Oh man, where to start? After last week’s dip into mediocrity, I was worried that a 75-minute episode covering Gail’s bridal shower was not going to be pretty; in fact, upon reading the synopsis before it aired, I declared to my wife, “I’m pre-grading this a D.” But damned if it wasn’t Top Chef at its absolute best: Exciting (and in the case of the Quickfire, innovative) challenges; lots of juicy melodrama, real and manufactured; and one of the most catastrophic plates of food ever to leave the kitchen. As a tribute to Eugene, I was thinking about deconstructing my blog post into phrases and having you put them together however you like, but I know a conceptual disaster when I see one.
The Quickfire challenge brought our annual palate-tester, when contestants are usually blindfolded and exposed to a number of raw ingredients. The producers could have stuck with the tried-and-true and just hit the reset button on it, but damned if they didn’t find a way to improve on a sure thing. The concept of pitting the chefs head-to-head has been gaining traction on the show since the beginning of last season, but having them bid on the number of ingredients they could name—a sort of Name That Tune in reverse—was a real masterstroke. (I can’t speak for Noel Murray, but I’m hazarding a fairly safe guess that the vintage game-show addict in him—look for The Best Of Password in next week’s DVD section—was seriously geeking out.) Add to that an exciting three-tiered tournament structure, and you have the best Quickfire all season.
As usual, the palate Quickfire wound up separating wheat from chaff better than any challenge so far: After outbidding Leah, Eugene gets bounced on ingredient one, and a couple of the other first round losers, Daniel and Melissa, haven’t looked good all season. Though he ultimately lost to Hosea in the final round—structured like a Spelling Bee, which was another ingenious choice—it wasn’t a surprise to see Stefan confidently ticking off ingredients.
If it wasn’t apparent already, Stefan has been tagged as the Season Five villain, but I can’t quite agree with the seventy-something percent of Bravo viewers who see him as an arrogant bully. We have a bad tendency in this country to confuse knowledge with arrogance (see also: the smears against Barack Obama), and while I think it was inappropriate for Stefan to opine on Eugene and company’s foolhardy Elimination Challenge concept, most of the time he’s shunned for being assertive and knowing stuff. Radhika says that she would rather be on Satan’s team than Stefan’s, so I guess we’ll have to take her word for it. But for now, I see Stefan as more of a Hung type: Supremely skilled, a little obnoxious, and resented for his talent as much as his personality. He’s a leader and the clear frontrunner at this point, and the other chefs are straining to bring him down.
For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs are draw knives and are split into four groups—old, new, borrowed, blue—to cook for Gail’s bridal shower, which they’re told will be littered with foodies, including many Food & Wine staffers. (Sidenote: C’mon, Gail. Why not trust them with the wedding? They can make you one of those Betty Crocker cakes. How about the engagement party at least? To quote Donnie Darko, “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.”) The themes are all relatively easy, except for blue, because as Tom reminds us later, there’s no such thing as blue food. Credit the blue team—Fabio, Leah, and Melissa—for coming up with a sane solution, even if the result resembled mushy nursing home food.
The winning team—the borrowers: Radhika, Jamie, and Ariane—put together what looked like a delicious and blessedly cohesive dish. Where the other teams seemed to be forcing an alchemy of individual visions and components, “the borrowers” brought together an Eastern-influenced lamb dish that was bright and flavorful, despite the fake-scare of Ariane undercooking the meat. Amazingly, Ariane came away the overall winner for the perfectly cooked lamb, but even she was stunned that Jaime, the de factor group leader, was denied the prize. Jamie’s sullen response smacked of sour grapes, but it seemed to me that she and Radhika were deliberately leaving Ariane with the easiest task just to keep her from fucking up. So now we know Ariane can cook turkey and lamb right, and can put together a mean caprese salad dish on TV, but I still expect her to fall hard the next time she’s tested.
But tonight was really all about the losers, team “new,” who threw together such a stunning array of crapola that the guests didn’t know which component to hate first. Here’s another Top Chef rule for you: Whenever a novice chef claims to have reinvented a dish that’s been around forever—as Eugene does with his surf-and-turf sushi—get ready for a train wreck. And to make a bad idea much, much worse, Team Clueless decides to force the guests to make their own sushi—and THEN, Eugene forgets to tell them how! And incredibly, the dish is so fucked up that Eugene doesn’t get the boot, despite his screwy concept and the overcooked rice he tried desperately to salvage.
No, the big loser turns out to be Daniel, who whipped up a peach-miso BBQ glaze for some reason, added a yuzu sorbet to be eaten at the end of the course (which melted, obviously), and in perhaps my favorite touch, surprised poor Carla by layering the bottom of her wonton bowls with mushrooms. (I’m reminded of a Simpsons episode where Homer makes a half-assed attempt to be more attentive to his wife by nudging her stylist aside and giving her a “kinky summer ‘do.”) But I think what sealed the deal for the judges was Daniel’s inability to acknowledge how poorly the dish turned out. Tom was incredulous: “He likes that dish,” he says, shaking his head. “He likes that dish!”
I liked this episode. A lot.
• Noel points out to me via Twitter that the Quickfire contestants were a bunch of wimps: “Four ingredients?,” he writes. “Just say ‘salt’ and ‘pepper’ and you’re halfway there.”
• Nice trickery in the opening bit, editors. Give us plenty of face time with chaff like Melissa and Ariane, then keep ‘em both off the chopping block.
• Stefan flirts with lesbian Jamie. Wants to kiss her. Cut to commercial. Damn you, DVR killer!
• I’m officially out of reservations about Fabio. The guy is genuinely lovable. When the man says, “All of you looks absolutely beautiful,” he means it. I think I may have swooned, too.
• Daniel on the component overload: “A little crunch of this, a little splooge of that.” Er… hold the splooge, please.