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Top Chef Masters: "Diners To Donors"

Illustration for article titled iTop Chef Masters/i: Diners To Donors
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As I believe I mentioned the first week I started covering Top Chef Masters, I’m coming at this from the perspective of someone who has no real sense of how good this food actually tastes. I am aware this is somewhat odd, but I think part of Top Chef’s appeal is that even people who don’t know a great deal about food are able to watch the series.

For those non-foodies among us, we have to put our trust in the judges: While for some this means negotiating what you think things taste like with the judges’ observations, I’m normally left to just take their word for it. It’s a different experience, but the show usually provides enough information on what went wrong with a particular dish that I’ve gained at least some rudimentary knowledge of what makes a good Top Chef dish.


However, I have to presume that there are at least a few Top Chef regulars who are in a similar boat when it comes to tonight’s Quickfire. While some people might have enjoyed a Canadian Nightcrawler or grilled a mean scorpion, chances are that bugs are not a regular part of one’s diet or a staple at a favorite restaurant. While we can consider the dishes that the chefs built around the bugs at the center of the challenge, we end up having to trust Mykel Hawke and Ruth England (of Man, Woman, Wild) that Hugh’s Fried Tempura crickets were really some of the best crickets they had ever had. In fact, even Curtis Stone has to take their word for it, given that he only tried a single worm during his time judging the challenge (and made a bad call in that decision, given that George failed to cut his worms small enough to be eaten in a manageable fashion).

The challenge was a fun one, testing the chefs’ ability to build a dish around something that many of them were unwilling to actually taste (I believe Celina was the only person who we saw taste her bugs, but she had eaten crickets before). Based on either instinct or experience, most of them handled the bugs effectively, with only George’s large portions and Suvir’s uncooked worms (necessitated by his strict vegetarianism, which meant he was unwilling to kill a creature himself) being singled out as unsuccessful. Everyone else fried, grilled, and vinaigretted their way into the good graces of the Discovery Channel hosts, and I thought the results were pretty fun. Lots of great reaction shots from the chefs (in particular when Hawke finished off Suvir’s worm), some intriguing uses of different flavors, and the kind of “novelty” challenge that I don’t particularly mind.


When the show moves onto the Elimination Challenge, however, things begin to unravel. The challenge is presented as something quite simple: The chefs create a 10-course tasting menu for a set of 100 diners who will each donate $100 to the charity of the chef whose dish they like the most. It’s one of those pseudo team challenges where everyone technically has to work together to devise the menu, but they are all being judged individually. Of course, this being Top Chef Masters where everyone gets along, the amount of tension in such an endeavor would be limited to slight miscommunications and basic misunderstandings, which means that the challenge needs what every good challenge needs: random twists designed to screw over the dishes that the chefs have already planned.

Last week, many of you in the comments noted that these kinds of twists are particularly obnoxious, as they get in the way of the chefs actually cooking to the best of their abilities. Now, some suggested that this included last week’s cramped kitchen which lacked prep space, but I think that one was slightly different in how it pitted the chefs against each other for space and tested their willingness and ability to work together. Perhaps it was a bit unfair that Sue went home because of it, but I felt it was subtle enough to be impactful without defining the challenge given that they avoided making it out to be a purposeful twist.


However, here we see the show trying way too hard to make these chefs break down. I actually think that the water twist (outside of the whole “Floyd being unable to wash his hands” situation that made me slightly concerned about health code violations) was fine: It forced the chefs to be resourceful, using the water from the circulators and melting ice to meet their requirements. It’s a quick hiccup, something that makes for a slight adjustment to the prep. However, cutting out an entire half hour is sadistic, forcing someone like John to abandon the more ambitious parts of his dish and stick to the basics. Meanwhile, the choice to have them function as their own servers is actively trying to create mistakes, hoping someone loses track of their own dish while they’re busy serving someone else’s.

In the end, the Top Chef Masters emerge victorious: Not a single dish goes out unfinished, any drama promised by the “Coming Up” segments before each commercial break petered out within seconds (as is becoming tradition), and the critics end up impressed with the whole affair. Naomi, proving to be this competition’s Antonia, delivers a simple celery soup to the joy of 46 percent of the diners, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone willing to give a talking head a la Fabio complaining about the simplicity of the winning dish (logical given that the $10,000 is going to her charity). Other dishes are met with general appreciation, as the Masters weather yet another trap set by those most Magical Elves.


But when we get to the bottom three, something feels wrong: While Mary Sue and Celina are criticized for elements of their dishes (an overpowering pickled onion on a tuna ceviche for the former and chalky chocolate pudding with ginger donut for the latter), John seems to be there because he didn’t make a dish that someone would pay $100 for. It’s a fair criticism, perhaps, but did the show really give him an opportunity to make it a $100 dish by turning off his water, turning him into a server, and cutting a half hour off of his service time? To his credit, he didn’t make excuses about the situation and instead defended the dish on the strength of his technique (which was never in question, as the risotto was considered well-made). However, in a challenge where you’ve been told to prepare for the unexpected, can one truly go out on a limb? The chef who seemed to push himself the furthest was Hugh, whose panna cotta was considered a culinary feat given the time offered, but he was also the person who had immunity.

I’m not saying that John didn’t deserve to go home: after all, I didn’t taste the dishes, and I have no idea what pine nuts taste like yet alone what they taste like with risotto (which I’ve also never eaten). I’m not even arguing that Mary Sue or Celina deserved to go home more, although I’ll admit that the notion of a poorly made version of an incredibly simple dessert feels like a larger failure than John’s risotto. Even without any real experience with the dishes discussed, something about the elimination felt a little bit off given what we’ve seen to this point, so John’s exit was actually a bit bittersweet (if not quite as emotional as John’s tearful goodbye). No, I wouldn’t say that the season is a “carnival freakshow of magnificence” as John suggests, but I can see the connection built between the chefs and am starting to be affected by their exits.


However, I leave the episode once again frustrated with the way producer meddling is dominating the competition, to the point where I wonder if Sue and John were sent home in subsequent weeks to shape the season’s narrative as weeding out those who are unable to “step up to the challenge.” Sue went home because she couldn’t take the pressure of the kitchen, while John went home because he didn’t execute a $100 dish (perhaps because of the challenges placed before him by producers). I may not be able to properly judge the food the chefs made, but I feel I can judge the impact that producers’ failed efforts to manufacture drama are having on my enjoyment of the series, and thus far, the season is off to an uneven and problematically transparent beginning.

Stray observations:

  • Anyone else having trouble remembering chef names this season? I find that I’m good by the time the episode ends, but in the beginning, it’s just a big set of blanks, and I write 1500 words about it every week.
  • I enjoyed the assault against the letter “g” throughout the discussion of Celina’s dessert—it was puddin’ every time.
  • I am glad that Hugh has returned given his general demeanor, but I am sort of confounded that James believes him to be equivalent to Liberace—James has clearly never seen himself perform on this television show (see: “MisTAKE!”).
  • Another element to the elimination challenge: The chefs had to work with what was in the pantry, which seemed to limit their ability to go in an extremely diverse direction. I don’t know what that pantry entailed, and how much of something like Suvir’s dish (a Chaat Salad) was built around ingredients he brought with him.
  • Odd to see the other John’s exit “due to an emergency” was reframed as “one chef quit” in the Previously On—that’s a bit of an odd way of putting it, as “withdrew” seems like it would be a bit more fair.
  • “I’ve really put some disgusting things in my mouth since I’ve been married to Myke.”
  • “It doesn’t mean that I have anything against them”—Hugh, fundamentally misunderstanding the point of chef-to-chef conflict on this show. If it isn’t made uncomfortably personal, it isn’t reality television!
  • “Stripped down naked with nothing but your knives”—don’t give the Elves any ideas, John.
  • Since Todd brought Les Misérables into the conversation with the alt-text on the image, care to cast the musical using contestants from Top Chef?

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