Top Chef Masters: "Biggest Loser"
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Top Chef Masters: "Biggest Loser"

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Top Chef Masters

"Biggest Loser"

Season 3, Episode 4

At one point during tonight’s quickfire, George responds to a fairly negative critique with “c’est la vie.” 

It’s a somewhat strange attitude given that this is supposed to be a competition, but it’s also an attitude that is sort of becoming my response to the series in general. Top Chef Masters has proven incredibly inessential in its third season, and “Biggest Loser” does very little to change this. It is a serviceable episode of Top Chef, rehashing a previous challenge (where the chefs prepared low-calorie alternatives for kids at a summer camp back in season two) for the purpose of some corporate synergy with NBC’s The Biggest Loser. The challenges focused on challenging the chefs without resorting to gimmicks, the resulting food showed a sense of versatility, and there’s even a bit of inspiration thrown in there to warm some hearts.

The problem is that there’s no emotional connection to the chefs and their struggle, which didn’t change given how little time we spent with the contestants from The Biggest Loser. While we were told a little bit about each of them, and the episode likely played very differently for those who have been following the weight loss reality series (since they would be more attached to these individuals and perhaps view the challenge quite differently), they felt like generic people struggling with their weight being cooked for by fairly generic chefs. Their “inspirational” stories stopped and ended at “having lost a lot of weight,” and what back story we received about the dishes in question was rudimentary (with only Rulon’s French toast getting anything beyond “I find these foods delicious, and can no longer eat them”).

The episode did have an element of skill to it, as the chefs were quite successful with two tasks that force them to be incredibly confident in their abilities. In the quickfire, it’s about speed: with only twelve minutes to complete a cheese dish, the chefs had to pick the right cheese, design the right dish, and make a decision to either play it safe or go for broke. In the end, the two top dishes split the difference: Traci’s colombier and prosciutto carpaccio seemed fairly safe but elegantly prepared, while Naomi’s choice to cook a steak in that twelve minutes paid off with the guest critic (Norbert Wagnib, who is apparently as famous as a cheese shop owner can be). While Floyd seemed frustrated that Traci ends up winning for what he terms “just putting cheese on a plate,” the fact is that the challenge was very much about that gambit: much as Naomi won with a simple soup last week, Traci won with a simple but balanced carpaccio.

However, Floyd’s observation raises a key issue this season, an issue that is growing more worrisome with each passing week. What, precisely, was that challenge being judged on? Curtis asked the judge whether he wanted the cheese to be the star, or if it was about the overall dish, and Norbert simply suggested that it was about “balance.” This isn’t a new problem for Top Chef, considering that there are always disagreements about judges’ decisions on every version of the show, but something about the judging this season has seemed problematically opaque. I don’t know if I’d include the quickfire among the more egregious examples of this issue, given that Naomi was rewarded (if not victorious) for pushing herself in the twelve-minute period, but I would say that that the Elimination Challenge suffered in the sheer number of potential criteria which might have been taken into consideration.

The challenge is simple on the surface: take one of the Biggest Loser contestants’ favorite dish and create a low-calorie version of that dish. However, the chefs are divided into teams of three, with each team having a certain number of calories (1500) to work with which includes their three courses (breakfast, lunch, dinner) and a brownie. As a result, the red team (Hugh, Celina, Traci), the green team (Alex, Mary Sue, Suvir) and the blue team (Floyd, George, Naomi) face off to see…well, actually, I’m not sure what the criteria was, precisely.

The actual challenge is quite interesting, in that it provides the opposite impact of the Quickfire: while the short time allotted in the Quickfire forced the chefs to follow their immediate instincts in preparing their cheese dishes, with no time to think things through, the Elimination Challenge forces them to entirely change the way they think. Every chef but Suvir notes that they don’t know much about counting calories: while they might know how to cook lower-calories items, they don’t instinctively know how to make those items taste good. They’re going to add butter and oil to things in order to make them taste better because that’s what they normally do, and the challenge asks them to avoid those instincts and work towards a healthier meal.

And to their credit, they all rise to the occasion, delivering some apparently quite delicious food while staying well below the limit (albeit with the help of a nutritionist who is watching them every step of the way). Admittedly, the original version of this challenge in Season Two of Top Chef was more interesting given the fact that the nutritionist was only there when they conceived of the dishes and not when they actually made them, which put the onus on the contestants to stay honest with their set recipes, but this was still a neat challenge to see professional chefs having to change their methods.

However, what precisely was the criteria by which this challenge was judged? The winning team (the blue team, led by Floyd’s winning buffalo meatballs) had the lowest calorie count, and the losing team (the green team) had the highest calorie count, but was this simply a coincidence? The chef who went home seemed to be the chef who most displeased the person he was cooking for, but was that considered the most important criteria? I’m not suggesting that we should necessarily be able to easily guess who is going home before it happens, but we should at least be able to piece together the variables in a way that makes us feel like we’re part of the process. At this stage, the critics’ deliberations seem almost esoteric, ruminations on the food without any sort of concrete notion of what they’re looking for. They thought Alex’s food was the least successful, that Mary Sue was the most safe (which sent John home last week in a head scratching decision) and that Suvir departed too far from his client’s wishes, but where does “what tasted the worst” fit into that set of criteria?

Suvir’s exit is unfortunate given the fact that he remained a fun comic presence early in the episode, but I do have to admit that his choice to turn the challenge into a political statement was probably an instant nail in his coffin. This is not so much because the critics or viewers disagree with him (although I am sure this is the case, given Curtis’ justified contention that Suvir’s broad claim about red meat causing obesity was fallacious), but rather that it seemed like he wasn’t “game” for a challenge that was supposed to be about the people losing weight. The idea that he was cooking for himself and not for them might be fine if more than one chef had done it, but he was the only one who made the choice to make no concessions for his client and he went home for it.

However, if you start adding up the reasons people have been sent home, it doesn’t seem to be about the actual food they cooked. Hugh’s salty scallops were perhaps understandable, but Sue went home for not being assertive in the kitchen, John went home for not taking risks, and now Suvir goes home for serving a tasty lecture on a plate. And yet, while I could claim that the lack of logic is some sort of failure of the series’ production, in truth I find myself just accepting that the judging is inconsistent: such is life, as George might say, and such is Top Chef Masters this season.

Stray Observations:

  • Suvir seemed pleased with the way he exited, suggesting that he was proud to go out having made a difference by speaking out against red meat. I liked the guy, especially his “And I’m a brownie, so we’re fine!” one-liner earlier in this episode, but I did feel like his speech was a little narrow-minded. I don’t have a political stake in nutrition issues, but when he had competitors serving red meat in moderation it would seem like he could present his personal perspective as more of a suggestion than a call-to-arms.
  • I continue to be entertained by the way the promo team try to turn the show into something far more dramatic than it actually is. When I heard that last week’s elimination challenge “brought out the worst of Naomi and Hugh,” I nearly spit out my drink — is that what that was? I had no idea!
  • I enjoy how Mary Sue called Norbert perfectly, predicting that he would pick dishes with French cheeses: cheese snobs are nothing if not predictable, apparently.
  • I was pleased to see Naomi shift away from her simple soup in the Elimination Challenge last week to a more adventurous quickfire dish — it’s smart to use the Quickfires as a chance to show creativity and push yourself, while being a bit more strategic in the elimination challenge. Even if sometimes the competition “brings out the worst” in her, the fact is that she’s playing this game extremely well.
  • I'm honestly disappointed that they didn't line up with the current state of The Biggest Loser - a cursory Google search confirms that they're currently down to six competitors, and Rulon (the Olympic wrestler most featured in the episode) actually quit the competition this week. I know the schedules would be tough to work around, given how far both film in advance, but if you're going to go for corporate synergy I expect a bit of extra effort in this day and age.
  • I wonder how much of the judging issue might be the result of the shifting judging panel: I'm not a fan of the two online food critics, and Oseland doesn't seem like a guiding force in the same way as someone like Tom. It reminds me of Project Runway season six, if I can bring in another reality series, where constantly shifting judges made for no consistency in elimination logic. More than being frustrating for the audience, it was frustrating for the contestants, who had no idea how to please the judges given the fact that they were always changing; I don't think that's the only issue at play here, but I think it might be part of the problem in the past two episodes.

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