Top Chef: "Foo Fighters"
B+

Top Chef: "Foo Fighters"

B+

Top Chef

"Foo Fighters"

Season 5, Episode 3


Hey Chef-heads! Scott's winging his way to San Francisco to spend the holidays with his in-laws–and to continue living out his dream to eat a meal in every city where Top Chef has filmed–so I'll be chatting with you about tonight's "Thanksgiving" episode. I'm not sure why the judges and editors were so insistent on pretending that this installment was actually taped on Thanksgiving, and not in mid-July–which was when Foo Fighters were last in Rochester, NY–but I'm willing to accept a little illusion in the name of rock 'n' roll. (And holiday cheer, of course.)

If anything, I have to give it up to the Top Chef editors for apparently learning a few things about subverting the predictability of Reality TV Grammar. I watched closely in the first few minutes of this episode–as I do every episode–to see if I could spot the week's big losers and winners. But though the eventual evictee did get a few words in during the opening, the focus was primarily on last week's stars: the super Fabio and the hapless Ariane. Way to keep the audience guessing, Top Chef folk.

And way to keep the cheftestants guessing too, for that matter. Part of what's made this season so entertaining thus far is that the producers have really cranked up the challenges, coming up with twists-a-plenty to tests the chefs' ability to react on the fly. In this week's Quickfire for example, the chefs drew knives with numbers on them, and were told by Padme and special guest Grant Achatz that the numbers corresponded to a page in the official Top Chef cookbook–On sale now! A great holiday gift!–and a recipe they'd have to "put their own spin on." Then, after 15 minutes or so of prep, the chefs were told to stop what they were doing and find a way to turn what they were making into a soup. A diabolical twist, to be sure–though perhaps less diabolical than it could've been, since the chefs were provided plenty of pre-made soup broth from Swanson. (Psst… nobody tell Michael Ruhlman about this.)

Leah won the day with her white asparagus soup, and earned what I consider to be a ridiculously unfair advantage in the Elimination Challenge: She got to hand-pick her entire team. Since there were only two teams–six chefs each–that meant she called on the five strongest players to make up the unfortunately named "Team Sexy Pants" and left the just-as-stupidly-named "Team Cougar" with the also-rans. "Team Cougar" though decided to play the part of the ragtag bunch of misfits in every inspirational sports movie ever–minus the sass-talking ethnic type–and were determined show up their sexy-pantsed superiors. Alas, it was not to be… though the Cougs did come close.

In fact, one could argue that the unfairness of this challenge extended to the way it played out. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. First, the challenge: To prepare Thanksgiving dinner for the Foo Fighters and 60 members of their entourage, in the bowels of an arena in Rochester. (Put that city on your list, Scott.) The winners got to rock out at the show later on. The losers had to clean up, while the ceiling above them vibrated with the sound of awesomeness. That's kind of a bum rap for Team Cougar, who didn't lose by all that wide a margin, and who cooked the best turkey (courtesy of Ariane, rallying well). But then there was a lot about this challenge that was a bummer, including the conditions they had to cook in–outdoors, with rain threatening, on an array that included microwaves, toaster ovens and a single burner–and having their turkey choice limited to Butterball. (Psst… nobody tell Todd Kliman about this.)

To some extent it's not exactly fair either for these chefs to have their food judged by the "rockers' palate" of the Foos, who were more appreciative of mac-and-cheese with bacon than they were of pumkin foam. But then that's part of the Top Chef grind: cookin' for the folks. And it's not like either of these teams took any big risks with their dishes.

Of course neither did they fail spectacularly, so I was sympathetic to Team Cougar's hangdog–hangcat?–expressions as they shuffled off to Judges' Table. I also appreciated the lack of finger-pointing. (Surely that'll come later, when the competition tightens.) It's because the TCs were playing it honorable that Handsome Jeff–who whiffed on both his two dishes–got to stick around. Everyone on the team pointed to him as the leader, but in a good way, and since their food didn't suck as a whole, Jeff received some extra credit. That left Danny, with his "al dente" potatoes, and Richard, with his chocolate-poor S'mores. (According to the Top Chef blogs, Richard also made a blah salad that was neither shown nor discussed in this episode.)

In the end, the loser was Richard, which means we'll be spared his lustful thoughts about Tom Colicchio for the rest of the season. The sad part? Two-thirds of "Team Rainbow" is already out. And not the good kind of "out."

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

-My cable company added Bravo HD to their line-up a couple of months ago, so I've been enjoying Top Chef in hi-def this season. A good thing just got gooder.

-One of the things that puts Top Chef on the same tier as Survivor and The Amazing Race–the gold standard of reality competition shows–is that most of its contestants have watched the show before, and have picked up some strategy. That was especially obvious last week, when so many contestants raised their hands to make dessert, obviously having prepared a recipe or two in advance of coming on the show. And this week, nobody grumbled too much about the soup-switch or about the makeshift kitchen in Rochester. Clearly, they know to expect the unexpected.

-I've been enjoying the challenges so far, but I'd like to see some better food. The cheftestants didn't really have an excuse for their slackness last week, since they essentially got to make their own dish, but this week's challenges weren't exactly conducive to excellence. Of course that's the way it often goes in this early weeding-out phase.

-Another "deleted scene" this week, having to do with Danny's slobbiness and how it irritates Jamie. Is this supposed to make up for the general lack of conflict and strong personalities thus far?

-Watching Top Chef over these past few years has also given me a heads-up on food trends: The "trios" of Seasons One and Two. The "molecular gastronomy" and "sous vide" of Seasons Three And Four. The sudden fascination with "sliders." And of course the perennials: Anything "deconstructed," and anything that the chefs can pitch as "my version of…"

-I liked that when Hosea was boasting about how his Colorado clientele have made him better-acquainted with Vegan food, he was wearing a T-shirt that read "Bacon Is A Vegetable."

-As David Letterman would say, you've got to give it up for the Foo Fighters. They're out there, every night, fighting foo.

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