The heat is on as the Bravo cable contest "Top Chef" winds down at the Hilton Waikoloa Village. Above, finalist Ilan Hall consults with mentor and judge Tom Colicchio of Gramercy Tavern in New York City.
Packing their knives for Hawaii
The two-part finale for TV's 'Top Chef' competition is filmed on the Big Island
It began with 15 contestants competing in Los Angeles for "Top Chef" honors when the second season of the Bravo culinary reality show debuted in October, and now four contestants remain in the running for the title.
Season 2 finale filmed on the Big Island:
Airs: 8 and 10 p.m. Wednesday and Jan. 31
Network: Bravo (Oceanic Channel 40, Digital Cable 560)
Also: For information on casting for the third season of the show, visit BravoTV.com
Their final face-offs air over two Wednesdays beginning this week, and the episodes will show them flinging knives and more than a few tropical ingredients at the Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Big Island. The final four spent the first week of December there, filming the two-part season finale.
From the Big Island, the winner walks away not only with the title, but also $100,000 in seed money to foster their culinary aspirations and the promise of a feature in Food & Wine magazine, along with an appearance at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen in June.
More than 1.5 million viewers an episode have tuned into Season 2 of "Top Chef," with ratings up 54 percent over the first season.
The Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau recognizes the potential exposure in those numbers and contributed $60,000 to bring the show to the Big Island, in partnership with such organizations as the Department of Agriculture, Aloha Airlines and the Hilton. HVCB courted the show in June, shortly after the end of the Season 1 finale, which was shot in Las Vegas.
So who will take over the reigns from the first winner and viewer favorite, Harold Dieterle? It's a tossup among brainy Ilan Hall, sexy Sam Talbot, lone remaining female Elia Aboumrad and cast villain Marcel Vigneron.
Each chef survived 11 elimination challenges that tested their skills in high-pressure, team efforts in the kitchen, and just as many "quickfire" missions -- individual competitions that assessed their ability to create dishes with a limited choice of ever-changing ingredients, testing both creativity and culinary knowledge.
The two who have gained the most recognition, not only for their dishes but their on-screen personas? Hall and Vigneron, who developed a bit of on-screen rivalry in the kitchen with their clashing personalities and cooking styles.
Finalists Elia Aboumrad, left, Sam Talbot, Hall and Marcel Vigneron are glad to be in Hawaii.
The two took different approaches to preparing for the Hawaii finale. Vigneron researched Hawaii regional dishes and studied the work of guest judge Alan Wong.
Hall took a more lackadaisical approach.
"It was my plan to come back with recipes, but I thought about it and wondered if it was too much," said Hall. "I wondered what to expect and I was wondering if I was prepared enough, but it's not something you can prepare for. I brought a couple of knives and that was it."
For Vigneron, a down-to-earth, cheerful sort off-screen, being the designated outcast during taping was something he accepted as part of the reality TV journey. But the discord between Vigneron and most of his castmates came as a surprise to those who work in the kitchen with him at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
"The majority of my co-workers couldn't believe it and they respect me and didn't understand where the castmates were coming from," he said. "I think it bothered the other people in the house that I didn't let it get under my skin. Most didn't have the courage to say anything directly to me."
But, what's done is done. "We're all good friends now that the show is over," said Hall. "I keep in touch with a lot of people ... Marcel and I talk a lot."
Wong is guarded about his experiences as a judge -- the producers are leery of revealing any surprises -- but he did say he is a fan of the show and has been watching since the first season.
"As a professional you try to figure out who is going to make it," he said -- and he did agree in many cases with which contestants were bounced off.
"Somebody got let go because of dishonesty, somebody got let go because of bad attitude, somebody got let go because of not using salt and pepper and not tasting the food before serving it ..."
The same thing would happen in his own restaurant, Wong said. "If somebody's dishonest with me, they're gone. If somebody's got a bad attitude with me, they're gone. ...
"Yeah, this is justice. It gave the show credibility."
Participating in the finale taught him a lot about the process of reality TV, he said. "We were up until 3 in the morning one time. I learned that television takes a long time to stage."
"Top Chef" finalists Marcel Vigneron, left, and Ilan Hall do battle on the grounds of the Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Big Island.
How have the two spent their time since the taping ended Dec. 8?
For Hall and Vigneron, participating in the show had meant taking a leave of absence, so both headed back to work. Hall is a line chef in New York City at the Caso Mono, and Vigneron returned to his position as master cook at Joel Robuchon at the Mansion at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
"The second day I got back and jumped right into work," said Vigneron. "I walked into the kitchen and it was, 'Hey, Marcel can you start tonight?' That's really comforting. Food to me is more of a personal vision. I'm committed to restaurants and cooking but to be put into a competition is something different."
"I started work right away," said Hall. "It's kind of weird in some ways. The show is huge, but I'm still a line cook and you don't make a whole lot of money as a line cook."
Both say reaction from inside the culinary world and on the street has been positive.
"The public reaction -- for the most part -- I find they're supporting me," said Vigneron. "Just going out and about, being recognized is a daily occurrence."
"There's been positive recognition from peers in the culinary world," Hall said. "It's helped me get a little closer to the (dream) job that I will take on for years."
They wax poetic about their experiences on the Big Island, meeting Wong -- a James Beard Foundation Award winner -- and having the opportunity to sample regional dishes such as opihi and poke during a picnic taped in Waipio Valley.
"Waipio Valley was a surreal adventure," said Vigneron. "It's the most beautiful place I've ever seen."
The visitors' bureau is anticipating that Vigneron's impressions will translate to the wide television audience.
"A lot of our research shows that people who are fanatic about the culinary arts are people who love to travel," said Jay Talwar, senior vice president of marketing for HVCB. "They have an active outgoing lifestyle and they enjoy life. These are the sort of people who will connect with 'Top Chef.' "
The chance to showcase Hawaii "is always a welcome opportunity," said Talwar. "But the exposure on national TV provides a more in-depth opportunity to show Hawaii. Print ads are just not able to pick up the sights and sounds. ... The place that is shown is a place you and I would like to visit, if we had the opportunity in between work and other endeavors. It's a place that we'd all like to be able to travel to."
Betty Shimabukuro contributed to this article.