Top Chef: “Culinary Games”
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Top Chef: “Culinary Games”

C-

Top Chef

“Culinary Games”

Season 9, Episode 14

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Here are the tenets of a great Top Chef finale: When moving the show to an entirely new location, look to its cuisine and culture as an inspiration for challenges. Choose guest judges whom the contestants respect and want to impress, and who will bring a new perspective to judge's table. Provide the chefs with enough direction to inspire ideas, but enough freedom to really let them cook. 

This season saw a glimmer of hope a few weeks ago, but for the first episode of the finale, the creative geniuses at Bravo put together an hour that feels like a random game of word association originating with “Vancouver:” Olympics --> Mountain --> Cold --> Ice! --> Ice pick! --> Frozen! --> Skiing! --> Shooting! --> Padma dressed as a ski bunny! 

Or maybe they just hired this kid to write the challenges:


And so on top of Whistler Mountain, Top Chef reaches new, ridiculous heights. Dressed like extras from Hot Tub Time Machine, the four remaining chefs—Paul, Lindsay, Sarah, and Beverly—meet Padma and Tom and soon realize that their culinary skills will only play a small role in the next suite of challenges. This episode essentially plays out like an extended quickfire: In three challenges, the chefs will tackle a series of artificial constraints that have nothing to do with being a professional chef. The winner of each challenge advances to the finale-finale in Vancouver.

For the first challenge, the chefs must cook on a gondola that spans two peaks. At the halfway point, they have to jump out, pick a new ingredient, and then incorporate it into their dish. This challenge is dead to me. Hey professional chefs, try to cook while freezing in a bucket suspended in the sky! I can’t wait to see what this professional snowboarder thinks of your dish. Maybe this is the equivalent of Tyra making models pose with giant reptiles while bungee-jumping. With America’s Next Top Model, though, part of the fun is hating the contestants and enjoying watching them dissolve into beautifully gaunt, sobbing messes. On Top Chef, these are professional chefs. I’d argue we watch because we’re interested in seeing them cook creatively and well. That’s why this challenge is no fun to watch. The producers try to introduce a little drama here by suggesting Paul might get motion sick, but he powers through with no problem. The most interesting note I have is this: “Lindsay mentions that water boils faster at high altitudes.”

Even the judges seem nonplussed by the challenge—for the second week running, they’re couching their praise in language like “all things considered.” Here, at the close of the season, the chefs should have the opportunity to really impress them. Beverly and Lindsay fight for the spot; it’s salmon tartare against pan-seared salmon, each with a bonus ingredient of horseradish. Lindsay takes the win and advances to the finale with her perfectly cooked fish.

Round two manages to push things further into face-palm territory, making the chefs use ice picks to hack their ingredients out of huge blocks of ice before cooking with them. Please read that sentence again. It’s not a lie. The challenge devolves into Beverly slapping a frying pan against the ice again and again like an animated .gif. Paul finally comes over to help them free the ingredients. He’s the only sane one on set: “This challenge is about the food and not about how many ice blocks you can smash.” …Or, that’s what it should be about. He takes finale spot No. 2 with poached king crab, toasted almonds, (still slightly frozen) mango chutney, and orange marmalade.

Thus, as it was foretold by Bev-trashing clips, the final round comes down to Sarah and Beverly. This challenge will be the one future generations of Top Chef scholars can point to and say, “And that’s when the franchise completely fell apart.” I’m talking about the “culinary biathlon,” in which two chefs are made to ski for a little while, then shoot the names of ingredients they wanted with guns. I wish I could say anything about the techniques here, the inspiration for the dishes, the subtle balance of flavors, whatever. Instead we get slapstick skiing—minute after minute of Beverly and Sarah falling on their asses. 

The biggest handicap of the challenge doesn’t surface on the gun range, though—back in the kitchen, Beverly realizes there’s no store of things like coconut milk or lemongrass. At this final stage of the competition, this is a huge disadvantage for her. Theoretically, she’s supposed to be putting forward her strongest food; if the pantry skews toward Sarah’s palate as opposed to Beverly’s, Sarah goes into the final challenge with a serious leg up. The judges are “surprised” by the flavor profile she delivers, but that surprise isn’t necessarily Beverly’s choice. She slow cooks arctic char alongside an onion-and-beet compote, fennel salad, and a purée of celery root and truffle. The judges love the earthy flavors with the fish, but the protein’s underseasoned and overcooked. Sarah had trouble with her protein as well—the braised rabbit leg not as tender as it could be—but takes the win and advances to the finale. I’m rooting for Paul to take the win.

Stray observations:

  • “My goal is to stay calm and be a really nice person,” says Sarah. Did she have time to see herself be nasty between the airing of the first few episodes and the filming of the finale? 
  • Gastriques seem to be a trend this season. I feel like someone’s made a gastrique for five or six episodes running.
  • Beverly, the silent horse… who later attacks like a tiger. I’ll miss her!

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