Maybe I'm conditioned by previous seasons of Top Chef, but isn't it a little late in the season to have challenges designed around core kitchen skills? I'm all for knife skills playing a role in how the chefs are evaluated (take Sheldon's carpaccio in the elimination challenge, for example, which was docked for looking like it had been "through the grinder"), but to have that be the sole skill on display seems like a throwaway, especially when organized in teams with immunity on the line. That's the design of tonight's Quickfire, though, which puts the chefs through three rounds of knife tests—first they must sharpen dull knives, then tournee 50 potatoes, and then break down and French rabbits. The first two rounds pit teams against each other, but teamwork plays no role in the challenge. It's just about whether these three can finish before those three, and if one person cuts her hand on your team, well, sucks for you.
Don't get me wrong—I certainly enjoy watching knife techniques more than your average bear, but this challenge feels hurried and misplaced. It smacks of classic Top Chef midseason slump. The craziness of the first episodes has worn off, the personalities aren't new and exciting anymore, and a few more need to be eliminated before things get serious. For now, though, three people can cut potatoes faster than two people, and Micah goes to a zen place to successfully French rabbits faster than his teammates. He heads into the elimination challenge with immunity.
Several challenges this season have lacked any real cohesion (thinking here of the tacked-on style of using only one knife, or serving food on a stick), but at a minimum, the core challenge has been relevant (comfort food, breakfast/Pike Place Market). Tonight's elimination challenge, however, misses the mark on a couple of levels. The challenge's base attempts to tie in to Top Chef history; it asks the chefs to recreate a dish from a memorable moment in Top Chef's past. The problem, though—and this is where the episode really stumbles—is that the "memories" are a mixed bag of fights and food. Revisiting the stew room to watch chefs argue, or seeing Carla freak out for the millionth time isn't nearly so interesting a question as the Top 10 plates from Top Chef history. Some of the chefs had great inspiration to work from because they pulled genuinely good dishes; others had dishes born of disastrous personality conflicts.
Then, to make things truly incongruous, the producers throw the Healthy Choice Blanket of Suffocation over the challenge. (And if there's anything that makes my mouth water, it's removing all the butter and cream from a dish and replacing it with soy and tofu*.) The call for reduced calories isn't grounded in anything other than the HC sponsorship. The constraint doesn't encourage creativity; it just backs the chefs into a corner.
A few of the chefs are lucky enough to draw dishes that lend well to reinterpretation and slimming down: A chicken pot pie, for example, is easily deconstructed. Kristen pulls Carla's famous pot pie apart, poaching the chicken, playing up the herbs, and removing the components from their gravy bath and crust. She easily takes the win. On the losing side, Lizzie's doomed by bad scallops and John cooks his risotto unevenly. They head back to the kitchen to redo the current season's memorably bad burger, only better, and also more healthfully. John takes the fall, edged out by Lizzie's flavorful chicken patty.
- Googling "French rabbits" might have been the highlight of my evening. No little ribs sticking out—just adorable images of bunnies.
- I would watch a spinoff called I Have All The Pickles, which would be a series of shorts in which John Tesar descends, sentence by sentence, into pickle-related madness. We begin with tonight's fantasy of carrying pickles under his arm to display to the judges, and eventually he's a dude in a wheelchair using Cerebro to find all of the pickles, each and every one…
- More on John: I love how he manages to be an asshole talking about his great generosity, and how he "endured" the hardship of being a Top Chef contestant. It's almost endearing.
- Did anyone else cringe with a bit in recognition at the self-conscious food critiques from the Top Chef super fans? The citrus really brightens things up.
- *Truly, I do like healthy food, but that ain't the reason I tune into Top Chef every week.
- Thanks to Sonia Saraiya and Margaret Eby for filling in for me while I was traveling the past two weeks.
- And finally, this: