So how do you follow up by far the worst episode of the season? With by far the best, naturally.
Everything was clicking tonight: Fun challenges, lots of tension and bitchy one-liners, and enough attention on each contestant to where we really got to separate wheat from chaff. This seems odd to say about a cooking show, but the episode excelled even though the food itself, by and large, wasn’t terribly interesting. When you’re catering a wedding with barely over 24 hours notice and are forced to prep and serve without getting a wink of sleep, finesse doesn’t count so much as simple carrying it across the finish line.
After Padma informs the group that the Quickfire winner will no longer be granted immunity, she and Tom reprise the exhilarating four-person team “relay race” from last season. Last year’s race wasn’t much of a contest: Between Hung’s blazing Benihana-on-amphetamines knife skills and Casey’s…um… fastidious onion-cutting style, one team finished well ahead of the other. Not so this time, despite Antonia’s slow start on the orange peel and Nikki’s apparent unfamiliarity with the mayo-making process. (Dale, who was in no mood to suffer foods this episode, didn’t try to hide his frustration with Nikki or the other chefs on his team, whom he branded—accurately if pettily—as not the most skilled of the remaining contestants.) Some exciting showdowns here, with the adrenaline-rush predictably spazzing up Andrew (“And that’s where the fire comes in”), a monkfish filet pitting Richard against Dale, and a stride-for-stride race between the two anchors in the quart ‘o mayo contest. While nobody had Hung’s flair with the knife, the genuine suspense of the outcome more than made up for it. And addressing Dale’s subsequent tantrum, Antonia got to fire off the opening salvo in an evening full of amusing cattiness: “He punched the locker and then he had to have his diaper changed.”
Moving on to the Elimination challenge, the same two teams squared off in “Wedding Wars,” which repeats the toughest challenge from Season One (I remember Harold feeling particularly bitter about it) while also filling in for the expected favorite “Restaurant Wars.” This seemed like a bad idea to me: For one, I’m with Harold in thinking that the one-day-notice wedding catering challenge is unreasonably difficult and doesn’t really play to the contestants’ strengths, since most are more seasoned in restaurant cooking. For two, I always enjoy “Restaurant Wars” and didn’t necessarily want to see it supplanted, though I frankly could care less about the front-of-the-house conceits that go into setting up the fake eateries. And yet, it was tremendous fun to watch a bunch of exhausted, irritable, punch-drunk chefs go at it—not so much a marvel of cooking as an edifying social experiment in sleep deprivation.
In terms of talent, the teams were badly mismatched: All four of the chefs on the Bride’s Team (Richard, Andrew, Antonia, Stephanie) have shown mad skilz, and with the possible exception of Andrew, all of them have a chance to win Top Chef outright. The Groom’s Team (Nikki, Dale, Lisa, Spike), on the other hand, has only one clear talent in Dale, two uneven-at-best performers in Lisa and Spike, and Nikki has been overmatched time and again. Fate cruelly puts the ball in Nikki’s court, as the groom favored an Italian menu, which is supposed to be within her wheelhouse—at least as those endless yards of homemade pasta would seem to attest. And how does she respond? As any future executive chef wouldn’t: She shirks her leadership duties despite her supposed expertise on Italian food, focusing instead on individual dishes that she hopes will give her a leg up on her teammates.
Contrast that with Richard, who happily volunteers his team to serve the bride—against the perceived wisdom that the bride is likely to cause the most trouble at any wedding—and then takes the lead naturally, not caring that it might expose him if the team finishes on the bottom. I know there are some Richard-haters out there (at least according to Amelie Gillette’s informal Onion-centered straw poll), and I get that the faux-hawk and crocs and pretentious gadgetry turns some people off. But he proved tonight why he’s been my favorite contestant all along: He’s highly skilled, inventive, good-natured, and honorable, and he proved his integrity by conceding his individual win in tonight’s challenge to Stephanie for making the cake. He didn’t have to do that, and I suspect that he and Stephanie are maybe the only two remaining chefs capable of such a gesture. Warms the heart, really.
And really, hats off to Stephanie for doing the job right. If you’ll recall, the cake for the wedding on Season One was aided by a box of Betty Crocker mix, so for Stephanie to prepare one from scratch and include all the frilly layers and flowers to boot… well, that’s pretty heroic. I’m guessing that Lisa’s German chocolate cake probably tasted better, but in her words, it looked like a battleship, and must have appeared awfully pitiful by comparison. Weddings may be the only occasion where the look of a cake is at least as important as how it tastes, because you’ll never remember how a piece tastes 20 years later, but it’ll certainly show up in the photo albums ‘til death do you part.
In general, it was just tremendously entertaining to watch the teams work through the night and into the next day, fueled on Red Bulls and contempt. We knew that Andrew would be in his element; attacking a pile of soon-to-be-creamed spinach, he says excitedly, “I’m like Popeye’s fucking wet dream right now.” Predictably, the Groom’s Team showed the most dysfunction, with Dale spreading himself thin by trying to take on all the work himself, while the others hunker down on one or two tasks. You could blame Dale for putting out the greatest quantity of bad food, but the judges were right to boot Nikki, who had the opportunity to bring everyone under her cohesive vision, but sheepishly balked at the helm. She’d been slouching her way through the competition for weeks, but this time, there were no more inept chefs to hide behind.
• Tonight marks the second time Andrew has used the phrase “I have a culinary boner.” Not a pleasant image.
• Unlike the union of Scott and Scott from Season One, I’d lay odds that this marriage isn’t going to last too long. Proof? The bride: “I used to say all the time, ‘I wished that he would love me the way I love him,’ and then one day he did.” Browbeaten into love—the foundation of any healthy union.
• I have mixed feelings about Dale. He behaved deplorably at every turn, yet he at least cared enough about the food his team was putting out to involve himself as much as possible. His great line to the judges about Spike’s highly praised sea bass (“You should have liked it. It took him three hours to make it.”) put his righteous dickishness in a nutshell.