Top Chef Masters: "Would You Like Fries With That?"
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Top Chef Masters: "Would You Like Fries With That?"

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Top Chef Masters

"Would You Like Fries With That?"

Season 3, Episode 5

At the end of tonight’s Elimination Challenge, Traci hugs the departing chef and tells them that it’s OK: “At least you went out doing something that you would never do.”

This is ostensibly true: Very few of these chefs would ever end up running a fast food restaurant, especially the chefs with more of a fine dining background. Traci’s comment suggests that going out on this challenge is preferable, because you didn’t lose for cooking your food. Instead, you lost for failing to meet the expectations for what was a very specific challenge that would be unlikely to be replicated in a natural environment.

However, at the same time, I think that this challenge does say something about the chefs involved, something that isn’t just about their ability to cook and serve in a fast food environment. The reason that George went home at the end of the episode wasn’t just that he didn’t do well in this challenge; it is that he chose to take a competitive risk instead of taking a personal risk. Faced with difficult ingredients that were ill-suited to the challenge, George made a decision: Instead of reconceptualizing his dish and putting out food that might have kept him alive but would simultaneously challenge his initial vision, he chose to cook what he would have cooked anywhere, staying “true to himself."

And while that does constitute a risk in a competition like this one, I wouldn’t say that he should be commended for it. In fact, while I think the judges went too far to suggest that he was thumbing his nose at the task, I would say that he completely deserves to go home for it. He wasn’t being sent home for a bad attitude or for failing to complete service quickly enough (which was more or less thrown out of consideration, keeping it from seeming entirely arbitrary). Rather, he just didn’t even try to adjust to the surroundings of the challenge, unwilling to conceptualize a new way of serving/preparing the ingredients he had purchased.

Now, obviously, certain contestants had advantages going into the Elimination Challenge, and George was not one of them. By picking Pork and Clams, George was already in a rough position, as was Alex with his salmon. People who picked chicken or skirt steak had something that could be more easily worked into fast food dishes, and it was no coincidence that the top three (Mary Sue, Traci, and Floyd) were working with these ingredients. It also helped that Mary Sue, who bounced back to the top after a trip to the Bottom Three last week, has experience with food trucks, which a fine dining chef like George would lack. At the same time, though, I don’t think it’s unfair to test the chefs on how they adapt their dishes, and despite a lack of experience with fried salmon, I would say that Curtis was right to note that there is much more that Alex could have done with that protein. Alex was there, by admission, for his inability to think on the fly, and that seems like fair criteria for a challenge to be based on.

I am always a sucker for tasks that push the chefs to be more creative, which is why I actually found this episode both enjoyable and “successful” (which I guess goes beyond enjoyment to some sort of satisfaction in the narrative and the results). The $1 Quickfire was one of my favorites the show has done, pushing the chefs to do more with less and think in different ways. I liked that Mary Sue was in the bottom for being too worried about not having enough bacon to actually taste it (when she would have discovered it was too salty and overwhelmed her BLT Salad), and I found the foreshadowing of George’s elegant but “unsatisfying” dish being poorly received a nice bit of narrative play from the editors. This is a challenge where subtlety wasn’t going to win anyone over: if you only have $1, the judges will be most impressed with those who try to blow someone away with something simple as opposed to vaguely impressing someone with a straightforward dish. Naomi’s Bread and Asparagus didn’t sound revolutionary, but it showed smart use of ingredients (and impressive technique on the asparagus) and thus connected with Newnam and Gagliano from Dinner Party Download (making this yet another guest judge whom I do not recognize in the least, not that I’m complaining, given the only one I did recognize was Kelis).

As for the Elimination Challenge, I would readily admit that this is not a fair test of the contestants' overall ability as chefs: If the producers had wanted that, they would have told the contestants the challenge ahead of time and had the test be who could make the most sophisticated version of fast food. However, this wasn’t about who could cook the best fast food dish. Instead, it was about who could work with their ingredients to create something different from what they had intended. It was about their skills of imagination and creativity, with perhaps a bit of luck (Mary Sue’s food truck experience, picking the right ingredients) thrown in for good measure.

While I do think that the ingredients trick unfairly penalized certain competitors, I would go further to say that the three of them picked their dishes poorly, even if this wasn’t a fast food challenge, and their inability to adapt was not entirely created by the fast food twist. George may have been the most stubborn, but why on earth didn’t Celina wrap her wrap? And why did Alex call that a taco when it was clearly a burrito? I think all three of them deserved to be where they were, and I felt the prompt they were given (no utensils, main course, and a side) were clear enough that George’s confused pork/clams was still pretty silly, even before the twist made it even sillier. If you’re on Top Chef, you know that these challenges will put you out of your comfort zone, and I think George was rightfully sent home for a dish that was a failure conceptually and simultaneously failed to impress the judges in terms of taste.

I don’t know that "Would You Like Fries With That?" indicates a larger turnaround for the show, but I think it’s the most successful episode yet, simply because everything was a bit more clear. Sure, the pairing of James Oseland and his upstart former intern was odious, but Curtis and Danyelle were more enjoyable on their drive-thru date, and I liked the swap between the restaurant and the drive-thru. Similarly, more than before, I felt like the chefs were having fun, even if they were being put in a tough position. Someone, as they sat down after the quickfire, said, “That was kind of fun,” as if they were almost surprised, and it seemed like some of the chefs (Naomi, Hugh) were even enjoying the fast food challenge. Both tasks were certainly “challenging,” fitting, given that they were challenges, but they largely allowed for good-spirited fun at the same time. Free of the trumped-up drama of previous weeks and free of any service-related mishaps that would become instrumental in the final decision, “Would You Like Fries With That?” was just your typical, strong episode of Top Chef Masters featuring great chefs showing off their versatility and creativity in an artificial (but not exactly unfair) environment.

And that’s the kind of show that I find to be a nice palate cleanser at the end of an exhausting Wednesday.

Stray observations:

  • Hugh, early on, states that “good chefs should be able to cook pretty much anything”—is this something we agree with? I’d argue that Top Chef measures this more than it measures actual cooking skill, but is that what it should be doing? I think it’s an open question.
  • Enjoyed the discussion during the Quickfire about whether or not this undermines the fine dining business that these chefs can make great-tasting dishes with only one dollar. Also, I liked the synergy with the Fast Food challenge, with a subtle nod to dollar menus (and, I believe, a reference to fast food from one of the judges). Quickfire/Elimination synergy isn’t entirely common on the show, but it was welcome here.
  • They don’t switch up the order quite often in regards to Judges/Critics table, but this was an instance where it really didn’t surprise anyone: Traci was right to have them pegged as the bottom, and I think we had done the same. However, this was almost refreshing, given our concerns over transparency in recent weeks. There were certainly no surprises here, which was nice in a way.
  • Maybe I just have this all backwards, but was I supposed to find Hugh’s cashier banter annoying and James’ petulant child act at the drive thru window entertaining? It was vice versa for me personally.
  • What are people’s opinions on Farmer Boys? I’ve never eaten there myself, having spent only a couple of weeks in SoCal in my lifetime, and actually had no idea such a chain existed.
  • Next week brings network synergy (now that Adam Levine is on The Voice, which he might actually not have been officially signed up for at the time this was taped), more challenging working conditions, and GAIL! Huzzah!