Top Chef: "Super Bowl Chef Showdown"
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Top Chef: "Super Bowl Chef Showdown"

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Top Chef

"Super Bowl Chef Showdown"

Season 5, Episode 10
 
Scott’s sitting out tonight, sick from what I can only assume is overexposure to Toby Young’s moldy quips, so I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for a second-string Top Chef guide tonight. And what an episode to have to sit out Scott! Not only was it entirely devoid of any belabored metaphoring on ol’ Toby’s part, but Stefan finally got humbled and Andrew and Carla faced off head-to-head in a crazyface showdown.

Of course, I’m getting ahead of myself. We must start at the beginning, and what better way to kick off a fast-paced, football-themed episode than with that most exciting of comestibles… oatmeal! I was actually really excited for tonight’s Quaker Oats Quickfire Challenge Brought To You By Quaker Oats before Padma revealed the secret ingredient all seven remaining chefs had to combine with their chosen food group. The football squares conceit was a good one—each chef had to pick a square that lined up with a hidden food group and secret ingredient—but making the “secret ingredient” the same for everyone essentially turned it into an oat challenge. What could be sexier? As demonstrated by Fabio’s scabby-looking eggplant and Jeff’s plate-o-brown, oats don’t lend themselves to a whole lot outside of coating something else, and everyone except Stefan turned in something “oat-crusted.” Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing: Stefan’s banana mousse may have won him the challenge, but Jamie’s coconut-oat shrimp and nectarine some-such looked mighty golden brown and delicious. But pretty much all of them took the same route as the ever-creative Leah and just did, “kind of, like, a crust, on some like, fish.” Way to sell it, Leah!

Stefan’s Quickfire win earned him another notch on his increasingly notched knife handle, and the advantage of choosing his opponent and cuisine in the elimination challenge, which saw seven Top Chef “All Stars” returning to cook head-to-head with the current contestants on dishes based on the regional cuisines of seven NFL teams. This was a nice way to return to the football theme without doing another tailgating/game-day foods retread, but aside from Spike and Andrew, was there anyone here you were really excited to see back? Stephan was talking shit about Andrea getting booted early, but Camille didn’t even make it a quarter of the way through her season. And don’t even get me started on Miguel. In this case, “All Stars” seems to translate to “People who don’t have a restaurant to manage.”

But the head-to-head cook-off in front of an audience of ICE students and booted contestants turned out quite a few surprise plays, the biggest of course being Stefan’s whoda-thunk-it loss to Andrea. Stefan seemed to think he was setting himself up for an easy victory with his choice of opponent, but it seems that he should have thought harder about his chosen region. Stefan’s cooking generally favors subtlety and technique, two things that are not usually associated with Texas cuisine. (Not saying that Tex-Mex can’t be refined and sophisticated, but it’s not the first interpretation that springs to mind.)  Shockingly, Stefan’s duo of meats atop a duo of salads went down to Andrea’s pretty by-the-book chili/corn-chip vision, losing his team 10 points and putting him on the chopping block for the first time ever.

Jeff and Fabio also went down to their respective “all star,” and while both of those contestants have stared down the judges’ table before, their presence there tonight is especially remarkable when you look at whom they were bested by. But although tonight’s win may have been out-of-the-blue for the perpetually fumbling, increasingly avian Carla, as she reminded us at the beginning of the episode, she is in fact classically trained, and producing an acceptable, much less tasty, gumbo in 20 minutes is no small feat. And, just like Fabio before her, what I originally perceived as incessant obnoxiousness mutated into something charming tonight: I laughed out loud at mousy lil’ Leah jumping three feet in the air when Carla shouted “LADY LEAH!!” in her face (in what I’m sure she thought was encouragement), and her reaction to winning two tickets to the Super Bowl as her prize was adorable AND thematically appropriate—“Hands up! Whoo! Touchdown Carla!” Or maybe her particular style of crazy doesn’t seem so potent when compared to the always-classy Andrew (“I will be peeing on your bodies.”)

But Jeff’s dismissal seems particularly cruel when we see Leah still coasting her way into the top four. Leah and Carla have seemed like the most obvious next two to go for a few episodes now, and while I can sort of get behind Carla’s dark-horse victory, Leah’s persistent blandness and lack of creativity—which she keeps managing to pass off as “simple flavors”—is growing increasingly irksome. It’s fine if you want to make food that’s “super-simple and tastes good,” but at least feign some enthusiasm about your New York Strip steak. (Get it? Because she had the New York Giants??)

Tonight’s bottom three was one I never really expected to see, but each chef revealed a lot about himself as he faced down elimination. I was surprised to see how well Stefan accepted the judges’ criticisms, despite his initial bitching about losing to the “fucking nuts and grains girl.” I thought his bad behavior as a winner would translate to being a sore loser, but he showed as much restraint in facing the judges as he does in his cooking. He may be an insufferable blowhard when he’s on a roll, but his instinct to shut up and eat the judges’ humble pie is a good one on this show, and you can bet he’ll do whatever it takes not to have to do it again. Fabio, on the other hand, has developed a troublesome habit of making too many excuses, and while his goofball foreigner charm is as winning as ever, he seems to have trouble owning up to bad execution (this time it was overcooked venison), and as guest judge Scott Conant put it, “Intentions have nothing to do with anything, what matters is on the plate in front of you.”

But Jeff committed the cardinal Top Chef sin, standing by a dish the judges hated. He did himself in by refusing to acknowledge that his ceviche was anything other than spectacular—and though I admit his looked lovely onscreen, ceviche is an easy thing to fuck up, and I trust the judges when they say he did. And so it’s back to the Dildo beach club with you Jeff. At least you don’t have to sleep in the “bunky bed” with Fabio anymore.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

• “There is no reason to eat vegetables when there is meat and fish around.” Amen, Fabio.
• Is anyone surprised that Jeff played football? That must be why he’s always lifting weights and staring into the distance.
• It wasn’t brought up by the judges, but Jeff’s choice to take the path of least resistance by choosing Miami as his cuisine couldn’t have won him many points. If you’re going to insist on flogging the same type of food to death over and over, you better be prepared to bring it.
• Hosea called Miguel “Chunk.” Heh. Miguel is starting to kind of look like the captain from Wall-E though.
• Fabio gives us his second “monkey ass” quote in as many weeks.
• Really Spike, a Wisconsin dish with no cheese whatsoever?