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Top Chef: "The Elements"


Top Chef

"The Elements"

Season 4 , Episode 5

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Wow. I’ll guess we’ll have to start with the coda first, since the show hasn’t had a coda before, unless you count the glad-handing that happens after the season finale. Zoi’s inevitable departure from the competition—due to mushrooms that were seasoned, um, a bit too subtly—ignites a powderkeg of simmering resentments in the waiting room. It starts with Spike going off on Antonia for rejecting his butternut squash soup idea, even though she had immunity. Then Jennifer, assuming (I think) that Spike threw her girlfriend under the proverbial bus, gets in on the action, which in turn causes Lisa to interject, thus sending Dale over the edge, because he’s tired of Lisa’s complaining and doesn’t see why she gets to go to Italy for cooking bacon. Did I get that right? The conflict is edited together in such a haphazard way that I’m not entirely certain.

Okay, allow me to mediate: Spike has no legitimate complaint about Antonia bullying him out of cooking his presumably magical butternut squash soup. As she claims (and we see), the cameras have her on record as saying that she’d be perfectly willing to make soup, but she was of the opinion that soup wouldn’t be a dazzler. (And there’s solid Top Chef precedent for that reasoning, too: Remember Betty and her “slothful” trio of slow-roasted soups in Season Two? Nothing more enticing than beet soup served in a champagne glass.) Spike and Zoi both had every opportunity to insist that she take a backseat conceptually and allow them to do what they will.

As to the other conflicts, I don’t have much of the opinion, other than most of the people involved (everyone other than Dale, basically) have no chance of winning this thing. We haven’t seen or heard much from Lisa at all this season, but she definitely seemed like a handful here, with a sour disposition in the kitchen and lots of complaints when things don’t go her way. (Here’s a piece of advice, future Top Chef contestants: Assert your will or quietly yield the floor. Don’t fold at the insistence of a more strongly opinioned chef and then whine later about how nobody listened to you.) That said, Dale isn’t exactly a prince, either; whenever someone is a “self-proclaimed asshole,” I tend to take that person at his word. As for Jennifer, I’m pretty much ready for her to follow Zoi home soon; it’s hard to keep from interjecting when you think the people fighting are responsible for your girlfriend’s ouster, I suppose, but there’s no cause to go Bob Knight on the chairs, either.

I’m getting a little worried about where this season might be headed. I know big personalities are part of what make reality competition shows like this compelling, but they shouldn’t be too much of a distraction. The petty, childish scuffles between Marcel, Ilan, Elia, Cliff, and others on Top Chef 2 were what made that season by far the weakest to my mind, and I’m concerned that this one may be getting derailed early. By tacking on a coda to this week’s episode, it seems like the producers are angling for a fight, and the increasingly toxic dynamic among the chefs suggests that they’ll be many meltdowns to come. As Marcel was fond of saying, “It’s about the food.”

See? Now I’m getting sidetracked.

Tonight’s episode began with the annual palate-testing Quickfire, which breezed by much too fast, perhaps because more time had to be allotted to the personal conflicts later on. Having contestants rate high-end ingredients against their low-end counterparts was a very clever idea, not least because it comments on how much cost can sometimes influence our palate as much as taste. I also have great affection for palate challenges past, because one of them inspired perhaps my favorite scene in the whole series, when Dave and Miguel squared off in a junk-food tasting challenge back at the house. But there wasn’t much going on this time, and we didn’t get a strong enough sampling before it was all over. All we come away with is the knowledge that Antonia prevailed and Stephanie was at the bottom—proof perhaps that having a sophisticated palate may not be that important, after all.

As for the Elimination Challenge, contestants were divided into groups of three to serve the first course in a multi-course benefit for the Meals On Wheels program. We’ve seen this sort of thing many times before, but having every team on first course puts them all on equal footing; no one has to worry about the progression of the meal, and all of them have to worry about how to kick the evening off with something appropriately light and delicate. The theme is the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Nice and broad, plenty of room for interpretation.

Remember last week, when I warned that presumptive frontrunner Richard might be undone by misadventures in molecular gastronomy? Tonight was the perfect example of how the wheels may well come off before the end: Richard’s scaly salmon sous vide is the perfect example of sacrificing flavor at the altar of technique. As Tom noted, salmon isn’t a fish that takes well to a water bath—I defer to his wisdom here—and yet Richard’s interpretation of the Water element was too literal a response to the theme. (Fish of any kind probably would have cut it.) On the other end, there’s the reliably excellent Stephanie, whose fiery shrimp dish again seemed like the most delectable of the night, and probably a hair more sophisticated than the slab of bacon that won Lisa a trip to Italy. Could she be the first female winner? Too early to tell, but she seems like a classy and talented chef, and she did an excellent job of mediating the friction between Lisa and Dale.

As for the losers on Team Earth, they could all evaporate as far as I’m concerned. Tom wanted to send both Zoi and Spike home, and I couldn’t agree more. Spike failed last week to make any more than a half-decent Vietnamese spring roll, despite his supposed expertise in Vietnamese cooking and his apparent love for the movie Good Morning, Vietnam. And Zoi couldn’t stop complaining every week about how compromised she’s been at every turn, and how she’s more a cook than a competitor. Had she seen the show before signing on? Did she think that she’d be given an unlimited amount of time and money to cook whatever the hell she wanted every week? And does she realize that the rules and restrictions apply to everyone, not just her?

Good riddance, I say. And based on tonight’s episode, there’s a lot more chaff where that came from.

Grade: B

Stray observations:

• Ryan was fortunate that Team Air’s duck breast was passable enough to escape scrutiny, because that pomegranate aperitif looked pretty dreadful. I’m with Tom on this one: Adding a mini-drink to an entrée seems pretentious and distracting.

• Lisa: “I can be that bitch that everybody hates.” Do people say stuff like that about themselves outside of reality shows? Should I feel fortunate not to have met them?

• Andrew brings the fake caviar again: Is that his foam?