With just seven dwarf-chefs remaining, Top Chef delivers an episode that has nothing to do with Texas, giving the chefs the freedom and inspiration to cook their asses off in this awesome episode.
The chefs head back to San Antonio for the last few episodes before the finale. The charmingly accented Eric Ripert meets them in the kitchen to present a challenge that's destined to make little use of his palate. The challenge purports to be about "quick thinking," but the setup's slightly more confused. A rickety conveyor belt on a small loop dips into the kitchen, and runs for the duration of the 30-minute challenge. Chefs must choose three ingredients from the belt to be included in their dish, with the promise that the quality of the ingredients will increase as time goes on. With all of their scientific backgrounds, the chefs imagine the challenge to be structured like this:
They abandon the conveyor belt at the beginning of the challenge, setting up plates with ingredients from the pantry, expecting that when they return to the conveyor belt, the ingredients will have drastically changed. (They believe the optimal time to choose their ingredients would be at the intersection of those lines.) Really, though, the challenge is structured more like this,
with those spikes being the brief appearance of lobster. Poor Chris Jones. The conveyor belt's so short that by the time he sees his wished-for ingredient, it disappears, and the man behind the curtain yanks it from the belt. Twice. I like to imagine that it's Padma and Ripert behind the curtain, just messing with him because they can, and because he keeps calling them bastards.
Aside from the helter-skelter nature of this challenge and the lobster antics, which lend the challenge some interest, the rest of it's really muddled. The bad ingredients are really bad, and we've already seen the chefs work with saltines and corn chips this season. It's a slight upgrade since they have to mix those clunkers with better ingredients, but it leads to a roomful of food no one really wants to eat. The chefs are clearly embarrassed to be serving this stuff to Eric Ripert, and Ripert clearly wishes he were doing something else. Lindsay takes the win with a last-minute bouillabaisse, but knows her dish wasn't nearly as good as Beverly's. Bev was disqualified for running out of time and failing to plate her curried Rice Krispies. She could have had immunity. I wonder if that will come back to haunt her.
Praise be! My Top Chef-related prayers have been answered, and tonight's elimination round put forward one of the finest challenges I've seen on this show. I've been complaining this season about how the narrow, team-focused challenges haven't allowed us to get to know the chefs' styles. Tonight's episode put me squarely in my place; it felt like a different show—or season—altogether. Promised a visit from the queen (Chris J: Queen of England? Queen Latifah?), the chefs freak out when Charlize Theron appears in the kitchen. Sarah so much so that she appears to be crying. She's there to publicize her new movie, in which she plays Evil Queen to an innocent Snow White. She challenges the chefs to prepare "a gothic feast fit for a queen," that's "wickedly beautiful." It should be indulgent, take risks, and should wipe out the competition.
It's a beautiful challenge for the chefs because it gives them a fantastical element that pushes them to be creative. It's inspiring but not restrictive. (Not in the way of, say, cooking vegan for Zooey Deschanel or having to kowtow to the strange likes and dislikes of housewives at a dinner party.) Charlize Theron will eat anything, including black chicken and lamb's heart.
The chefs seize on the concept and begin to imagine enchanted forests, witch's stews, forbidden rice, and, well, a chicken being slaughtered on the plate with an egg to represent the dead baby chicken that would never live a day. Grayson's brand of crazy really worked to her advantage during this challenge. The chefs produce amazing plates of food that leave the chefs with hardly a bad word to say about any of them. Edward starts things off with war-on-a-plate, dark and light sauces that meet in the middle at tuna tartare, topped with spiky, fried fish scales. Charlize really holds her own here and later at judge's table, picking up on the play between the garlic ponzu and Asian pear vinaigrette.
Paul follows with his enchanted forest, another good-and-bad mix of foie gras and bacon with pumpernickel, pickled cherries, and beets. He marks the plate with the bloody beet print, and the judges go wild for it, giving him the win and calling it beautiful and scary. Of all the dishes put out tonight, his was the only one that seemed a little hackneyed for me. I'm not sure if it was maybe the cameras that didn't do it justice, but I didn't think it was as "wickedly beautiful" as some of the other dishes, like Grayson's death-on-a-plate or Chris' split poison apple. Maybe it was those pickled jalapeños that set it over the edge.
Grayson, Sarah, and Beverly end up on the bottom as the judges are left to split hairs over whose slight mistake would send her home. This episode would have been a better candidate for the extra-15-minutes treatment, certainly over last weeks' Restaurant Wars—I'd have loved to see more of the debate that took place, if any. Heading into judge's table, the debate promised to be a little more nuanced than "your sauce was too sticky." Bev threw herself under the bus, though, by admitting to playing it safe with presentation, and she's sent packing. I was really rooting for her, and after her win last episode, was hoping to see her in the finale. May she be remembered by this amazing soliloquy:
"Snow white is the halibut and prevails in the midst of the evilness of the wicked witch, and the black heart from the forbidden black rice, and the bleedingness of the serial killer HAHA is the red curry sauce?"
- Lindsay really, really fell out of favor with me last week. I found myself actively rooting against her this week.
- Do you think Padma asked the typical reality-show-finale question of "Name… why do you deserve to win?" I can't tell if they prompted the chefs tonight to plead their case, or if Sarah did so first and the others followed suit.
- Did you say pheasant? More like peasant! Amirite, Charlize?