Top Chef: Wherein Gay Politics and Bad Shrimp Collide


For all of the drama that its premiere promised, last night’s episode of Top Chef was disappointingly tension-free, relying on the gay marriage debate and a highly contrived (and surprisingly flaccid) battle of the sexes to lend some spark to the proceedings.

Reminding us yet again that We’re in Vegas, baby, Vegas!, episode two kicked off with a craps table in the kitchen: For the Quickfire Challenge, each chef rolled the dice to see how many ingredients she or he could use in the competition. Todd English, looking oddly shellacked, was the evening’s guest judge. “He’s pretty hot,” said Jen, but her fellow contestants reacted even more lasciviously to the news that the challenge winner would take home $15,000.


English was particularly appreciative of Michael’s gazpacho with compressed cucumber, and much less so of Jesse’s underseared scallops with chimichurri sauce, admonishing her that “mushy on mushy is not nice.” Poor Jesse: She began the episode berating herself for having “made some really stupid mistakes”; as English chastized her, she bit
her lip ring, looking like she might cry. Michael, on the other hand, was ecstatic, having beaten his brother and winning a crapload of money in the process. For his part, Bryan remained relatively impassive, reacting to the news like English had rattled off the 10-day weather forecast.

Ho hum. On to the Elimination Challenge, which segregated the men and women into teams that would compete against each other by preparing hors d’oeuvres for a bachelor and bachelorette party. The engaged couple in question came armed with a trio of cocktails that the dishes would have to complement: a Moscow Mule, a tequila shot, and a Golden Delicious, which Ash described succinctly as “sweet, gooey, and disgusting.”

Though the battle of the sexes was clearly rigged to provoke a kitchen gender war, it inspired more of a mild skirmish. Even the dependably sexist Mike didn’t deliver any piggy soundbites; the closest we got was Hector declaring that the “guys are very strong and the
girls are a little more green.” Jen called the challenge “absolutely ridiculous,” which was endearing but hardly incendiary; her female teammates rolled their eyes but otherwise seemed more or less unperturbed.

Only Ashley lodged a protest, not because of the gender issue, but because the challenge revolved around straight people getting hitched. “I find it beyond comprehension that they’re making us do a wedding challenge when at least three of us aren’t allowed in that institution,” she fumed, as fellow lesbian Preeti more or less shrugged the whole thing off.

Ultimately, the only institution that the challenge celebrated was that of men and women getting drunk poolside and bemoaning their impending lack of freedom: The spectacle of the respective parties chasing plates of tuna tartare with tequila was more evocative of the union between vomit and toilet than husband and wife.

Politics aside, the challenge inspired some impressive food and some not completely unexpected misfires. The men’s team claimed victory, with the competition between the acerbic Ken doll brothers landing them both in the judges’ top four, along with Kevin and Hector. Bryan’s ingenious sweet and sour macaroon, filled with guacamole, corn nuts,
and corn puree, was declared the day’s winner, making both him and Michael safe bets for two of this season’s top contenders.

At the other end of the spectrum, Ashley, Preeti, Eve, and Jesse found themselves atoning for their culinary sins: Preeti for overcured tuna, Ashley for a bitter bay leaf panna cotta, Jesse for a “muddled” Thai chicken, and Eve for, yet again, doing inadvisable things with shrimp. Having decided they couldn’t allow her to malign more shellfish, the judges sent Eve packing. Their decision wasn’t all that surprising: Eve provided more or less the same function as hotel room wallpaper, generally inoffensive but astoundingly uninteresting. And if there’s one thing Top Chef could use some more of, it’s a healthy serving of personality to follow last night’s dainty hors d’ouevres.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 27, 2009

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