Top Chef: "Campfires, Cream Cheese, And Countryside"
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Top Chef: "Campfires, Cream Cheese, And Countryside"

Unfortunately for the chefs, bad cooking makes for good television. "Campfires, Cream Cheese, And Countryside" has an unwieldy title, but the challenge is straightforward and the results are almost hilariously disastrous. There are so many dishes that cause problems that sussing out the bottom three for this week's elimination challenge wasn't easy. Nina wins both the quickfire and the elimination challenge, which is sort of incredible; the judges are clearly really impressed with her, because she's won four elimination challenges now—dude. Dude. In what universe does Nina not win this whole competition? I know it's still early—but she is a machine.

I liked the first challenge, a quickfire centered around creole tomatoes. The one-ingredient showcase is a good challenge in general, and a few of those dishes were things I would want to try myself, at home—that tomato-seed bouillon number from Louis stood out, for example. (I was amused at not just one, but two chilled tomato-watermelon soups. I only recently came across the phenomenon of watermelon soups, but I guess it shouldn't surprise me that Top Chef contestants are all over that.) Nina wins that round for her take on the soup, which she kept cold over ice (ingenious) and topped with battered and fried squash blossoms (impressive). Both trends felt slightly stale to me—I feel like squash blossoms are a bit too twee, even for Top Chef—but the judges adore it, and who knows, the blossoms probably taste really good.

Nina wins the elimination challenge with the same angle—squash blossoms again, this time stuffed with an eggplant puree that Gail later fondly describes as "so silky and so smooth." I have no trouble believing that Nina is the superior cook, but the deja-vu made me wonder if the judges just really like squash blossoms, or if she happens to be really good at that dish in particular, or, I guess, if Nina is just the best chef of them all. It might be a combination of all three factors.

But anyway, the losers are way more interesting than the winners. It seems like everyone had a mini-meltdown besides Nina this week—Justin stayed relatively calm throughout as well, and he's clearly a contender for the title. But even the other chef who rounded out the top three, Nicholas, had a mid-dish meltdown in the kitchen and had to scramble for a solution to planned beignets.

The challenge is to use Chef John Besh's kitchen and pantry, stocked locally with a farm-to-table ethos, to make either an appetizer, an entree, or a dessert, using Philadelphia cream cheese.

Let's just pause for a moment and appreciate the awfulness of that sentence. Cream cheese.

Top Chef often reads more like an hour-long advertisement than a piece of television—more than even Project Runway, which stays with the same advertisers throughout the years. It seems that everything on Top Chef is promotional placement, whether that's the ingredients for the contests (Philadelphia), the vehicles that take them around (Toyota), or the kitchen supplies (Reynolds Wrap, among others). That's not necessarily a critique of the show, but it can get in the way of the point of the show, which is showcasing good cooking with some quality drama. (In that regard, I've noticed the Masterchef franchise seems a bit better at making the contests about food, and not sponsors.) This cream cheese thing is hardly surprising, given Top Chef's track record, and it certainly makes the stakes more interesting, with a weird ingredient, unknown vegetables, and $10,000 on the line. But cream cheese is not fine cuisine. Not really. It's popularity with deli food is precisely because it's inexpensive in large quantities, a type of processed spreadable fat like peanut butter that tastes great but is also kind of... cheap.

I don't mind a challenge focused on using a product, especially when it's a challenging one that knocks all of the chefs out of their comfort zones. But it's a weird challenge when the judges say things like "I don't even know where the cream cheese was in that dish" and mean that as praise. None of the chefs know how to use cream cheese because most of them have never used it outside of a bagel before—because, as Tom says, it's something his mother used for crappy appetizers in the '60s. If the episode had acknowledged the weirdness and even the quality differential of cream cheese, maybe that would have come off a little better. This is a kitchen where the ingredients are so locally sourced, the contestants don't even know what's going to be on the shelves—where Nicholas can't even find yeast!—but they have bricks and bricks of white gooey stuff. The show was hampered by what Philadelphia wanted, which was to make cream cheese sound fresh, local, and wholesome. 

It's not. It's cream cheese. I love it dearly, but it is cream cheese. And the chefs have no idea what to do with it. Or, apparently, with their tight time limits. Bene somehow manages to steam vegetables; Sara throws out raw chops. Travis' are cooked inconsistently. Stephanie's mousse separates and turns into a watery mess. Shirley's custard is scrambled. Louis' dessert resembles and tastes like a "soggy graham cracker." The party of executive chefs who pride themselves on local cooking are not impressed. "Do you think they were stressed out by cooking for this audience?" Padma asks innocently at the table. For shame, Padma! It was the cream cheese.

Stray observations:

  • Travis' mom has a crush on John Besh, and if he does badly, she's going to be mad. He does do badly, so she will be upset.
  • I'm beginning to see how much Tom loves teaching chefs how to cook. He's positively glowing in those promos for Last Chance Kitchen, and he's bursting with advice over dinner.
  • The dinner guests drink pink champagne in an idyllic bucolic setting. Being a Top Chef judge is the life. 
Filed Under: TV, Top Chef

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