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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Top Chef: “Foiled Again”

Illustration for article titled iTop Chef/i: “Foiled Again”
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Let us be absolutely clear about one thing from the start. This introductory segment is brought to us by Reynolds Wrap. That is, for the uneducated, branded aluminum foil. And so the contestants are tortured with the demands of a product-placement reality-television economy—everything to be cooked in this challenge is wrapped in foil. Everything to be cooked in this challenge must be cooked with only foil. And if you unwrap something, you must cook with it. IT IS COOKING RUSSIAN REYNOLDS WRAP ROULETTE.

Honestly, this challenge is superior to the later challenge, despite the lengthy plug for aluminum foil as a versatile cooking tool. The chefs are pushed to not just extend their cooking expertise in 30 minutes but also to use tools in a new way. It’s phenomenal, from a purely technical point of view, where each of the contestants go, given minimum instructions. There are some standouts—the smoked scallops looked difficult to me, as did pretty much anything involving meat—but Kristen’s sponge cake creation was by far the most impressive, and she handily wins the first competition, gaining immunity for the later challenge. This episode is all Kristen’s—she wins the main challenge and gets a great moment in front of the camera discussing her past, without seeming overly aggressive, perfectionist, or competitive.


Danyele, meanwhile, embarks on a narrative arc in which she demonstrates her anxiety with presenting her best self to the judges, which ends, unsurprisingly, in her being booted from the show. Her first dish, a cannellini stew, gets praise from the judges (including the guest judge, former Top Chef Stephanie Izard), but her main contest dish, a chicken terrine, gets a lot of criticism from the judges for having the consistency and flavor of a bologna sandwich. (Ouch.)

Overall, though, "Foiled Again" has some trouble holding together. Conflicts feel dropped or contrived, and it’s not made particularly easy to care about anyone in the show. Plus, we still can’t scratch-and-sniff our TV screens! What is up with that?!

I quite liked the berry challenge that was the centerpiece of this week’s episode, in theory, but there are so many moving parts to it that it’s hard to grasp until halfway through. The contestants compete head-to-head—except for Kristen, who has her immunity. The winners from the Quickfire (um, so the half of the leftover chefs who were better than the other half) get to choose someone from the other group to compete against. They each are assigned a berry and have to create something to present at an outdoor berry festival the next day. Both the judges and the attendees of the festival would rate their choices in each of the five specific competitions (again, because Kristen had no one to compete against). So, six berries, eleven chefs, five head-to-heads, infinite judges, everyone with me so far?

But the berries are supplanted by the chaotic prep scene for the festival, where space and supplies are hard to come by. Sure, setting prep in an open-air barn with a few tables and a shortage of blenders creates tension, but the contrivance of the device comes out when none of the interesting juicy conflict and drama from the prep scene make it into the rest of the narrative. In particular I was interested in Brooke’s story in the kitchen—she’s running around, trying to make her berry tapioca and tea-infused marshmallows and she’s running behind, but then the thread never gets picked up. Not terrible storytelling, just a little sloppy, especially when so much was made of the tiny cooking space.


In fact, the only thread that gets picked up with any consistency is the attempt by the producers to create tension between John and Stefan, who choose to go against each other with their dishes. Stefan wants to use tuna, but at the supermarket, Sheldon beats him to the rest of the fresh tuna. So Stefan—the horrors!—chooses a high-quality frozen tuna. John spends the rest of the challenge belittling Stefan, both to his face and behind his back, about his tuna choice. Stefan takes it with the right amount of indignation and trash-talking that you might expect from a line cook, and John comes off as petty, but unremarkably so. And yet the producers fixate on this quite a bit, selectively cutting what is probably good-natured joshing into a pissing match. The show is clearly trying to work around the fact that their chefs on the whole seem to be getting along with each other, and supporting each other, with the camaraderie that, again, you’d expect from a group of cooks who have to find a way to work with their partners in high-stress situations. When Danyele gets kicked off this week, for example, the other chefs are legitimately upset, and winner Kristen gets a lot of sportsmanlike praise. Most of the tension otherwise is about how annoying some people find Josie’s laugh—more on that in the strays, but yeah, that’s about all the conflict this episode has.

I surmise that the convoluted, contrived nature of the berry challenge, then, was to try to create some artificial tension between our cheerful contestants. It works, sort of, with some heavy editing. John does come off defensive by the end, while Kristen is shaping up to be a killer competitor, with an incredible back-story (Abandoned baby! Adopted from Korea! Never been back since!). But the show would probably do better to highlight more of the other characters’ back-stories. The bit about Micah’s kids, named Sage and Saffron, is adorable, and a little more of that would help me care about each individual contestant as they compete.


Because: Ultimately, food shows have a major handicap—as a viewer, I can’t taste anything, so I can’t judge for myself at home, the way I might feel I could with a singing competition, a dance competition, or even a fashion competition. Presumably some major skill is required to do what they do, but I do not feel any particular investment in either Danyele’s loss or Kristen’s win this week, because I have no way to personally judge either contestant (and for goodness’ sake, if I can’t judge things on television, then what is the point?). Plus, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Coliccio, and Gail Simmons don’t make it easy to trust them. Padma is, sadly, frustratingly icy the entire time, and Tom is supposed to be expert but instead comes off brash and grating. Of the regular judges, I liked Gail the best, though her elegant little moues of disgust are off-putting. In fact, the most trustworthy judges by far are the members of the public, the random people at the festival who pick up dishes and make comments. (The toddler who refused the blackberry soup with salmon is maybe the most trustworthy critic the show has ever seen.)

Stray observations:

  • Slightly insane, potentially high Josie doing a strawberry sushi roll show for her bored and impatient customers is pretty fantastic. Looking at the promo for next week, it appears that Josie is the closest thing to a loose cannon this episode has. Ten bucks says she really was stoned in that shot, because ain’t nobody that cheerful about cooking berries with fish. (I hope.)
  • Padma Lakshmi, though—what’s her deal? Why isn’t she happy?? Does she need to go make her own fruit roll-up?!
  • Whichever intern had to individually wrap everything in that pantry in aluminum foil deserves a major shout-out, because it looks really cool. (And I hope that college credit is worth it!)
  • If there’s anything I’ve learned about cooking from this episode, it’s that being forced to incorporate a bit of tomatillo at the last minute is nothing short of what I deserve.
  • Thanks to Emily for letting me sub in on her beat! She’ll be back after the holidays.

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