Top Chef: “It Reminds Me of My College Days, When I Was Broke and Drunk”


Alas, poor Fabio. “If only he would have consulted with me,” says Richard plaintively, “he’d probably still be here.” But he’s gone, baby, gone, felled by a misbegotten burger. And so everyone else is left to troop back to the kitchen for the Quickfire Challenge, where Padma, looking almost chemically cheerful, begins speaking in rhymes. Everyone is perplexed until a trio of Muppets pop up beside her, and then they look only slightly less perplexed.

That’s right! Sesame Street‘s Cookie Monster, Elmo, and Telly are the judges for this challenge, which will be to spend 45 minutes making cookies. “It doesn’t get better than this!” Antonia exclaims, though judging by the expressions on some of her competitors’ faces, it just might.

“I’m hoping I can make a cookie so I’m not embarrassed,” says Mike, but he’s probably not as embarrassed as Padma, who attempts stilted banter with her guests as the chefs race around the kitchen. “I don’t fear pastry!” Richard proclaims as he hauls out — wait for it — a liquid nitrogen tank and prepares to make something that bears no discernible relation to pastry. “Is there ever going to be a challenge where he doesn’t use liquid nitrogen?” Mike wonders on behalf of viewers everywhere.

One question that does remain unarticulated: Given that these Muppets lack both digestive tracts and teeth, who exactly is doing the judging here? Is it Padma, nibbling primly away? Or are more sinister forces at work, and the Muppets merely a literal, furry symbol of the manipulation that both the contestants and we, the audience, are subjected to by reality television?

Sadly, the challenge provides us with no answers. Instead, the Muppets rightly call out Richard’s deep-frozen zucchini thing as not a cookie, and observe that Antonia’s blobby brown chocolate cookies look like “cow chips.” “My cookies looked like shit!” Antonia gasps, clearly delighted.

More delighted is Dale, who wins the challenge — and $5,000 — with his pretzel and potato chip shortbread with caramel. And then the Muppets finally leave, and everyone’s frozen grins begin to melt. “Now that we’ve unleashed your inner child, we’re going to turn you loose like kids in a candy store,” Padma says, and announces that the winner of the Elimination Challenge will win $25,000.

Screw Sesame Street — if anything can unleash someone’s inner child, it’s the promise of a sudden cash windfall. The catch, of course, is that this particular “candy store” is Target, and calling Target a candy store is like calling the Gowanus Canal a swimming pool. The chefs will have three hours to shop for everything (food, supplies, et al) — which is about the amount of time it takes the average shopper to find a Target employee willing to help locate the kitchenware section — and then cook for 100 store employees and the judges.

Under the cover of night, the chefs are driven to Target, where Angelo races through the aisles, wearing distracting black knee socks. “The physicality to this challenge is very difficult,” says Richard, as the camera cuts to Mike, doubled over his shopping cart. Carla, meanwhile, wanders around looking for table linens, because her inner caterer just will not let her cook without color-coordinated place settings. After a while, her endless search through the enormous store takes on a disturbingly existential quality, though it’s not quite as unnerving as the ass-slapping bromance that seems to have developed between Mike and Angelo.

“This challenge reminds me of my college days, when I was broke and drunk,” Dale says by way of explaining why he’s steam-ironing grilled cheese sandwiches. He scoffs at the efforts of the lady contestants to make things look pretty: “I didn’t know this was Suzy Homemaker’s challenge.” Oh, you man, you!

Finally, the employees and judges arrive, with Ming Tsai, Anthony Bourdain, and Thomas O’Brien, Target’s resident interior designer, in tow. First up is Richard’s pork tenderloin with green chilies, apples, braised pork ribs, and corn pancake. Everyone likes it. “It’s butt-ugly but delicious,” Bourdain observes. They also like Dale’s rib-eye grilled cheese and spicy tomato soup, which Bourdain likens to “late-night comfort stoner food. … Anyone given him a urine test?”

Carla serves her hastily constructed curry apple soup with tomato ginger jam and cucumber apple slaw, and it’s unsurprisingly a miss. Antonia’s parmesan eggs on garlic crostini with an almond, tomato, and apple salad, on the other hand, is a big hit, thanks to the perfectly cooked eggs. Mike presents the judges with his spicy coconut soup with mushrooms, scallions, and lime, made with “fresh coconut milk,” and Padma immediately calls him out on the “fresh” part, since he wasn’t cracking coconuts in the aisles. Still, his failure isn’t as bad as Tiffany’s, whose jambalaya with chicken, sausage, and shrimp is undermined by soggy chicken. “There’s something not special about it,” O’Brien observes sagely.

Angelo also earns the judges’ disapprobation with his baked potato soup with bacon, sour cream, potato skins, scallions, and cheddar, which is so salty as to be inedible. The judges note that they’ve eaten a lot of soup.

And then it’s off to the stew room. Dale, Antonia, and Richard are summoned and showered with praise, and then Dale is showered with $25,000 “furnished by Target.” Hooray for Dale. Richard looks slightly annoyed, and his hair looks more alarming than usual, almost like it’s trying to shuffle off of his head:

And then Carla, Tiffany, and Angelo are called in to try to account for their failings. After the judges lambast Tiffany’s decision to use dried spices and herb, she begins crying, and launches into her “I’m from Beaumont, Texas, [where] a lot of times, you can’t dream far enough” speech, which makes Carla also cry and the judges look slightly uncomfortable. But in the end, Tiffany need not have resorted to such a dramatic appeal: While her jambalaya pretty much sucked, at least it was edible, unlike Angelo’s potato soup. And so Angelo is told to go home. And while he looks disappointed —

— Mike looks absolutely devastated:

And we’re left to think that maybe there’s another story to be told here, far from Bravo’s prying eyes.

But in the meantime, Paula Deen is coming next week. And so are a bunch of previous contestants, whom Dale likens to bedbugs.

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