Hello everyone, and welcome to the Top Chef blog, brought to you by the A.V. Club and the Glad family of products. Just so you know where I’m coming from, this is my favorite reality show on television—and I say that knowing full well that it’s only one of a number of Bravo competition shows (Top Design, Top Haircut, Top Non-Covergirl-Affiliated Supermodel) inspired by Project Runway. But I’m unashamed to admit that I was tapping my toes impatiently through the few episodes of the strangely lackluster PR4, waiting for Top Chef: Chicago to take over the Wednesday slot. And since I’m from the Windy City, I’m particularly excited to see the sights, sounds, and artery-choking foodstuffs of our fair city get their due.
Right out the gate, the Chicago-ness of Season Four makes itself known: The 16 contestants (can’t bring myself to use the term “cheftestants,” sorry) gather together at Pizzeria Uno for deep-dish pizza, likely the culinary innovation most strongly associated with Second City. Let me say this up front: I don’t know any Chicago resident who eats deep-dish pizza. It’s tourist food, where Michigan Avenue shoppers go when they’re not queuing up for the obscene plates at Cheesecake Factory or Grand Lux, or the catch-all Foodlife lunches at Water Tower Place. My theory is that while we’re perfectly happy with the encased meats and Wisconsin cheeses that give us that extra layer of Midwestern blubber for the wintertime, we don’t like the feeling of imminent death that a deep-dish pizza provides.
That said, it was great to get the inevitable deep-dish challenge out of the way immediately, and fun to see it relegated to Quickfire status. And right away, a noxious personality emerges in the form of Andrew, a high-strung New Yorker whose temperament resembles a post-mohawk Travis Bickle and who cooks food “like molten fucking lava pouring out of me.” Not since the infamous Ken dipped his finger in Hubert Keller’s sauces in Season One has someone so salty and unctuous appeared on the show, but unlike Ken, he may have a little staying power. If he’s even a tenth as awesome as he thinks he is, Andrew may even go all the way.
As for the Quickfire Challenge, no one seemed to have a handle on how much dough was needed to make the crust. A few pizzas came out of the oven looking like the concrete foundation for a flagpole, while others were collapsing into a greasy pile. Some contestants were content just to pile on the sausage, mushrooms, and others conventional fixins’, while others went out on a limb, to innovative and embarrassing effect. At what will be revealed later to be the Top Chef house (or “Casa, motherfuckers!,” as Andrew puts it), Rocco DiSpirito and Padma plaster smiles on their faces as they prepare to torture their lithe frames with Chicago-style ‘za.
Most of the memorable pizzas are notable in a bad way: A “meat and potatoes” pizza, which sounds like a heavy, starchy nightmare; a white pie with no tomato sauce, which is equally crazy, since deep-dish begs for sauce to relieve the Titanic crust; and a dubious entry from New Zealander Mark, who impressed Rocco for adding marmite molasses (“I can’t think of a more foul flavor”) and making something edible. In a nice twist on the Quickfire, no one gets immunity; instead, the winners and losers are divided into two groups and told that their designations will make a difference in the Elimination Challenge.
But here’s the thing: Wouldn’t you want to be in the loser group? The rules of the Elimination Challenge are thus: Padma has a list of eight classic dishes on a blackboard, from Duck A L’Orange to Steak du Poivre to Eggs Benedict to Soufflé. The winners get to select which one of the losers they’d like to square up against head-to-head. The losers get to choose the dish. To me, that’s a huge advantage for the losers, especially at this stage of the game, when they don’t know enough about their fellow competitors to sort out lion from gazelle. The losers, on the other hand, get to pick what they’re going to make, which is vastly preferable.
I mostly loved the head-to-head competition, which turned Top Chef into a mini-Iron Chef. The most intriguing match-up pitted mental-patient Andrew against mild-mannered “molecular gastronomist” Richard, who looks capable of taking the Dr. Moreau-like xanthan gum experiments of Season Two’s Marcel to another level. No way either one was going out on something as simple as crabcakes, but Richard’s super-cool use of a smoker to seal in the aroma was just one of many things giving him an edge. Andrew, licking his wounds, prides himself on “showing strong against a cat I knew was a badass.”
Much as I dug the head-to-head concept, I wasn’t keen on having the judging done on the spot, in front of the chefs, especially when Anthony Bourdain is a guest judge. It’s awkward enough to eat in front of the chefs, much less come up with opinions on the fly, and I feel like it cost us some Bourdain bon mots. In the past, Bourdain could be relied upon to throw out well-chewed zingers, like when he commented on the “Flintstonian” execution of Season Two Michael’s Thanksgiving plate ‘o starch or Season Three C.J.’s infamous “broccolini,” which he said looked like something found in Bob Marley’s closet. Tonight, Bourdain seemed hamstrung by the format, which was especially galling given that Rocco DiSpirito, whom he’d insulted colorfully in his Top Chef blog last season, was sitting at the other end of the table. Ironically, it was Rocco who came through with the one memorable line at judging, and it more cruel than funny (“Let’s just say it wasn’t only [Ryan’s] gnocchi that was dense.”).
The problem dishes were the dreaded soufflés, which neither competitor knew how to make, both seeming content just to keep the damned thing from collapsing on them. Still, even I could recognize the folly of reimagining the soufflé as a poofed-up nacho cheese sauce with black bean sauce slathered haphazardly across the plate. The other big disasters: Poor Ryan, a line cook at his father’s restaurant since age 11, doesn’t even know what chicken piccata is, so he relies on childhood memories that somehow involve breadcrumbs and gnocchi. Then there’s New Zealander Mark with his deconstructed duck dish, which proved just how passé the whole “combining-ingredients-in-a-harmonious-fashion” thing apparently is to modern-day cooking. And the soft-spoken Nimma, our eventual castoff, serves up salty shrimp and a failed cauliflower flan (gag) reconfigured as a failed cauliflower scramble (double gag).
As for the winners, this is looking like a promising lot. Happily, three of the four best dishes are by female chefs, which bodes well for the possibility of having a female winner for the first time in four seasons. Tiffani, Elia, and Casey have come closest, but none of them was ever the favorite. The winningly nervous and abashed Stephanie won for her substantial Asian twist on duck a l’orange, but I’d happily take a fork to any of the dishes, especially that lasagna with the homemade pasta and, my favorite, the totally evil poached egg on halla with lobster, spinach, hollandaise sauce, and bacon. Mmmm… bacon.
So okay, commenters, let’s make this interactive: What did you most want to eat tonight? What turned your stomach? And based on first impressions, who takes the whole thing down? (My answers, respectively: The aforementioned poached egg, cauliflower “scramble,” and Richard.)
• I’m happy to see Nimma go, frankly, because she’s my least favorite type of reality-show competitor—the one who says “I’m not here to make friends” and immediately distances herself from the others. That might be fine strategy if she were on Survivor, say, but would it hurt to socialize a little? The cool thing about competition shows like Top Chef is that it’s ultimately the food that matters, so nothing is gained by being a pill. Just ask Wendy Pepper.
• “I’m gonna make a spicy soup out of that pig’s head.” Oh, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve said that, I’d have a nickel.
• Richard cooks with liquid nitrogen. For those who aren’t familiar with liquid nitrogen, it’s the substance Val Kilmer slices into quarters for the vending machines in Real Genius. It’s also good for powering lasers.
• Though Nikki was among the top four for her lasagna with sheep’s milk gouda, her line about it being “an incredible high” to know she’s not getting sent home speaks to diminished expectations.
• Erik’s soufflé is described as a “pepperjack cheese soufflé with avocado crème fraîche, black bean puree, and salsa.” All of which is a very fancy way of saying “the grim-looking nachos you sent back at Applebee’s.”
• I promise this will be the longest recap of the season. I just finished doing The Wire, so I’m not used to scaling back.