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Top Chef: "Meat Natalie"

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“Is competency enough tomorrow?”

This from Robin, speculating after her failed Quickfire whether she will simply survive another week—not on trying something ambitious and perhaps failing, but on serving up another steaming plate of mediocrity and hoping that someone does worse. I’m sure there are many aspects of Robin’s personality the other chefs (and viewers) don’t like—she’s grating, a blabbermouth, all-too-willing to play her cancer survival card when necessary, et al—but I would guess that sentiments like the one above are what irk them the most. I think I’ve been in the majority in thinking Robin has stayed for much longer than her talent merits, but tonight deepened my resentment considerably. What’s the point of being in a cooking competition if you’re merely interesting in surviving for another week rather than winning? Food is a wondrous, sensuous thing, and she just doesn’t seem to give a shit about that. It’s lazy and, in its own way, as arrogant as anything the two Michaels might say.


Contrast Robin with Jennifer, who continued her rapidly deteriorating performance in both challenges tonight. The difference? Jen is the more gifted and accomplished of the two, and proved as much throughout most of the competition. But the other important difference is that she cares. A lot. And her caring actually feeds into why she’s failing, because the intensity that once brought confidence and life to everything she did in the kitchen has suddenly turned against her. She’s tired, she’s second-guessing herself, and she’s cloaked in such heavy veil of defeatism that she could hardly sauce the dish that so embarrassed her in the Elimination Challenge. Robin is incapable of that kind of failure; the closet thing she comes to a failure of ambition is putting a bunch of components on a plate and hoping against hope that they mesh somehow. Jennifer can still come back, provided she can steel herself and perhaps take a Quickfire or something to get a little swagger back. Fingers crossed.

Tonight’s Quickfire was another in a recent rash of sponsored challenges, this one involving TV Guide, reinterpreted TV dinners, and a random selection of “classic” show. (I put “classic” in quotation marks because I refuse to use the word in association with anything Hanna Barbera created. Also: Gilligan’s Island and M*A*S*H suck, too.) The chefs drew knives, and it was just unfair that Kevin, who’s emerged as the runaway favorite to win the whole thing, drew The Sopranos, a show about an Italian family that eats extremely well. (Sidenote: People largely dismissed the first post-wedding Office episode this season as too silly, but Michael insisting on ordering “gabagool” in front of a client with suspected mob ties was pretty hilarious.) His braised meatballs with polenta sounded like heaven on a plate, and smartly suggested a hearty, family-style meal rather than simply an Italian one. Other than Mike Isabella never having seen Seinfeld (to quote Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction: “You are aware that there’s an invention called television, and on that invention they show shows?”), and Robin destroying a perfectly good burger by hollowing it out, sticking an egg inside, and cooking the juice out of it, there wasn’t much of interest to the challenge. (Contrast to last week’s tag-team, blindfolded assembly-line dish, which I thought was one of the best the show has ever conceived.) And how sad would it be for Kevin’s dish to get packaged as frozen food? How well could polenta possibly thaw and reheat?


The Elimination challenge was a classic bait-and-switch, though crueler than usual. After the chefs spend all night fantasizing about the high-quality meats in Tom’s Craftsteak, and then get so far as to tour this omnivore’s wonderland for the perfect cuts, out comes the rug. In walks the impossibly tiny Natalie Portman and the chefs hear the deflating news about why she remains impossibly tiny: She’s a vegetarian. If you watched Top Chef Masters back in the summer, when an emaciated Zooey Deschanel required gluten-free vegan food, it was déjà vu all over again. In fact, though Portman used the word “vegetarian,” presumably there were restrictions on dairy and gluten as well, because none of that showed up on any of the plates, either. The chefs had to make an entrée out of fresh vegetables, basically, which required resourcefulness and an ability to improvise on the fly, but to my mind didn’t yield many appetizing dishes.

Naturally, every chef is deflated over the twist except Robin, who gets excited over fresh garbanzo beans. Not that it mattered: The beans didn’t make it on every plate, and what survived was another pointless, incoherent experiment covered in salt. Lucky for her, Mike Isabella sucked worse, screwing up the main “protein” in his dish—leaks that were raw from being cooked too fast—and trying to cover it up with some fancy plating. Jen lost out on the large eggplants and proceeded to soldier on with tiny eggplants, leading to a gloried amuse bouche being passed off as a main course. On the plus side, she certainly picked the right week to bottom out. Even the winner, Kevin’s robust duo of mushrooms and smoked kale, didn’t seem to bowl anyone over. As food porn goes, this was the lowpoint of the season.


Grade: B

Stray observations:

• Thanks to Todd for subbing last week after I was unexpectedly whisked out of town. Much as I hate to not chime in on the seasonal “Restaurant Wars” challenge, he did so ably—nay, heroically.


• Other developing storyline: The dickishness of Michael Voltaggio. Given Kevin’s likeability and the plain truth that he’s been kicking everyone’s ass week after week after week—and among maybe the strongest group of quality chefs the show has had to date—it was out of line for Michael badmouth Kevin’s winning Elimination dish because his was more ambitious (and flawed). And deriding his brother for the “greasy” food that didn’t make the plate wasn’t good form, either.

• Thoughts on Top Chef: Just Desserts? I think Bravo runs too great a risk of stretching one of its flagship brands thin by piling this spinoff on top of another Top Chef Masters season. There’s also the risk of going up against the bajillion dessert shows that are on the air right now. On the other hand, the chefs will have no excuse for coming into the competition without any dessert recipes in mind.


• As it happens, my wife and I are heading to MGM Grand for a little vacation in mid-November. Can’t wait to sample the vegetarian delights at Craftsteak!

• Eli on vegetarians: “They’re lower human beings.” I think he was holding back, too.


• Back in college, my old roommate and I would often add the phrase “like a banshee” to the end of sentences. Robin’s nonsensical “I’m losing time like a banshee” line took me back. Only she wasn’t joking.

• Padma, setting herself up: “Like a little prick on the tip of my tongue”

• Eli is a fan of the Star Wars prequels, and they’re all he knows of Natalie Portman’s work. He must therefore go home with Robin next week after a dramatic double elimination.


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