Top Chef: "Po' Boy Smackdown"
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Top Chef: "Po' Boy Smackdown"

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Top Chef

"Po' Boy Smackdown" 

Season 11, Episode 14

The story of Nicholas, Top Chef contestant, has become a story about a man who is deeply insecure. I don't know if that's who he really is, but the way that he's edited, there seems to be a side of him that is always trying to prove himself—desperately, like he's convinced that he's no good himself. Even though I don't think he's the most talented chef left, I am pretty sure that he is the most obsessed with winning. It's kind of weird, how seriously he is taking this competition.

Nicholas’ whole narrative has altered in the past five or so episodes. In “Restaurant Wars,” he came across as calm and collected: Occasionally a bit of a hardass, but competent and reliable. But gradually he’s morphed into a far less sympathetic contestant. Last week, in “Oui Si A Challenge,” he was practically the enemy; this week, he’s dialed down to “annoying, deluded guy.”

It goes to show, I suppose, what pressure will do to a contestant. But the Nicholas tonight was not fun to watch. He’s too stiff to really enjoy on television—he doesn’t have the ease of manner that confidence or enthusiasm brings. He’s just too stressed out.

Compare that to Shirley, who is almost incandescent in this episode. I don’t think that she’s always been this charismatic, but she’s so excited and happy throughout this whole episode—it’s yet another double-win for her. The immunity from the quickfire is wasted because she won anyway. She’s more engaging than I’ve ever seen her in this episode, when she discusses her culinary “vision.”

The challenge this week is to cook a dish that shows a moment of transformation as a chef. For Shirley, that’s a dish inspired by New Orleans, because she had that moment on the shrimp trip with Emeril. For Nina, that’s a simple pasta dish that let the flavors shine. For Brian, that’s a… boneless, skinless chicken breast. Sometimes I find Tom’s snap judgments a little too black-and-white (he draws very strongly on gut reactions and first impressions), but in this case, I also felt that the boneless skinless chicken breast showed such lack of vision that it was doomed right before it started.

But then again, that’s sort of how I’ve felt about Brian this whole season—there’s nothing wrong with him, but Top Chef never offered him a lot of depth. And maybe he never offered it much, either. Episode to episode, his expression, outfit, and tone of voice remained consistent in the upfronts; something about the total uniformity of Brian made his dish seem all the more appropriate. It was a bland idea with a lot of superficial enhancements, and the effect, rather like his highlighted hair, was immediate, obvious, and not entirely tasteful. And maybe the judges would forgive him for the first two—but there’s no way that tastelessness would go too far in this competition.

Meanwhile, Nicholas’ dish says so much about him. It tries so hard to do everything—and so fails at powerfully doing anything. Even if the quinoa had been a part of it, it would have been an unwieldy dish—crunchy quinoa with seared tuna and like eight different kinds of carrots isn’t coherent or even all that appetizing.

I don’t even like fish much, but I wanted to try Shirley’s crustacean broth—and Nina’s fettuccine looked absolutely heavenly. Carlos’ pork belly looked hit-or-miss to me during cooking, but he had a confidence with the dish that he doesn’t always have in the kitchen.

Top Chef has more leeway than a lot of reality shows in terms of pushing our buttons—because we can’t judge for ourselves, we have to rely on the editing so much more to know how to feel. I’ve been following the Toyota-sponsored opinion-meters on the bottom of the screen with interest, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that was at odds with what the show encouraged us to believe already. A good example was the whole early quickfire with Roy Choi: We don’t know that he was harsh, but it was edited to seem that he was harsh, and all the respondents (and two-thirds of my mini couch audience) pretty much hated him. (I was perversely fond of him for being so different from what you normally get on reality television. He had a chip on his shoulder, but it was kind of funny to watch.)

I’m not too opposed to the emotional manipulation, because that’s what this show does so well. But it does make me wonder who all these people really are—and, I suppose, what version of them we’re seeing on-screen.

Stray observations:

For what it’s worth, none of the po’ boys looked all that good.

Jon Favreau was in this episode, and I’m not sure how successful he was at promoting his film, but I think he did a well enough job being an outsider celebrity who maintained a lot of respect for the kitchen process. That little aside with Gail and Tom about how Roy called him a “douchebag” was quite funny.

Do you ever wonder what Padma Lakshmi like, thinks about? Feels? Who does she want to win? 

Why was everyone subtitled, also? Did they think that after a full season, we’d stop understanding Shirley?

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