At its most entertaining, competitive reality television at once surprises and conforms to expectations. One wants to be surprised by the contestants and their choices, while at the same time, there’s a certain pleasure in reading the formulas and knowing who will get kicked off an episode of Project Runway after watching only half of it.
On this season of Top Chef, there are no such pleasures. Each week, the chef-testants cook safe dishes that fail to surprise both the judges and the viewers. It is only the judges who do any surprising. Their choices of winners and losers seem unfounded, unfair even. The judge’s table, once one of the most satisfying portions of the show where we witnessed logical and witty discussion of the dishes, now has a displeasing randomness. In fact, the whole show has gotten just too random.
First, there’s the random hookup. Last night, we had Leah telling us that she and Hosea weren’t hooking up that it was just a one-time thing. Then Hosea told us he’d like to see Stefan fail; if Hosea had more than an ounce of charisma, this might be an interesting foreshadowing of baldie’s failure later in the episode. Padma announces that the Quickfire will be related to the Super Bowl because they’ll be playing “football squares–Top Chef style.” It actually has nothing to do with football, it’s just a grid that assigns everyone a food group and the same secret ingredient: Quaker Oats!
Still, the Quaker Oats make for some interesting dishes and moments. Jamie draws fruit and makes some appealing coconut-oat crusted shrimp with a fruit salsa and avocado crème fraiche. Kooky Carla notices Jeff going overboard and notes the he’s “a really good chef but he can’t quiet the creative monkeys.” Leah has to work with seafood; Hosea watches her struggle from afar and says “she better make sure she gets the fish right” this time. What is the fish really standing for here, Hosea?
It’s with the main challenge that things get too random. Each chef gets to pick a football team and a region of American cooking, and then face-off against a chef-testant from seasons past. Padma wears a sexy referee outfit that seems too contrived; the chefs all get jerseys. Leah makes a comments about how Tom Brady is hot. The scoring system involves too many football metaphors. It’s all a bit much, as the chefs aren’t really cooking Super Bowl or tailgating food, they’re just lost in cutesy football trimmings. The dishes again fail to be all that interesting with the chefs having only twenty minutes to make them in each face-off round. The judges must decide immediately on whose dish they like better, but they don’t have the time to offer up any amusing comments as to why they chose one dish over the other.
Kooky Carla pulls of a surprise win with a New Orleans crawfish and Andouille gumbo, a surprise in that the judges didn’t seem all that excited by it when they were actually eating it. And, really, if you would have said weeks ago that Carla would still be around, you would have seemed pretty kooky yourself. Then the elimination makes for an unsatisfying surprise. Fabio, Stefan, and Jeff end up in the losers’ circle. Obviously Stefan can’t go no matter how much he offended Padma with his salads. Fabio has a raging Italian-style confrontation with guest judge Scott Conant over his veal, and Tom pretty much says that Fabs has disrespected the protein. It seems the Italian stallion will be sent packing, and it’s time. He’s been skating by no charm and mediocre dishes for too long, right?
Wrong. The judges stun by giving Jeff the mitten. Sure, Jeff is scattered and inconsistent, but he like, Radhika before him, was occasionally doing some of the more interesting cooking on the show. Of course, interesting cooking is out this season in favor of personality, so the Italian stays and Jeff gets sent back to Miami. Brace yourself for yet another week of Italian charm, safety dishes from Leah, and post-game hookup talk. But hey, at least Jamie seems to be over her scallop phase.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 29, 2009