‘Top Chef’: When the Merde Hits the Fan


Oh, those French and their talent for deadpan drama. What we Americans express with operatic levels of emotion, the Gauls communicate with a sniff, a raised eyebrow, an indifferent shrug. That may be why the decision to have a panel of intractably French chefs judge last night’s gustatory labors was such an effective one. Never mind that Joel Robuchon was there, presiding, deity-like, over the proceedings. What was more impressive was the contrast between the record levels of anxiety displayed by the contestants and the impassive serenity of their judges. It brought to mind the ancient Roman sport of pitting a slave against a lion: the lion watched, bored but hungry, as the slave scuttled about frantically for the amusement of the audience.

And there was a fair amount of amusement in last night’s episode, thanks to both the aforementioned judges and the Super Double Death Round Jeopardy decision to send not one, but two chefs packing. The episode began with Robin’s reflection that the first three chefs to be dispatched this season were female, so it was obvious that by the end of the evening, the show would have one less Y-chromosome among its contestants. That said, it was also predictable that Jesse, she of the lip ring and self-loathing streak, would also fall victim to the Quickfire Challenge, whose loser, Tom announced to a collective gasp, would be sent home. “We’re in Vegas,” he reiterated, presumably because no showgirls were around to remind us of the fact. “So this is a high-stakes Quickfire.”

That Quickfire Challenge, presided over by Tom and a distractingly pink-lipped Daniel Boulud, was to take snails, those slippery stalwarts of French cuisine, and make them edible. Panic ensued, Ashley said something about needing a fucking blender, Robin took Ron’s snails, Mattin took the opportunity to remind us that he’s French, and Jesse moaned prophetically about her “fog of self-doubt.”

Boulud singled out Mike, Jen, and Kevin for praise, and declared Kevin the winner for his fricassee of snails with mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, and candied bacon jam. Really, how can you not win with something containing candied bacon jam? It was hard not to be happy for Kevin: not only does he appear to be a decent guy, he seems to take genuine, almost child-like pleasure in feeding people nice, happy food. Plus, he looks like his other job is building wooden toys in Santa’s workshop.

Lucky Kevin was given both immunity and an invitation to feast with the guest judges on the meal his fellow contestants would prepare for the Elimination Challenge. Meanwhile, the Quickfire’s losers, Ashley, Robin, and, yes, Jesse, were sent back to the kitchen to whip up some amuse bouches to prove their worth. When Jesse was told to go pack her knives, it was almost a relief: every week, her suffering and self-effacement have made us feel like we’re watching outtakes from Girl, Interrupted, and it would be nice to think that she’s gone to a place where, as she said, people know “I don’t suck this bad.”

Onward and upward! For the Elimination Challenge, the 12 contestants drew knives emblazoned with the names of either French sauces or classic French dishes. They then paired up to create dishes for a six-course meal, to be cooked and served in the restaurant of Joel Robuchon, who’s like the Godfather-Emperor-Dumbledore-Yoda of the fine dining world. Giddy Mattin reminded us, again, that he’s French, so he felt like “they created this challenge for me. Everybody’s looking at me.” Yes, but as would soon become apparent, for the wrong reasons.

Predictable unions formed between Mike and Bryan and Jen and Michael, the cool kids in this particular sandbox. More interesting was the pairing between Ron and Robin: as Robin flew around, ranting about garbanzo flour and vinegar, Ron broke his laconic reserve to muse that “I think my partner is Robin because no one else wants to work with her because she’s all over the place.” Ron may be a man of few words, but they’re memorable ones, at least. And his simple summation of Haitian-French relations – “we don’t usually like them and they usually don’t like us” – provided more geopolitical insight than all of last week’s displays of self-conscious patriotism. Unfortunately, that insight didn’t translate the overcooked frog leg meuniere he and Robin whipped up for the underwhelmed judges.

Those judges, who also included Jean Joho, Hubert Keller, Laurent Tourondel, Robuchon, and Boulud, were an intimidating bunch, but also a surprisingly forgiving one: no food was spat out, no names taken in vain. At worst, they seemed mildly perturbed. At best, they were drolly ecstatic.

Jen and Michael and Mike and Bryan drew the highest praise for their work, a rabbit with chausseur sauce and mustard noodles and warm cured trout with deconstructed bearnaise sauce, respectively. When Bryan was declared the challenge’s winner, his brother looked like he had gas, but given that they’ve both been among the judges’ favorites every week, it wouldn’t be surprising if they ended up competing against each other for the show’s ultimate prize.

At the fuzzy end of the lollipop stick were Hector and Ash and – surprise! – Mattin and Ashley. The former team was guilty of a badly cooked and sliced chateaubriand, while the latter’s sin was dry poussin and a veloute that resembled a bacon-cream sauce.

Remember last week, when Laurine and Preeti refused to throw each other under the bus to escape punishment for their drab pasta salad? That admirable impulse was altogether absent here: Watching Mattin lay blame on Ashley for her misguided use of asparagus made a convincing argument for his role as this season’s true villain. Mike Isabella may be a boob and a boor, but at least he’s honest about it. Mattin is an altogether more sneaky affair, which is why it was slightly disappointing to watch Hector go home. Sure, Hector may have committed unconscionable crimes against meat – remember Episode One’s deep-fried steak? – but on the grounds of good sportsmanship alone, Mattin deserved to be punished. Underneath that foppish bandana beats the heart of a true slimeball, a real cochon — and, worst of all, a Frenchman who can’t make veloute.