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Top Chef: "Serve And Protect"

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You’ll pardon me if I start with this personal anecdote, which I feel compelled to share whenever cops and food intermingle. Back in the limbo period between undergrad and grad school, when I living in Athens, Georgia and working at a video store, my old roommate Bruce and I would occasionally head out past midnight to Krystal, a White Castle-ish mini-burger franchise, for sustenance. (Incidentally, Krystal/White Castle burgers operate on what I call “the reverse Gremlins principle”: They must be eaten after midnight. Otherwise, bad things happen.) The Krystal was located in a not-great area and local high-school kids would spend weekend nights cruising around the parking lot for God knows what reason. The kids drew such a heavy police presence at the restaurant that some cops were actually stationed behind the counter, working the cash registers. This led Bruce to twist the police motto into a simple but memorable witticism: “To protect… and serve.”

Tonight’s episode, “Serve And Protect,” comes a week after the all-night “Wedding Wars” bonanza, but we’re reminded that a week for us is a really just a few hours of shut-eye for the contestants. This morning, there was an NPR report about reality-show producers using sleep deprivation to soften up the participants—just like Abu Ghraib!—and clearly they know what they’re doing, based on all the invective that was flying around like so much parsnip-pine nut faux-rice. And while I question the ethics of treating people this shabbily, I can’t argue that the effects are dynamic, at least as far as dramatic tension is concerned.

The food is another matter, and tonight was one of those nights when the word “healthy” seemed a euphemism for “barely edible.” The action started with a Quickfire challenge where the chefs had to make a sexy modern salad; based on Stephanie and Jen’s “turned-on asparagus” from the improv challenge, I was relieved that no one took the term “sexy” too literally. That doesn’t mean we were spared entirely; of his “Sensual Beef Salad,” Spike said he was “planning to make something that’s just going to scream, ‘Let’s have sex after we eat this salad.’” Has anyone ever said this? Why sit down to a meal if you can’t wait until after the main course to commence fucking?

In any case, Sam from Season Two shows up to do the guest officiating, which seems like a fair acknowledgement that he was screwed out of the S2 finale. The salads looked fine but unmemorable, leaving most of the juicy material on the sidelines, like Stephanie failing to plate an artichoke chip in the allotted 45 minutes (!) and Lisa of all people claiming that some of the other chefs are not that great and “their personalities suck ass.” This from a chef who’s only won one challenge (mmm… miso-smoked bacon) and has a toxic air that follows her around like Pigpen’s cloud of filth. Nice.


The unlikely winner is Mr. Sensual Beef himself, Spike, and in lieu of immunity, he gets a pretty significant edge in the Elimination challenge, and that’s where things get interesting. Assigned to cook a healthy microwavable lunchbox for Police Academy trainees and personnel, like Steve Guttenberg and that guy who does funny voices, the chefs are given a strict set of guidelines, including a requirement to use a lean protein, a vegetable, a fruit, and a whole grain. Spike’s Quickfire bonus gives him 10 extra minutes in the grocery store and dibs on an element from each of the four food groups, which no competitor can duplicate. Spike’s plan is both diabolical and bone-headed: Choose the most obvious representative of each group—in this case, chicken, lettuce, tomato, and bread—just to fuck up everyone’s plans.

Here’s the obvious problem: The moment the other chefs get over their annoyance at losing some basic ingredients, they’re forced to find creative solutions that might lead to better dishes. Meanwhile, Spike has stuck himself with a boring old chicken salad over which no one’s going to get amorous. Still, any creative advantage is minimized by the fact that no one seems thrilled to be making microwavable heart-smart dishes and the results are predictably uninspired. Dale’s marinated bison and Stephanie’s hearty barley/meatball soup come away the winners, with both finding clever end-arounds to circumnavigate Spike’s pitiful little roadblocks. Antonia’s curry beef dish apparently didn’t rate one way or the other, but it also struck me as a flavorful alternative to fatty foods.


As for the losers, all three of them could have gone home and were the weakest of the remaining contestants by far, but it really comes down to which form of arrogance you detest the most: Andrew, who didn’t think at all about diners that may not want to cross the bridge from burgers to austere raw food, and didn’t bother to follow the assignment? Or Spike, who decided that his pedestrian chicken salad (with grapes and olives—yuck) was all the common man could stomach? Then there’s Lisa, whose incoherent little stir fry was only slightly more palatable than her sour disposition. But the judges were unanimous in giving Andrew the boot, so we’re down our beloved mental patient. Sniff.

Grade: B

Stray observations:

• Andrew’s last night also opens with maybe his best quote ever: “I woke today with a fucking fire inside my stomach. Either I’m going to stab somebody or I’m going to make some amazing food.” Too bad about that third, unmentioned option.


• Happy to see that Lisa’s “somebody fucked with my rice” complaint didn’t fly with anybody. It seemed a bit outlandish to assume that someone deliberated sabotaged her by cranking up the heat on her rice, and even on the off chance that did happen, she should have kept an eye on her food.

• Subtle integration of those GE Monogram microwaves into the show. Jack Donaghy would be proud.


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