CJ Jacobson occupies a strange space in the history of Top Chef. He's always been a solid-if-unspectacular cook: he finished sixth during the show's third season as he was undone by an infamous broccolini side that ranks among the show's worst dishes. At 6'10", Big Ceej is certified giant, but he maintains an everyman's insecurity that endears him to viewers, even if his food never really endeared him to the judges in any significant way.
Stefan Richter is, on the surface, a more-known entity. He's one of the show's archetypal villains—a frosty Scandinavian who cooks cuisine that looks as if it were preserved in liquid nitrogen decades ago and reheated for service. He seemed the chef-to-beat throughout season 5 in New York—he took four elimination challenges (and a quartet of quickfires) before fading down the stretch and losing to surprise winner Hosea Rosenberg. He's cocky. He's European. He's good television.
The two (along with Josie Smith-Malave—eugh) were linked forever when they somewhat-inextricably re-buttoned their chefs' coats for season 10 in Seattle two years ago. Although the original cast definitely lacked some sizzle, the decision in hindsight stands as one of the stranger ones the show's production team has made. It seemed to go against the show's entire ethos: neither was the hungry, unknown striver looking to showcase their food and face for the viewing public. Instead, they were the awkward returnees, cracking jokes with the judges and hoping to assume their rightful places at the top of the competition.
But in both cases, their knives lacked the sharpness they'd once shown when they returned to the Top Chef kitchen. Stefan played it safe—winning no challenges on his way to a sixth place finish memorable only for his awkward flirtation with his "wifey" Kristen Kish. CJ was a train wreck, struggling through four weeks before reverse-psychologizing himself into serving Tom Colicchio a cheeseburger. In Tom's words at the time, "How friggin' original?"
But this week's Top Chef Duels showed the evolutionary path both men have followed since they first appeared on the show. CJ's burger-fueled early exit was obviously an embarrassment, but his online Last Chance Kitchen winning streak (six matches in total before bowing out to the eventual champion, Kristen) showed that he was still a solid chef, just not one who was ever going to threaten the top dogs. Opening his first restaurant—Girasol in Studio City, CA—seems to have lent him some confidence and the identity he had long lacked. And though Stefan's disaffection has never waivered, he really seems to care less than ever this time. For once, though, it's not just an affect, as he explains he'll be "retiring" after the duel to return to Finland to care for his sick mother. It's a real, human moment from a man who has somehow made us like him by trying so hard not to be likable.
NEXT: Stefan's last stand