sibs at AfterEllen interviewed the very out Sandee before the show started, but her sexuality was never actually brought up on the show). Still, it’s always refreshing to hear someone actually out themselves on national television, in case anyone didn’t get it from the clothes or the body language or the tell-tale hair. Between Sandee and Dale, straights of America are going to assume the easiest way to spot a gay is via mowhawk. This just proves how correct associate editor Brian Juergens was when, in an email to me, he referred to Sandee as “FemDale” — a nickname I can’t hope to outsnark so I won’t even try. Still, it’s really sweet here how she and Clay laugh about this, and it makes me wish they’d both been around this season longer, or that someone would give them a sitcom, which could be like a cross between Will & Grace and The Beverly Hillbillies. Are you getting this down, Andy? I can't come up with all of Bravo's future hit programming on my own, you know.

Anyway, now that she’s out, Sandee becomes the official commentator about Top Chef’s hottest bods. At one point, they’re asked to respond to a question about people being cast solely for their looks. Sandee comes to Casey’s defense, saying that the show seems to be setting her up as some kind of sexpot (and they show this leeringly slow camera pan of her prostrate, bikini-clad body that I swear we never actually saw on the series). But no, Sandee says, that’s wrong! She’s the opposite of a sexpot — she’s talented and capable! I’m sure Casey will be relieved to hear it.

Then, Sandee rushes to the defense of poor, put-upon Padma, after a question about how she could possibly spend time in the kitchen wearing such skimpy clothing. Sandee says that whenever Padma came into the kitchen it “brightened our day,” and “I don’t care what she wears.” Well, of course you don’t. Why would you be interested in women’s clothing? But gay men like me sure are, especially when it’s so dazzlingly inappropriate for the occasion, which is why I guess we should be thankful for the eye-popping Padma fashion montage we get.

Andy sets this up saying he has a “big surprise” in store for “Miss” Padma Lakshmi. First of all, she’s still “Mrs.” until the ink on that divorce agreement dries. And second of all, I was praying the “big surprise” wouldn’t involve a reunion with Mr. Rushdie or, even worse, Mariah Carey.

Instead, the surprise is a friendly email from an apparent stalker who says, “How the hell can you cook anything with that Padma parading around? Christ, I’d eat anything off of her. I’d drink her bathwater.” Rather than getting Padma police protection, the producers decide to indulge this lunatic with a montage that, Andy says to Padma, “celebrates your white hotness.” Most of this montage consists of poor-quality video footage of her sauntering in short-shorts and halter tops on the beach, like a karaoke bar video made on the cheap in the 80s for a Robert Palmer song.

Hey, remember that time I wrote about the Padma fashion montage? And guess what, guys, there’s lots more still to come! Take a look:

Gail says, “I’m a slut.”

Chef Tom says, “Everyone knows the camera adds ten pounds of bitch.”

Padma says, “All I have to do is think, speak, and eat.”

And next week, we'll look back at what didn’t happen on Watch What Happens. Watch it!

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