Last week offered an exciting Top Chef two-fer: The season finale of Top Chef Masters, which quietly asserted itself as perhaps my favorite episode in franchise history (as I wrote in that blog, it was like watching a real-life, extended cut of the climactic meal in Big Night), and the premiere of this season’s Top Chef, which introduced new blood, a new city, and lots of new gambling-themed gimmicks. So it was perhaps inevitable that Week Two would be a big comedown for your friendly recapper, because I’m already wrung out from last week’s finale/premiere double bill and because I’m looking at a chaff-filled 16 contestants clogging up the screen. Who are these people? Why should I care about them? Could someone wake me when the six or seven who clearly have no chance are finally eliminated.
All right, enough whining. I press on.
Tonight wasn’t a terribly memorable hour, with a couple of rote challenges and not too many juicy developments. If it’s remembered for anything, it will probably be the mild controversy about the bachelor/bachelorette party Elimination challenge, which didn’t sit well with Ashley, who’s a lesbian and therefore not happy having to honor an institution in which she and others gay and lesbians (including two others from this season’s group) cannot legally take part. I really don’t feel like dipping my toe in this issue—the obnoxious comment board flare-ups over Ted Kennedy’s death have been unsettling enough for one day—but Ashley’s objections were surprisingly strong and perhaps flipped the script a bit on “defense of marriage” types who are always fretting about how the institution” is threatened.
Otherwise, this was pretty ho-hum. Most of the downtime was spent on Jesse, who was given the dreaded early focus, which in the past would be a sure sign that she was headed home. (Now that the editors seem wise to viewer awareness of telegraphed exits, it’s gotten to where the early focus is a sure sign that a person is staying. You just can’t win!) The trouble with Jesse, according to the judges, is that she’s smart enough to recognize her dishes are flawed, but not skilled enough to keep from putting out crappy dishes. This might keep her ahead of the other chaff for a week or three—after all, there are still 15 who could potentially do worse, including a few sad souls put out garbage without realizing it—but her days seem numbered at this point.
The Quickfire did the Vegas thing by bringing out a craps table and having the contestants (incidentally, here’s my promise to you: I will never use the word “cheftestants”) roll the dice to see how many components they need to use in their dish. (Salt, pepper, and oil don’t count.) My original understanding of the challenge was that the chefs were allowed no greater a number of ingredients than what they roll, but I guess they had to use the exact number, so a few were actually irked to roll high numbers. Whatever the case, the ingredient restrictions didn’t have much bearing on the final result, though the time restrictions did: Laurine rolled lowest with three, but her asparagus, leeks, and lemon soup cruised. However, nobody seemed to have enough time to cook anything through, so the worst dishes were botched proteins like Jesse’s mushy (un)seared scallops and Ashley’s very rare lamb. Once again, Jennifer C. and Kevin asserted their frontrunner status by landing in the top three, but it was Michael V.—the tattooed, risk-taking, self-styled rock-and-roll badass of the two brothers—who took it down with a “nitro gazpacho” that mixed a classic soup with newfangled, ultra-scientific, um, cold-o-sity.
As for the Elimination challenge, it was a pretty familiar setup where the men were tasked with cooking for a bachelorette party while the women cooked for the bachelors. (All paired to liquor shots, which seemed like a vulgar twist to me. Why not break out the beer bongs, too?) Based on their conversations with the bride and groom to be, the women had a much easier client—has a sweet tooth, likes Japanese food, okay with tuna and lamb and whatever else you might throw him. Meanwhile, the bride is more troublesome: She’s a pescatarian (Swim, Nemo, swim! Faster! Faster!) and one of her friends is a vegan, so plenty of fish and at least one non-animal-based dish are an absolute must. (And add to Ashley’s grievance a much more frivolous one from Jennifer, who resents the battle-of-the-sexes grouping because men and women should be equal in the kitchen. She’s being a little ridiculous here: Different pairings and groupings are part of the show, and equality between the sexes doesn’t mean men and women are exactly the same. Having men cook for the bride and women cook for the groom is a pretty harmless conceit.)
The men won pretty handily, despite some predictions from their adversaries that their dishes were too fussed-over to impress a bunch of people at a semi-casual pool party. None of the guys put out any disasters, though I was a little disappointed to see Bryan—the clean-cut, untatted, decidedly non-badass brother—get the win for his sweet and sour macaroon. That’s not to say it didn’t look innovative and delicious, but I think you have to give Hector major points for pulling off tofu. We just witnessed a vegan-friendly seitan-stuffed pepper go down like a brick last week, so it’s only fair that a transcendent tofu dish get proper respect.
As for the losers, none of the four on the chopping block struck me as winners having off weeks, but Eve seemed especially overmatched. Unlike Jesse, she was convinced that what the Tom saw as a purposeless mélange of flavors was just her misunderstood style. To my eyes, she’s been swinging wildly from the start.
• Mike Isabella gets a mini-segment about how he likes to give people nicknames, which in Preeti’s case appears to be because she has an exotic name that he can’t be bothered to learn. “People get tired of me. Real quickly,” he says. I imagine so.
• Ashley made an error by preparing a superfluous (and unsuccessful) dish, but you have to give her a little credit for paying attention to the groom’s professed sweet tooth. Somebody had to do it.
• Okay, okay, we get it. The M Resort is nice. It has a gorgeous pool, big cabanas, and it gave away this week’s $15,000 Quickfire prize. Too bad the 15th floor is used as a holding area in a massive Eastern European sex trafficking operation. (Or whatever such libels you want to work on in the comments section.)