‘Top Chef’: The Special Hell of Pasta Salad


Earlier this morning, Our Man Sietsema posted his Top 10 Reasons to Hate Top Chef. Last night’s episode neatly and repeatedly illustrated, ad nauseam, every last one of those reasons, and possibly more.

To wit: It is becoming more apparent with each episode that, as Sietsema noted, tribal tattoos and a surfeit of styling products can’t camouflage the fact that the contestants are collectively about as dull as a drawer of butter knives. And nothing brought that home more than last night’s Elimination Challenge of cooking dinner for 400 members of the U.S. Air Force.

It wasn’t the challenge itself that was the problem — cooking such a large quantity of food in a regulation military kitchen without pots, pans, or advance knowledge of what was in the relatively limited pantry presented numerous interesting obstacles. Rather, it was the
chefs’ self-conscious patriotic posturing that was objectionable: When wide-eyed Preeti earnestly revealed that “the defining moment when I knew I wanted to be a chef was 9/11….and then I went to cooking school a few years later!,” it defined the moment when
we knew we wanted her to go home.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The episode kicked off with a Quickfire Challenge that involved doing things to potatoes. Jen, somewhat predictably, won, thanks to a dish that used mussels, creme fraiche, and duck fat — really, who wouldn’t win with duck fat? She could have smeared it on a pile of compost and still declared victory. Jen’s glee was less compelling than the praise that guest judge Mark Peel (Campanile) lavished on Ash’s sweet potato “custard,” completely missing the fact that it was actually a failed attempt at ice cream (because who the hell tries to make ice cream in 45 minutes?). Ash did his best not to snigger, as did we: Only on Top Chef could an artfully presented puddle of something resembling the contents of a baby’s diaper be lauded so enthusiastically.

For the aforementioned Elimination Challenge, the chefs split themselves into seven teams of two to be overseen by the elimination-immune Jen. Watching them pair up brought to mind a group of junior high school students choosing volleyball teams: Jesse, whose disturbing self-loathing streak was revealed by an overly spicy sweet potato soup (“Stupid! I hate me!”), and Ron were the last ones to pair up, which kind of made us want them to win, until they decided to serve New England clam chowder on a 90-degree day.

For all the limitations of the kitchen and pantry (canned beans, SPAM, etc), the challenge was notably low-key, which may be why the show’s producers tried to liven things up with plenty of testimonials assuring audiences that hair gel and self-absorption don’t negate one’s deadly serious patriotism. Bryan intoned that he was overwhelmed with the “emotion of what we’re about to do,” as if he himself was preparing to go to Iraq, while Mike actually did seem to think he was about to be shipped into battle: “It’s like we’re going to war or something,” he said, grinning his village idiot’s grin. Only Ash seemed to get the point of the challenge: “They want a little taste of America before they go,” he observed of the men and women he’d be cooking for.

That taste was, largely, a satisfying one, judging by the reactions to most of the food. Even Jesse and Ron’s clam chowder met with approval, particularly from one airman from Boston. Tom, Gail, Padma, and Mark were most enthusiastic about Michael’s soy-mustard-glazed pork belly with crushed peanuts and Kevin and Eli’s Georgia-style braised pork with potato salad; less successful were Mike’s overcooked shrimp salad and Laurine and Preeti’s pasta salad, which, with its broccoli, sun-dried tomatoes, and artichoke hearts, looked like it could have come from any Midtown deli’s salad bar.

Michael was declared the challenge winner for his pork belly, something his brother Bryan reacted to with his usual lack of any discernible emotion. When the series began, it was difficult to tell the two apart, but watching last night’s episode brought the realization that this is less due to appearance than personality, or lack thereof. With their dead eyes and tanned alterna-jock looks, they’ve got all the heat and charisma of day-old Minute Rice. This season was in part built up around the promise of fierce sibling rivalry, but the only rivalry we can detect is that between their ability to form sentences and our ability to stay awake.

But blandness can be punished on Top Chef, as the judges’ chopping block proved. Preeti, Laurine, and Mike were singled out for their crimes against pasta salad and shrimp, respectively, and while it was fun to watch Mike pitch a hissy fit upon realizing that Michael’s pork belly didn’t make him immune to criticism, it was equally satisfying to watch Padma tell Preeti to pack up her knives — when someone doesn’t realize why deli-style pasta salad is a bad idea, it’s time to get the hell out of Vegas.