Top Chef Masters: "A Soldier's Story"
B+

Top Chef Masters: "A Soldier's Story"

B+

Top Chef Masters

"A Soldier's Story"

Season 3, Episode 9

As almost every edition of Top Chef winds down, there is an episode where the competition elements sort of fade away. It’s the episode where family members come out of the woodwork, and where the remaining chefs are all so talented that it comes down to incredibly small mistakes in terms of who has to go home. In fact, in Top Chef All-Stars, they avoided making a decision altogether, sending everyone on to the next round.

“A Soldier’s Story” is the equivalent of that episode, but it lacks any real impact. After all, the show has failed to be competitive on any level given the camaraderie shared between the chefs, so this doesn’t stand out like it might during a regular season of the show. However, since the new Top Chef Masters is committed to repeating the basic rhythms of the mothership, we have our heartfelt episode about celebrating servicemen.

Generally speaking, I would call this episode a success. As I’ve argued for a while now, the show has failed to force these chefs to despise one another, so giving them an episode where everything is about positivity and doing good things for people is a welcome shift. The visits from family gave us some more insight into their personal lives, while their dedication to pleasing their respective servicemen was suitably touching (especially in the gift of a coin that Floyd is given after the meal is done). The episode never felt at odds with the general tone of these contestants, and was probably one of the stronger individual hours of the season thus far.

However, the show didn’t need a pleasant hour of television. It needed something to make me excited about next week’s finale, to feel that each contestant has something to prove. What we needed was a narrative, a sense of purpose that would give us something to latch onto before next week’s finale. And while I enjoyed this episode a fair deal, and would say that I am more or less rooting for Mary Sue in next week’s finale, eliminating Naomi killed any sort of narrative the season had developed.

She is a young chef competing against much more seasoned chefs. She has been willing to take risks with some challenges, while simultaneously dialing it back when she knows that simple dishes could win the day. She has been perhaps the single most competitive chef, to the point of ostracizing some of her competitors. She has a genuine intensity, and even if it occasionally rubbed me the wrong way I never felt like she had lost my respect. Even her vicious treatment of her father, almost more disturbing when you consider that she was treating him like a stranger, showed at least something of a spark that was woefully absent from most other competitors. And yet she goes home for, admittedly, failing to properly conceptualize a menu for this challenge, delivering an odd collection of dishes with some issues of execution to go along with the muddled nature of it all.

This isn’t an issue where I think this elimination was unfair: As soon as we heard “uncooked shrimp,” and as soon as it was clear that both her rice salad and her poke were dividing the room the writing was on the wall. However, it’s just plain unfortunate that someone who I think really would have made for a strong narrative in the final round goes home in favor of chefs that lack the same fire. It makes the finale a competition between three talented chefs who have cooked some pretty good food, which encapsulates the season’s problems instead of giving the show a chance to redeem itself. I like Mary Sue’s personality, and I think Traci is a very talented chef, and I find Floyd just swell (if also more than a bit dull); however, those are traits that I find admirable in a Top Chef judge, or a Top Chef diner, and not a Top Chef contestant. The past two episodes saw the exit of both Hugh and Naomi, who I would argue were the only two contestants who wouldn’t have been out of place on a season of Top Chef. And when the show is dead set of delivering what is essentially a season of Top Chef, instead of a show more suited to this type of chef, their absence is going to be a real detriment to the entertainment value of the finale.

Here, however, the pleasantness of it all never quite felt out of place — in fact, as noted, Naomi was the one who seemed at odds with the opening challenge as she treated her father horribly in the Quickfire. The challenge was actually quite interesting: Sure, it might have been more illuminating from a culinary perspective if it had actually been (as Traci anticipated) a culinary student, but the family member touch made for some nice reveals, and I thought both Mary Sue (who was so patient and accommodating that she made her dish too easy) and Traci (who was clearly quite proud of the performance of her “baby brother”) were at their most likeable in the challenge. Of course, Naomi was awful enough for everyone, calling her father “Dude” and just generally being a complete and total jerk to him. It was like when killer fatigue sets in on The Amazing Race and people start belittling their teammates; sure, we eventually learn that this is just how she is, but that still doesn’t make it okay (even if I did love her father noting that her tone actually made him believe that she did recognize his voice). Still, the food part of the challenge shone through, and the problem of having other chefs duplicate your dishes was a good one (even if the 20-minute/blind part of things made it far from representative of a real kitchen experience).

As for the Elimination Challenge, it was a bit of a mixed bag. I thought the actual result of the challenge, in terms of its design, came off as one would expect: A fairly broad celebration of military servicemen (although oddly not featuring any servicewomen, out of the four people chosen), with plenty of applause and a general positivity. From a cooking perspective, meanwhile, it seemed that it was sort of luck of the draw: Mary Sue pulled the right knife, grabbing some Guatemalan flavors that allowed her to repurpose popular Border Grill menu items, while both Traci and Floyd struggled with limiting suggestions from their servicemen. I understand where they’re coming from, but I do think that both ended up playing it safe instead of trying to find ways to give them what they wanted while simultaneously delivering something a bit more special. I’m often one of the first to say when a challenge’s criteria are unevenly considered, but this did seem like an issue of both Traci and Floyd not quite taking the risk they needed to take.

Which is why it’s sad to see the person who really did try to be the most ambitious go home. In a season of pleasantness, Naomi was capable of really stepping up. She would have been fighting to be the youngest Top Chef Master, and the first female Top Chef Master, and just to prove herself against the standards placed ahead of her. That she did all of this while remaining on good terms with her fellow chefs, all of whom (especially Traci) seemed sad to see her leave and cited their utmost respect for her performance amongst veteran chefs, made her perhaps the one shining beacon of hope for a thrilling finale.

Instead, it appears we’ll get a dull but pleasant end to a dull and occasionally pleasant season — and if that’s all the momentum that this show could bring to the table, then I think the Magical Elves need to seriously re-evaluate the future of this franchise.

Stray Observations

  • I think I’ve referenced Muppet Family Christmas in an A.V. Club review before, but I don’t mind doing it again: The whole “lucky coin” moment with Floyd and his Serviceman reminded me of the Fraggle Pebble.
  • Was I the only person sort of blown away that none of them knew who was on the other side of the wall? I mean, I know I’m not a chef who’s trying to conceptualize a dish and executed it in 20 minutes, but I feel like I would recognize my family members’ voices.
  • I don’t know if Naomi was more condescending when she called her father “Dad” or when she let out a “Sir” with more contempt dripping off of it than I thought possible.
  • I like that Traci’s brother is named Mitch Des Jardins. Traci sort of rolls along with the French name, but Mitch is an intriguing counter-balance.
  • Naomi’s exit was pretty easy to predict, although they did their best to sell Traci and Floyds errors.
  • It is possible that someone will be filling in next week, as I am actually going to be out of the country, but we’re looking into some alternatives to make it happen. It’s been a small crowd, but there’s been some dedicated readership of sorts, so I’d hate to have to abandon y’all now.