I sat at my desk this afternoon, struggling to focus despite being nervous... and excited. Not only because I knew the Top Chef 3 finale would be tonight, but because an email had plinked into my inbox the day before, advising me of the location from which the live Chicago finale would be broadcast. I can't say who it was from -- only that it was a lucky answer to an email I had sent on a whim. "Join BRAVO for the taping of the Top Chef 3 Live Finale in Chicago" the invite read, "at Resolution Digital Studios" and listed an address on Chicago's West Side. "Arrive by 8:00pm to be seated by 8:15pm". Every fifteen minutes or so, my mouse drifted back over to the "Gmail" tab at the bottom of my screen, and I let my eyes scan over the email again. I tried not to get too excited -- I knew there was probably no way I would get in... but I knew that I had to go check it out. I couldn't sit on that kind of information and not use it.
And so, after work today, my roommate and I got appropriately gussied up, hopped in my black Saturn Ion, and began our quest to get into the Top Chef 3 Finale. Just to get to the studio, we had to drive through a rather desolate strip of dark warehouses or factories of some kind. When we finally spotted the studio, we skipped the "valet parking" and promptly parked the car. As we approached the main entrance, my roommate wondered: "do you think we're really going to get in?" "I don't know" I answered. But I had a plan.
We approached the front entrance, where two young women sat at a table -- they were the gateway we had to pass before we could get in. The first woman looked up at me as I approached, and smiled. "Name?" she asked, gesturing toward a list in front of her on the table. "Well, I'm not really on the list." I answered, also with a smile. "Someone forwarded the invite to me... I write a Chicago food blog called Third Coast Toast." I mean, it's true, and it sounded legitimate enough. "Oh, ok, well who forwarded you the invite?" I volunteered the name of my informant. "She doesn't seem to be on the list... what is your name again?" I told her, and she checked the list again, shaking her head slightly. "Let me check with Press... they're inside. I'll be right back." With that, she disappeared into the broad glass doors that made up the entrance, which was itself a giant glass wall, maybe 40 feet wide and thirty feet high. As we waited for her to return, we peered into the lobby of the building: a smart, colorful, creative looking space which looked in on yet more glass-fronted rooms. And in one of these rooms, we spotted Casey.
"Look, there's Casey!" I whispered to my roommate. "Where?". Look, do you see the girl with the ponytail? Sitting in the chair with her back to us?" "Yeah... how are you sure that it's..." and at that moment, as if she knew we were talking about her, Casey turned around and looked straight at us. I thought I saw Hung behind her too, peering out onto the sidewalk outside the front door. But just as briefly as she looked, she turned back around, and continued some lively conversation with whoever else was in that room, energetically bobbing her head as she does, and taking sips from a water bottle.
I couldn't imagine what it must have been like for her... or Hung, or Dale... who were so close to coming to the end of a grueling, exciting, and emotional six month journey as contestants on Top Chef. As the show later revealed, Casey would know her fate far before the live announcement in Chicago. But at that point, when we saw her, I can only guess that her heart was still pounding, still aching in anticipation of Padma uttering her name along with those coveted words... "you are the Top Chef".
I was jolted out of my starry-eyed gaze as the front door swung open again, and two new, chic-looking young women came out to speak with us. "So, you're on the list?" "Well, not exactly..." I explained. "Someone forwarded me the invite. I write a Chicago food blog called Third Coast Toast." She considered this for a moment. We were SO CLOSE.
She looked to her companion, then looked back and delivered the crushing news: "We're so sorry, but the person who forwarded you the invite passed on the event, and so we gave her seat to someone else." My heart dropped.
"If she had told use you were coming, we could have saved the seat for you, but now it's much too late". "Well, is there standing room? We don't mind standing..." I tried. "Unfortunately there's no room at all-- believe me, if there was, I would help you out, but as of now, even the staff is having to give up their seats and watch from upstairs. The studio only holds about 150 people and we are totally packed." They seemed genuinely sorry that they couldn't let me in. Rather than try to press further, I recognized this to be the end of the road. I had showed up, and made my attempt-- that was the most important part. After a deep breath, I thanked the press women, and the women at the table for their help... and with one last glance up at Casey, my roommate and I turned back around and headed for the car. "At least we tried" she said to me as we made our slow walk back. "Yeah, at least we tried."
Of course, the night wasn't totally lost. We still had the show to watch, which we did with glee. At the start, we were in the ABH camp -- Anyone But Hung. We were sad to see Casey go down in the last Judges' Table, but we were happy to see that our hometown hero Dale was still neck-and-neck for the title as the end of the pre-recorded finale in Aspen drew to a close. Cut back to Chicago, and we learned from Padma Lakshmi that Hung was the winner. Of course we were sad that it wasn't Dale, but all in all, it was a win-win situation. Dale's opening his own restaurant in Chicago already (no word on when, but his lease is signed and he has a team of partners), and in the end, the judges couldn't deny Hung the title. I mean, the man has been consistently excellent from Day One of the competition. I think if Tre had stayed in, he would have had more of a fight on his hands... but it was very clear to me at least that Hung was technically the best chef of this lot.
And so, I will rest my head tonight, happy to know I made a grab at a dream and missed -- but at least I tried. And hey, there are still several more weeks of TC4 filming to come in Chicago. Perhaps the best is yet to come. :)