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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Top Chef: "Advantage Chef"

Illustration for article titled iTop Chef/i: Advantage Chef
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A hell of an episode, so let's get to it:


The quickfire challenge tonight nods to the upcoming holidays without kowtowing with hokey holiday silliness. Guest judge Tony Matuano (Spiaggia, Chicago), asks the judges to prepare stuffing. Looking at what the chefs produce, it's almost like asking them to prepare chicken. Tiffani gets it right: Stuffing is house-specific, mother-specific. When you eat it elsewhere, it's always good but never just like home. (Here in Georgia, I grew up with cornbread dressing, a far cry from, say, black quinoa.) The challenge won't do without a proper handicap, though, and this time it's an entertaining one: no utensils allowed. The conceit allows for both absurdity and ingenuity, the variety that brought us Hubert Keller cooling pasta in a dormitory shower in Season 2 of Top Chef Masters. Limit their resources and they'll have to adapt.

We got a bit of that ingenuity tonight—Fabio grating parmesan against the top rack of a wire shelf, for example. We also got a lot of banging with pots, slamming things clumsily together, and the butchering of a quail with a pepper grinder. Most of the resultant dishes didn't seem worse for the wear, with a few exceptions. The ever good-humored Carla chose her ingredients poorly, forced to plate some severely undercooked quinoa, which she labeled first "al dente" and then "un-done-te." Tiffani's stuffing was too sweet, and Casey's didn't quite qualify as stuffing. Tre's spicy, well-balanced southwestern stuffing took the $20,000 prize and bought him immunity.


The producers are on a bit of a roll with the challenges this season, which have managed to marry the location and premise with a playfulness sorely lacking last year. Tonight they riffed on a tennis match, using the site of the U.S. Open, and ended up with a challenge that afforded the chefs room for creativity while setting them up for high-pressure conflict. Divided into two teams, the chefs competed head to head, with each winner gaining a point for his or her team. The first team to get four points wins. The winners from the winning team are up for the overall win; the losers for the losing team are up for elimination. And since there's sport involved, the dishes should be healthy.

A complicated set of rules but worth it. As Matuano points out explicitly, the chefs would need to be strategic. It's not necessarily an even playing field—with a full gamut of quality, two dishes from opposite ends won't be the same match as two from the middle. Then, of course, depending on how quickly the game's up, some won't compete at all, thereby ineligible for an overall win or loss. And this all plays out masterfully.

Team Yellow (Angelo, Casey, Jamie, Spike, Tiffani, Tiffany, Tré) decides early on that Team Orange (Antonia, Carla, Dale, Fabio, Marcel, Mike, Richard) will likely play its best dish first, so Yellow will play its worst. This way, Orange's best dish is wasted. This doesn't hold too much logic once you turn it over a few times, and the team isn't able to stick to it during the competition. Team Orange sends out Fabio first; Jamie, whose dish is the worst on her team because it's undercooked, refuses to go. Team Yellow agrees to let her have more time with her chickpeas, not realizing that ultimately, she'll save herself by not competing.

As Blais points out, this is an "odd story." Jamie failed to compete last week by cutting her finger and skipping to the hospital—a move contrasted sharply this week by Carla's chalking up a half-missing fingernail to an "inconvenience" and soldiering on to win the challenge. If this were a different reality show, Jamie would likely be hauled in front of Tyra in the middle of the night to be humiliated and sent home. It's a tough call. On one hand, the contestants knew the rules going in and should have done the math to figure out that possibly some chefs wouldn't compete. On the other, someone's up for elimination from an incomplete set. Spike's dish, at least based on editing, seemed to have fewer problems than Jamie's.

The structure of the game lent the episode an excellent pace, having the judges vote on the spot without deliberation. Placing the teams at opposite sides of the court, out of earshot from the judges, also put them in suspense, sending winners whooping and hollering across the court. It was a pleasure to watch. Team Orange took the win with Carla's dish emerging above the rest—a fine victory for her after being knocked around in the beginning for proposing a vegetarian soup.

On Team Yellow, super-control-freak Angelo sticks his hands in everything. We saw this last season in DC: He's a mess for team challenges. He wants to win so badly and is so sure that he's right that he ends up convincing others to change their dishes. Here, he does quite well on his own but then overcooks Tre's salmon and adds yuzu to Spike's soup. By the time it goes out, Spike's not sure it's his own anymore, but the problem seems to be with an element he had control over; the shrimp lacks salt. I'm no Spike champion, but it does seem early for him to go and largely the product of bad luck with the team structure.

Grade: A-

Stray Observations

  • I'm writing from vacation without the ability to go back over the episode, so apologies for missing specifics.
  • Fabio responds to the challenge: "I'm going to crush potato with my head?" Or, it's like "asking a surgeon to do open-heart surgery with his finger."
  • Eating at Blais' Flip Burger this week. No crazy techniques here, but the burgers and other southern trappings (fried things like pickles) are amazing.
  • Dim Sum for white people. Next week looks awesome.

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