At 2 this afternoon, Casey Thompson was in the lobby of a Chicago hotel, waiting for her parents to arrive from Austin. It’s a big night for Mr. and Mrs. Thompson’s one and only child, regardless of whether or not she’s crowned Bravo's Top Chef tonight during the show's live finale at 9. At the end of the finale, it will be revealed whether Hung, Dale or Casey is the recipient of $100,000 with which they can live out their culinary dreams.
This afternoon, Thompson was not nervous. She had spent most of the day walking the streets of Chicago, where, at midnight-thirty this very morning, an enormous thunderstorm blew through and turned the skies a brilliant shade of 72-degree blue. She hung with her old friends long ago cast out of the kitchen. They talked about what happened and what is yet to come. Thompson tried to think about anything other than tonight.
“I don’t know how I feel,” Thompson told Unfair Park this afternoon. “I just talked to Dale, and he was like, ‘You do know we’re leaving in two hours.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ I am not thinking about it. We’re in Chicago having a good time, and I don’t want to think about it. I am nervous, but I am not nervous, which is strange. I am just ready. If you think about how long this has gone on, we’re ready for it to be over. Like, we just wanna know.”
The taping began in March in Miami and ended in May in New York. A month later, the finalists regrouped in Aspen. Now, they’re in Chicago. A helluva long slog, during which time some brilliant chefs, and some less so, were turned into TV characters, for better or worse.
There was a time, early in the show’s run, when Thompson was seldom featured – a crying shame, as turned out. We were led to believe Tre Wilcox was the Dallasite with the best shot at making the finale; Thompson looked more like salad dressing, not the main course. Of course, that was hardly accurate -- which didn’t stop people from being stunned by her ascension during the show’s final episodes.
“I honestly had to prove myself,” she says. “You have to establish yourself in the competition, and I believe I did that. But I definitely believe you become a TV character. I noticed it when people would ask me about Howie or Joey or Hung, because they would say, ‘How can you stand him?’ And I was like, ‘Seriously? They’re nice people. They got a bad rap, and, yeah, they did it to themselves, but it’s easy in a situation like that to be portrayed as not a very nice person.
“I mean, I recall there were times we’d be sitting around, and I’d be like, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing that on national television. Calm down. You’re making an ass out of yourself.' But you’re frustrated and tired and you want to go home or have a day away from it, because it’s 24/7 and it’s constant and it’s irritating. A lot of those people were like, ‘Screw this, I don’t care if there is a camera in my face, and a lot of those moments were captured, and you have to maintain your composure, because in the long run I believe there are some people having a hard time out there now who were in the competition, and that’s sad.”
Thompson did nothing to be ashamed of – she was, like Harold and Ilan before her, a pro, unwilling or maybe just unable to bad-mouth her competitors. She tried not to curse. She tried not to lose her cool. She tried to focus. And, especially later in the show, she was rewarded for remaining a sharp knife in a drawer full of fork-ups.
“I had a mother who encouraged me to be social,” she says. “I don’t have brothers and sisters, and as an only child you look at things differently. I had to learn patience in a different way, and it seems to me there were some people who were just really impatient, not highly sociable people, and it was interesting. We’re sitting around with each other for hours, and you start to look at each other differently -- like, ‘I would never be friends with you outside of the competition.’”
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In a few hours, none of that will matter -- it will all be over, regardless of the outcome. And if she doesn’t pocket the dough, she still has a new computer and that airplane ticket and the thrill of knowing her riverbed trout was “soulful.” Either way, she will leave Chicago on Saturday and return to Shinsei first thing Monday. Win or lose. No kidding.
“It’s back to work,” she says. “Everyone says, ‘What will you do if you win?’ And I am like, ‘Back to work.’ I live in the now, and having future plans is something I should have” – she laughs -- “but in the restaurant, it’s all day to day. It’s now.”
Actually, it’s about five hours from now. See you then. --Robert Wilonsky
Update: Well, Hung. Thank you. Thank you very much.