First off, many thanks to Noel Murray for covering the fake Thanksgiving episode while I was off having actual Thanksgiving in San Francisco, the city where Top Chef started. Between the Swanson and Butterball plugs, and the spit-covered banana s’mores, the episode probably would have put me off my dinner anyway. (Though the Foo Fighters were their usual likable selves in the guest spot.)
This week, alas, we have our first real dud of the season. While I understand and appreciate that the contestants on Top Chef have to twist and contort themselves around challenges that take them out of their comfort zones, tonight’s Elimination Challenge crossed a line for me. It’s one thing to ask them to package an Italian pasta dinner to withstand a Bertolli-like frozen bag treatment—just to name another of gifted shill Rocco DiSpirito’s episodes—but to ask them to yap about it in a two-and-a-half minute live television segment really is a test of another kind. And I don’t think it really has that much to do with cooking.
To wit: I have no doubt that Ben Lyons, the widely reviled co-host of the new-fangled At The Movies without Ebert & Roeper, could perform a whole lot better on television than 95% of the critics I know, including my nervous, stammering ass. Does the ability to articulate his asinine opinions on television make him a good critic? Of course not. Because being good on TV requires a skillset that has nothing to do with critical insight or judgment; in his case, it has more to do with styling gel and perfect teeth and a grooming period at E! Entertainment. If the cameras weren’t rolling, would there be a single person interested in hearing what he has to say about Synecdoche, New York?
So what does it mean when a Top Chef contestant wins the chance to do a segment on the Today show? It means they’re good on television, not that their banal, sub-Rachael Ray beefsteak tomato salad with watermelon is remotely prize-worthy. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind to the beginning…
Noel mentioned last week that the editors did a fine job defying reality TV visual language by obscuring the person doomed to go home. That was definitely not the case tonight: The second line in my notes tonight reads, “Alex allowed to speak. Uh oh.” We hadn’t heard much of anything from Alex in the previous three shows, where he’s coasted more or less in the middle of the pack and hasn’t displayed the Fabio-like colorfulness (or Fabio-like cooking talent, for that matter). Then there’s a sob story about Richard, last week’s victim, leaving him an inspirational note under his pillow; it might as well have been one of Rahm Emanuel’s dead fish wrapped in newspaper.
The Quickfire Challenge brings Rocco DiSpirito back to the show, which isn’t always a bad thing when he’s not promoting something. (Alas, he has a new book, apparently. Rocco has shown a willingness to throw some strong opinions out there and he handled himself well in the face of Anthony Bourdain’s blog beatdown a couple of seasons ago. In any case, the chefs are given the simple assignment of condensing breakfast into an amuse-bouche, which Padma reminds us is a “single bite,” in the dim hope that someone won’t reproduce Clay’s hollowed-out apple monstrosity from the first episode of Season Three. Once again, very few people get the assignment right, like Jeff, who does a pairing of completely different concoctions, or Fabio, who offers a grim espresso shot to wash down his sickly sweet banana brulée. Unsurprisingly, sophisticated chefs like Stefan and Leah fare best, because they know how to present a small, refined taste without going overboard. And Leah, who’s emerging as a strong spoiler to the Europeans, takes the prize.
But here’s the thing about Stefan and Leah: They suck on television, so the best they can do is survive the Elimination Challenge and live to see another day. Doesn’t say a thing about them as chefs, other than the need for some training if they want to be the next Mario Batali or Emeril. The parameters of the TV challenge calls on them to be able to give a two-and-a-half minute cooking presentation that will be accessible to the folks at home. That both liberates them to do whatever they want and limits them to ingredients and flavor combinations that easily reproduced by non-chefs. What does it say about the challenge that the winners don’t produce a single memorable dish? Jeff, Ariane, and Fabio are all good in front of the camera, but there’s no real payoff to their victory. They have to wake up in the middle of the night, recreate their dishes for the sophisticated palettes of Kathie Lee Gifford and Meredith Vieira, and then watch the hosts judge them without getting to appear before millions. (Granted, Top Chef didn’t want to spoil its upcoming season, but it nonetheless felt anticlimactic.)
So Ariane wins for her tomato and watermelon dish, and gains some momentum after whipping up a tender Thanksgiving turkey last week, but I think it’s obvious she’ll be back on the chopping block the next time she’s taken out of her cooking-for-the-family comfort zone. Jaime, with her uncooked eggs, and Melissa, with her inedible habanero shrimp, join Alex in the losing trio, but it’s clear from the start who’s going home. Any casual viewer of Top Chef knows that making dessert is a mistake, but Alex takes it to the next level by choosing a dessert that cannot be made within the one-hour time period (Rocco seems stunned by his mathematical shortcomings) and probably cannot be reproduced at home. So it’s goodbye chaff.
• Juvenile snicker #1: Jeff cooks for a place called the Dilido Beach Club.
• Juvenile snicker #2: Rocco says, “Nothing makes me happier than tools.”
• Thank goodness Daniel wasn’t rewarded for his interpretation of TV show mugging, though it’s a little sad that he seems to aspire to be a celebrity chef in the Bobby Flay mold more than the others.
• Hosea and Leah, sitting in a tree.