Top Chef: Texas Recap
By David Mumpower and Kim Hollis
February 22, 2012

deja vu all over again

Power Rankings:

1) Paul - Paul has won more often than the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls. The final three episodes give off the vibe that everyone is simply waiting for his coronation, particularly now that Edward is gone.

2) Lindsay - After several consecutive strong rounds, Lindsay was an eyelash away from elimination last week. She is still well positioned to be the fallback option if (God forbid) Paul chokes in the finale.

3) Sarah - The only reason why Sarah is positioned third is because she has never been eliminated from the competition. While she can hang her hat on the fact that 29 players began the season and she is one of only three to reach this round of the competition sans elimination, she is a weak overall performer and kind of a punk. The “kind of” was us being polite.

4) Beverly - While she doesn’t deserve to be here over Edward, Beverly makes for a better story as a finalist than Lindsay or Sarah would. Even though she is selfish and a bit underhanded, I am rooting for her if Paul doesn’t win (God forbid).

Previously on Top Chef, Beverly edged Grayson for a spot in the final five. This turn of events surprised Lindsay, Sarah, Paul and Edward. Those chefs had been led to believe that they comprised the final four. For her part, Beverly was unapologetic about her re-entry; she was also taken aback by the icy reception received from the other chefs. Even Ed, someone she considered a role model, struggled to hide his dissatisfaction with the return of a previously eliminated participant.

As we have stated innumerable times over the years, any reality show competition that engages in such a practice needs for the production team to be forthcoming with the players ahead of time. If everyone knows the rules as has been the case with recent seasons of Survivor/Redemption Island, there is no reason to harbor a grudge. Conversely, if this bit of potential sabotage sandbags the participants, as was the case with Survivor: Pearl Islands, the possible result is an unsatisfying conclusion.

This is exactly what came to pass last week on Top Chef. Beverly, clearly the inferior of Ed based on performance this season, earned a spot in the final four. Even worse, Sarah was given a free ride to the final four thanks to a Quickfire victory. She didn’t even have to cook in the challenge, a rarity in the nine season history of the show. That meant that one of the best three players – Paul, Lindsay and Ed – was in danger of elimination. In the end, Ed was the one sent home in order to allow his inferior protégé could advance.

This is great news for Paul, who seems like a mortal lock to win the season. Then again, he probably was anyway, even if Ed had survived. The only way this situation could change is if we witnessed a similar turn of events as in season 7 (Washington D.C.). Kevin Sbraga won exactly one individual challenge prior to the finale yet he claimed the title of Top Chef thanks to some inspired cooking in the finale. Sarah and Beverly would need such a miracle to win since they are clearly a notch below their counterparts. Lindsay is hot enough down the stretch that she is the only participant with a realistic chance to achieve an upset. The others would be Buster Douglas/Mike Tyson level shockers.

The contestants arrive at their new destination, British Columbia. This feels like some sort of weird prank from the producers. All of the participants were asked to handle the brutal Texas heat, so brutal that it almost felled Texas native Sarah at one point. Now, they are sent to the location of the 2010 Winter Olympics. I guess this made sense to someone somewhere but this is an asymmetrical choice of locations for the finale.

Sarah and Lindsay quickly hug and maintain that they have a special bond. This is a bit surprising in that the relationship always felt a bit one-sided. Sarah has had a girl crush on Lindsay most of the season, even offering up the notion that Lindsay deserved to win a challenge where the editing indicated she was the worst overall performer. For her part, Lindsay acted like people do when they know someone likes them an unhealthy amount. Their relationship seemed like a variation of the friend zone where one party didn’t really view the other as a friend. Watching some of the episodes on television and some communications during the months of downtime must have altered Lindsay’s point of view.

Paul is greeted as the conquering hero, which he is. The only hope the other contestants have is that he forgot how to cook during the sabbatical. Conversely, an awkward moment occurs when Beverly arrives. The other women put on their fake smiles and deliver fake hugs. For just a moment, Top Chef morphs into Real Bachelorettes of British Columbia.

The chefs receive word that they are headed to Whistler Mountain. Another patented awkward car ride occurs where the other women gang up on Beverly. This is by our count the fourth time this season this has transpired. Paul, a genuinely nice man, asks her about her experiences on Last Chance Kitchen. Beverly prepares her speech but before she can relay the events, Sarah rudely shouts, “Look at this tree!” If ever anyone deserved a frying pan to the face, it’s Sarah.

The discomfort displayed during the conversation brings us to an important aspect of the final four competitions. While the participants were sandbagged by the announcement that Beverly would be returning and that clearly impacted their performances in the most recent elimination challenge, that was in the past. Fast forwarding to now encompasses several weeks wherein they have had time to make their peace with this turn of events. Whether anybody likes it or not (and we concisely stated above that we do not), there are no excuses from this moment forward. If Beverly beats the other players, she will be the champion of Top Chef. As such, she deserves the respect of her opponents. The fact that Sarah is too immature to display such behavior speaks poorly of her, not Beverly. And Lindsay isn’t much better since she clearly condones the catty actions.

The Quickfire Challenge begins soon after the contestants arrive at the top of the mountain. Padma and Tom are dressed as if they are climbing Mount Everest and even with this much weather protection, the whipping wind is still capable of blowing them around. This is not an exaggeration. The camera catches Padma almost knocked over by a gust of wind. Already, we question the sanity of hosting the Top Chef finale at this location.

The chefs are informed of their first challenge; its difficulty is off the charts. They must enter a gondola and prepare a meal while the tram is moving. Even worse, they must make a stop at one point and pick a new ingredient. Tom Colicchio informs the players the elevation is 7,000 feet above sea level. He states that this will present rare cooking challenges since the food will cook irregularly at this altitude. The chefs are also informed that the winner of this challenge will earn a spot in the final three while the other players must compete in the next heat. ..heat being a disingenuous term to use given the sub-zero weather.

Poor Paul has motion sickness issues, and then his lamb does not caramelize correctly. His goal becomes to finish the dish more than to win the challenge. Since Paul is always expected to win the challenges, his struggles create an opportunity for the others. Beverly in particular impresses us as she boldly determines to create a cold dish to serve in Arctic conditions.

Lindsay has a moment of panic when she realizes she has not prepared enough of her protein. Oddly, this plays in her favor when the judges taste the dish. They believe her dish is the best balanced of the four, something that would not have happened if she had prepared the protein better. Lindsay wins the round and with the victory takes home $10,000 plus a spot in the final three. The order of finish is Lindsay in first, Beverly in second, Sarah in third and Paul in last place. If you had bet on Paul finishing last, you would be a very wealthy person right now.

The following morning, the other three chefs are informed of their next task. After being introduced to the gold medalist in Skeleton at the most recent Olympics, the chefs are informed that all they have to do to win is retrieve their ingredients and cook a winning dish. Of course, since Top Chef is in Huge Twist mode, there is a Huge Twist. The chefs must dig their ingredients out of massive blocks of ice. How this determines their cooking skills, we don’t know. Still, it does make for great television.

As the players sprint to the ice, they struggle to identify some of the ingredients. The only obvious one is crab legs, and Paul beats Beverly and gets that superior ingredient. Of course, using the item is another matter. The chefs use ice picks in a manner that would make Sharon Stone’s character in Basic Instinct uncomfortable. Paul starts dropping other blocks of ice from heights in hopes that the ice will chip. In this inclement weather, even this action is a coin flip to succeed. Several blocks require multiple attempts to break with none of them ever shattering. Getting to the ingredients is proving to be harder than any other previous challenge this season.

“I’m more than happy to help Beverly and Sarah because this challenge is about the food and not about how many ice blocks you can smash.” – Paul, demonstrating why he is one of the classiest players in the history of Top Chef

Beverly and Sarah do not have much luck, even with Paul’s (significant) assistance. Sarah’s soup congeals in a nasty looking manner. Beverly looks world weary by the end. The judges are polite to the women but it is clear that Paul has destroyed all opponents in this challenge. Sure enough, he earns another $10,000 (giving him a cool $7 million for the season) and a spot in the final three. So, this season is going to come down to Paul versus Lindsay with one of Beverly or Sarah handed the role of (extreme) dark horse.

Beverly and Sarah now face off in a direct challenge, the “Culinary Biathlon”. The prize is the final spot in the final three plus $10,000. After skiing to the area where the ingredients are located, the dueling chefs are given a rifle (what a great idea) and asked to demonstrate their shooting skills. If they get a bullseye, the ingredient they choose is theirs to use in the meal. As has been the case throughout the season, Sarah brags about phantom skills that she does not in fact possess. In this case, she claims to be a gun nut like most Texans. Beverly, on the other hand, has never held a firearm before in her life. Guess what happens next. Yes, Beverly hits the bullseye on five out of ten challenges while Sarah manages only four. It’s a good thing Sarah currently resides in Chicago because she won’t be welcome in Texas after this.

The ingredients Beverly wins are Arctic char (how appropriate), celery root, winter truffle, fennel and beets. Sarah targets (literally) rabbit, cabbage, hazelnuts and cherries. Sarah had wanted beets, but Beverly beat her to the location. Sarah is left to whine about how Beverly must have had more shots (not joking) and root against Beverly making a shot. After Beverly hits the target, Sarah only has one shot at cherries but to her credit, she sharp shoots when it matters.

Throughout the episode, Sarah has indicated strong feelings of insecurity about Beverly. She states that this is because Beverly won so many heads up battles during Last Chance Kitchen. We suspect she knows that karma owes her a small dose of abject humiliation. When they get to the kitchen, however, Beverly reminds us of why we found her so annoying early in the season. For no apparent reason, she chooses to blend at Sarah’s station. This comes on the heels of her trying to get in Grayson’s head during the final Last Chance Kitchen. Unlike Paul, Beverly isn’t showing a lot of class down the stretch. The only winner in a battle between Beverly and Sarah is society.

Beverly completes her dish of Arctic char, onion and beet compote, celery root truffle puree and fennel salad. Sarah’s dish is not as well plated but it does look more refined. It is braised rabbit leg and heart with cherries, hazelnuts and sauerkraut puree. We are not crazy about sauerkraut but the other components of the dish sound like a delicious combination.

Tom feels that Beverly overcooked the dish slightly but the other judges agree that the flavors are wonderful. Tom compliments Sarah on the risks she took in creating the dish. He feels as if she went for it more. Oddly, being less successful with the shooting phase has helped her in this regard as was the case with Lindsay’s mistake in the first round. Her dish is more measured due to the limitations on ingredients. Gail Simmons indicates that the rabbit is a bit tough, meaning that neither chef has delivered a perfect meal. Tom politely states that both are good dishes and that the contestants “have not made it easy” on the judges.

Our opinion is that since Beverly had been eliminated once previously, the onus was on her to outperform Sarah. In the end, she hasn’t done that, which is why we are not surprised when the judges announce that Sarah will be the final member of the final three. For the second and final time this season, Beverly is eliminated from Top Chef. Lindsay and Sarah will attempt to upset Paul to claim the title of Top Chef.