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Top Chef: "Puerto Rico"


Top Chef

"Puerto Rico"

Season 4 , Episode 13

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Oh dear.

I feel like I should just stop here and open the floor to your toxic comments, but I have to come to terms with my crushing disappointment just like everyone else—or at least the 91% text-voting majority that felt Lisa should have gone home tonight. I’m searching for precedent for such a consistent underperformer making the finale of any reality competition show, and the best I can come up with is Wendy Pepper, the villain from Season One of Project Runway. Granted, Lisa isn’t quite as underhanded and diabolical as Wendy, who seemed to think she was on a contestant on Survivor. But in other ways, they’re very similar, from their gray-cloud temperament to their uncanny ability to keep failing upward, despite being in the bottom two or three virtually every week.

In any case, Antonia’s elimination raises a question: Should one’s overall accomplishments be a factor in elimination? Clearly, based on tonight’s dismissal, the judges were holding strong to the rule that the only thing that matters is what the contestants produce on a given week. But surely their impression of the chefs from the whole of the competition is a little tough to shake, isn’t it? Had Richard or Stephanie, the presumptive frontrunners, hit them with a plate of al dente beans tonight instead of Antonia, would they have gotten the boot? In general, I like the idea that the chefs have to bring their best work every week or risk getting the boot, but I also wonder that if the results are really close—as they were tonight, with the losers delivering “B+” dishes—then maybe they should give the nod to the more accomplished one overall. Or perhaps the judges were deliberately understating the sucktitude of Antonia’s plate ‘o slop for the sake of suspense.

So getting back to the beginning, we’ve left Chicago for Puerto Rico, which I guess means that Top Chef made it through the Windy City without encountering the likes of Charlie Trotter or Hot Doug. Their loss, I suppose, though it’s not like the latter needs another half-block added onto its immense lines for duck-fat fries. The first Quickfire takes advantage of some humble regional favorites: The fritter and the plantain, which the chefs have been asked to combine in a duo. Everyone’s dishes look good, even Lisa’s, who’s scaring me already with her uncharacteristic competence. The guest judge, supposed Puerto Rican culinary genius Wilo Benet, gives the nod to Stephanie, who enjoys her first Quickfire win for some delicious-looking tostones with seared tuna and pork and shrimp fritters with brown butter, lime, and basil.

The Elimination Challenge is a pretty brilliant one, I think: Everyone gets a whole pig and has to use different parts of the animal to make multiple dishes. There’s something so pure about having a pig just laid out on each of their slabs, a nice reminder that when we’re eating bacon, ham, and pork chops, they actually come from the same wonderful, magical animal. (Sorry, obligatory Simpsons reference there.) So the chefs have to know how to butcher the pig properly—Antonia shares a rather gruesome tip on one aspect of it—and work with the rawest of raw materials. And while it’s a little limiting to have pork be the central component of nearly every dish at the party, I like the focus of it, too.

And, as is custom in these final battles, some eliminated contestants also come back as sous chefs. (Though last season’s twist of having accomplished executive chefs serve as underlings was a real treat.) With Dale, Nikki, Spike, and Andrew back into the game, it’s on Quickfire winner Stephanie to assign the sous chefs. And ever the magnanimous one, she picks pairings that won’t upset anyone—save for Lisa, who hasn’t met a chef she hasn’t alienated. While the remaining contestants stay in the kitchen to butcher the pigs, the sous chefs are sent out to market to get ingredients, which leads to another priceless Andrew moment where he tries to use his rudimentary Spanish to describe a color and then improvise from there. (“I say ‘Esta roja,’ then I get into some visual shit.”)

The day of service, there’s one major drama caused by Dale leaving Stephanie’s pork bellies out of the refrigerator overnight; you get the sense that they’d press on under different circumstances, but wisely choose not to risk a potential health hazard involving 100 VIP diners and a bunch of cameras. But the crisis becomes a form of opportunity—or “crisitunity,” to quote The Simpsons again—and they improvise a chicharrones, fruit, and prosciutto salad that becomes one of the evening’s highlights. Richard also does well by incorporating the Southern food he knows with some regional flavors, including a malt-liquor-soaked rib that surprises even the locals. Clearly, this has become a two-person battle for the title, unless Lisa can pull something magical out of her eyebrow next week.

As sad as I am to see Antonia go instead of Lisa, I have to admit that her dishes looked considerably less appetizing, and the decision to just throw all three on the same plate suggests an inexplicable lack of refinement from a chef who’s proven herself on other occasions. Lisa seems to have a knack for making food that’s just good enough to skirt outright disaster, and she’s been lucky to be next-to-worst every single time in the closing stretch. Still, the coda reveals how deeply disliked she is: Richard and Stephanie, bar none the two nicest and most generous people on the show, can’t conceal their disappointment over Antonia’s dismissal. And when Lisa lashes them for not patting her on the back, we get some rare nasty words later from Richard: “You won the fuckin’ bronze medal. Congratulations.”

Grade: B

Stray observations:

• What was with that bizarre sequence at the party between challenges? I expected the usual “surprise” that the chefs would be forced to cater or something, but instead we’re treated to a bunch of weird slow-motion shots laden with a lot of fake portent. I’m guessing the quartet probably had a fun time, but I guess the editors were forced to suggest otherwise.

• Overall, I’m a little disappointed that Top Chef left Chicago without exploring it more fully—or with less expected choices than Pizzeria Uno and Lou Mitchell’s—but then again, I’m sure residents of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami felt the same way.

• Richard wins a car! When did this show turn into The Price Is Right? He seemed a little embarrassed to accept it.