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Top Chef: "Outside The Lunch Box"


Top Chef

"Outside The Lunch Box"

Season 7 , Episode 2

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Normally, at this early a stage in the competition, I’m given to complaining about how difficult it can be to differentiate the personalities and talent-level of the individual chefs, and find myself looking forward to episodes where the pool has been thinned out a bit. But tonight’s hour, “Outside The Lunch Box” (a title somehow not the worst pun on the show), was unusually explosive and fractious for this getting-to-know-you phase, with all sorts of plotting and backstabbing and finger-pointing going on, and early villains and blood feuds brewing. Add to that two very clever challenges and suddenly Season Seven looks extremely promising—at least as reality-show drama. We’ll see if anyone can cook.

The Quickfire brought in Assistant White House Chef Sam Kass, who cooks for the President, helps tend the White House garden, and is heavily invested in the First Lady’s signature campaign to curb childhood obesity. (You can read more about Kass in this New York Times profile. He was also one of People’s most beautiful people.) Extending a metaphor so far past the breaking point that it becomes kind of endearing, Padma introduces the “bipartisandwich” challenge—cue grooooooaaaaan, perhaps followed a guilty smile (from me, anyway)—which asks the chefs to pair off into teams and make a sandwich in 30 minutes. Piece of cake, until they’re shown the oversized aprons that join them at the hip, forcing them each to work with only one arm (and really trust the other’s knife skills). It’s a great, whimsical idea, the culinary equivalent to a three-legged race. The sandwiches themselves were all somewhat forgettable—notable only for Angelo winning his third straight challenge out of the box, even after hubristically calling his shot—but it was great fun watching everyone scamper around in the aprons and slice-and-dice without incident.

(Only complaint: The cutaway to commercial before the winner is revealed. Quickfires shouldn’t have to be framed as cliffhangers, since no one is going home, and interrupting Padma and her guest mid-judgment causes an awkward editorial hiccup. Hope this doesn’t become a habit.)

Given Kass’ presence, the Elimination challenge was predictable enough, but illuminating: Make a tasty and nutritious school lunch under the same restrictive budget ($2.60 per child) that is imposed on real schools. This involves a main course, the presence of fruits and vegetables, and a healthy dessert. Teams of four were given only $130 to cook for 50 kids, which would be terribly difficult even before considering health and balance, and making food that kids, with their notoriously unrefined palates, might actually want to eat. I love challenges like this on Top Chef, because they force restaurant and culinary school hotshots to deal with low cuisine, which means humbling themselves and finding creative ways to address practical, everyday challenges.

And oh how the sparks fly! Angelo, after winning the Quickfire with Tracey, decides to pick his strongest adversary, Kenny (and his partner Ed), to be on their team, under the logic that if they somehow wind up on the bottom, either Kenny or Ed will have to go home. This seems diabolically clever, but I’d argue that it’s a too clever by half: Unless Kenny does something catastrophic, there’s no chance the widely perceived second-best chef is leaving on Week Two, and now Angelo has made an enemy out of a guy who’s likely to stick around until the bitter end. There will no doubt be future challenges that require them to show some esprit de corps, and Angelo has made that difficult. By the same token, it was on Kenny and Ed to assert themselves and make sure they got to dictate what the group was going to do. If Kenny thought passing off celery-and-peanut-butter as a “vegetable” was a dumb idea, he should have insisted they do something else. It’s pretty obvious that Angelo (and presumably Tracey) were comfortable losing if it meant dragging their teammates into the muck along with them.

Others were unbelievably clueless about what kids might like. Kelly guessed right when she said, “Kids fucking love tacos,” but when she’s out chain-smoking while Tracey goes on about the child waiting for her at home, she looks at Tracey like she’s speaking a foreign language. (Kelly's winning carnitas on oatmeal tortillas were really smart, though, and I think she emerged as a strong contender/villain here.) Ed’s decision to spice up his sweet potatoes would have gotten him booted had the judges not basically liked them. But it was Amanda who was most egregiously (and obstinately) out of touch, insisting on a braised (yet skinless!) chicken dish and sherry au jus. Bad Top Chef contestants are usually the ones who have one thing in mind and refuse to adjust their thinking when circumstances change, like poor-quality ingredients or time restrictions. Amanda takes that flaw to another level: She admits to the judges she made the dish because she personally enjoys it, yet she never seemed to consider the possibility that incorporating alcohol in a dish intended for children might not be the smartest idea.

And while Amanda’s spending heavy coin on sherry, that leaves her poor teammate Jacqueline to improvise a low-fat chocolate/banana dessert without the chocolate, which results in a horrible, starchy mush so heavy in sugar that Kass looked personally insulted by it. The judges had no other choice but to send Jacqueline home—though had they put teams rather than individuals on the Bottom Four, as they normally do, she’d have been fine—but it’s Amanda who set her up to fail. Not that she cares: “’Take one for the team’ is not in my vocabulary.” Yikes.

Stray observations:

• There’s always a philosophical debate on TV Club between folks who like Top Chef for the food and those who like the drama. We’ll see how it shakes out, but it’s looking like the drama-lovers will be getting more of what they want this season.

• Padma: “A successful government is bipartisan.” No, Padma, a successful government advances policies that are beneficial to the country. Fuck process. (Sorry. Just had to challenge CW a bit.)

• One holding knife, the other holding bread: “Don’t cut me. Please don’t cut me.”

• Hated hearing Angelo describe the sauce on his sandwich as “sex on a plate.” A bad image.

• Tamesha isn’t happy with Amanda, and for good reason, but her idea of making gnocchi as a main course is only slightly less crappy than Amanda’s braised chicken.

• Kelly, showing team spirit: “As much as I appreciate the help from them, I feel like they’re taking part of my dish away.”

• Didn’t comment on this last week, but Dial Nutriskin (with fruit oil!) seems like an odd choice to replace Glad and its beloved family of products as chief sponsor. Maybe a sign that Padma is the main dish now? (And please take it easy on the humina-humina comments, kids. I expected it last week, but would rather not every week be a referendum on Padma and Gail’s appearance.)