Gail Simmons, Tom Colicchio

In writing about last week’s Top Chef premiere I was perhaps remiss in not mentioning the significant change made in the judging process of the series. As pointed out by the contestants last week and evidenced again in tonight’s episode, “Boston’s Bravest And Finest,” the judges have traded in their years of poker-faced consumption in exchange for harsh and immediate truths. As fun as it is to see rapid-fire Colicchio feedback (much like it’s fun to see a baby taste a lemon) it has also changed the balance of the show in a way I’m not sure they anticipated.

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At heart, the switch to a system of immediate feedback has lessened the built-in tension leading up to the judge’s table. While it was always fairly straightforward to piece together who would be on the top and bottom, now it’s practically printed on-screen for you. Gone are the days of the contestants nervous jittering and extended theorizing, in its stead are foregone conclusions and basic inevitabilities.

That said, something seems to be rising up in its place that may not be driving tension, per se, but is definitely driving drama. Coupled with the instant food assessment, a change has been made with regards to who is present for judging both the best and the worst dishes. Instead of calling out the top and bottom teams individually, all of the chefs stand gathered before the judges and bear witness to the compliments and criticisms both, transforming the experience into something far more humiliating than ever before. Now, instead of being called on the carpet by culinary dignitaries, you get to do it before a peanut gallery, made up of none other than the people you’re competing against.

Which is a long way of saying that people started being DICKS to each other tonight and it’s only the second episode.

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That said, it’s complete speculation that the heightened dickery has anything to do with the change in judging. It may just be that Aaron is dead set on being the King of Asshole Mountain but the judging thing feels like a definite possibility.

As for the meat of the episode itself, we open in the Top Chef house where they always take the time to let us get to know one of the chefs better. Today, it’s James. James wants you to know that he doesn’t necessarily have the best restaurant experience but he’s inspired by brilliance which explains (I mean, obviously) his (surprisingly well-wrought) upper arm tattoo of Patrick Swayze. Clearly, James will be referred to exclusively as Swayze for the rest of the season.

The Quickfire challenge was actually a rather droll little set-up incorporating Paul Revere’s famous ride and “One if by land, two if by sea,” and, unsurprisingly, surf and turf. The ingredients were time-released and in limited supply which is always a great way to get a sense for which chefs can think quickly on their feet as well as rolling with the punches when things don’t go their way. The winner of the Quickfire wouldn’t win immunity but they would win $5,000 (which seems a little paltry, to be honest, but you can’t argue with the economy.) Our guest judge for this challenge is none other than Todd English, who took time out of his busy celebrity chef schedule of not paying rent, hot-tubbing with topless girls, and driving drunk to lurk in the background of a second consecutive episode. Such a proud son of Boston, he is. Joy and Stacy end up faring the worst when it comes to managing the mélange of ingredients while Katsuji managed to recover from his disastrous showing last week to turn out something refined and tasty that landed him in the top. The winner, however, was none other than Swayze. That man knows brilliance when he sees it. No reports available on how Todd English chose to celebrate Swayze’s victory.

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This week’s Elimination Challenge had the contestants serving members from Boston’s fire department and police force in the kitchen of a fire station, turned restaurant, Il Casale. The knife block was brought out and the chefs broke down into teams, something that always seems to result in those who marked the “does not play well with others” box on the application ending up together. In this case, it’s Keriann and Aaron who’ve been sniping at each other since the end of the last Elimination Challenge, who are teamed with hometown girl Stacy who looked like she wants to cut and run instead of dealing with their bickering. The teams had number assignments which represented what order they’d get to choose their mystery basket of ingredients. The Magnificent Bickersons got to “choose” last. You can imagine how they felt about that.

For the most part, the other teams work together well, which actually turns out to be a problem. Team 4, made up of Joy, Ron, and Melissa seem to be a pretty amiable team with some fundamentally terrible ideas. Though before we get into that, let us speak about what I refer to as a Reality Show Red Flag. In one of her talking head interviews, Joy talks at length about the proper temperature to cook veal to. No! Joy! Never talk about that! That’s almost as bad as talking about how much you miss your kids! (Which is, by the way, is a reality show dealbreaker. Talk about your kids? You’re going home.) Poor Joy. If only she’d spent less time cooking and more time sitting around watching reality cooking shows, she’d know better. As though that weren’t trying fate enough, the team decides to flavor their veal with maple and vanilla. And make vanilla scented celery root puree. Guys. Come on. Not one of you thought that your dish shouldn’t smell like Pier 1 threw up on your plate? Apparently not.

The judges are none too impressed Team 4’s offering, nor are they wowed by the lame-ass chicken/corn salad/chemically altered bacon onion jam that Team 5 throws together, even as Stacy’s chicken saves them from the bottommost position. On the bright side, the other three teams seem to fare quite well with Team 1, Mei, Katie, and Katsuji, a team that overcame early strife to find some kind of minimalist middle ground, and Team 2, Rebecca, Adam, and Gregory, the male members who are likely two of the season’s favorites to win, earning top honors. Ultimately, it’s Team 2’s surf and turf that carries the day.

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As for who’s eliminated? Ah, you know the answer to that. Sadly, Joy could not overcome her Red Flag because though she knew the temperature her veal needed to be cooked to, she wasn’t able to execute. Goodbye to you, Joy. Play her off, Michelle.

Overall, this was an adequate second episode in what’s been a flat season so far. Perhaps the lack of dramatic tension will be alleviated once we settle more fully into the season as a whole. Time will tell.

Quickfire Winner: Swayze (James)

Elimination Challenge Winner(s): Rebecca, Adam, and Gregory

Elimination Challenge Loser(s): Joy, Ron, and Melissa

Eliminated: Joy

Bitchin’ ‘Bout Blais:

N/A

Stray Observations:

  • It feels like the class politics may be shifting as the season progresses into territory Top Chef is already familiar with: Molecular gastronomy vs. Everything else. That or, again, Aaron is a colossal dick.
  • We got mentions of both the Boston Marathon bombing and 9/11 tonight and they both were handled in a pretty non-exploitative fashion. Color me impressed.
  • Which 80s action star would you get a tattoo of? I’d pick Christopher Lambert.

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