Yet another week in the Bahamas, and still, that light at the end of the tunnel is maddeningly faint. What can Top Chef‘s producers give us that we haven’t seen before on a cooking show, aside from a virgin sacrifice? A Quickfire Challenge that’s “different than anything you’ve experienced in the past,” Padma tells us, Wolfgang Puck by her side. Oh. Yep, that’s all we get.
This challenge, like so many this season, is cobbled together from those of past seasons: Each chef will have to make a dish based on ingredients or a cooking vessel they’re assigned. And because this is so radically different than anything we’ve seen before, each contestant gets to assign the fellow competitors a dish. Mike gives Antonia canned foods, Antonia gives Richard hot dogs, and Richard, determined to throw Mike off, rubs his brains together and gives him … one-pot meals. “Blaise: not the sharpest knife in the drawer,” says Antonia. Thank you, Antonia.
Halfway through the challenge, Padma shows up to throw in a
predictable patented Top Chef twist: The chefs will have to finish the Quickfire with either only one hand, with no utensils, or being tied together with Carla. Richard gives Mike no utensils; Antonia gives Richard the use of only one hand, and assigns herself Carla. And we’re treated to the scintillating sight of Mike wandering around, waiting for his pork to cook, while Richard sweats and Antonia and Carla chop things. The suspense is so utterly unbearable.
Finally, finally, Padma and Wolfgang Puck reappear to taste Antonia’s coconut curry soup with shrimp and sausage, Mike’s pork shoulder with black beans, and Richard’s currywurst on roti bread with curry ketchup. Somewhat annoyingly, Mike wins $5,000, and Richard looks like he’s going to pop a blood vessel.
And viewers lose, because the Elimination Challenge looks even more boring than the Quickfire Challenge. Upon their arrival on a giant, manicured lawn, Mike, Antonia, and Richard are met by Puck, Morimoto, and Michelle Bernstein, and are told that they must prepare a last meal for each chef. Mike, as the Quickfire winner, gets to assign chefs, and gives Morimoto to Antonia and Puck to Richard. “The gravity of this cannot be underestimated or downplayed,” Richard says, without a whisper of irony.
The chefs all want food that reminds them of their childhood: Michelle wants fried chicken, biscuits, and gravy; Puck wants goulash, spaetzle, and apple streudel; and Morimoto, who gets subtitles to underscore just how daunting he is to Antonia, wants rice, sashimi, and pickles. So Antonia starts to reflect on what it would mean to go home. “Losing the finale feels like when your first boyfriend breaks up with you: You wake up crying in the middle of the night.” But here, at least you don’t have to worry about genital warts.
Everyone goes off to the kitchen and cooks and cooks and cooks, while elsewhere in the world grass grows and viewers age by what feels like 50 years. At long last, it’s time to serve the chefs, along with Tom, Padma, and Melanie Dunea, a photographer whose book My Last Supper was undoubtedly bedside reading for at least one of the show’s writers.
First up is Antonia, who serves everyone tuna sashimi with pickled daikon, mushrooms, and eggplant, miso soup, and rice. “The miso is too salty, but I don’t dislike it,” says Morimoto, damning with faint praise to make a Jewish mother proud. Mike next serves his fried chicken with pea purée and an egg yolk empanada with mustard gravy. Though Michelle is surprised not to be getting a biscuit, she approves. Finally, Richard serves his beef goulash, spaetzle, and apple struedel with tarragon cream. Puck is impressed, and says his mother would approve. Gail is more analytic in her praise: “It’s an amazing balance between Richard’s modernism and what Wolfgang wanted from his childhood.”
The chefs are all called to the table, which is now the judges’ table, and Richard is told he’s going to the finale. And then Padma pulls out an envelope, and thanks to the show’s editing and commercial breaks, we get to see it no less than three times, which totally undermines any dramatic effect. “You remember this?” she asks. Yes, we remember this. You won’t let us forget, no matter how much we try.
The card informs Mike and Antonia that they have to compete in yet another challenge to determine who will go to the finale with Richard. By this point, we no longer care, but they do, and they race off to the kitchen to make one final bite. Antonia sears some grouper and pairs it with coconut lobster broth with jam, apple, and dill pollen, while Mike makes tempura lobster with beef tartare and serves it with caramelized olives and chimichurri.
After much deliberation, the judges tell Antonia to go home. “It’s like having your stomach just drop,” she sobs. “I’ve been here before but it feels worse this time.” We know what you mean, honey.
And so Antonia’s earlier observation that the finale felt like a boys’ club proves prophetic, and we’re left to both anticipate and dread yet more dick-waving and close-ups of flop sweat. And, as the previews tell us, the reappearance of past competitors, who at this point have been repurposed so many times they probably feel like spare car parts.