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Top Chef: "Down On The Farm"


Top Chef

"Down On The Farm"

Season 5 , Episode 8

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Now I’m going to try to say this without condescension: I tip my hat to Ariane for making it this deep into the competition when she was clearly overmatched. She was a little like the flipside of Eugene: Both had a limited spectrum of knowledge and technique, but whereas Eugene was given to reckless and sloppy experimentation, Ariane worked hard to cook simple dishes properly and “honor the protein” as much as possible. Her workmanlike execution won her a couple of challenges when the other chefs got too conceptual for their own good, but on the one night she failed to turn out a well-cooked piece of meat, it was all over. For eight weeks, she’s worked with no margin for error, so you have to respect her for hanging around for as long as she did.
So another solid episode tonight, with two decent (if unmemorable) challenges and one unbelievably icky metaphor from Toby, who immediately made my bad list by following up legitimate criticisms of a pork dish (“bloodless,” “anemic”) with the immoral line, “I want full-blown, unprotected sex [with it]. I didn't get past first base with the pork.” That’s the sort of descriptive language that people don’t want to hear; whatever he wants to do with a pork loin behind closed doors is his business. I don’t want to know about it.
Great to see Hung back for the Quickfire Challenge. As the wire-to-wire frontrunner in Season Three, he absorbed the usual knocks about how his confidence came off as arrogance or how he lacked passion and soul, but I always found his spazzy enthusiasm winning. Too bad the challenge itself wasn’t worthy of his palate: Contestants had to fashion a dish out of canned goods and other non-fresh ingredients, and in honor of Hung’s speed, they had to get it done in 15 minutes. The latter touch was a good one—the scrum around the ingredients got pretty violent—but it also limited what they could do to something close to the gas station challenge in Season One or the vending machine challenge in Season Two. In other words, a serious run on spam. When the winner (Stefan) takes it down with spam-and-bean soup and grilled cheese, you know you’re not dealing with haute cuisine. But I’m with Hung: I’m eating that stuff at three in the morning.
The Elimination Challenge took the chefs out of the city and onto Blue Hill Farms in Hudson Valley, where the ingredients are quite a bit fresher than the ones from their Whole Foods comfort zones. They’re divided into three teams—Teams Pig, Chicken, and Lamb—and forced to work together in what may be the first authentic group challenge of the season. (Other group challenges have been more about individual contributions than a more collaborative dynamic. And I like it better that way, frankly.) The one subtle twist is that they have to change their preconceived menus and pivot a little to accommodate the setting and the local produce. It’s kind of a shame that the only chef who really took that to heart—Jeff, with his fried green tomatoes—was on one of the losing teams.
This challenge really drove home a suspicion I’ve been carrying all season: These aren’t the most talented group of chefs we’ve seen on the show. Yes, there may be less outright chaff than in past seasons—of the remaining contestants, I’d say only Carla has absolutely no shot at winning—but when you’re presented such an idyllic array of fresh ingredients and put out a collectively disappointing meal, that’s pretty unimpressive. Aside from the no-limits finale, it’s rare that the chefs are given conditions this favorable to cook good food. How did they blow it?
Stefan continued his reign of terror by taking both the Quickfire and (as part of a three-person group) the Elimination challenges; and his braggadocio is definitely irritating the others, though I think he means to be good-natured about it. Among the losers, it seemed to boil down to Ariane and Leah, and though I think Ariane is the less talented of the two, Leah didn’t seem to do much besides tying the roasted lamb poorly. I pegged her last week as a darkhorse finalist, but her days as a wallflower need to end soon.
Grade: B
Stray observations:
• How ‘bout that global warming, eh? Not a month past “Christmas” and it’s a sweltering 85 degrees in the rural Northeast. So weird how this show goes to such lengths to fake a holiday, then scraps the imaginary timeline by the middle of January. I wanted to see everyone sipping on hot chicken soup in their heavy down jackets just to maintain the illusion. It’d be like Doctor Zhivago.
• Stefan: The only cock in the stall.
• Didn’t really care for Ariane’s exit. Having “the lovebirds” conspiring together wasn’t ideal, to be sure, but Hosea and Leah seem like good folk and the whole “what goes around comes around” remark was a bit much.