”Top Chef”: Winning through intimidation
Something happened to me this week, and I didn’t even realize it till I sat down to watch Top Chef last night. Over the course of the past seven days, my entire being turned against Howie. Damnedest thing: I thought I liked the cannonball-domed sweathog okay, but then last night I pressed play on the DVR, and within just a couple of seconds — timed to the moment we first saw his turtle’s head pop into the frame and his lips start yapping — it washed over me that, no, actually I really, really hate this guy.
How’d that happen so fast? I think it was the way he bulldozed Sara M. last week at judges’ table; she should’ve gone home last week instead of my boy Joey, yes, but the ugliness of Howie’s bulldog attack on her snuck up on me this week. Punk. Bully. Ass. Reprobate. I thought back then it would be entertaining to have Howie around to bust more heads and scare more children, but…it’s not. Tonight proved that. After last week’s two-hankie Top Chef, last night’s installment was just a bad kind of downer all around. And it’s mostly thanks to Howie.
Here’s how the night started. Brian said he was sad that Joey was gone. Dale talked about going to visit Joey in New York someday. Then Howie came on and talked about how Joey was a good guy and, yeah, they got to be friends, ”but you can only get so close, because if it’s them or me, it’s gonna be them.” That’s it? These two lunkheads turning into bosom buddies was an early highlight of season 3, and I was expecting a eulogy for Joe a little more heartfelt than this one. But I was only half listening at first, because, as I said, for some reason my retch impulse started acting up the minute I laid eyes on Howie this week.
Let’s not talk about him for a while. I don’t want to dwell on the fact that he came in second on the quickfire just for mixing (1) ice cream and (2) berries. (Okay, so he ”macerated” the berries. Whatever that means, it sounds like something a bulldozer like Howie would do.) That first challenge involved gussying up some Cold Stone Creamery ice cream for guest judge Govind Armstrong, author of the hilariously titled volume Small Bites, Big Nights. (Chefs really get to write cookbooks about whatever they want, don’t they?) I was pulling for Hung in this challenge after watching him chop a whole head of cauliflower in one and a half seconds — that impressive display made me wish we got to see more gnarly knife skills on the show. Also, cauliflower: The challenge involved ice cream, and Hung was chopping cauliflower. For a ”white-chocolate cauliflower foam.” Did your stomach just growl or what? Hung came in last, of course, but you have to admire the way he won’t stop trying to cook the craziest crap even though (a) he’s not that good at it and (b) no judge on this show ever really seems to want anybody to go too far out anyway. Meanwhile, Dale won the quickfire for futzing around with peach cobbler.
What happened next also struck me as depressing. Padma told the chefs they had the night off and they should get dressed up and hit the clubs in their Top Chef stretch Hummer. Then, when they got to Club Nikki or whatever the hell it was called, Padma and Govind were actually waiting with their next assignment: In two teams of four working in separate catering vans, the chefs were to serve what CJ aptly called ”fried drunken food” for all the morons streaming out of the clubs at two o’clock in the morning. Thanks to his immunity, Dale didn’t have to compete, but everybody else was crestfallen that their own night to get drunk and be morons was being snatched away from them — especially Sara N. and Casey (whose eyes re-upped their never-that-far-away glisten at the news). But I don’t blame them. Don’t you think it was fundamentally unfair, maybe even sexist, that they had to cook in their high heels and hot-mama tops? Sara in particular was broken in half by the news; we saw her wandering around the Fresh Market reading labels and lollygagging when everybody went shopping; she lost her will early last night and never got it back.
Everything you needed to know about this challenge came in one cut. Before they went to the market, we saw Brian, Hung, Sara M., and Tre in the middle of a free exchange of input (”That’s a great idea!,” ”Fries, not onion rings? Okay!”), then we flashed to the phallus-headed Howie barking, ”Forget it, it’s not about sandwiches!” at a flummoxed crew consisting of Casey, Sara N., and CJ. You had to feel for those three. You kind of had to feel for everybody. Thinking it over, what I fundamentally disliked about this episode is that it played like a Bravo-fied version of The Apprentice. It bugged me that Brian’s team won in large part because he hammed it up (nicely) in front, playing the showman to draw a bigger crowd to his team’s catering van. Really, for that, Brian should’ve won the challenge, even though his plan to serve raw oysters to drunkards at two o’clock in the morning is the most disgusting idea this show has ever produced, and I was hoping there’d be at least a few funny puke shots coming out of it. Tre won the elimination instead, for his bacon-wrapped shrimp with grits.
At judges’ table, it came down to Sara N. versus Howie, and it made me mad even to watch him make his opening snake moves as he started macerating Sara. He’s the kind of dirty arguer who ”gets into it,” then you reply, and then he says, ”All right, if you wanna get into it…” To me, it was obvious: You kick off this blowhard because Casey, CJ, and Sara would’ve done a much better job without him. And it drove me a little crazy to watch the judges — especially Ted — rationalize not throwing him off, because, again, it reminded me of the way the Donald and his cronies bend over backward to keep jackasses around on The Apprentice. Now, maybe it’s not that cut-and-dried — Howie is probably a better cook than Sara N., who finally got sent packing last night, because she was ”demoralized” from the start and because her milkshake tasted bad. But I leave to it to you people on the message boards: Who deserved to go, Howie or Sara?
Answer that question first! I’m honestly worn down by this episode — I’m like Sara N. tonight! And what else did you like or not like about this episode? You agree it was a downer compared with episodes past? And good for CJ — he’s the man, huh? America texted, and we indicated that he’s the one we’d ”most like to share a midnight snack with.” He came in with 36 percent of the vote, Tre with 32, followed by Brian and Casey both with 16. I thought for sure the wonderful Casey, up against three dudes, would win this text-off. Does the fact that she did so poorly indicate that not a lot of dudes watch Top Chef, or merely that a lot of dudes don’t participate in the cheesy text polls?