About halfway through this week’s episode, I found myself wondering, as I do every six months or so, “What if this is all Boston’s fault?”
Top Chef has always had a complicated relationship with its host cities (or states.) In some cases, the location-specific challenges proved a great fit for increasing stakes in a logical way (Las Vegas) or just providing interesting local flair (Miami.) With other seasons, integration was so messy that it rendered the entire competition rote and unspeakably boring (Texas.) Which brings us to season twelve.
You would think Boston would make a great choice for host city, what with all the history and local color and sports. And yet, it’s not a place that immediately springs to mind when thinking about the finest culinary offerings in the country. They definitely have beans. And tea. And chowder. And… beer? This may be part of the problem. If a city doesn’t come with a prebuilt culinary identity, that leaves the challenges struggling for a foundation. In Boston’s case, they’re relying on American history and sports. Both of these particular challenge areas are problematic but for varied reasons.
The history-based challenges based on things like Paul Revere’s ride or the Boston Tea Party call back visions of grade school history classes or book reports hastily written on the school bus or that time your mom read you Johnny Tremaine which is kind of weird in retrospect. They’re fine. I understand why they’re doing them. But at the same time, if that routine is getting old here in episode three, how’s it going to feel in two months time?
Focusing alternatively on the Boston sports scene also has the potential to be a non-starter because of, well, stuff like this. Listen, I’m not here to get into where most of the worst sports fans in the country are from. That’s what the comment section is for. But I think it is fair to note that when Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy talks in hushed tones about how because of the ardor of the fans, sitting at Fenway is like sitting in church, it’s not going to leave much of an impression on most people. That may be church to some but I’m a Boston atheist. I respect your right to worship at the altar of your Massachusetts Sports Teams but I do not recognize their authority over the rest of the world. Nor will I be able to fully invest in Top Chef challenges asking me to recognize the hallowed ground on which the chefs cook.
That said, there was plenty of cooking (and weeping) this episode, which started (as per season twelve usual) with leftover sniping from last week’s show. This is such a painfully awkward dynamic to open each episode with. It’s like walking getting on an elevator already inhabited by a married couple having a silent fight. The sniping eventually subsides and we’re treated to a look into the bromance of Aaron (the asshole) and Swayze (formerly known as James.) Evidently these two come from similar downtrodden upbringings and have forged a friendship from that. Aaron wants us to know that he had to overcome a lot coming from a broken home, which is a phrase I thought we stopped using around the time we decided to stop stigmatizing single-parent homes. Sorry Aaron. 1.5 million kids a year have parents who divorce. Though your road was rocky, if you want real sorrow, tune in to an episode of Chopped. Every third contestant on that show has been homeless or survived cancer or been raised from the dead. It’s very inspiring.
When the chefs arrive at the kitchen, they’re greeted by Padma and chef Ming Tsai and then suffer through some terrible chefsplaining about why Americans drink coffee and not tea. Finally, they’re released to their SUDDEN DEATH QUICKFIRE in which they’re instructed to grab a random canister of tea and compose a dish highlighting it. This goes varying degrees of well, with Gregory, who we learn later overcame drug addiction to get his career on track (See? Everyone has stuff, Aaron.), winning immunity with a tuna crudo inspired by his chosen strawberry tea. Aaron ends up on the bottom of the SUDDEN DEATH QUICKFIRE, which shouldn’t surprise anyone since he was featured in the Reality Red Flag apartment segment. He chooses to face off against Katie, the culinary instructor, because he has a huge chip on his shoulder about having never gone to culinary school and because, as mentioned before, he’s a total asshole. They have 30 minutes and only boiling water to cook with. Aaron manages to sidestep elimination by making a shrimp noodle spring roll which sounded just awful but managed to be better than undersauced fresh pasta.
For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs are headed to the aforementioned ballpark after they find a way to make a fine dining dish inspired by typical ballpark snacks. As excited as I was to see someone bread a chicken breast with ground up Cracker Jack, it appears the contestants choices were limited to peanuts, popcorn, pretzels, cotton candy, and fried dough. No one even bothered trying the cotton candy because no one has any goddamn whimsy anymore. Stuff like this makes me miss contestants like Blais, honestly. He would have taken that cotton candy and infused it into some weird frozen foam teardrop of pure liquid sugar that crystalized into a messy candy web when opened. And that I would have hated it but it would have at least been interesting. Instead we got a bunch of corn soups, some poorly cooked meats, a lot of Thai-inspired peanut sauces, and a bunch of inexplicably pickled garnishes. Seriously, enough with the pickling already.
Again, the new judging system makes it pretty clear which contestants are on the top and bottom so it’s no surprise when Gregory’s roasted duck and Melissa’s corn and ramp soup and Katie’s popcorn mousse end up in the top, nor is it particularly shocking when Keriann’s tough spare ribs, Ron’s misguided fish croquette, and Katsuji’s desiccated pork belly end up in the bottom. When all is said and done, it’s golden boy Gregory who takes the win, solidifying him as the sole frontrunner and one of the few contestants I confidently know the name of as we come to the close of the third episode.
Unfortunately, it was Ron who didn’t make the cut tonight. This is disappointing because in the face of Joy’s elimination last week, it seems like the show is systematically eliminating the grassroots contestants week by week, meaning another potential avenue for conflict (grassroots vs. established chefs) is exiting too.
At least next week has George Wendt.
Quickfire Winner: Gregory
Elimination Challenge Winner: Gregory
Elimination Challenge Loser: Ron
Bitchin’ ‘Bout Blais:
- Oh, hey, it’s so funny you made salmon. Blais made salmon once, too. Isn’t that weird?
- “This is moneyball.” No. That’s not what that word means. Get out.
- Dennis Eckersley makes a fine judge. He may stay.
- We need to talk about Gregory’s eyebrows and how much he moves them when he talks and how it’s starting to freak me out.
- Aaron said something about him beating a culinary teacher being an “iron in the back” for people who aren’t classically trained. I can’t even begin to imagine what that’s supposed to mean but it sounds really painful.