‘Top Chef’: The Fine Line Between Being Helped and Being Dominated


Last night, Top Chef gave us the Most Very Special Episode of All, Restaurant Wars! And yes, there were some casualties — of common sense, egos, and, of course, one hapless chef. And while the episode was not quite the shit show of seasons past, the fan still received its fair share of decoration.

But first, the remaining eight (eight! How long is this damn season, anyway?) contestants gathered in the kitchen, where Padma introduced them to Champion of Conscientious Cooking Rick Moonen, who introduced the Quickfire Challenge by talking about synergy, which had the effect of making the challenge sound like some sort of viral marketing scheme. But it turned out to be more along the lines of something a bunch of bored pre-teens at a sleepover would dream up: The chefs would have to pick teams, and then each team would have 40 minutes to cook one dish, with each team member getting 10 minutes before his or her blindfolded teammates would take over.

Jen and Michael V. were team captains, and, surprise, chose Robin last. She ended up on Michael’s team with Bryan and Eli, while Jen got Laurine, Kevin, and Mike I. Jen’s team won, owing in part to the shrimp-enhanced shiitake broth that accompanied a seared trout with sauteed mushrooms and radish salad. Although the fish was actually black cod or sablefish — “I can’t believe I called my black cod trout on national TV,” Jen moaned — the team was rewarded with $10,000, which they chose to forfeit in favor of winning $10,000 apiece if they won the Elimination Challenge.

That challenge was, hooray, Restaurant Wars, to be held at RM Seafood, a place so conspicuously consumptive as to somewhat compromise Moonen’s sustainability spiel. It’s nice to care about the health of the oceans, but modeling a 200-seat restaurant after a “swank cruise ship” is perhaps not the most effective way of conveying that message. But to drive home his commitment, Moonen told the chefs that they’d only be able to use sustainable seafood in their meals, “to honor and respect why I built my restaurant in the first place.” So he gave them Seafood Watch cards, which would have been even more useful for the countless times the chefs had bought Chilean sea bass or Atlantic salmon.

Jen’s team named its restaurant Mission and decided not to make dessert part of their three-course meal, noting that the sweet stuff had sent chefs home in seasons past. Michael’s team chose the name Revolt, possibly because “hurl” was already taken, and decided to make dessert in part to take advantage of Robin’s earlier success with her fruit crisp. Michael pretty much embraced both his inner and outer dickhead, and the resulting menage a trois made Mike I. look like a charm school valedictorian. With Eli playing restaurant host, that left Michael to berate Robin over her pear pithivier and hypocritically chastise Robin for using four-letter words. “Michael’s asserted his domination,” Robin observed, as Michael told her to “Relax relax relax relax RELAX!” He later claimed to be “probably the nicest guy here,” which may have been true if his competitors had been Michael Vick and Dick Cheney.

Robin, however, got the last laugh, as the chefs had nothing but love to show for her pithivier, which she served with vanilla ice cream and elderflower syrup. When the chefs noted that there seemed to be some tension between Robin and Michael, she responded, “There’s a fine line between being helped and being dominated.” Have truer words ever been spoken? Dessert proved to be a big hit in general, with Bryan’s chocolate ganache with mint ice cream also drawing generous praise. The judges also swooned over Michael’s chicken and calamari “noodles” and cod with billi-bi sauce croquettes, and even approved of Eli’s hosting skills. Michael was awarded Moonen’s cookbook (high stakes indeed!), and $10,000, which, to show he’s a nice guy, he promised to split with his team. Bryan, however, wasn’t buying it, grousing that he was tired of his brother’s “unprofessional behavior being rewarded.”

Speaking of unprofessional, Jen’s Mission proved to be, yes, impossible. Her team quickly found itself in the weeds, as Kevin manned the entree station on his own and Jen steamed the mussels and clams accompanying her Alaskan halibut to order. Her second fish dish, trout with brown butter emulsion, was badly cooked and further handicapped by a broken sauce, leading Tom to solemnly proclaim that Jen’s mentor, Eric Ripert, “would not be happy with her.” Kevin’s rack of lamb with carrot jam didn’t fare much better, with Moonen complaining its undercooked state made it “lamb Jell-O.” The problems extended to the front of the house, where Laurine quickly found herself in over her head and failed to tell the judges exactly what it was they were eating and further annoyed Princess Padma by making her wait. The upshot of the whole experience, Kevin noted, was “that might be some of the worst cooking we’ve done in our [bleeping] careers.”

Jen was in tears and felt as broken as her sauce, but it was Laurine who received the ultimate punishment. Laurine’s reaction to her dismissal was an enjoyably levelheaded and tidy one: You could practically see her washing her hands of the whole Top Chef enterprise and putting it firmly behind her as she returned to a more sensible way of life in San Francisco.

Next week, the show cannibalizes Top Chef Masters, which featured an episode where a bunch of swaggering chefs were rendered helpless as day-old mice by guest star Zooey Deschanel’s request for a vegan meal. Top Chef will give us another vegan hottie, Natalie Portman, and if the look of lascivious glee on Mike Isabella’s face was any indication, we’re in for another Very Special Episode indeed.