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''Top Chef'': Let the brawls begin

On ”Top Chef,” Joey and Howie have a bleep-out over barbecue, Hung is hilariously two-faced, and Sandee fails to deliver

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Top Chef

TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons
Reality TV

”Top Chef”: Let the brawls begin

Maybe it’s far too early in the season, with so much left to be revealed about all our kitchen cutthroats, but I like to imagine that right after last night’s Top Chef, a few contestants called each other up and exchanged shocked reactions to Hung’s behind-the-scenes trash talking. Perhaps Howie called Sara N. and said, ”Holy [bleep] — two weeks in a row! Did you have any idea Hung was such a [bleep]?” And Sara N. replied, ”I know, right? He seemed like a totally cool guy.”

Okay, something like that probably did not happen. There’s no way Hung’s bitchery won’t get smoked out by the whole gang over the course of the next dozen episodes, and no doubt in real life all the contestants know by now that Hung truly is the ”certified professional a–hole” he promised us he was last week. Still, it’s hard not to love Hung’s game at this moment in the show. Because while he rags fiendishly on his competition in his interviews to the camera, in person, Hung’s like the placid, nonthreatening little guy in school who was always just kind of milling around. Hung, you can hang with. Notice how he saved Sara N. at the grocery store, pointing out that she’d just blown her whole $200 budget on rib eye, while CJ — the fake-testicle guy, ostensibly sympathetic — blew off Casey (”I’m not helping you!”) when she had a question at the meat counter about slicing. In the kitchen for the quickfire, Hung ran around spilling stuff and freaking out about his burner (”You took my flame, dude!”), which made Lia wonder if he’s a spaz (she called him ”dangerous,” in the emasculating, klutzy sense of the word) and made me wonder if maybe he was doing some of this stuff on purpose, to look a little weak while he’s winning challenges.

Twice, big Joey gave Hung a hard time — once, pleasantly, for wearing a nice shirt to the elimination challenge and later (angrily, and with a rude put-down that involved the word kneepads), for stealing one of his quickfire concoctions — and both times Hung reacted to the situation with disarming, spastic laughter only. Which was just enough of a dark Chucky-doll reaction to make you think that, deep down, Hung was really wishing he could plan his champagne BBQ menu around a giant protein known simply as Joey. And nobody seems onto him yet! When Joey accused Hung of stealing his watermelon-shooter idea, everybody quickly sided with Hung, even though it seemed to me that Joey might have had grounds for bloviating. (Two drinks in one show that are both watermelony?) It helped Hung to no end that Joey is kind of a tool.

All the while, as he played nice with the other children, Hung talked his usual turkey to the cameras. ”Hung really called all our quickfire dishes ‘slummy’?” I imagine Camille or Casey texting in amazement after last night’s show. And Micah, I hope, is stunned today that good old Hung expressed his disgust to America that she was crying over being separated from her kid. Hung, keep it up! I hope you remain a shadow villain for at least a few more weeks yet. As a moderate Marcel fan last season, I’m currently half-cheering for his real-life partner in crime Hung to win ”the title of Top Chef.”

Hung, of course, with his ”citrus crumble watercress,” narrowly edged out the hot and cold salmon of his chief rival, Tre, in last night’s quickfire challenge, which involved sexing up citrus. (Sunshine, explained Padma, is ”Florida’s single most important ingredient.” How nice it would be for the state’s starving homeless population if only that were true.) Finishing in the bottom three were mohawked Sandee’s trio of citrus, Micah’s ”avocado pudding,” and Sara N.’s ”uh, blood orange and, um, citrus salad with, um….” Sara N., you see, was really nervous, and she was bummed because she didn’t have time to properly devein and peel the shrimp in her dish.

All episode, Sara N. was so down on herself, so out of it, so eager to accidentally buy 20 pounds of chuck for her ”Vietnamese rib eye,” that it really made it cooler — and made you marvel at the show more — that she came roaring back in the elimination challenge. The contestants had to feed an ”upscale barbecue” dish to Miami bigwig Lee Schrager and his pretty people at a Moët-and-meet-and-meat shindig. Sara N. admitted she didn’t even know how to light up a barbie, and Micah confessed that she didn’t know how much coal to use, but still these two quickfire flunkers ended up in the top three for the elimination challenge, alongside the snake-and-eel guy, Brian, who nearly got axed last week but this time rocked all of waterfront Miami with sunglasses, a J.T. fedora, and his Chino-Latino seafood sausage. After the judges hashed it over, Brian won, because they loved how ”upscale” and simultaneously ”BBQ” the seafood sausage was. Still, the two ladies were commended on their comeback. From dish to dish, chefs sure do rise and fall, and that’s good for the show. The cook-off among the final six or so feels like it could get fiercer than usual this season.

So, let’s get somebody booted. To this point, there is snappy dialogue to quote. First on the block, shockingly, was Tre, last week’s winner and self-proclaimed Texas grill master. His peach-glazed BBQ salmon got dissected by the judges in such a way that it made me wish I either (a) spoke more fluent foodie or (b) had louder speakers, better ears, or a closed-captioning option on my television, which might be older than Sara N. From what I gathered, Tre’s salmon had some kind of problem with it, but that’s all I know. Here is the closest transcript I can give you of the judges’ breakdown of it.

Padma: ”There could’ve been some sort of acidity there.”

Guest judge Norman Van Aken: ”That’s an excellent point. He has the fat of the man is fatty avocado.” [Yes, I know — that is probably not what guest judge Norman Van Aken actually said.]

Gail: ”The fat of the salmon!”

Guest judge Norman Van Aken: ”So, yeah. Where’s the dagger that goes through all the fat?”

Whatever was just communicated there, Tre was spared. Next up, Joey got called out for trying to serve lowbrow chicken drumsticks to the Miami beautiful people, and Howie got busted for preslicing his tenderloin, and some sniping at the judges’ table led to Howie vs. Joey, the first of this season’s entertaining bleeping matches in the chefs’ holding pen. (Which Howie won, by the way, because Joey’s line about how Howie’s lucky he’s from Florida because guest judge Norman Van Aken is from Florida as well was lame.) I don’t think the panel judging on this wonderful show is dirty at all, as some of the bloggers I’ve read this week are asserting, but it wasn’t too hard to figure out that after Howie and Joey blew up at each other, neither one of these heavyweights was going home — they’re good TV. Sandee, the mohawked lady, was excused instead, because her vanilla-butter-poached lobster was deemed not BBQ.

And who was there to give Sandee her first hug when she returned to the holding pen? Hung! He even told us she was ”a really cool girl.” So far Hung’s got a little bit of everything up his baggy sleeves.

What do you think? Do you like Hung? And when does Ted Allen start weighing in? What about guest judge Norman Van Aken? Did anybody else think he looked exactly like character actor Peter Gerety, the guy who plays McNulty’s friend Judge Phelan on The Wire?