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Top Chef: “Sous Your Daddy!”

Mei Lin, Melissa King
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Two steps forward, one step back. And things had been going so well, too!

Despite having finally figured out how to generate audience involvement through brunt force humanity and coming up with a few elimination challenges that actually were both relevant and involving, Top Chef managed to bring all of its late season momentum to a screeching halt with an hour of television that would have been more exciting if it had been a clip show.

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The episode begins promisingly, with the chefs mourning the surprising elimination of Doug and talking about their families in longing terms. Melissa, in particular, seems to missing her parents, which either means she’s going to do really well or really poorly. As it turns out, it wasn’t going to matter that much either way. The contestants gather at the kitchen only to be informed by Padma that there will be no Quickfire Challenge this week and that instead, they’ll be preparing an appetizer and entree with a family member for the Elimination Challenge, after picking/digging/collecting all manner of fresh shellfish from a local oyster farm. It’s an intimidatingly large challenge that gets significantly larger when it’s revealed that their loved ones will be preparing the appetizers on their own and the chefs cannot lay hands on it. The chefs look varying degrees of ill at the thought of their family members being responsible for their ultimate culinary fates but thankfully for them, at six minutes into the episode, they’re informed that this will be a non-elimination challenge but they should all still try really hard.

What the fuck?

Listen. It’s not even that I’m upset about the fact that no one is to be eliminated because God knows that people should only get eliminated on the strength (or lack thereof) of their own cooking (unless it’s an early round where people get thrown out on team challenges because of other people’s mistakes all the time.) But there’s good reason non-elimination rounds are announced at the end of an episode and not the beginning. Six minutes into this episode and all of the air is immediately sucked out of the room because everyone knows no one is going home. While the winner getting a ticket straight to the finale is appealing, there’s nowhere near as much dramatic tension as when the chefs are fighting for their livelihoods.

Saved from the dastardly menace that is any sort of internal episode propulsion, the episode begins to meander into the relationships the contestants hold with their respective family members. Everyone seems to have a largely positive relationship with their kin, George with his father Tony, Gregory with his sister Jessica, and Melissa with her mother Alice. Only Mei’s relationship with her brother Harly is less than ideal, he her parents golden child, she the self-proclaimed black sheep. The problem then is that the relationships that are most dramatically interesting are those not contained within the episode. Melissa’s father doesn’t accept her profession or her sexual orientation. Mei’s parents are disappointed that she chose to be a chef after they toiled mercilessly in the restaurant business their entire lives. These relationships are far from the inert interactions we see manifested in the actual episode but clearly those complications are impossible to incorporate, leaving us wishing for something that can never be.

The time spent picking out their shellfish is entertaining enough, as is the cooking process. Mei seems extremely harsh on her brother, but given how she perceives her place inside her family, her gruff exterior makes more sense in context. Everyone works really hard and no real disaster strikes. At this point, a mid-sized grease fire would really liven things up but you can’t always get what you want. The food is all really well prepared as well, with the only real trouble area coming with Gregory’s overcooked halibut. He did, however, prove to be a gifted advisor for his sister, whose watermelon soup turned out lovely. The women wind up with the finest dishes, and Mei’s brother performs admirably for someone who didn’t ever do any cooking to speak of. The judges have nothing but kind things to say about his oyster with soy-yuzu vinaigrette and the same goes for Mei’s surf clam and lobster. But it was Melissa and her mother Alice that ends up topping the elimination challenge, thanks largely to Alice’s egg custard with shiitake mushrooms, as guided by Melissa. That means that Melissa is the unlikely first entrant into Top Chef’s season 12 finale. A hearty congratulations to her and to everyone else who didn’t go home tonight. So… everyone.

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Quickfire Challenge Winner: N/A

Elimination Challenge Winner: Melissa

Elimination Challenge Loser: N/A

Ugh. Boring.

Bitchin’ ‘Bout Blais:

  • He was finally back and he didn’t even do anything. What a scam.

LAST CHANCE KITCHEN, “Crudité Redux”

(Spoilers. Please scroll to Stray Observations if necessary.)(Which I don’t advise. Go watch LCK and then come back and read this.)

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I’m going to dispense with the bullets for what I assume is the final Last Chance Kitchen of the season. What truly fascinates me about this week’s installment is the fact that it manages to be everything that the actual episode of Top Chef was not. It’s tight and tense and so much of that can be directly attributed to the fact that the stakes could not be higher.

The challenge itself is a tough one. Adam and Doug need to prepare a dish incorporating HIDDEN VALLEY RANCH DRESSING, while only being able to choose their produce from two crudité platters. Both chefs are jumpy and seem extremely disjointed by the challenge, moreso than any earlier (and arguably more difficult) endeavor. Adam soon channels that kinetic energy into something focused and sets about making a dish that serves as a play on dipping pizza crusts in ranch dressing, a “white pie cannelloni” with ranch pancetta and agrodolce raisins. Doug, in the meantime, is a wreck, and in the process of pulling together his dish including spiced cauliflower, red pepper ranch, and ranch pickled vegetables, manages to completely overcook his steak, leaving him mere minutes to sear off some pork loin and complete his plate. Tom is stone-faced as ever during judging and though it seems Adam has the edge, it is ultimately Doug who wins the opportunity for redemption.

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Here’s the thing: This is the farthest thing from a surprise that you could possibly imagine. Doug is a lovable, loving, culinary machine. To this day, despite the fact that he is, theoretically, not in competition, he’s still my odds-on favorite to win. (That said, it will most likely be a woman. It’s a travesty that only two women have been Top Chef.) Doug could have served that hammered steak and I still think the producers would have found a way to get him in that finale. But this episode of LCK was rife with pure emotion and barely restrained terror and that will always be more interesting to watch than the toothless cooking exhibition served up on Top Chef proper.

Stray observations:

  • That said, I do kind of want to be a fly on the wall at Mei’s family holidays. I feel like they’re super stressful.
  • Melissa is nice. Her relationship with her mom is nice. That is literally the extent of my thoughts on either of those topics.
  • Back to Mei: She has been peaking at the right time but I’m terrified she’s going to meltdown next week. I have no idea why I like her so much.
  • And it’s going to be intensely weird if the final four chefs in Mexico are Melissa, Mei, Gregory, and [REDACTED — See LCK above.] because damn that’s a far better lineup than I thought this season capable of providing.
  • George is going home next week, right? RIGHT?
  • No, seriously. Register your elimination predictions below.
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