Coming off a strong première last week, Top Chef: Seattle delivers another solid episode, relying on open-ended challenges that give wide berth to the chefs. And, of course, just enough of a twist to keep things interesting. Instead of a kitchen-based twist à la “now change stations with the chef to your right,” though—the type of “shock” I thought we were in for given this week’s title—the producers deliver a serious plot twist: Three former Top Chef contestants will be joining this season’s cast. I’m into it, on a purely throwing-a-malicious-curveball basis. It might smack of Bravo’s never-ending ploy to eke out every last bit of potential stardom from the show and its cast members (see Top Chef Just Desserts, Top Chef Masters, Top Chef All-Stars, Life After Top Chef), but it also does something curious for the dynamics of the show.
With ongoing competition-based reality series, especially those that have so little variation in structure as Top Chef, you can generally assume that each of the contestants has seen the previous seasons, formed opinions on the competition, and tucked away a few lessons. Remember to taste and season your food before serving it, smile with your eyes, and for the love of god, don’t volunteer to make dessert during Restaurant Wars. A common vocabulary emerges, familiar challenges resurface, and the contestants take on the roles they’ve been conditioned for.
Introducing three seasoned Top Chef veterans into a cast of n00bs is a combination these competitors haven’t seen before. Traditionally (inasmuch as reality TV can have a tradition), former contestants come back as mentors or inspiration. Here, they parade as this at first, but then they’re given the opportunity to psych the rest of the chefs out. They judge the first quickfire competition of the season, and then they become the competition. It’s a brilliant move, and Stefan’s ready to exploit every second of it.
I said it last year and I’ll repeat it here—I’m not a fan of team challenges this early in the season. I get that it’s great for the producers because they’re guaranteed immediate conflict and personality quirks by forcing the chefs to interact with one another in a stressful environment. And, yes, now I’d like to offer Carla a tranquilizer.
But I’ve got to partly side with CJ here when he says that team challenges are bullshit. Collaboration in the kitchen is essential, and it should be tested on the show—but after the less talented chefs have been weeded out. Otherwise you run the risk of talented chefs being thwarted by teammates who don’t play well or can’t cook a piece of fish properly. The first half of the season often drags while we wait for the stars to emerge; I think it would happen faster if they were each competing individually. In the early episodes, the cooking often loses out disproportionally to personality exposition, and it just ain’t right.
For this week’s quickfire, teams of three must deliver a dish using local shellfish in under 20 minutes. The guest judges are the teams’ eventual competitors, and they’re asked to offer their advice to the quaking young chefs. They advise that 20 minutes is a short amount of time. Stefan then proceeds to bash everyone’s plates during judging. The blue team easily takes the win, throwing Kuniko and Sheldon’s experience with seafood together with John Tesar’s million years of experience. Tesar draws immunity for a prize, but he hardly needs it; the teams stick together for the elimination challenge.
“To say they don’t have the advantage is total bullshit,” says our mustachioed friend from Oklahoma about the new-old contestants as soon as they’re out of the room. I mostly agree. The three returning chefs, together as a team for the elimination challenge, have the advantage of a home field minus the fans. They’ve been through the stress of the challenges, they know the ins and outs of filming, of going before the judges, of Restaurant Wars, etc. They’re also carrying the emotional baggage of having been shot down, though, and they probably lack the excitement and buzz from having finally made it through casting and the first episode.
And no course was more delicious in tonight’s installment than the schadenfreude served up when Josie, CJ, and Stefan landed on the bottom. The elimination challenge was quite similar to the quickfire—cook with local seafood and ingredients before the Space Needle completes one rotation (47 minutes). The veterans had been acting like cool upperclassmen throughout the hour, falling all over themselves to tell the freshman about how totally brutal everything is and whom they’d better watch out for. Then, they implode in a fit of second-guessing and leftover self-doubt, changing their dish at the last minute, royally screwing things up. Multiple components on the plate are overcooked, and the judges offer only cryptic questions during judge’s table. This is when Josie delivers my favorite quote of the night, if not of all time: “I think, possibly, something was imperfect.” Vulnerability like that just makes Tom Colicchio’s smirk of death grow deeper. Josie, I’m sorry, but he will end you, and, possibly, soon.
In the sea of fish plated atop seasonal vegetables with a sauce, the blue team delivered again, with Kuniko adorably taking the win for her mastery of the chile-oil-poached cod. Padma sent home gay Jeffrey Jew, whose backstory we know only because he was about to be cut. His overcooked fish was the worst mistake of the evening, though, apparently more overcooked than Stefan’s quail.
- From now until we approach the finale, I’ll be adopting the structure originally adopted by Scott Tobias, Top Chef reviewer emeritus, in which we break these reviews into Quickfire/Elimination sections.
- Did someone really describe judge’s table as similar to the terror of giving birth? I’ve never been to judge’s table, but I’d like to go ahead and disagree.
- Keeping the same teams for the quickfire and elimination challenges hardly seems fair. I felt terrible for Carla’s teammates.
- Brooke seems awfully eager to assert her “rustic” self-branding, and equally ready to put Bart in a boring French cuisine box. He seemed surprised by her characterization; I’m hoping he surprises us.
- Tesar certainly behaved himself this episode. Maybe he’ll surprise us too?
- Go, Kuniko, go!