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Top Chef: "Focus Group"

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As a critic, I tend to cringe whenever one of my kind pops up in movies or on TV, because they’re inevitably cast as villains—bloodless, heartless vultures who feast lustily on the precious creativity of others and spit out career-killing bon mots. Think Anton Ego in Ratatouille, Jon Lovitz’s eponymous quipster in The Critic (“It stinks”), or even Simon Cowell on American Idol, who isn’t a critic per se, but plays the part on the show to a chorus of boos. So when Toby Young, a British food critic and author of the caustic memoir How To Lose Friends And Alienate People, opened his new gig as Top Chef judge by comparing Radhika’s spicy soup to WMD, I cringed a little. Critics have to have strong opinions and that means bringing the hammer down on occasion, but I was worried from the start that Young was going to fill that proscribed role.

But by the end of the hour, I started to come around. Yes, he did deliver a few more canned bits of sarcasm (“the bland leading the bland”), but he also proved lively and incisive, and will definitely be a stronger presence on the show than the (temporarily or permanently?) departed Gail Simmons, who always maintained a certain level of wishy-washy politesse. For a show as successful as Top Chef to bring on a voice as big as Young’s strikes me as a major risk, given how much reality shows (and successful TV in general) are inclined to follow formula no matter how bland it gets. The jury’s still out for me on him, but for now, I’m tentatively pleased that they’ve kicked up the criticism.

Tonight started with the Quickfire Challenge—pardon me, the Diet Dr. Pepper Quickfire Challenge, which meant there was plenty of sickly sweet soda around to sabotage the dishes. (I welcome your Diet Dr. Pepper horror stories in the comments below. I’ve never tried it myself, but I hear it tastes exactly like Dr. Pepper… as filtered through a freshly cleansed rectum.) With pastry chef and future Food Network star Jean-Christophe Novelli looking on, the contestants were assigned to make a dessert without the use of sugar (though high-fructose corn syrup would not be off limits). Unsurprising for a group of chefs who disdain making desserts, the dishes seemed pretty ho-hum, so much in fact that Hosea’s “green vomit” presentation wasn’t enough to land him on Novelli’s bad list. Ariane’s lumpy whipped cream looks particularly unappetizing, and recalled the Season Two’s Quickfire where Betty made a curdled cocktail out Bailey’s Irish Crème. Radhika wins with bread pudding, which is the dessert equivalent of winning by default.

The Elimination Challenge sounds like a bland one at first: Each chef has to prepare a family-style meal for a blind tasting, but they’re given no restrictions beyond the budget, which is a little like jumping the gun on the finale. But the idea of dividing them into two groups and then casting the groups as the blind taste-testers is a great one, because it introduces tension among the chefs without having to force it on them like other reality shows tend to do. I also like the concept of a blind tasting every week, so the judges don’t have any preconceptions about who’s cooking for them. Given Tom’s customary role as judge and intermediary, I expect the show to go back to business as usual in future weeks, but it represents a nice chance of pace.


What the exercise proved, to the judges’ credit, is that their brand of justice is blind. The people who have been competing at a high level for a long time—including Ariane, who has made a habit of defying low expectations—were in the Top Three and the three crummiest chefs remaining were right there at the bottom. And that’s what I like about Top Chef: You can come up with all sorts of conspiracy theories about why one person got kicked off and another didn’t, but the show has proven to be a meritocracy. No matter the behind-the-scenes maneuvering, it’s what’s on the plate that counts. Tenuous alliances and vicious backstabbing are the rule in reality television, but here’s a happy exception.

As for the specific critiques, I thought Toby (okay, he’s going to be here a while, so I’ll start using his first name) was dead-on in saying that Melissa’s fish tacos reflected a lack of confidence, since she’s been playing it safe from the start. He also had a nice rejoinder to a fellow judge’s comment that her dish showed them who she is as a chef: “Isn’t that precisely why she should go?” Eugene’s reckless, unrefined cooking style has been a problem from the start—he’s more interested in wacky innovation than appealing flavor combinations—so it was the right move to send him home, too. Carla bombed out on both the Quickfire and the Elimination Challenge, so she’ll likely be joining them soon.


We’re at roughly the halfway point of the season and nine chefs remain, so time to make predictions. I like two of tonight’s winners, Stefan and Jaime, to make the finale, and expect the race for third to be pretty wide open. Here’s what I’m thinking, in order of elimination: 9. Carla 8. Ariane 7. Jeff 6. Radhika 5. Hosea 4. Fabio 3. Leah 2. Jamie 1. Stefan. What do you think?

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

• Stefan continues to get the villain label, but he’s still striking me mostly as just a very competitive guy. He can be a little petulant about it—that comment about cooking circles around Hosea was pretty arrogant—but he hasn’t crossed any lines so far as I can tell.


• “This is Top Chef, not Top Scallops.”

• Toby should ease off the metaphors before they get him into too much trouble. The line comparing Jeff’s tapas plate to Tom Cruise’s “unexpected” turn in Tropic Thunder was strained to say the least.


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