For what it's worth, I believe that "Top Chef" is simply the best reality show on the air right now, if not one of the very best shows on television, period. For the next four months or so, we'll be bringing you the latest and greatest news from the Top Chef kitchen on a weekly basis. In fact, these recaps will be so witty and funny, you might not even need to watch the show yourself.
Watch What We Say: Top Chef
By Jason Lee
November 21, 2008
But you should anyways.
This week on Watch What We Say: A lack of culinary craft.
Now we get down to the good stuff.
The opening episode of any season of Top Chef has always been somewhat, how do I put this . . . less than flavorful. Underseasoned. All bad puns aside, your typical season premiere of Top Chef is so full of exposition that you almost feel like the show's producers and editors have a grocery list of items that they need to get through (okay, so maybe there was one more pun still in me) before the episode is over.
Introduce the chefs. Check. Introduce the city. Check. Introduce the wackier members of the cast. Check. Introduce the rivalries. Check.
Well, now that we've gotten all of this out of the way, the real fun can finally start. And start it does. The Quickfire Challenge opens with Padma telling the 15 remaining chefs that they're going to do their own version of a New York classic. I'm immediately thinking pizza because of NY's famed woodfire pizza restaurants - except that the Chicago cast did pizza last year.
Surprise! It's hotdogs! Each chef will have 45 minutes to come up with their own version of the classic NY hot dog. I personally love these "make this dish your own" challenges because it gives the chefs free reign to showcase their own creativity, personality and background. It really separates the artists from the cooks.
As expected, we see TONS of creativity in this challenge, with each chef trying to put their own unique spin on this pedestrian item. Interestingly enough, the non-Caucasian chefs seem to be doing the best, drawing on their own ethnic cultures to put a decidedly fusion twist on an American staple. We see hotdog paninis and sushi hotdogs and Mediterranean hotdogs...
Indeed, Chicago-native Radhika takes home the top prize with an Indian-flavored hotdog – though with her second Indian dish, she has seemingly forgotten the vow she made last week to not be known as the "girl who cooks nothing but Indian food." Still, she played to her strengths as a chef and as we've seen multiple times in the past, it pays to be smart.
The Elimination Challenge starts and the chefs find out that they'll be opening a Top Chef restaurant in Manhattan. Each chef is responsible for one lunch dish, which they will cook in the New American style of cuisine. Out of sheer luck, it turns out that there are five chefs who want to do an appetizer, five who want to do entrees and five who want to do desserts. Boom. Finished. No arguments, let's get started.
The chefs head to Whole Foods Market where (surprise, surprise!) we see a bunch of them making a number of elementary mistakes. Mistakes that we've seen before on Top Chef and mistakes that, frankly, these chefs should not have made because they know better. I mean, really, haven't these chefs have watched previous seasons of the show? Doesn't Hosea know to buy fresh crab as opposed to canned crab meat? Doesn't Jill know that using an ostrich egg for a quiche is a bad idea when you have no idea what an ostrich egg tastes like?
And then there's Ariane, the woman who undercooked her farro grain last week and barely escaped elimination. For this New American challenge, she's making a lemon meringue martini . . . and in the process, she's ignoring one question that every Top Chef should ask themselves as they compose a dish for the Elimination Challenge: Can I win this challenge with this dish? If the answer is no (as it clearly is for this woeful martini), then you're not reaching high enough and will inevitably be ripped to shreds by the judges.
As the chefs finish up their meal preparations back in the Top Chef kitchen, judge Tom Colicchio unveils this week's twist: not only will they be cooking in HIS iconic NY restaurant, Craft, but the 50 diners at the lunch will all be NY chefs that applied to be on Top Chef but were rejected.
As twists go, this is definitely one of the juiciest ones that we've had on Top Chef. A bunch of pissed off, bitter, overly critical diners will be actively looking for reasons to dislike the food in front of them. Call it reality TV heaven.
Among the many plotlines that are running wild in the kitchen in the final hours before service starts, two stand out to me: Fabio (the self-impressed Italian) is making a beef capriccio with olives that he chemically altered to be firm on the outside but near liquid on the inside. This almost reminds me of the overly-ambitious culinary machinations by Season 2 runner-up Marcel, who seemed to always prioritize his "cool" cooking methods over the actual taste of his food.
The other story is that dear Ariane is stressing out over her lemon meringue martinis. If you can believe it (I hardly could), she actually goes around the entire kitchen and makes EVERYONE TRY HER DISH AND GIVE HER FEEDBACK. This is the equivalent of Roger Federer walking over to Rafael Nadal during the French Open final and asking, "Hey, would it be better for me to push my serve out wide or should I hit it down the center? Which one is better for beating you?"
Incidentally, the near-unanimous feedback is that it's too sweet. More on that later.
Service begins and surprisingly (given the ample preparation time that the chefs had, their large budget and the flexible challenge theme) the chef's hours of work in the kitchen has resulted in a number of very disappointing dishes. While Jaime's corn soup and Fabio's beef carpaccio (though it looks like beef pizza to me) are praised by the judges, a large number of them fall flat.
Hosea's crab (as we expected) tastes bad. Jill's ostrich egg quiche apparently tastes like glue. Alex's pork tenderloin is dated. Radhika's avacodo moose is compared to sweet guacamole by Gail. But no dish gets a more visceral reaction from the judges as Ariane's martini, which is so viciously, violently sweet that Padma convulses after a single bite and spits it out into her napkin.
Gloom and doom are in season at judges table. "They took ‘New American' as a buzz word and turned it into clunky regional American," Tom laments. More complaining and criticizing ensues. As I listen, I make my predictions. I'm not too sure about the top, but I think that Jaime at least makes it into the top three, with Ariane, Hosea and Jill comprising the bottom three.
I'm right about Jaime and the bottom three. Joining Jaime at the top are Fabio (with his genetically altered olives) and Carla (a tall, African-American woman with short frizzy hair that points in every which way and big bulging eyes...whenever she's on screen, she looks like she's just finished sticking her fingers in an electrical outlet) who made a wonderful, albeit somewhat boring apple tart. Though I'm pulling for Jaime, Fabio ends up winning and celebrates his victory backstage with some raucous Italian chanting. Clearly, he's stolen a page out of Roberto Benigni's playbook.
So who's going home? Well, if Hosea goes home, it's cause his dish was underseasoned and the crab was gross. If it's Ariane, it's cause her dish was sweeter than Shirley Temple in a vat of Splenda. And if it's Jill...oh, Jill. Yes, you made a bad decision with the ostrich egg. Yes, you fell in love with an ingredient instead of coming up with a cohesive meal...but your defense of your dish (if you'll pardon yet another bad food pun) really takes the cake. You stammered. You stuttered. The words coming out of your mouth didn't follow any tenets of sentence structure that I'm personally familiar with. You made Sarah Palin sound like Condoleezza Rice.
"Jill's defense of her dish was the lamest defense that I've heard in five seasons of this show," remarked Gail, starting off the discussion. Most agree that Jill was more focused on using an ingredient that was unique than presenting a dish that was unique, but Padma strongly fights for Ariane (with her Saccharin-Atomic-Bomb of a dish) to go home while Tom argues that of the three chefs, Hosea was the most complacent.
The three chefs are brought back out and Tom reiterates the case for each chef to go home. I've switched my prediction by this point and am convinced that Jill and not Ariane will be going home. I'm right. Jill with her ostrich egg quiche is packing her knives.
In the back room, Jill is in tears as she bids her chefs goodbye. Ariane is in tears as well, though I think her emotions run more in the area of guilt than sorrow. After Jill leaves, Ariane collapses in Carla's arms saying that she doesn't deserve to be on the show while Carla consoles her.
After two episodes, I'm really starting to like and root for Ariane. Maybe it's just because I've been the underdog for most of my life, but I'd like to see another underdog succeed (though I'll freely admit that she has no chance of winning the entire season).
I can only hope that after two episodes of being on the verge of elimination, she steps it up and decides to deliver some really bold, exciting dishes. After all, if you're going to get sent home eventually, might as well get sent home for doing something that's truly innovative instead of sticking to martinis. At this point, she really has nothing to lose.
Watch What We Say rating for Top Chef - Episode 2: Three and a Half TiVos
Watch What We Say: Rating System
Four TiVos: This is television content raised to the level of a transcendent art form. Not only should you TiVo this program for yourself, you should keep it on your TiVo for future generations to watch and savor.
Three TiVos: This is a very good show with a regular spot in my TiVo rotation. I watch every week and will often invite my friends over to share the enjoyable experience.
Two TiVos: I'll TiVo this show if I need something to watch while I'm folding laundry or dusting furniture.
One TiVo: I actively dislike this show and never allow it to take up space in my TiVo. Often times, I'll gripe about the show's producers, ridicule the actors and lambaste the network for keeping it on the air.
Zero TiVos: If this show is on, I unplug my TiVo for fear that the show is accidentally recorded and my entire home entertainment system gets contaminated with this malignant, diseased trash.
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