B+

Top Chef: "Improv"

“The asparagus were supposed to be erect?”

This from pastry chef extraordinaire (and guest judge competentaire) Johnny Iuzzini, who seemed as confused and freaked out as I was about the ghastly ménage a trois between orange, asparagus, and a giant hunk of goat cheese. It’s important to pay attention to the challenge—a refrain I repeat as often in these parts as the chefs were saying “there’s no room for error” tonight—but for goodness sake, don’t take it so literally that you completely ignore how the ingredients go together. Granted, the yahoos shouting out improv words at Second City didn’t give Jennifer and Stephanie much conceptual wiggle room with their “orange/turned-on/asparagus” combo, but not since Miguel pranced around in bondage gear in Season One have we had sexual literal-mindedness taken to such nauseating extremes.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Tonight’s Quickfire challenge found the poor contestants cook dessert for a famed pastry chef, which few seemed prepared to do, despite having watched others in previous seasons suffer mightily for it. “I’m not a pastry chef,” goes the common refrain, and finally we have Lisa explaining why non-pastry chefs are so allergic to baking: It’s very technical and requires precision in the measurements, and that’s not what they’re all about. (It’s like asking Pollock to paint a still life, I suppose.) I’ll have to take Iuzzini’s word on Richard’s supremacy here: The “banana scallop” with guacamole sounds more appealing to look at than eat, given the extreme mushiness of bananas and guac. It was nice of Iuzzini to give Spike some credit for trying a soufflé, but his dish recalled last season’s very first Quickfire, when overmatched Southern boy Clay failed to grasp the idea of an amuse-bouche and wound up serving something out of a giant apple bowl. In any case, it was fun to watch the chefs squirm a bit out of their comfort zone; my only regret is that they the dessert challenge was relegated to a Quickfire.

The Elimination challenge brought the chefs to an evening at Second City, Chicago’s famed improv outfit, and the source of many great comics, from Belushi and Murray to Colbert and Carell. (Let me say that they were lucky to have been dropped off in their Top Chef minivans, because the parking deck at Pipers Alley has to be one of the worst in the city.) I was initially skeptical of the “improvisation” challenge, but it turned out to be one of the strongest of the season. Not only did it force the contestants to try to work around abstract concepts (Color, Emotion, Ingredient) that may or may not be compatible, but it tested their own ability to improvise on the spot and adapt to inconvenient little surprises. How great was it to see all the electrical equipment taken away? Andrew’s reaction was, as usual, priceless: “Oh you dirty mutha…,” smiling and jumping up and down. The crazy man is growing on me a bit, I have to say; he’s excitable yet benevolent, and even his braggadocio seems pretty tongue-in-cheek most of the time.

So tonight didn’t offer much hope that there would be a female Top Chef winner this season, did it? In addition to Jennifer and Stephanie’s oozing orgy on a plate, there were fellow bottom-dwellers Antonia and Lisa, who had the opposite (and more common) problem of pretending the parameters of the challenge didn’t apply to them. Lisa’s arrogance is definitely getting pretty toxic: Being asked to make something out of polish sausage and alcohol isn’t like being asked to work with Spam and wine coolers. Perhaps she does have a point about sausage-and-beer being too pedestrian, but isn’t it a chef’s job to do something special to make that pairing more sophisticated than the average Chicago backyard cookout? And it’s hard to fathom how sea bass worked its way into “magenta/drunk/polish sausage” improv, but there it is, front and center on the plate. In the end, it’s proper that the worst-tasting dish was singled-out for elimination, but I’m glad they were chided for painting too far outside the lines.

And speaking of sausage, the winners were all men! (Segues like that are what pays the mortgage around here.) Richard and Dale solidified their status as the two clear front-runners by cooking what appeared to be an inspired dish that incorporated Richard’s beef-fat rendering technique with Dale’s curry magic. I agree with Tom that they must have felt short-shrifted by being stuck with tofu, but they proudly grilled up a big hunk of it to everyone’s delight. My general animus toward Spike made me a bit less thrilled about his much-ballyhooed squash soup finally making an appearance. If you’ll recall, Spike blamed Antonia for talking him out of soup a couple of challenges earlier, but I felt he only had himself to blame for not asserting his will over a chef who had immunity anyway. Still, he and Andrew deserve credit for making something so simple taste that refined, and spending the necessary time to season it properly.

So Jennifer goes home tonight, thus ending the lesbian partner drama on Top Chef, which was pretty much a non-starter anyway. Will she be missed? Not by me. One faux-hawk per season is more than enough.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

• Andrew: “The room got a lot uglier. Ryan the pretty boy left.”

• Mark: “Obviously, Blais wants to wear pink. Goes well with his skin tone, doesn’t it?”

• Kudos to Iuzzini for being the most outspoken new guest judge so far. He was critical but not cruel, good-humored, and always had something specific and constructive to say about the dishes.

• Is it just me or has Tom lost some passion this season? He’s always been fairly brusque, but this year his brusqueness has looked an awful like going through the motions. Maybe he’s still bummed about losing that Michelin star.

Filed Under: TV, Top Chef

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