Wylie ‘n’ Padma, with Wylie looking wily.
I’d been at a birthday party at Momofuku just before Top Chef Season 7, Episode 10 aired. Knowing that I’d drawn the short straw and had to write about it, I cycled home in a lather, filled to the brim with fried chicken, corn salad, and pork-belly ssam. One of the topics of conversation at the party had been how no one watches Top Chef anymore, and it was the general consensus that the once-interesting show had become bogged down in predictability.
Amanda: “I never used a ramp before.”
To me certain tropes had become especially tedious: the way that, when a new judge is introduced, the camera cuts to talking heads of contestants extravagantly praising him, even though you can tell they’d never heard of the guy before. The redundancy of the slow-moving establishing shots, as contestants walk to their cars or back to their cramped but supposedly luxurious place of residence. The sprint through Whole Foods as if their asses were on fire, and the boring scenes wherein the remaining contestants shoot the shit while sitting in a circle on boxes, and the dialogue sounds as if it had been extracted from them with pliers.
There are seven characters left (Alex, Amanda, Angelo, Ed, Kelly, Kevin, and Tiffany) as Episode 10 commences with Amanda ostentatiously opening a bag of Seattle’s Best coffee. Let the plugs begin! The cameras cut to the usual morning powwow in which the cheftestants immediately set in to bitching about Alex. “I’m not getting along with anyone in the kitchen,” he ruefully observes, and not since Marcel have we seen someone so hated by the other contestants. The affair of the pea puree is brought up once again, but the main complaint, best annunciated by Kevin, is that Alex didn’t really make the dish attributed to him in the last episode. A dense cloud is being dramatically unfurled over Alex’s bald pate, and you wouldn’t be out of line to detest such ham-fisted foreshadowing on the part of the producers.
Nevertheless, this evening’s episode provides a few interesting features. The Quickfire was a mystery box affair, wherein a series of ingredients is carried into the kitchen in black boxes with big question marks emblazoned on one side. The guy who carries the box in is a dead ringer for the character called Killer in the sequel to The Matrix, a dumb gag that gets dumber each time it’s pulled.
During this Quickfire, Angelo’s confidence continues to sag, and we can hear the plot machinery creaking here. At one point he looks up and says, “I feel a bit lost,” which presents quite a contrast to his braggadocio of earlier episodes. Then he sheepishly admits, “This is the first time I’ve sweated into the food,” making us doubly glad to not be a judge that evening. Angelo ostensibly wants to win the challenge in order to straighten out the immigration status of his girlfriend, but we almost suspect that he loses on purpose to forestall being reunited with her.
Alex: Marked for extinction since Episode 1.
There turn out to be four boxes, containing the following ingredients:
Box 1: A fish, fava beans, a can with no label
Box 2: Squid, black garlic
Box 3: Ramps, passion fruit
Box 4: Jicama
Makes a very poetic poem, doesn’t it?
This Quickfire gives the contestants a chance to say some of the dumbest things. In fact the utter dumbing down of the contestants this season may be one of the things that contributes to the sinking ratings of the show, which dropped to 1.8 million viewers this season. Half the dialogue consists of cheftestants scratching their heads and admitting to never having heard of certain ingredients. “I never used a ramp before,” says one hapless competitor, while another laments, “I don’t know what black garlic is.” The spirit of culinary exploration and adventure has completely gone out of the show, and all we have left is a group of whining ninnies intent on winning. Tiffany aces the challenge with a seafood stew, while Alex ends up once again on the bottom, and who remembers what he made?
But the worst is yet to come. For the main portion of the show, the contestants are informed they’ll be cooking a banquet for officers of the CIA, and their chief, Leon Panetta, right on the CIA premises. And you thought it was a top-secret organization! Why the employees of the Central Intelligence Agency should be permitted to participate in a reality show is way beyond me. It’s like having them stand in a picture window on every Main Street in America shouting, “We’re idiots. We don’t deserve to be spies. We’ll throw all our self-respect out the window in order to be on a mediocre TV show for a few minutes!”
Naturally, Panetta turns out to be a trencherman, with many opinions about the food in front of him, nearly all negative. He bandies words with the other judges, Eric Ripert and Wylie Dufresne — who looks tired and anemic.
Meanwhile, Angelo continues his self-destructive streak. We see him buying frozen puff pastry in Whole Foods, the same offense for which the hapless John (remember the gangling guy who looked like Charlie Manson on laughing gas?) was ejected in Episode 1. Contestants have very short memories.
The cheftestants have drawn knives to determine which of seven classic dishes each will make for the CIA spooks, but the trick is they have to “disguise” the dishes. Get it? Alex immediately decides he’s going to stuff his assignment — veal parmesan — with pasta, and a worse idea hasn’t been attempted on the show since Ed stuffed a beef filet with ratatouille.
Angelo has drawn beef Wellington, and the frozen puff pastry is going to be the base for the dish. Tiffany disguises her assignment (a gyro) as a leg of lamb, but Amanda has no idea how to disguise her French onion soup. So she doesn’t. We have a chance once again to watch the sad spectacle of Amanda admitting that she’s way out of her league. And then giggling. How does she stay on the show?
Meanwhile, the sight of Ripert and Dufresne cozying up to Panetta, whom they treat as an old friend, is disgusting to behold. Doesn’t Wylie know he’s going to totally lose whatever edge cred he still has by kissing CIA ass? Tom Colicchio, who plays the smallest part I’ve ever seen in this episode and looks like he wants to get the hell out of there, jokes with Panetta that Alex’s veal is so tough, “it’s tougher than a stretch in Yemen,” singling out that country for particular abuse, while showing a nice understanding of foreign affairs. In a clunky pre-arranged setup, an aide comes to Panetta mid-show and hands him a note, causing the CIA chief to wrinkle his brow and skulk off the set. There’s important spying work to be done, folks! Wink, wink.
Tiffany handily wins the episode. She’d earlier helped Kelly out in the kitchen, in one of the high points of the season, suggesting that Tiffany will most likely win at the end of the season. Tiffany’s gyro disguised as a leg of lamb (?) wins high praise from the ever-grinning Ripert: “It’s the most elegant gyro I have ever ate in my life,” he says, somewhat un-syntactically.
Ripert then calls Angelo’s beef Wellington “kinda sad,” regaining his control of English. Of Ed, Wylie says enthusiastically of his barely disguised chicken cordon bleu, “He knows how to cook chicken.” Of Alex, Wylie quips, “Your disguise was poor execution.” Alex finally gets called into the Star Chamber and is summarily executed by Padma. Tiffany wins a trip to Paris. Amanda’s eulogy for Alex, in a statement dripping with anti-Semitism: “He’s like the wise old Jewish uncle I never had.”
Alex, his head bowed in an ancient posture of penitence. Goodbye, old fellow.