Tonight's episode of Top Chef was brought to you by the letter C, lots of head-scratching, and by Target, which purchased an entire elimination challenge and the sweet, bearded face of Kevin Gillespie for god knows how much money. I've never really minded the product placement during the Quickfire challenges—those don't have a ton riding on them and are usually out of the way about 10 minutes into the episode. But to see someone sent home from an aisle at Target stings, especially this late in the season.
The concept—to cook for 100 Target employees at Target with only food and supplies from Target—wasn't a terrible one, at least not completely. Some of the best Top Chef challenges in seasons past have asked the chefs to be creative under similar constraints: Make something excellent from ingredients found in a convenience store, or cook dinner in a dorm room. Ultimately, though, tonight's elimination challenge suffered from the slickness of full-on sponsorship. Having to find all of the cookery and supplies in the store was a hassle, not a challenge, and the time restraint proved to be downright absurd. The chefs had too little in all departments—ingredients, equipment, time—and were left with no room to be ambitious or inventive, which usually makes this type of challenge so much fun. Instead, we end up with panic, sweat, and soup. Lots and lots of soup.
And cookies! The characters of Elmo, Telly, and Cookie Monster visited the show this evening for a cookie quickfire challenge, with Cookie Monster playing the expert and Elmo requesting things like zucchini. Blais of course takes this as the true challenge, skipping off to make a cookie with zucchini, mint, and liquid nitrogen. The Monster isn't impressed—it's not a cookie. Dale's potato-chip and pretzel shortbread wins over Antonia's, which Elmo likens to great-tasting cow patties. (The highlight of the episode for me tonight came after Padma tells Elmo and co. that cinnamon and cardamom grow in the same part of the world, and he replies "TMI" and walks away. I wish everyone would treat Padma that way.) This challenge also felt a little bit like a throwaway this late in the season, asking the chefs to bake cookies for Cookie Monster. I'd rather see the chefs quaking before some amazing chef instead of playing around with puppets. I love cookies, and I did watch Sesame Street as a child, but somehow this challenge brought little joy into my cold, cold heart.
Dale also wins the elimination challenge, as well as the asshole award. The editors set him up in the beginning, then let the rest of the cuts support his gripes about the rest of the cast. Leading by reminding us that Tiffany hasn't won any challenges, Dale says she's loud and obnoxious, and from Beaumont. Cue Tiffany pushed to exhaustion from lack of sleep at judge's table, beginning her sob speech with, "I'm from Beaumont." It's a downright vicious choice on the editors' part: Tiffany looks goofy, and Dale looks like an asshole… but also maybe an asshole who knows what he's talking about. He steps further into grade-A asshole territory later, putting on his best sissy voice and criticizing the female chefs for making their tables look nice like Susie Homemaker. But again, as much as I want to hate him, his strategy pans out. He sees the challenge plainly and delivers the only ounce of creativity from the whole episode—using an iron to press his sandwich against the griddle, a technique he gleaned in college.
Most of the other chefs struggle. So much of the air-time was devoted to the chefs panicking, running, filling their cart with products, setting up—we get hardly any of the prep time or information about the food, because the quality isn't there. Not even the Target employees are impressed. What a waste of a challenge this late in the season, when we've only seven chefs left. I'm not sure I would have felt so cheated of an episode has this been challenge number two or three, but I really did hate to see Angelo go home for something like this. Looking at the pool, I'd have pegged Tiffany to go home—as it seemed every other chef expected her to go over Angelo. Even her crying fit suggested she knew she was heading out. But Angelo's right: How could you get past salt? At this late stage, even at Target, you'll get sent home for salt. The judges described his dish as truly inedible—even over the artificial taste of prepackaged seasoning in Tiffany's jambalaya.
- Clothing notes: Anyone else notice Angelo's ridiculous outfit tonight? I believe he was wearing trouser socks with shorts. Also: Looks like Tiffany made it out of the store with her Target hat on. Nice work, Beaumont.
- Fresh coconut milk… fresh from the can.
- Why the middle of the night? I'm assuming this is because they didn't want to shut down the store in the middle of the day. I felt sorry for those 100 Target employees, though, as they filed into the store in uniform at 3 a.m.