Top Chef Masters: "Date Night"
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Top Chef Masters: "Date Night"

Whenever I’m posting a review somewhat “late,” I always feel guilty. I like to be able to start the conversation as soon as possible, and when circumstances transpire as such that I end up posting at a later hour, it just feels like I’m not living up to my side of the bargain. I think that people tend to expect things to be posted in a relatively timely fashion, and to work against that expectation (even if it is necessary and/or reasonable) is never particularly ideal.

I say this in part as an apology for the lateness of this review and in part as a segue into “Date Night,” which is one of the more pleasant if not necessarily spectacular outings for Top Chef Masters this season. While the relationship between the judges and the critics is not exactly identical to the relationship between a reviewer and his or her readers, and I won’t belabor this metaphor any further than is necessary at the risk of jeopardizing the latter relationship, I do think that this sense of “expectation” is at the heart of pretty much every competitive reality show of this nature.

But there is something about Top Chef Masters that makes those expectations particularly muddled, as was especially evident in tonight’s Elimination Challenge. There was a lot of discussion about the meaning behind the challenge, as Chris plans a six-course meal to propose to his girlfriend, Victoria—are they cooking a romantic meal? Are they cooking this guy’s story? Are they cooking food that the couple likes? There were a lot of different criteria floating around, and when the show eventually got to critics’ table, the chefs really weren’t that sure who it was that would end up in the top and who would end up in the bottom. Normally, you’d want that to be because everyone cooked so well, which is what apparently happened at the Top Five level on Top Chef All-Stars (which resulted in not sending anyone home). Here, though, it was because the chefs couldn’t decide what the critics were looking for, which is a different situation.

I think this is where the balance between “Cooking Show” and “Reality Show” starts to mess with expectations. This is a central conflict that is evident on a number of levels, including (if you’ll allow me to return to the metaphor briefly) in how I review the show: The fact is, I know more about reality television than I know about cooking, and so I tend to review Top Chef more like a reality show than a cooking show. However, many of you in the comments have expressed frustration with reality machinations getting in the way of the cooking, which would indicate that you are viewing the show through the opposite lens. Ideally, the show wants to be both, but the reality—sorry for the pun—is that such a balance is a definite challenge to establish, which can be frustrating as a viewer.

Not as frustrating, of course, as it must be for the chefs. The three chefs who dedicated the most time to including clever tie-ins based on Chris’ stories were Hugh, Celina and Traci; Of course, they also ended up being the bottom three. You could tell that Hugh was particularly frustrated with this: He felt he had done exactly what they asked for, and was frustrated to find himself in the bottom three because of it. Celina, meanwhile, felt like she had made two things that were meaningful to the couple and two things that the judges seemed to legitimately like. Traci thought she had made a delicious apple tart that captured the romantic sentiment of that final moment (although writing “Je T’aime” on a plate is not exactly creative cookery).

The issue was that, while they had met the requirements of this particular challenge, they fell flat in that always lingering requirement that their food taste as good as other chefs’ foods. Hugh’s beef was chewy, while Traci’s tart was considered a bit dry, and the judges seemed to have no real problem with the taste of Naomi’s chicken, Mary Sue’s mussels, or Floyd’s shrimp by comparison. I’d say that they were being silly for forgetting that this is a cooking competition, but there have been weeks where chefs have gone home for failing to handle the “challenge” aspect despite cooking well, so I don’t blame the chefs for letting their alter egos take over a bit when things can feel so random.

I wouldn’t say that Celina’s elimination was random, though. Her dish was one of those where the very idea of it was bound to send her home: Told that the couple enjoys pretzels and salads, she makes them a pretzel and a salad and more or less calls it a day. While she made a nice pretzel, and the salad seemed to go over pretty well, there was just nothing else there (although the pale ale cheese sauce sounded intriguing, it never really got any mentions positive or negative). It also didn’t help that Hugh and Traci have both made something of an impact in the competition, while Celina has been pretty under the radar and more likely to get the boot at this late stage in the game.

And while the balance between cooking and the “challenge” seemed to create some mixed expectations, I don’t think it is an excuse for subpar cooking. It’s not like they didn’t have creative liberties they could take (especially since one of the diners they were cooking for wasn’t actually aware that this was for them, so what would she care if she didn’t get a pretzel?), so I think the episode fairly successfully delivered a combination of reality and cooking. Sure, some part of me agrees with Hugh that the romanticism of it all was a bit much, but the proposal was charming (if also awkward), and the Mothers were endearing, and even though it was traumatizing, I did get a few laughs out of the ridiculousness of James Oseland quizzing Gael Greene on her favorite aphrodisiacs and her infamous rendezvous with Elvis Presley.

On the whole, I never felt that the entertainment value of "Date Night" was deflated by the tension between the cooking and the challenge. The Quickfire, with the chefs having to identify ingredients using only one of their senses at a time, was one of the more entertaining ones this season—with immunity now off the table, it was basically a fun parlor game between colleagues, with the winner taking home $5,000 for their favorite charity, and I felt it was an intriguing glimpse into how each chef uses their senses differently. It was hardly competitive, especially when Hugh proved to have a much stronger sense of hearing than Mary Sue and destroyed her in the final round, but then again, the whole episode was less competitive, given how the six chefs all helped one another plate during the elimination challenge. I’m not sure where competitiveness fits within either cooking shows or reality shows, to be honest, but this group has been so friendly from the word go that I liked their choice to embrace the sense of teamwork and head into the last few episodes with more of a quiet acknowledgement of the growing stakes instead of a sudden turn into backstabbing and the like.

Although the tension between the show’s two basic tenets may have been evident in the elimination, and it may cause some moments of frustration or confusion, I think that “Date Night” managed to be pretty fun in spite of it all. I could nitpick the Elimination Challenge all day and might have been more frustrated if it had sent home a real contender instead of Celina (sorry, but it’s true), but I thought this rode the combination of friendliness and romance to a charming place that was pleasant and watchable.

A low bar, perhaps, but I guess I’ve lowered my expectations as the season has gone on.

Stray observations:

  • Okay, so two things on Mary Sue. First off, seriously badass with the “cutting off the top of her thumb and just being annoyed about it.” Second off, let me get this straight: she married her business partner’s ex-husband at the suggestion of her business partner? That’s wonderfully wacky.
  • Fellow critic Dan Fienberg noted during the episode that this season would have been much worse if Hugh had not been brought back—does anyone disagree with this? I know I’ve been saying similar things for weeks, but I feel like some are still holding a uni-grudge. For me, he's often saying what I'm thinking, so I'm on board.
  • Speaking of Hugh, I was disappointed to learn that he did not have a unibrow as an 11-year old.
  • Where are we on the “How did Victoria not figure out what was happening?” situation? Chris seemed to indicate that she would never expect him to propose, so was she just so convinced he was incapable of commitment that it never occurred to her? I don’t think she was faking the surprise, but one never knows.
  • I know I said this above, but seriously: Gael Greene returns to the show, and it’s nothing but sex talk. However, I guess I shouldn’t expect more sophisticated conversation from Odious Oseland. I’m glad to be able to avoid the food bloggers, don’t get me wrong, but that was unsettling. Especially since Todd chose a photo of Gael for this post, not knowing the recall it now induces.
  • It seems like we’re heading into the Final Five with Naomi and Traci as frontrunners (provided the latter stays out of pastries), with the other three seeming a bit more inconsistent and thus a bit wild card-esque heading into the next few weeks.
  • As mentioned in the comments last week, that was a brief glimpse of Keir O’Donnell (currently playing Evan on United States of Tara) as a guest at the Elimination Challenge.

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