Burned: Lisa Fernandes

Pub date June 17, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

TV EYED "Yeah, girl power!" This from likely one of the most hated women on television, Lisa Fernandes, the seeming near-winner on the latest go-around of Bravo’s Top Chef. Yes, the fourth season was estrogen-centric: it anointed perpetually fretful nice-girl/good-chef Stephanie Izard with the Top Chef toque, a first for a show that reflects its traditionally male-dominated field. And intriguingly for this machismo-dappled reality contest, women fed the most charged subtexts of the series.

Izard’s womanly counterpart turned out to be Fernandes, whose newly resurgent feminism in the June 11 final competition episode wasn’t what turned viewers off: Fernandes was the arrogant aggressor to the self-doubting Izard. Petulant in response to criticism in contrast to Izard’s near-tears, Fernandes exuded an arms-folded, rageaholic-like ‘tude for the last seven weeks — as she blamed others for cooking mistakes and lashed out at her competitors in front of the judges. Perpetually lurking amid the middle of the bottom-feeding worst cooks seemingly each week, neither abysmal nor better than most, this chef who specializes in Asian food also managed to ruin her rice — and stay in the competition as more adept cooks like Antonia Lofaso and Dale Talde — who regularly won or placed high in quick-fire challenges — went on the chopping block for a single mistake or for being too ambitious.

The surprise was that Fernandes came on so strong at the end, while the likeable Izard seemed to squeak through in an apparently very subjective win, because Fernandes was the chef viewers — and fellow cooks — loved to hate. Witness the cool-headed, faux-hawked Richard Blais voicing his irritation, leading one to think that Fernandes’ cockiness got to him in more ways than one. Sure, she made so-called great television: Fernandes was cast by the producers as the clear villain of the piece — as she acknowledged to the New York Daily News. It was easy to scapegoat her in this, the straight-male-dominated yang to Project Runway<0x2009>‘s femme- and queer-centric yin. Her brand of simmering butch surliness didn’t quite mesh with the more customary displays of male rage.

But were the shows’ makers aware of how much Fernandes’ continued avoidance of Padma Lakshmi’s moist-eyed "Please pack your knives and go" damaged the credibility of the judges? One began to wonder, why shouldn’t past wins count? Has a point system been considered? Viewers’ intense dislike of Fernandes probably kept them tuning in, waiting to see her eat it, elimination-wise. But one couldn’t help but believe that the judges were in league with the producers to keep Fernandes in the show for dramatic effect. And one began secretly imagining different scenarios: wouldn’t it be a great subversive move on Fernandes’ part to throw a splashy hissy fit, quit, and dive-bomb the narrative arc?

But who is Fernandes to disappoint by serving up anything but her self-described "spicy" personality? Likely, during this week’s final reunion episode she’ll reliably call out kindred contestants for hating on her. Next course: just desserts?