”Top Chef”: A major freeze-out
I knew for sure 37 minutes into the episode that Joey was going home last night. So did you. At that point in the show, the frozen tricolored fusilli with garlic that he’d heated up to mush with his partner, Hung, for the elimination round was tanking at the grocery store, and we kept cutting ahead to Joey in the studio as he explained what went wrong, only his face was pink, his eyes were rheumy, and his voice was cracking. God, if Casey’s crying in the middle of the episode, it must be Wednesday night at 10:30, but if a big snuffleupagus like Joey is letting loose halfway through the show, it can only mean the chopping block. And I felt let down. Why’d the show essentially give the ending away?
Well, watch what happened. By judges’ table, as Team Joey and Hung and Team Sara M. and Howie took their licks, I’d totally forgotten that Joey was a done deal, certain instead the panel was gonna kick off that smoking-in-the-Jacuzzi good-for-nothing Sara, whose only contribution to the evening was rightly intimating that Howie has enough rage inside him to hit a fellow chef with a frying pan until they are dead. I was thinking, ”Get that useless woman out of here, so Howie’ll still be around to harm someone.” I was so wrapped up in the courtroom pyrotechnics of Sara and Howie going after each other that it completely slipped my mind that, off to the left, Joey was standing there like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense. A second later, Joey was gone, I went, ”Oh yeah, him!” and I had to tip my cap to the show for pulling me in so deep that I forgot that I knew how it would all pan out.
But even then, I still didn’t imagine what was coming next. And I sure wasn’t ready for the unexpected force of it. Padma told Joey to pack his knives, he said thanks and tried to get out of there before his ducts burst, nearly barreling over Hung in the process, but when he got back to the chef holding pen, he said, ”Sorry, guys, I’m going!” and then actually fell upward in CJ’s wall-sized chest and just started sobbing. And it was that galloping, pitchy, short-breathed, my-nana-just-died kind of sobbing, definitely not I’m-just-tired, business-as-usual sobbing. And then, talking to the camera in the studio, wearing the same shirt we saw him in at the giveaway 37-minute mark, Joey started breaking down yet again, apparently unsoothed by all the time he’d had to compose himself or get a beer or call Nana or read a newspaper before he wrapped things up for camera. ”You’ll hear from me again,” he sputtered. And everybody always says that, but damn, I hoped right then it was true, because somehow over the course of just 30 seconds or so, the snuffleupagus had gotten to me. I was so moved that I nearly got emotional myself. Not my-nana-just-died emotional, but emotional.
Over the course of his last episode, I came around on Joey. I remember calling him dumb and paranoid in past write-ups, and he was at the time, but now I see there are many other qualities to recommend the man. Because he’s Italian, because he’s ample, because he has a slow way of talking that I only realized last night suggests not just oafishness but also, every so often, a certain sensitivity on his part, Joey reminds me of a character on The Sopranos. He’s a hothead and a sweetheart, but there’s an Everyman-ish poetry to him that so far eludes his (newly scary) BFF, Howie. Thinking back on the episode, I’m not sure if Hung set Joey up for the fall or not; it doesn’t really matter, because the crux of the night was both Joey succumbing to his tragic flaw — stubborn pigheadedness — and also his finally, while blinking through tears, accepting it. (That the grand prize for the winning team was two tickets to Italy, and we heard Joey admit — in that soft, marble-mouthed way of his — that he wanted to send his mother and sister in his place if he won, only made his fall all the more of a downer.) Somehow watching him get whacked last night reminded me of watching Bobby Bacala get shot to death at the model-train store on the second-to-last Sopranos. RIP, Joey.
So, yeah [clears throat, blows nose], nice episode. The change-of-pace quickfire, pitting contestant against contestant in a ”culinary bee,” was my favorite so far this season too. Although I don’t really get Rocco DiSpirito. The chefs filed in, unsmiling, and Rocco — a ”chef celebrity,” per Brian — was there with a placid look on his face, hands clasped primly at his crotch, looking maybe like a creepy cyborg version of a young, hairier Jean-Luc Picard on a flashback episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. He’s unsettling. ”Hey, what’s up guys?” he finally said, as if recently programmed for English, and when he finally grinned, it was a real butler’s smile, bad news all around. Maybe I just should’ve watched The Restaurant when it was on, because like I said, I don’t get him.
But the bee was a blast. Everybody got quizzed on food. Howie hilariously predicted victory. ”I’m an academic,” he said. (Howie, so was Ted Kaczynski, you crazy bastard.) Brian said, ”I think Hung might be really good at this competition,” and you waited for him to say, ”because he’s Asian,” but he didn’t. What was great was how chefs went down trying to ID stuff like yucca, and raspberry vinegar, and tahini, and something I swear I heard Padma call ”diet cola radish pellets,” and then Hung walked up there and he got oatmeal. Oatmeal. Isn’t asking a chef to identify oatmeal as glaring a gimme as asking a college kid to identify a bowl of Fruity Pebbles? Luckily Hung got served his next go up, when he got cocky and tried to identify celery seed without tasting a free sample first. Merriment ensued among the chefs after that one, and it left it wide open for Casey, who — as she sometimes does — walked up straight-backed to the quiz table each time as if she were balancing invisible textbooks on her head. To win immunity, she correctly identified roasted red bell peppers, but I loved the way, when she was mulling it over, she went, ”What is…?” first, like Rocco was gonna disqualify her if she didn’t play by Jeopardy! rules.
The other funny Casey moment was later, at the grocery store, where she was peddling pesto meatballs with Dale, and we briefly watched her get macked on by a teen-boy foodie snob. ”Yeah, you can never really go wrong with pesto,” this enterprising Max Fischer said to her, digging in. Nice game, kid. Not sure if he got her number, or if he would’ve been her plus-one to Europe, but Casey and Dale just barely missed out on the tickets to Italy. CJ and Tre won the challenge for their black truffle and Parmesan linguine with Tuscan kale. Most of the episode dangled on the question of how to freeze foods — it’s why Tre and CJ won, and why Hung and Joey lost — but it’s a little too uninteresting to get into here, so let’s wrap it up now by repeating that we’re especially sorry to see Joey go.
I am, anyway. Are you? What else struck you? Do you think Hung let Joey screw up on purpose, figuring he could pass the buck? Did you like CJ this episode as much as I did? Are you happy Tre finally won another elimination challenge? Is he dangerous again? And oh yeah — any revelations from last week’s reunion special? (Take Micah. I stood up for her on the ketchup thing, but that line of hers last week that she’d never seen the show before and she signed on just because she’s the kind of person who embraces new experiences? I was making barf signs at the TV, too.)