Nothing makes a fine hour of reality television like seeing the chefs squirm. Tonight's quickfire and elimination challenges both took the overarching Top Chef challenge of speed and cranked it up a few notches.
When reality shows pull in the judges to participate in a challenge, it feels like a cop-out—like the producers failed to come up with an interesting guest for that episode and had to make do. Why would we want to watch the contestants on Project Runway, to take a recent example, design for Heidi Klum? Aren't they always designing for her? In tonight's "Dim Sum Lose Sum," the chefs aren't only competing for Tom Colicchio's praise—they're competing against him. They have to match his time in cooking a dish and make something good. The premise puts Colicchio's chops as a chef on display, which stands to validate his caliber as a judge not only to the chefs, but to us.
Of course, Colicchio has the advantage of advance preparation—they're not about to let him fall on his ass. He has something the chefs don't: more time to think about what he'd make, what ingredients he'd need to grab, how he'd go about cooking it. The chefs raved about his precise movements, and they were impressive; advanced preparation aside, I let out a "holy hell" when I saw the time of 8:37 on the clock. It was Susur Lee-like, if you will. And the stress of the challenge seemed to have weighed in on Tom as well; he looked genuinely relieved to have completed the challenge and in such a time. In turn, Colicchio's not about to let the chefs off easy. Following the quickfire challenge in "New York's Finest," in which a couple of teams short on time served lamb carpaccio in a pinch, Tom introduces the challenge with a caveat: He'll also be accounting for difficulty. Tuna tartar won't win you points.
Angelo chooses to ignore this advice, hoping that his "technique" will make up for the fact that it's a crudo with lemon. Tom notices the raw fish but not the technique, throwing him into the bottom of the pile along with Dale, who manages little more than some fish sauce in a bowl. To the chefs' credit, they turned out some fine-looking dishes in under nine minutes, the quickest quickfire on record. Searing and/or cooking fish on a small bed of vegetables was the standard way to go. The cerebral Richard Blais nabbed some foie gras—a smart strategy, finding a finicky ingredient with a low cook-time, one that's inherently pretty damn delicious. He's edged out by Mike Isabella, however, who developed a more complex flavor profile in his pan-roasted branzino with black olive and caper stew. He'll be telling the eight-minute Prius-win joke for some time to come.
A couple of weeks ago, Scott Tobias posted a link to Linda Holmes' great piece on the Monkey See blog, which ruminates on how chefs have altered their personalities based on having seen their previous performances. Tonight's episode handed us some of the chefs talking explicitly about their personas. It seems Jamie's been holding off on cooking scallops after Fabio and the show (rightfully) cast her in Season 5 as a scallop fanatic. What's hilarious about this moment for me is that she's been waiting—waiting until the time is right, when she can finally cook some scallops, pull out her secret ingredient: "I know you're going to laugh at me, but… I haven't done it yet." She knows it's her thing, and she really wants to do it but has been bullied into submission. Isabella, on the other hand, took away from his season that he wasn't enough of a leader. I don't normally think of leadership as one of the traits of successful chefs, but perhaps I'm wrong. Thinking back, the leaders often become confused with manipulators, and it does tend to work as an advantage. This is not necessarily because their leadership wins the approval of the judges but because people who are led astray get thumbed for not standing behind their dishes. This has been hammered into everyone, having gone through a season of Top Chef already, and when things break down during tonight's elimination challenge, everyone cooks with blinders on. The team ceases to exist, everyone fends for themselves, and it's beautiful.
For once, the teasers for this portion of the show lived up to the hype. Angry Chinese people making quips! Sweet Tiffany losing her cool and yelling! Jamie cooking scallops and failing at life! The elimination challenge—to cook dim sum at a Chinese restaurant for a Chinese crowd—ended up being a bit of a sleeper challenge. On the surface, it seems like your run-of-the-mill elimination—a big crowd, a strange venue. Serve hors d'oeuvres to DC's elite or football snacks to drunken Chicago tailgating folk. Once tonight's challenge starts to play out, though, it's easy to see why it's going to fall apart and why we love it when things fall apart.
One: Taking the foreign-food location on location. It's not enough to see the chefs grabbing ingredients in an ethnic-food shop and then heading back to the Top Chef kitchen—here we see them struggling in the Chinese grocery store to find already unfamiliar ingredients, and the kitchen is part of the kicker. They don't realize until arriving that it doesn't have a grill, or that the ovens only reach 300 degrees. Two: No lines, no chefs visibly preparing food while entertaining the crowd with Italian accents. The tables-and-carts concept of dim sum ends up making these diners desperate for the food to come out. There's no indication of how much food will appear, or when, or who will get the food when it comes out. People end up fighting for the food, adults agree to save the children by feeding them first, and Tom has to walk down to scold the chefs. Three: Susur Lee as a guest judge, a badass who can do no wrong. Four: Like Restaurant Wars, it's a team challenge in which the team only matters when things go terribly wrong.
And things do go terribly, deliciously wrong. The chefs sized it up well themselves: This is a particular, perfectionist bunch, and they're trying to plate 180 dishes like short-order cooks. Or, specifically, they're plating food like fine-dining chefs. Carefully, and with art. The hunger up in the dining room was palpable—that elderly woman lurching for a plate, failing, and then throwing her hands in disgust at the cart made me hungry. The chefs fail to realize how critical the problem is until it's huge; Tom's chastising pulls them out of it too late.
As is common when things fall apart, self-appointment martyrs really turn out to be martyrs. Casey, having volunteered to be at the front of the house, ends up on the bottom, having left her dish in the hands of Antonia. For her part, Antonia neglects Casey's dish (though it seems likely Casey would have ended up there anyway) and lands on the bottom for "being a team player" and striking things up with Jamie. Tre made dessert—after wondering out loud if a dessert could be a quick ticket home. Maybe he's the one chef who hasn't ever seen an episode of Top Chef.
Though the team comes away so disheartened they think perhaps there was no winner, that's not how the game is played. And, hey, if you're sitting at the judge's table, you enjoyed a fine feast. Dale pointed to his Filipino heritage and says it was his for the taking, and he was right: With time to polish his shoes, Dale put forward a modern sticky rice with just a few ingredients, executed well.
On the losing side, though, the insults came as strong as they've ever been. Antonia's beans were compared to stale takeout, but she didn't stand much of a chance of elimination, having produced one of the better dishes. Jamie's scallop-dumplings failed in part because she didn't understand the dumpling wrapper she bought. Ironically, if she'd added more scallops, she might have fared better. Tre's dessert was "insipid" and likened to hospital food, Carla's summer roll wasn't worth the calories, and Casey's audacious chicken feet would have taken hours to eat. In the end, we say goodbye to Casey. May you fulfill your dream of becoming the "bad-assest female butcher out there."
- I did a quick search for butchery as fine art, but all I found were stock photos. The only piece that comes to mind is Canadian artist Jana Sterbak's dress made of raw meat (a 1987 piece called "Vanitas: Flesh Dress For An Albino Anorexic"). Lady Gaga now owns the "meat dress" search results, though, for the dress she donned at the VMA awards back in September.
- More footage of Fabio walking a pet turtle on a chihuahua's leash, please. Or anyone walking a pet turtle on a leash.
- Padma's line during judge's table, "I didn't like that dish at all," was nearly as slow and clumsy as my favorite to ever come out of her mouth, which was approximately: "I spit… your dish… out… in my napkin."