‘Top Chef’: Do You Believe in Magic?


Last night’s Top Chef was about magic: the magic of little aluminum foil balls, the magic of product placement, and the magic of hating on a fellow contestant. That contestant in question, Robin, was the subject of much introductory carping, as Mike I. asked “why is Robin still here?” and Jen confided that “I think Robin’s gotten lucky so far, and a lot of people are fed up with it.”

Those people may have had their fill, but the show’s producers evidently hadn’t. For the Quickfire Challenge, the contestants were told to make a dish that represented “the angels and devils on your shoulders,” much as Episode One’s challenge required them to make a dish inspired by vice. It’s Vegas, baby, Vegas! Michelle Bernstein was on hand to judge, and judge she did. And go figure, her favorite dish was Robin’s “angelic” apple and fennel salad and “devilish” cardamom ginger crisp, inspired by Robin’s bout with lymphoma. “That’s a pretty good way to win Quickfire,” Eli groused. “Just tell everyone you had cancer.” Ooh, snap! No cardamom crisp for him!

Penn and Teller next appeared to do something with a bunch of aluminum foil balls and some plastic cups. Why? Because they were deconstructing a magic trick, of course. The chefs seemed a bit confused, perhaps wishing that Siegfried and Roy had been available instead. But the little show did give Padma a belabored segue to the Elimination Challenge: “Take a cue from Penn and Teller,” she trilled. “Deconstruct a classic dish!”

The chefs drew knives emblazoned with the dishes they’d have to construct. Classically trained Jen looked like she wanted to stab herself with one rather than figure out what to do with meat lasagna, while the Brothers Voltaggio could barely contain their excitement about the prospect of doing reconstructive surgery on a Caesar salad and a ruben sandwich. Mike I. drew eggs Florentine. Apparently he’d gone his entire life without seeing a brunch menu because, he admitted, he didn’t know what eggs Florentine was. But hey, where knowledge fails, idiotic swagger succeeds, right? “I’m gonna make my eggs Florentine and you’re gonna like it,” he proclaimed, shit-eating grin even shittier than usual. Thanks to her immunity, Robin was sanguine about the prospects of defiling a bowl of clam chowder: “I’m enjoying my moment of glory,” she smirked, as we consoled ourselves by imagining Mike force-feeding her his eggs Florentine.

In the prep kitchen, Michael showed off by baking his own bread for his Caesar salad, while Eli showed us why it’s not a good idea to hold a pressure cooker together with gaffer’s tape, even if it’s one’s own personal digital pressure cooker, transported from Atlanta and molested by Las Vegas airport baggage handlers. When the thing blew its top, we almost felt sorry for Eli, until Ash helpfully informed us that the Top Chef kitchen was stocked with the damn things. Ah, sweet hubris.

Meanwhile, Robin flew about the kitchen like a deranged canary, twittering to herself about the fearsome-sounding fennel flan she was cooking up and generally encouraging whatever murderous impulses her fellow contestants harbored. “I just want to tell her to shut the fuck up,” Laurine fumed later that night to her competitors, who nodded understandingly.

And then it was back to the kitchen, where the chefs learned, to their horror, that Toby Young, the “bloody cad” (according to a viewers’s poll) of seasons past, would be judging their work. The cranky Brit’s presence meant that Ash’s potato-less version of shepherd’s pie and Laurine’s anemic take on fish and chips came in for a special drubbing. Young and the other judges were far more pleased with Michael’s fussy yet innovative take on Caesar salad, Ashley’s version of pot roast, Jen’s twist on lasagna, which included steak and handmade pasta, and Kevin’s glorious reinterpretation of chicken mole negro, which caused chefs, magicians, and cranks alike to swoon.

The judges’s discussion of Kevin’s dish provided the episode with its most satisfying moment. When Young, who pronounced “paella” “pie-ella,” complained that “you don’t say Mayhico or Barthelona,” Bernstein informed him that as a Latina, she did indeed say Barthelona, thank-you very much, you pompous twit.

Speaking of pomp, the judges awarded Kevin the night’s honors, along with a whopping box of Calphalon pans helpfully provided by the Top Chef product placement department. Less lucky was Ron, whose paella got him sent home. But that’s OK. “I came from Haiti,” the departing chef reminded us. “I got to be on Top Chef. If that’s not the American dream, I don’t know what is.” And that, in the eyes of any reality TV show producer, really is magic.