Top Chef: "Dinner Party"
B-

Top Chef: "Dinner Party"

B-

Top Chef

"Dinner Party"

Season 6, Episode 7

Zzzzzzzzzzz…

Oh, hello there. [Wipes drool from side of cheek.] Here we are around the halfway point of Top Chef’s sixth season, and tonight’s instantly forgettable hour represents what New Yorker baseball writer Roger Angell once called “the dusty middle innings.” The buzz of those first few innings has faded and there’s still plenty of game to go, but right now we’re in that listless inertia period of the season, waiting for the chaff to go away and the serious competitors to take over. It’s so clear who the big guns are—Kevin, Jen, the Voltaggio brothers, maybe Mike Isabella—yet we still have to wait for the inevitable weeding-out of competitors who don’t stand a chance. In the meantime, the show is merely spinning its wheels.

Or maybe I’m just annoyed by the sponsored challenges, which returned with a vengeance tonight. Aside from the standard GE Monogram/Glad family of products shout-outs, the show had been better lately about not plugging its sponsors. And I should say straight away that the cookstr.com and Macy’s challenges avoided actually referencing the sponsors’ product in a dish, like that unholy Bertolli/Rocco DiSpirito frozen foods contest from Season Three. And, okay, the Macy’s Culinary Council sounds like a noble charity enterprise, dubious as I am of corporate adventures in self-serving philanthropy. Hmmm… so what was I complaining about again?

Anyway, the Quickfire married the Vegas element with the Cookstr.com search engine via a keyword slot machine. It also brought back the “high-stakes” prize of $15,000 for winner, provided he/she is willing to give up immunity for it. Nothing much to note in the Quickfire, other than Robin’s embarrassing association of curry with Middle Eastern cuisine (and serving it to Padma no less!), Jennifer’s surprising dip to the Bottom Three, and Kevin’s triumph with Asian food, which isn’t something he has experience cooking. Kudos for Kevin for not even thinking twice about taking the $15,000 chip over immunity, though he certainly didn’t need the insurance. And “boo” to Ashley for the tuxedo shirt in the interview clips; can’t even get away with wearing that one ironically.

The home-cooking Elimination Challenge wasn’t terribly interesting, either, with the contestants teaming up to prepare dishes around items selected by established professional chefs. Some of the pairings were interesting: the Kevin/Jen C. team was a virtual lock for one of the top two spots, and even then it was impressive to see how harmoniously his protein was wedded to her sauce (there’s a dirty protein/sauce joke here, but I’m not going to bother with it), and the Mike/Robin team seemed headed for disaster, with two big, clashing personalities and two wildly divergent skill sets. Mike’s dickish solution was to let Robin support his vision and to throw out any components that she happened to devise. And while he was at it, Mike made sure to snipe and condescend to her at every opportunity (Mike to Tom: “I know how to cook, so hopefully I can put something together.” Translation: “She doesn’t know how to cook, so hopefully I can do everything without her fucking it up.”)

To me, the most intriguing development was Michael (and Ash) landing on the bottom for their halibut dish, which wound up overcooked due to a power outage. It might not have worked under the best of conditions, but I don’t buy the judges’ rationale that he needed to make the dish work anyway, despite this major hiccup. That fine in the situation when a chef has the time and ingredients simply to throw away a bad dish and start from scratch, but Top Chef isn’t that situation. Also, preparing the dish in a wok, while others had access to a real kitchen or the grill outside, put he and Ash in a disadvantageous spot to begin with. I think they got jobbed here, and the lack of possible solutions offered by the judges to improvise around these problems is evidence that they might not know what to do if they were placed in a similar situation. Am I wrong on this?

In the end, it was Ashley who got the boot after she and Eli made the conceptual mistake of dropping prawns on top of gnocchi on a warm summer night, and then executed it poorly, with undercooked (perhaps uncooked) prawns and salty, dense gnocchi. I’m a little bummed to see her go over Eli, because her erratic performance on the show at least brought a few highs while others are hanging around due to good luck (Robin) or just being less bad than the worst. In a few weeks, Robin and the “less bad” crowd will inevitably disappear and we’ll have a real competition on our hands—maybe the most competitive ever, in fact. Until then…zzzzzzzzz.

Grade: B-

Stray observations:

• The search terms “romantic,” “tart,” and “Latin American” yield no results on Cookstr.com. Going to Cookstr.com does yield some recipes from Padma Lakshmi, however, so if you’re dying to know what sort of dazzling cuisine might win the International Versailles Prize for best first cookbook, have at it.

• Did Padma really say something about dinner parties being a solution to weather our tough economic times?

• Michael: “I’ll wok it out to you.”

• Sweet of Ash to acknowledge Michael’s brilliance at the cost of his own security on the show, though the “washing Picasso’s brushes” line was a tad too deferential.

• To ask the obvious rhetorical question: Why would you ever buy or sell a house through those Million Dollar Listing guys? It’s like promoting the paperboy to Editor-in-chief of a newspaper.