Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Top Chef: "Covert Cuisine"

After Las Vegas last season and Washington D.C. this one, I’m thinking that maybe a city not given to high-concept challenge ideas might be better next time around. Just as Vegas led to various gambling-related gimmicks—one of which, “the high-stakes Quickfire,” has stuck around—D.C. has been a source of non-stop Beltway silliness, from politician guest judges short on candor (Nancy Pelosi, Aaron Schock) to challenges involving “bipartisandwiches,” “chef-presentatives,” White House school lunch initiatives, and tonight, a CIA mission to “disguise” dishes. Not all of the challenges have been bad: tonight’s was entertaining enough, and the school lunch was a terrific window into the difficulties of working within health and budgetary restrictions. But it’s always better when the culinary uniqueness of a given location trumps its utility for bad puns and too-cute concepts.


Nevertheless, after a ho-hum “Restaurant Wars,” the show bounced back with two solid challenges, even if the chefs themselves are still not that inspired. I didn’t see the Top Chef Masters episode that was the source for the Quickfire, but it was a fine, diabolical idea: The chefs were each given a series of “mystery boxes,” one at a time and all with the same ingredients, which they then had to incorporate in their finished dishes. It’s a little like a culinary twist on “Exquisite Corpse,” a literary exercise wherein contributors to a narrative add pieces with an awareness of only what’s come before. (Though in Exquisite Corpse, authors know just the one piece immediately before, not the entire narrative.) The problem, of course, is that they can conceptualize a dish based on one or two boxes, but have that concept totally upended if the subsequent boxes don’t fit the idea.

Credit Tiffany for going with a stew, which seems the most flexible way possible to bring disparate ingredients under one roof. (And credit Tiffany in general. She’s really likable and she’s emerging as one of the best—if not the best—chefs in the lot. I’m guessing around 95% of viewers are probably rooting for her to win at this point.) Alex’s disjointed, anything-goes cooking style was either going to be perfect for the Quickfire—if he got the mish-mash of ingredients right—or woefully incoherent, and it went in the latter direction. Given the pile-on of contestants who have no respect for Alex—a guy who, by his own admission, has more experience as a videographer for weddings and bar mitzvahs—it would have been nice to see him defy their conclusions about him, but it didn’t happen tonight.

Perhaps the biggest story was the sudden decline of longtime frontrunner Angelo, who outlasted his presumed top rival Kenny, yet lost all confidence in the kitchen for a night. His meltdown was reminiscent of Jen’s from last season, and both were really hard on themselves, which I think is ultimately healthy, so long as they’re not too crippled by doubt. To me, Angelo’s humble admission of being lost on both the Quickfire and Elimination challenges is a much better way of handling your shortcomings than Alex’s ludicrous idea that having little experience in the kitchen gives him more of an “open mind” than seasoned chefs. I expect him to come back strong soon, but the competition is definitely tightening.

The Elimination round brought chefs to CIA Headquarters in Langley to serve “disguised” versions of various classic dishes—a task that was, in itself, a disguised version of a Season Four “reinvent a classic dish” challenge featuring warring guest judges Rocco DiSpirito and Anthony Bourdain. (God do I miss Bourdain; God do I not miss DiSpirito) Some worked harder at the disguising part than others: Amanda admitted that “even Helen Keller” could unmask her French Onion Soup, about which Tom bluntly and hilariously added, “You took a soup and made soup.” Angelo’s idea for a deconstructed Beef Wellington pizza sounded great, but his wavering confidence led to the inexplicable mistake of reaching for a frozen, ready-made puff pastry. On the other hand, Alex did a terrific job disguising his veal parmigiana, but only because, in the words of guest judge Wylie Dufresne, “it turned out that [his] disguise was really poor execution.” Tom added, “It was tough as pulling a post in Yemen.” (Some very strong zingers all around tonight.)

As for the favorites, it was great to see Tiffany take the Paris prize for her tasty gyros, not least because it was her benevolent intervention that led Kelly to the winners’ circle. Though anyone not named Amanda has a shot at winning—though I have my doubts about Kevin—you have to give her the edge heading into the final few weeks. Maybe nice [gals] do finish first.

Stray observations:

• How about Leon Panetta getting called away from the table? Exciting stuff. A little unfortunate, too, because he was the rare public official who seemed willing to fire off a few shots. (On Angelo’s stealth Beef Wellington: “They would have captured this individual and hung him.”)


• My wife expressed pity tonight for the poor person who has to put all the letters on the knives. So knife-letterer, if you’re out there, someone’s thinking about you.

• Alex’s favorite spy was Get Smart. How apropos.

• “We now have to do some Top Secret deliberation of our own,” says Padma. Will WikiLeaks get their hands on that, too?


• Alex mentions the pea puree incident on the way out. Good riddance.