”Top Chef”: It’s anyone’s game
Good afternoon, hungry masses. Apologies if you went looking for this TV Watch earlier today and couldn’t find it. Last night my DVR — stuffed to bursting with saved episodes of 30 Rock, movies from TCM, and unwatched installments of Simon Schama’s Power of Art that I’ll probably never get around to — politely declined to record Top Chef for us. Good thing Bravo practically runs this show on a drip; I caught this morning’s 8 a.m. feeding instead.
Given the time crunch, and racing to get a TV Watch up in front of your eyeballs ASAP, I watched the show FASTER than I usually do, and stared more deeply into my television than ever before. Clues, clues, clues, I was looking for clues, and when the opening moments featured commentary from Lia, Joey, and Hung, of course I thought, ”One of these three is going home, one of these three will win, and one of these three will either do very well or very poorly.” And I was only a little off: Lia went home, Joey did very well, and Hung did very poorly. That’s the trouble with the beginning of every Top Chef when there are still this many people playing — it isn’t hard picking out who’ll be at either the top or bottom of any Judges’ Table, because you just have to look at who’s getting the most airtime. If I were you, America (i.e., someone who wasn’t sitting down in my underwear after every episode to blog the bejesus out of it), I think I’d skip the first three minutes of every show for the next couple of crowded weeks, and go straight to the Quickfire. I’ll bet it makes at least a slight difference in the suspense levels.
At this morning’s Quickfire, I was instantly bewitched by guest judge Maria Frumkin, a pastry chef who looks exactly like one of my favorite actresses, Hope Davis, only more severe and German. (We learned later Maria’s from Argentina.) The Quickfire challenge was about doing something nifty with a frozen pie crust; the pleasure in it was watching Casey as she seemed to suppress a laugh at Maria’s heavily accented test-run through English, and also watching Hung fail. He was on surer ground this morning, because a bananas/peanuts/chocolate combo sounds a lot tastier than last week’s salmon/sour cream/raspberry/mint/sweetness/creaminess mash-up. But his mousse turned out runny, and Maria said NEIN. Actually, the sound mix on my TV is runny sometimes too, but what I think she said exactly was, ”I believe you had enough time for sure keep temper-a-chures on your chocolate,” which must be highly damning. I’m only impressed Hung didn’t shoot cold skewers out of his eyes at her and go, ”WHAT? What are you saying? Does anyone here understand what this lady is saying?”
On the other end of things, Joey won the Quickfire with a trio of tarts, and this guy’s success lately is a mark of what’s consistently good about the show. Joey kind of comes off as dumb and paranoid all the time, and I slapped my forehead today when he weakly undersold his trio when Maria came up to nibble (”I did my best…”), and I also remember being somewhat surprised that he knew what cardamom syrup even was (because I sure as hell don’t). But then Joey goes on to win the whole Quickfire, and nearly win in the Elimination Challenge too. So Joey’s not as dumb as you think, and that’s relatively interesting. Hints from the opening moments aside, you can’t really guess what’s gonna happen from contest to contest on this show — cooking’s kind of like baseball that way — and that’s why I continue to dig it. All the front-runners (like you, Hung, you!) are out the window now; it’s anybody’s kitchen.
Much more indirection was coming in the Elimination Challenge; nice editing job on this ep! The mission was to cook Latin food for the cast and crew of a telenovela called Dame Chocolate; at the beginning of the three-hour prep time, Tom marched in and announced that lunch was getting moved up, and they only had an hour and a half before they had to slop some Latin food on telenovela people’s plates. Howie looked screwed, sweating deliciously into a pork shoulder that he now didn’t have time to completely braise. When he told Tom he’d still braise the pork but finish it off in the oven (GASP), Tom got that crinkled-granite look he gets and threw him a dispirited ”Good luck.” Then he went to see Lia and he smiled and she smiled and he asked her about the time crunch and she said, nigh flirtatiously, ”I think this is something we’re all used to dealing with.” And he beamed, I must say quite sincerely for an assassin chef. Tom loves Lia. It was mildly touching to watch him half-defend her, in his unmovable way, when it turned out — much to my surprise, thanks to the crafty editing and well-done indirection — that Howie and his fake-braised pork was destined to win this challenge, and cool Lia was fated to lose it for a polenta thing that was, according to Padma, inedible. ”It wasn’t inedible,” Tom countered, before mustering a half-defense that did no good. One of Tom’s favorites fell last night. You get the feeling he’ll live, though.
What else? In racing through this episode I have accidentally raced straight through to the finish. I didn’t get to mention the part where Hung almost cut Casey’s face off with a butcher knife. Or the way Hung later tried to speak Spanish to Spanish speakers and ended up making the Spanish word for avocado sound Japanese (”Awa-got-tay!”). Also gotta mention the sweet little moment where, after helping her with her overdone rice, Howie asked dear Casey to write his display cards, because her handwriting is prettier. And I liked not feeling so bad that I didn’t know what Dame Chocolate was after Tom was sitting at the table surrounded by its cast and asked, ”You’re all on the same show, right? Who’s the bitch?” Smooth. Then Gail went, ”Who’s sleeping with who?” and you heard somebody from Dame Chocolate, with just a hint of exasperation, finally go, ”You gotta watch the show!”
Next week’s episode also looks like a must-see. Rocco from The Restaurant is dropping in, and one of the chefs’ jobs is to create a frozen pasta meal for two. In the preview, we were treated to a dramatic and mysterious exchange that was set to heavy music and that I, with my soupy TV speakers, couldn’t make heads-or-tails of.
CJ: ”Hung, what’s going on?”
Hung: ”I learned that everything is individually frozen.”
CJ: ”But you didn’t do that.”
Hung: ”I couldn’t!”
What could it MEAN? Tune in next week. In the meantime, what’d you think of this week? Is Hung here till the end? Is Tom really the sexiest judge?