To me, one of the great distinctions of Top Chef—and Project Runway and other like-minded reality-competition shows—is that it’s a meritocracy. Chefs can talk all they want about psyching out their opponents or how they’re not there to make friends, but at the end of the day (to borrow my least favorite of ubiquitous reality-show expressions), what they put on the plate determines whether they stay or go. Not their diabolical personalities. Not any deep strategy they’ve concocted. Naturally, I was a little alarmed by an Elimination challenge that asked contestants to judge contestants, because that sounded like something those other reality shows would do, not this one. How it played out surprised me—in a good way—and helped make “Cold War” one of more compelling episodes this season.
But first, gross proteins! Michelle Bernstein has been on the show before touting the marvels of offal—Season Two, Episode Five, when hunky Sam won with sweetbreads and scallion beignets—and it was fun to see her preside over another assortment of grim-seeming (but perhaps delicious) entrees. Yak, crocodile, rattlesnake, ostrich, wild boar, and the wondrously Flintstone-ian emu eggs were all laid out before them, but the booby prize were the “duck white kidneys,” an appealing phrase for duck balls. (And having never seen duck testicles before, I was surprised they were that substantial in size. Maybe they came from the Peter North family of ducks.) The chefs had to draw knives to determine the selection order, but all that was thrown up in the air when Padma announced that they each had to shift one station to their left and take whatever protein they were given. (Cue the obligatory, “And I’m like… what?!!!!” interview segments.)
Considering the dual challenge of unfamiliar proteins and the station switcheroo, the chefs appeared to do very well, with a few exceptions. Andrea kept building up her bitter rivalry with fellow Miami chef Bernstein, who appeared to confirm her suspicions by complaining about Andrea’s undercooked boar, but Bernstein saved her harshest language for consistent bottom-dweller Stephen, whose frog legs were deemed “insipid.” (“Insipid” strikes me as an absolutely brutal put-down for food. It’s like an Adam Sandler comedy on a plate.) Kelly wisely chose to make a simple omelette out of the emu eggs, because really, what the fuck else is she going to do with a bunch of giant yolks? (It was nice to see all women in the Top Three, too, though Tamesha, we learn later, could have really used the “W.”)
The Elimination challenge played up the D.C.-ness of the season by sticking the chefs aboard the U.S.S. Sequoia—the presidential yacht on which Richard Nixon once negotiated the SALT 1 arms treaty—and asking them to plot a “cold war” of cold dishes. Everyone was divided into two groups, but they weren’t working as a team: All had to put out individual dishes, to be judged by members of the other group. Group A selected a “Best” and “Worst” from Group B, and vice versa, leading many (Kenny especially) to fret conspiratorially about their peers wanting to boot the strongest chefs out of the house. But Survivor, this ain’t.
Kenny’s suspicion that others wanted his studly cooking self out persisted to the end, when his exceedingly busy lamb dish landed him in the bottom two, but the tapes tell a different story. Much as the show had us believing that personal grudges would play a factor—and maybe Angelo’s voice was amplified just a bit—there was a lot of consensus in both Group A and Group B over the best and worst dishes, and the judges seemed entirely on board with their conclusions. For all their talk about doing whatever it takes to win—like, say, not bringing up the cartilage in Amanda’s chicken dish—the chefs ultimately respected the meritocracy and came to a just verdict together. D.C. at its best.
• Many thanks to Michaelangelo Matos for stepping in for me last week and doing excellent work. And thanks in advance to Emily Withrow, your Top Chef Masters S2 blogger, for taking over next week, when I’ll be off hosting a screening of Lost Highway at Music Box in Chicago. (Details on that here.)
• Still hating the winner of the Quickfire challenge being treated like a cliffhanger. Get on with it already!
• As a rule, I’m always deeply embarrassed by having to order menu items with silly names. Thus I haven’t known the splendor of IHOP’s Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity breakfast. And I would have to pass on Todd English’s “cock and balls soup.”
• Tamesha on Amanda: “I could probably strangle her in a heartbeat.”
• A sign that Angelo might be overly precious about his food: He instructs the waiter, “Be careful, it’s like a baby.”