Top Chef: "Foreign Affairs"
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Top Chef: "Foreign Affairs"

First off, thanks very much to Emily Withrow for covering for me last Wednesday. And a good thing, too: The “pea puree” non-scandal was so petty and irritating—and so reality-show stupid—that I’m not sure I could have written rationally about the show. I could only think of that scene in The Simpsons when a missile bears down on the Comic Book Guy, just as he’s registering his disgust over Aquaman marrying a woman without gills: “Oh, I’ve wasted my life.” The issue over who stole the stupid pea puree or if it was stolen at all—a matter the show doesn’t even resolve—made me (and Emily and many of you) feel like my investment in Top Chef had been foolish. This wasn’t the smart, sometimes transcendent reality show I thought it was; this was an insult to our intelligence.

In light of that, it was a relief to settle into a solid, if not especially memorable, episode like “Foreign Affairs,” which still had the draggy feeling of mid-season Top Chef, but at least stuck to the core idea of a cooking competition and didn’t waste time on bullshit. (Alex and Ed both commented briefly on the pea puree matter, but happily, there was no follow-through. Now let us never speak of it again.) It was also a pleasure to see Tiffany, an extremely likable and enthusiastic chef, enjoy some success in both challenges. Her joy alleviated a lot of the ill will I had been feeling about the show all week.

Is this the first time Ethiopian food has been featured on the show? Seems amazing, in retrospect, that a national cuisine that popular and delicious and communally satisfying took this long to find the spotlight, but the ubiquity of Ethiopian restaurants in D.C. finally forced the producers’ hands. Asked to honor Ethiopian food in the Quickfire, several of the chefs were disadvantaged by not having cooked (or, in Kelly’s case, even eaten) it before, but guest judge Marcus Samuelsson provided enough tips—the berbere spice, the spongy bread, the spicy stews—to get the novices started. Remarkably, two of the three best were completely unschooled in Ethiopian cuisine: Amanda made stewed goat and Tiffany, the eventual winner, cooked a goulash with poached egg that may not have honored Ethiopian food to the letter, but got the spirit right. As for the others, the chefs (Ed especially) couldn’t say enough bad things about last week’s big winner Alex, who they’ve written off as a “spaz” who throws together flavors and sees what sticks. He ended up on the bottom, as did poor Stephen, who couldn’t do much of anything right, and Kevin, whose lack of confidence seems to show up in his ineffectual dishes.

Despite the D.C. international twist, the Elimination challenge was pretty standard-issue: Draw knives, pick from nine different countries on a board, cook cuisine from that country for embassy staff at Meridian House. Fortune smiled again on Tiffany, who drew first and took Mexico with a very clear (and, in the end, scrumptious and winning) plan to deconstruct chicken tamales in a way that gives more weight to the meat. The unlucky ones, like Kevin and Stephen, were left with less familiar cuisine choices, but like the Ethiopian Quickfire, their inexperience didn’t have to be a detriment so long as they honored the general concept and cooked well. Kevin didn’t want his braised chicken dish to be mistaken for authentic Indian food—his “curry” doesn’t even get a mention in the description—but it was good enough to put him in the top three. But Stephen, alas, decided that Brazil meant a flank steak with an Argentinean sauce and overcooked rice and beans on the side, and his failure to deliver on a simple dish kept this perpetual bottom-dweller from hanging on for yet another week.

The Elimination challenge was another reminder, too, that we’ve got a few more weeks until the chaff of a chaff-heavy season thins out. With his seat-of-the-pants style, no one expects Alex to bumble his way past the judges for too much longer, and Amanda continues to make mistakes even when conditions were as optimal as this week’s, when she got the country she wanted (France) and still cooked a dried-out beef bourguignon. For now, I’m just relieved to have Top Chef back to its old, watchable self. In a few weeks, hopefully some genuine excitement will materialize.

Stray observations:

• God bless guest judge Jose Andres for introducing a new phrase into the critical lexicon: “Wow. It was like a little nightmare.”

• Ed was familiar with Chinese culture and food. How? “I’ve had some Chinese girlfriends in the past.”

• Nice gesture for the show to give $10,000 in Dial Nutriskin matching funds to D.C. Central Kitchen. (You can donate yourself here.) Too bad Dial Nutriskin causes your pores to bleed profusely. 

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