Top Chef: "Thunderbirds"
B+

Top Chef: "Thunderbirds"

A couple of notes right off the bat:

• So Ashley is upset about cooking for a bachelor/bachelorette party because she, as a lesbian, isn’t allowed to participate in the institution of marriage (in most states), yet she’s perfectly happy whipping up a sweet dessert for the military, another institution that isn’t so into the gays, either? Suddenly last week’s principled stand becomes this week’s cave. (In fairness to Ashley, her desire to be married may well trump her desire to serve in the military, at least enough for her to be blind to the similarities.)

• Anyone else weirded out by Preeti’s comment about 9/11 inspiring her to be a chef? I guess that day gave everyone’s life a little clarity, but the way she phrased it was kind of unseemly. Just not that mouth-watering a day.

• “Supersized” episode needed the extra 15 minutes for chefs to express the honor of literally feeding the Military Industrial Complex. In the jet garage. (FYI, cooking lunch for airmen falls lower on the support-the-troops-o-meter than they seem to think.)

After last week’s forgettable hour, tonight’s episode bounced back with a better-than-average variation on the massive, cooking-in-a-group-for-hundreds challenge that always gets worked into the earlier episodes of the season. It started with a seemingly bland Quickfire assignment to make an “out-of-this-world” potato dish in 45 minutes, but I enjoyed it for the surprise of several contestants defying iron-clad Top Chef rules and some of them getting away with it. Given the time restrictions, the following endeavors seemed outright crazy to me: 1. Ashley making gnocchi, which the judges have a tendency to dismiss as “gummy” or “heavy” even under ideal conditions. 2. Ash making ice cream, which is not only a dessert (usually a mistake in itself), but one that needs the time to set perfectly. 3. Jesse’s two-potato soup would also need time for the flavors to coalesce harmoniously, and I’ve never felt that soups were all that smart a choice for Quickfires.

Happily, after all those setups for certain culinary disaster, two of the three came out as among the favorites—a special tribute to Ashley’s skills, too, given that her water was blanched by Preeti’s asparagus. How she even plated the gnocchi after losing that much time is remarkable enough on its own; to actually succeed convinces me that her botched panacotta from last week was less representative than her successful watermelon dish. It was also charming to see Ash as surprised as I was that his ice cream won over the judges, like he’d gotten away with something. As for Jesse, her liberal use of the cayenne fell into a pattern of well-conceived but poorly executed dishes, so a quick exit seems likely. In the end, it was Jennifer taking the prize with her steamed mussels, but I appreciate the other two notables for succeeding with the odds stacked against them.

About Jennifer: The show has been setting her up as the villain of Season Six, a sharp-tongued and temperamental chef along the lines of Tiffani in Season One, but I find myself more and more in her corner. Given the unhappy task of managing 14 chefs of varied abilities cooking for 300 people in a kitchen with no stoves or pots and mostly canned or dried foods products, most would have curled into a fetal ball. But with her immunity assured, Jennifer assumed the role of general in the Elimination challenge with impressive élan and probably deserved the overall win for managing a good overall meal under adverse conditions. Again, she’s being tagged as a villain for her curtness, but this episode is the perfect time to remind ourselves that the kitchen and the military both have chains of command and both require leaders at the top of the chain who are certain of their decisions and capable of barking out orders.

The winners didn’t really interest me that much—get assigned the proteins and you’re halfway there, it seems—but I have to comment on the intrigue with Mike Isabella landing on both the winners and losers panel. It was very smart of the judges to glean who was specifically responsible for what dish, since the idea of splitting everyone into teams of two was entirely the contestants’. I think they should have gone further and sent Mike home entirely: The guy worked the carving station and whipped up a Greek salad that was underseasoned and lined with sad-looking shrimp. Granted, Laurine and Preeti’s pasta salad wasn’t destined to blow anybody’s mind, either, but I like the message that weak chefs can’t hide behind more talented teammates just because they were fortunate enough to draw them.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

• I bid you adieu for the next two weeks, when I’ll be covering the Toronto Film Festival. We haven’t yet determined who will cover for me while I’m gone, but I can guarantee that they’re going to make me look bad.

• Always be sure to reshell your pre-shelled pistachios. 

• Even if you’re not into Twitter, the #topchef channel is a fun place to scan for one-liners while you’re watching the show. Snark is easy at 140 characters. (Sample joke, from @Caissie: “On cooking for Air Force: ‘We answered the call & made our country proud.’ She forgot to season that w/any irony.”)

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