“Guess what? I didn’t come here to make friends. I came here to friggin’ compete.”
If you utter those words on a reality competition show—and many do, as you can see by the clips below that my Twitter/AV Club chum (and recent Best Show intern) @David_C_ alerted me to tonight—you’re officially dead to me. Let me clarify: If not being someone’s friend is a strategic advantage, as it might be on Survivor or The Apprentice, then maybe I could give you a pass, much as I’d grumble at the ultimate reality show cliché. But on a show like Top Chef, where meritocracy and individual achievement mean everything and behind-the-scenes kerfuffles mean nothing, there’s no angle in it. So when Robin says she’s not there to make friends, what she really means is, “Everyone hates me. I refuse to reflect on why everyone hates me or admit my own culpability in sowing all these bad relationships. So basically, fuck everyone.” It’s not strategic for her to make a statement like that; she’s just being a jerk. (Other culprits from Top Chef past: Spike, Marcel, Tiffani—villains all.)
After last week’s placeholder of an episode, “Pigs And Pinot” was a solid step up, if only for being more clarity to the competition than we’ve seen so far. If there was ever any doubt before about who’s sticking around for a while and who’s heading home within the next two or three weeks, tonight’s Elimination Challenge made it thuddingly obvious. In the winner’s circle, we have maybe the most talented group of four in series history: The Voltaggio brothers, Jennifer, and Kevin. On the bottom are three chefs destined to go home in one order or another within the next few weeks: Robin, Laurine, and Ash, the latter of whom ultimately hit the bricks. And though the entire cast was rooting hard for Robin to go, I wonder if the order in which people get booted is worth getting worked up about. So far, Robin has outlasted a bunch of chefs who may be more talented and personable than she is, but no one that had a legitimate shot of winning. If some bizarre set of circumstances—like, say, next week’s “Restaurant Wars” challenge—ends in Robin outlasting one of the Big Four, then the hand-wringing can commence.
Tonight’s challenges were all about pairings. For the Quickfire, contestants were asked to pair a dish with Alexia snacks, which I’m told are delicious once you pick out the blasting caps and tiny shards of glass. Nothing too exciting going on in this challenge, except for a few things: 1. Eli’s clam dish earns him his first victory, yet it also fills him with an unearned and inexplicable burst of confidence, as if suddenly he’s the man to beat instead of the middle-of-the-road, sixth-best type he’s been from the beginning. 2. Robin’s sweet corn panna cotta looks like hell in parfait form. 3. You had to feel sorry for Jennifer, who made a mistake by taking her pork chops off the heat too early and paid disproportionately for it by having her dish served last. 4. I’m going to miss Ash’s humility and self-deprecation, which is rare among the “not here to make friends” crowd. He may lack confidence, but he has a good sense of where he needs to improve and perhaps how, which puts him ahead of lesser chefs who stand proudly behind their crappy dishes.
Set at the annual “Pigs and Pinot” event, with everyone drawing knives to determine what part of the pig they’ll be cooking, the Elimination Challenge was bound to reveal starkly the strengths of those who understand the subtle flavors that interact well with wine and the weaknesses of those who have been hanging on by their wits. Take Kevin, for example: The guy actually knows that hazelnut trees grow on the vineyard where the wine comes from, and tailored his pork leg pate accordingly. How do you compete with that? On the other end of the spectrum, Laurine’s substitution of pork for a rabbit dish didn’t technically amount to a rillette and according to Food & Wine’s Dana Cowin, it tasted like cat food. And she survived somehow! That’s just a huge disparity of talent, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing the field narrow a little bit more so there’s some suspense. When it gets down to the final four, it’ll finally be anybody’s game.
Of the three losers, I was surprised and relatively disappointed to see Ash go home, because his dish sounded much more appetizing than the Robin or Laurine’s. I think what did him in were his comments to Tom about finally getting to cook in his own style and delivering a timid, not particularly flavorful result. Otherwise, how does “cat food” rate over anything? Or a sauce that tastes like instant coffee grounds, for that matter? Ash may have talked himself out the door, but as I wrote earlier, the other two are heading out with him soon. I’ll just miss his company, and it definitely sounds like the other chefs will, too.
• How big a disaster is Robin going to be on “Restaurant Wars”? The preview gave us just a taste, but based on the universal animosity towards her within the house—increasing that much more with every week she sticks around—it could get ugly.
• Really liking Kevin these days. He’s the frontrunner to be sure, but he’s also a gracious winner and has an infectious passion for what he does. If there was ever a reality show about making friends, he’d win that too.
• Another few people tell me that This American Life also did a segment on the “not here to make friends” crowd. I suggest a follow-up on “at the end of the day.”
• Enjoying the intrigue between the Brothers Voltaggio, who seem serious about their sibling rivalry. Should heat up as the ranks thin. (And I’m going to have to root for Bryan, who doesn’t seem as prone to compare himself with legends like Babe Ruth.)
• Toby Young hits us with a vivid-but-disguisting bon mot, calling the difference between American pinot and the European variety used by Jennifer, “like the difference between a shaved armpit and a hairy armpit.”