Top Chef: "Common Threads"
B-

Top Chef: "Common Threads"

So a 15-minute Quickfire centered on microwavable Uncle Ben’s rice and an Elimination challenge where contestants had to make a nutritious meal for family of four on a $10 budget? Going a little downmarket tonight, aren’t we?

Right off the bat, I was getting a little hot under the collar. I jest about Top Chef’s need to make it sponsors happy on occasion—how can you not chuckle whenever Padma talks about the “Glad family of products”? But whenever a sponsor’s product actually plays a central role in the dishes, it irritates the hell out of me. Tonight’s Uncle Ben-based Quickfire wasn’t as bad as atrocities past—the worst being the Kraft Quickfire in Season Two, where contestants had their choice of mayo, barbecue sauce, or Italian dressing, but last season’s Rocco DiSpirito-endorsed Bertolli frozen pasta challenge was nearly as abysmal—but there are times when the show needs to draw the line or risk alienating viewers. (Or maybe I’m completely wrong here. American Idol still does those hideous Ford music videos for every elimination show, and it’s the #1 show on TV, albeit with dwindling ratings.)

Anyway, I’d be very interested to see outtakes of the chef’s actual reactions when they were told they’d be working with 90-second microwavable rice, because such a concept strikes me as pretty unholy. (Boil-in-a-bag rice is bad enough; I haven’t tried Uncle Ben’s microwavable rice, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll go ahead and declare it awful just to rebel against my corporate rice master.) Giving the chefs a scant 15-minute allotment of time to finish their dishes made things marginally more interesting, and introduced the theme of the night: Keep it simple, stupid. Under a strict set of circumstances, the smart chefs were able to dial back their ambitions and execute strong, simple meals. This proved a serious problem for Stephanie in both challenges, because as one of the judges points out (I can’t recall which one), she’s more accustomed to restaurant cooking than home cooking. Conversely, it was an advantage for chefs like Nikki and Antonia, who know a thing or two about making unpretentious family meals on the fly. Antonia wins the Quickfire with skirt steak and rice salad, the latter of which I trust is tastier than it sounds.

(Aside: My wife, mere seconds before drifting off to sleep on the couch, just summed up tonight’s episode better than I could: “I don’t watch the show to see them cook something I could make.”)

(Aside #2: Guest judge Art Smith is billed as Oprah’s personal chef. He seems like a nice enough guy, but isn’t that a dubious legacy? Does this mean he’s responsible for the rollercoaster ride of fad diets and mad binges?)

Onto the Elimination Challenge, where the constrictions are even tighter: A well-balanced, nutritious dinner for a family of four on a $10 budget. And from Whole Foods, no less, where a simple piece of jalapeño-laced cornbread will set you back a third of that budget.  Of course, it’s true that families of modest means often have to improvise meals on a shoestring, so I can respect the spirit of the challenge, even if I have issues with the particulars. With that money, I think they should have been set loose at a farmer’s market or even a regular grocery store, because what $10 buys the vast majority of them is chicken and vegetables. Granted, chicken can be transcendent—I’m thinking of Elia’s incredible-looking roasted chicken with vegetables from Season Two—but nothing tonight seemed all that succulent.

Lisa, Nikki, Antonia, Andrew, Stephanie, and Richard all went the poultry route, and it served most of them well enough. Nikki, in particular, finally looked confident by getting back to basics with her one-pot roasted chicken recipe, which resembled her Episode One lasagna triumph in that it didn’t reinvent the wheel but offered much in the way of homey comfort food. I have to give respek to Spike, too, for getting pasta, soup, and (semi-)baked apples out of his $10. And though he landed somewhere in the middle with his dish, which seemed to be too spicy for the family crowd, I appreciate that Dale zagged while everyone else zigged by picking up turkey bratwurst instead of chicken. After Antonia and Lisa’s snobbery about being “stuck” with polish sausage, it was especially gratifying for Dale to acknowledge that there’s no shame in encased meats. (A point enforced earlier today when my A.V. Club chums and I went to Hot Doug’s for lunch. I had the Apple-Habañero Chicken Sausage with Lime-Ancho Mayo and Chipotle-Jack Cheese. A good choice, I think.)

I know that eliminations are supposed to be based on what a chef cooks in that challenge and not what they’ve cooked over the whole of a season, but in a blind taste test, do you think Mark goes home instead of Stephanie tonight? It’s possible, I guess. Making an undistinguished curry with no protein and little nutritious value certainly earned him his severance, but Stephanie’s dish has to rank as one of the least appealing of the season. Overcooked couscous with chicken, plus the truly grim prospect of peanut butter paired with tomato? To borrow a quote from Gordon Ramsay, it looked like a dog’s dinner. I’m happy she’s staying, because she’s clearly the more talented of the two chefs and among the best this season overall, but her tendency to fail big may lead to an earlier exit than expected. And with her back-to-back victories tonight, Antonia’s darkhorse status gains some legitimacy.

Grade: B-

Stray observations:

• There was a lot of business about cooking with children as “sous chefs,” but that wasn’t much of a factor.

• The only sign of rebellion to the Uncle Ben’s rice challenge was in Nikki’s mirthless tone of voice while reading the instructions aloud: “Just heat and enjoy”

• Richard: “I want to go home and make some babies. Some little Blaises.” I can’t imagine I’m the only one who was immediately pictured a gaggle of faux-hawked imps running around, was I?

Filed Under: TV, Top Chef

More TV Club