‘Top Chef’: Campfire Ceviche and Other Misguided Efforts


Ah, the wonder of the great outdoors. There’s nothing like it for exposing people’s more shadowy idiosyncrasies: Some of us hate tents. Some of us like to practice voodoo. And some of us are happiest throwing horseshoes.

It was, in all, a somewhat revealing week for our Top Chef contestants, who were subject to the whims of both the show’s viewers and a group of ranchers sporting various species of facial hair. Things got off to an intimate start as Michael V. confided that there were “people here who weren’t as talented as the people who went home…what has Robin really done?” He had a point, though his subsequent assertion that “the most talented people here are my brother and myself” had the effect of lessening our willingness to sympathize with him. As both that aside and the episode’s subsequent scenes illustrated, it’s easy to root for talent, but much less so to side with a sulky diva with dead eyes and a heart made of plasticine.

After that introductory bit of carping, it was on to the Quickfire Challenge. This week’s challenge was presented by Tim Love, who is famous, Padma said, because he “takes Southwestern food and incorporates it into fine dining,” much in the way that Padma takes a chef’s lifetime of work and incorporates it into an inane soundbite.

The challenge’s featured ingredient, cactus, was the work of the show’s viewers, who voted that the contestants should make “something succulent with these succulents,” rather than snake or kangaroo. Although snake would have presented far richer metaphorical and symbolic possibilities, cactus still posed some amusing obstacles: Ash was inspired to make some would-be tortillas that looked (and apparently tasted) like two halves of a mangled baseball mitt, and Ron was inspired to drown it in a sauce because in Haiti, they “stay the heck away from cactus.”

Laurine, Mike I., and Mattin were the judges’s favorites, and though we were rooting for the quiet and unassuming Laurine to beat out both of these showboating windbags, unfortunately, Mike I.’s cactus and tuna ceviche won him Tim’s love and 15 grand. Laurine and Mattin seemed less bothered by this than Michael V., who groused, “I’d rather be able to work with interesting flavors than take the slime out of cactus.” Fine, but who’s going to take the knot out of Michael V.’s knickers?

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs were trucked out to the middle of the desert and forced to sleep in teepees and cook over fire pits. Some, like Ashley, who “grew up in the woods” and was “familiar” with an outhouse, and Bryan, who grew up camping, adapted easily to their surroundings. Ron, no stranger to the outdoors, dismantled part of a tree to form some kind of voodoo barrier to snakes. Others didn’t fare as well. “I don’t believe in camping. I think it’s asinine,” whined Eli, blissfully unaware that someone with that much styling product on his skull isn’t allowed to use the word “asinine” unironically.

Sadly, there were no trust falls, though Kevin did reveal himself to be a competitive horseshoe player. On Top Chef, you take what you can get.

The challenge was basically just like the Air Force challenge, only with sunscreen and dirt. And the chefs responded to it as they did when forced to cook in a military kitchen: some by sucking and some by not sucking. In the former category was Ron, whose sweet ceviche and weird “coconut island mojito” was declared “disgusting” by the judges; Mattin, whose “ceviche three ways” was so repellent that Tom actually spit it out; and Robin, whose grilled romaine salad was compromised by the nasty, sour “drunken prawns” she failed to taste before serving them to the judges. Oops.

The chefs and hairy yet discerning ranchers were far more appreciative of Ashley’s grilled chicken paillard and corn succotash and Laurine’s sautéed arctic char with tomatillo salsa. The Brothers Voltaggio also ended up in the winners circle, Bryan for his roasted pork loin with polenta, dandelion greens, and glazed rutabega, and Michael for his “unexpected” dashi with black miso cod. You can take the boy away from the white tablecloth, but you can’t take the white tablecloth away from the boy, it seems. Bryan was declared the challenge’s victor as his brother attempted to sulk impassively.

Over in the losers’ little corner of hell, the judges railed at Robin for her unfocused dish and bad prawns and chastised non-drinker Ron for his attempts to play mixologist. But it was Mattin whose food poisoning three-ways inspired the most personal ire: “I’m not well from it,” Tim Love said. “I’m flippin’ sick from it.” This may be the first episode of the show to make a death sentence sound like a line from a Waylon Jennings song; it was even more satisfying because it was directed at Mattin, who last week revealed himself to be something of a devious little shit. And so, the wee Frenchman was sent packing and we were left to reflect that revenge, like ceviche, is a dish best served cold.