I was in my kitchen preparing a snack while starting tonight’s episode of Top Chef Masters, and I heard Floyd describing the Quickfire Challenge as either “tough” or “dumb.” I flipped back on my recording to clarify, and was sort of disappointed to hear that he had chosen the former.
Yes, “I’m With The Band” was sort of categorically dumb. Now, to be clear, a lot of great episodes have Top Chef have had a bit of dumb in them: part of the show’s charm is taking something that sounds silly on paper and demonstrating its inherent charms. For example, the idea of cooking an entire meal out of a dorm room is pretty dumb, but it inspired some true creativity back in the first season when Hubert Keller made use of the dorm showers to drain his pasta.
In the case of “I’m with the Band,” the 'dumbness' of it all was of two very different sorts. In the case of the Elimination Challenge, I would argue that the silliness of it all ended up being pretty charming, bolstered by some fun table banter provided by Maroon 5 and the welcome arrival of Gail Simmons to bring some class to the critic side of things. And yet, in the Quickfire, the dumb of it all was without any redeeming quality, a stilted effort to create tension that only highlighted how the show’s continued attempts to drum up legitimate drama are failing on every level.
The Quickfire had two different components, and the first was actually kind of interesting. Given only seven minutes to create a “heavenly” dish (thus creating “Seven Minutes of Heaven,” in case you missed that bit of cleverness), the chefs are forced to decide on whether they want to make something simple that they know they can get done (like Celina’s scallop crudo) or something more elaborate but which might not quite come together (like Naomi’s seared foie gras). It was a tough challenge that offered another test of the chefs’ ability to adapt in a Top Chef environment, and that the final two dishes ended up being examples of both of the prevailing strategies seems to reflect a smart challenge. Traci ends up winning for her beef carpaccio, simple but perfectly seasoned, while Naomi has to settle for runner-up despite her incredibly ambitious effort for such a short period of time.
And wouldn’t it be nice if that had been the entire challenge? Alas, the show decided to pull an old reality trick and have the chefs rate one another, a leftover from the Top Chef All Stars season. While Floyd suggested that this was tough, and Mary Sue certainly cited the challenge of criticizing her fellow chefs, the truth is that it was just dumb. And it was even more dumb than the All-Stars edition, in that they announced their decisions using big laminated numbers as if that made things more exciting and confrontational (whereas the All Stars example was via secret ballot). The end result didn’t create tension between the chefs so much as it created tension between the chefs and the producers: Hugh’s banter, as much as I continue to enjoy it, reflected a true frustration with this frivolous exercise, which isn’t the kind of vibe you want in a situation like this one.
The reason the Elimination Challenge worked better is because there was a better vibe to the whole thing. Yes, it was a bit ridiculous to ask them to cook in the RVs and prepare their food while the RVs were in motion, but the challenge also had some interesting elements of strategy. Sure, Traci picked a stacked team comprised of the four best chefs remaining in the competition (Naomi, Hugh, Mary Sue and Traci herself), and the potential strategy error of picking a team of four was a non-issue given that workload became such a big problem on the team of three (Alex, Celina and Floyd), but the layers of the challenge never felt like they were creating disadvantage as opposed to complexity. I might even argue that the challenge was a bit too complex: I sort of lost track of what Maroon 5 had actually wanted them to make, as the RV side of things sort of took us in a different direction for a while.
And yet, in the end I quite liked the situation which arose. Because the chefs were all interpreting the same basic requests, they ended up with similar food, which made comparing the two meals easier (and the final decision downright simple, at least watching from home). Also, I liked the dynamic of the chefs having no idea how the other team was doing — the sense of isolation created by the RVs gave it a real competitive feel, and made the stew room discussion much more interesting.
It also helped that, as I noted above, the meal was just pretty fun on the whole. Having Gail offered a much-welcome injection of some casual, rather than forced, banter — I don’t know why the notion of mashed potatoes as Maroon 5’s Yoko Ono sounds so much better coming from Gail, but it just does. And Maroon 5 were also completely game, with Adam Levine being particularly savvy — this shouldn’t be a surprise for those who have been watching NBC’s The Voice (which makes this a bit of corporate synergy, in a way), given that Levine has been quite entertaining there as well. I like the idea of bringing in a band dynamic, and even if some of it remained a bit hokey it reminded me of the benefits of these kind of family style meals as opposed to the divisions we’ve seen in the previous episodes. Both of the last two episodes saw the judges filtered among the other diners, and that creates situations where two people must force banter back and forth — here, things could flow more naturally, and the increased level of competition within the conversation seemed to have everyone on their best behavior (even if Oseland remains odious).
In the end, the actual competition was a no-brainer: the Black Team simply did an infinitely better job (with Traci picking up her second win of the night for her Japanese-style steak), with Alex, Celina and Floyd struggling on just about every level by comparison. It ended up being a tough decision, though, in terms of who to send home. Alex had the worst dish (the pasta) but did the most work, Floyd had two bland dishes which didn’t show his personality (including a salad even Adam Levine could make), while Celina had a mismatched plate and a dull Spanakopita (which is my “That’s a thing? Huh!” of the week, in case you were wondering). That Alex went home might seem unfair at first given how much work he did, but it was his choice to take on too much which led to his dish being unsuccessful, so that seems like an acceptable cause/effect elimination.
While a definite step down from last week’s episode, and certainly marred by the quickfire, this is one of those instances where the simple pleasures of Top Chef can shine through. We didn’t get one of those great moments like Hubert draining pasta in the shower, but we did get that easy charm of a bunch of people gathered around a table talking about food. Combine with a decent framework to the Quickfire and a nice collection of one-liner, and you have a dumb yet not wholly unsuccessful outing.
- Sorry this is a bit late — my students had their final exam this evening, which pushed things back a bit in terms of my schedule. I know that this isn't a big discussion piece, but I hate to do anything to delay what discussion there is given how much I appreciate the dialogue, so thanks for being patient.
- While the sameness and volume of food in the Elimination Challenge ended up making it seem sort of inconsequential, the Black Team’s food really did outclass the other team on every level. Just seemed much more inventive and thoughtful, and more well-executed — sucked the tension out of the whole affair, on some level.
- However, that really did look like poop rolled in bird seed.
- As indicated, I was pretty chuffed to hear Celina suggest paying homage to Hubert’s pasta draining genius — glad that moment will live in Top Chef Masters infamy.
- You can see the show starting to form competitive narratives as the chefs continue to get picked off: with Traci and Naomi emerging as frontrunners, Traci’s evocation of the potential for the first female Top Chef Master was not a coincidence.
- “Oh my god, I’m geeked out” made me cringe — Oseland really gets under my skin, although I sort of want to keep him around just to read the odes in his honor which keep appearing in the comments. That said, I’d have loved to see Adam stab him with his fork, as he promised.
- I honestly wonder what the editors would do without Hugh — while Floyd’s going on about how his kids are going to think he’s so cool for meeting Maroon 5, Hugh’s dropping one-liners left and right: “I’ve got youth, and panache, and one eyebrow on my side” in the little interstitial between commercials was a particularly fun one, confirming that he’s self-aware about the unibrow situation.
- Anyone willing to cop to a fetish of a bed full of tostadas? Anyone?