As morning dawned on the McMansion this week, we learned that Eli still lives with his parents, which wasn’t that much more surprising than the simultaneous discovery that he wears white Crocs, and that they’re really, really filthy. We also learned that Robin does Pilates every morning, something regarded by her fellow contestants with eye-rolling skepticism. And in the kitchen we learned that guest judge Charlie Palmer once employed both of the Brothers Voltaggio. Michael was the “American Icon”‘s executive chef for one year, and Bryan worked for him for 10 — and was also a partner in his D.C. restaurant, which one would think would pose some kind of conflict of interest here. One would also think that, given the apparently unlimited supply of celebrity chefs hustling to get their mugs and lines of frozen food of TV, the producers could have found someone else, but as with everything else on the show, ethical issues prostrate themselves in service of manufactured drama.
The Quickfire Challenge, Padma intoned with deadly solemnity, would be about “the art of pairing.” Specifically, the art of pairing product placement with timed competition: The camera flashed to an obscenely lavish spread of snack chips that the contestants would have to incorporate into their dishes. “It’s incredibly difficult to pair something of that complexity,” Ash observed without a whisper of irony — dude, ever been to a party where chips and dip were served?
Frantic ministrations ensued, with Jen fretting about her overcooked pork chop and Mike I. declaring, predictably, that “I’m confident in myself, as always.” Palmer didn’t share his degree of enthusiasm, choosing Bryan’s seared rib-eye steak, Eli’s potato clam salad with celery and fennel, and Kevin’s bean and confit tomato salad with creamed corn as his favorites. Eli, his beady little eyes glinting with infantile glee, was declared the winner.
For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs drew knives emblazoned with parts of a pig. Palmer announced that they’d be “matching pigs with Pinot,” eliciting happy faces among the chefs and sighs of relief among viewers who’d been dreading the specter of more raw ceviche and mangled prawns. The dishes would be served at Palmer’s annual charity event, which is “very intensely looked on by a lot of culinarians.” So the chefs were hustled off to do a wine tasting at Aureole, where the so-called “wine angels” zoomed up and down the wine tower by way of some kind of zip wire system that gave them an eerie resemblance to Cirque du Soleil performers.
Later that night, at the Top Chef ranch, tensions between bratty Eli and passive-aggressive Robin ensued as the two squabbled over a dirty cutting board. “You’re not my [bleeping] mother, Robin!” Eli huffed, as viewers offered silent condolences to Eli’s real mother, who was presumably back in Atlanta vacuuming his room. Down in the basement, almost everyone seemed to side with Eli, and Mike I. called Robin “Rotten Robin.” While Robin is inescapably annoying, at this point it’s difficult not to feel a twinge of sympathy for her — she seems less like a contestant than the well-meaning but drippy junior-high-school art teacher the kids make fun of for wearing ponchos and macrame earrings. You’re irked, but also slightly embarrassed for her.
The next day, at Pigs and Pinot, the chefs hauled out their wares for a hoard of intense culinarians, who wore a lot of pastel and loud prints and said things like, “Ohmigod this is amazing!” Tom, Padma, Charlie, Toby Young, and Food & Wine‘s Dana Cowin appeared, and seemed most impressed with Kevin’s simple but sublime pork leg pate, Jen’s braised pork belly with tomatoes, black olives, apples, celery, and truffles, Bryan’s braised pork spare rib with parsnip puree, and Michael’s root beer-braised pork cheeks. They were less taken with Ash’s “clammy” and poorly seasoned chilled pork tenderloin, Laurine’s badly conceived and executed pork rillette, which Cowin compared to cat food, and Robin’s barely there pork chop with some kind of coffee-cherry sauce. “The overall sensation is one of sliminess,” Young noted succinctly.
At the judges table, where Jen, Bryan, Michael, and Kevin stood before him, Young congratulated Jen on the “barnyard funky flavors” of her dish, saying “it’s like the difference between a shaved armpit and hairy armpit.” Tom put his head down on the table in surrender as Padma appeared to throw up in her mouth a little bit. Oh, those randy Brits! Bryan and Michael, who’d earlier gotten into a bitch fight over some Glad Wrap, were both congratulated for their noble efforts, but it was Pig Guy Kevin and his pig tattoo who won the evening’s top honors.
At the other end of the spectrum, Robin, Laurine, and Ash were castigated for their porcine failures. Robin was taken to task for using too little pork, but given how much the show’s milking the Eli-Robin hate, there’s no way she was going anywhere. Although Laurine got schooled for trying to braise her meat in chicken stock instead of fat, it was Ash who committed the unpardonable sin of telling the judges that what he’d really meant to cook was pork with polenta and a cherry demi-glace. The judges were not amused, and sent him packing. As Ash himself said, “Oops!” But that’s OK: He promised to cook his pork and polenta for everyone once he returned to New York — everyone, that is, “except Padma.” That’s our boy: You can take the chef out of New York, but you can’t take the New York out of the chef, especially when haughty, questionably attired reality show hostesses are involved.