Top Chef: “Like Mama Made”
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Top Chef: “Like Mama Made”

It’s hard to top last week’s episode, but “Like Mama Made” is a great episode of Top Chef, albeit without the excitement and suspense inherent in “Restaurant Wars.” It’s the most emotional episode of the season we’ve seen yet, and it hits at just the right moment. There are only nine contestants left, all of a sudden, and our connection to them feels very real. I don’t know if the writers planned for this moment to push our emotional buttons, but anyway, it totally worked.

At least half of our contestants cried at some point in the process of the elimination challenge. It’s an episode for faces: Both the funny reaction shots that make Top Chef what it is, and the actual grief experienced by many of the contestants who are remembering their loved ones they’ve left behind. The standout stories of the episode revolve around Nicholas and Travis, but everyone gets in a good moment or two. It’s getting to the point where eliminations are just painful; I don’t love all eight remaining contestants, but now that I know them, it’s hard to see them go.

Travis’ elimination really stung this week. In part because he did such a great job last week (as the always insightful Heidi Klum would say: “One day you’re in, and the next, you’re out.”) and in part because he’s become a far more sympathetic character in the past few weeks. The low point for Travis was that Vietnamese tomato soup that made Tom so angry; he came off defensive, arrogant, and unable to take critique, which isn’t great. But in the weeks since he’s either mellowed out or been carefully edited to seem more mellowed out. I loved his biscuits idea—even though that’s a comfort-food classic, it’s nice to see it designed well, with homemade sausage and the sour plum jam (what a great touch). But it doesn’t matter how good the trimmings are—it’s hard to get around a raw biscuit. The problem is that I know Travis can make a good biscuit—we saw him do it the night before. I wish it were easier to reward ambition, without perfect execution.

Because Brian’s dish, for example, felt really boring to me. I can’t imagine he’s with us for long—it seemed to me like he barely made it through elimination this week, with his relatively boring steak and potatoes—and even though he also gets emotional in this episode, I don’t feel particularly attached to him. Justin rounds out the bottom three, which is just an opportunity for me to say that I still do not like Justin.

Something repeated a few times by the contestants is how hard it was to be eliminated this week, when they were cooking something that felt so special and important to them. It wasn’t obvious for everyone, but it was really nice to hear the stories behind the dishes—Stephanie’s story about making mussels with pickled peppers and tomato for her family stuck out to me, as did Nicholas’ near-breakdown over making his daughter’s favorite food. It had not immediately been apparent to me how emotional cooking must be for these people—but of course, it makes perfect sense. Cuisine is their passion, so naturally, doing something they’re passionate about for someone they love is an intense (and hopefully rewarding) experience. And in Nick’s case, he’s cooking for his kids, which must be emotional in and of itself, when you’re a parent trying to provide for your family.

It all comes together for him in a perfect storm of sadness, and he’s straight-up weeping in the kitchen minutes before he goes out to serve the judges. To his credit, he basically holds it together, and the crying makes everyone like him more. Actor Anthony Mackie was the guest judge, and he had the line of the night: “I wish I was his daughter.”

Nick wins the competition, and Carlos’ black bean dish (topped with a breaded and fried pork, but unfortunately I can’t find the name of it) and Stephanie’s mussels fill out the top three. All well-deserved, for both creativity and execution. Stephanie made bread by hand and picked through all the mussels; Carlos’ handmade tortillas looked both tedious and amazing. Nick’s dish was handmade gnocchi, which we’ve seen before, but apparently it’s well-executed. I was hoping for some love from the judges for Carrie’s creamed asparagus on toast with poached eggs, which is the weirdest meal ever, but also really interesting and apparently quite good. (The quickfire was coffee-themed, and Carrie threw out her coffee crepes and still almost won, which is saying something for her talent.)

Next week: Infighting!

Stray observations:

  • Stephanie is the best. I hope she gets a lucrative career after this that involves just telling jokes at the camera.
  • Coffee! Dunkin’ Donuts has delicious coffee! The product placement is so syrupy, it’s hilarious.
  • Padma Lakshmi: “I would have preferred rice to avocado.”
  • Speculation: Who makes the final three? Can it be any trio besides Nicholas, Nina, and Shirley? 

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