On ''Top Chef,'' after Howie fails at a canape competition, he tries to take a dive in front of the judges, who assert their authority by eliminating him anyway

By Gregory Kirschling
Updated September 17, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Bravo
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”Top Chef”: Contempt of court

I’ll be honest, America. I might be growing weary of Top Chef. Maybe it’s only a late-midseason malaise; I hope so. But two weeks ago, the show threw off the formidable Tre, then took an extra Wednesday to recuperate, and something to do with the conjoining of these two things has turned me ”meh” on the show since then. ”You know what it really could be?” I told my friend Karen a few days ago. ”I’m sick of the judges. Tom and Padma and Ted and whatever Florida-based nincompoop Bravo brings in every week — they’re all underminers. They do such a good job being picky, bitchy, and hypercritical every week that it’s seeped into my head that no one in this crop even deserves to be called a top chef. Especially with Tre gone, none of the rest of the chefs are any good! I mean, they’re all likable — Casey’s cute and Dale’s funny and CJ’s tall and Hung’s interesting — but they clearly can’t cook! Can they? Padma and Tom haven’t cracked a smile in like four weeks.” Karen listened deep, said, ”Okaaa-y,” and bobbed her head like she does, which meant I knew exactly what was coming next. ”You’re crazy,” she said. Not what I was hoping to hear, but I trust Karen and only hope she’s right. I’m in a Top Chef funk, but I wanna get infatuated with this show again — soon. Remember when Joey joined the ranks of the fallen, how unexpectedly rich that was, and how we all almost cried? I want that show back. (By the way, I’ll be out next week on assignment in Canada. Maybe the break will do me good.)

Tonight’s episode, sadly, didn’t help. It did, and it didn’t. It did because the ending was exceptionally catty and exciting and got my Top Chef pulse racing again for a second or two here or there. It didn’t because the ending was awesome only because the judges were once again such d—s, thus affirming my original point. They are underminers, undermining not only the talent but also the entire show. Tonight we lost Howie. Good. We should’ve lost Howie many weeks ago. But I was shocked to discover, as his assassination was playing out in front of my very eyes, that I was more on that idiot’s side than I was on the judges’. Not because he didn’t deserve to go, not because he wasn’t an idiot, but only because he made his typical idiot moves all episode long, and yet somehow the judges out-idioted him in the end.

What happened, semi-briefly, was this: First Howie blew the quickfire. The challenge there was to create a dish from the contents of one random aisle of the supermarket, and Howie refused to plate what he considered a subpar offering conjured up from the processed-fruit section. C’mon, he only refused to plate it so he could maybe spin a surefire quickfire failure by taking on a totally false nobility! The guest judge, ”fabulous” Miami Michael, wasn’t in any position to dope this out for himself, but Padma should’ve seen right through it and half-laughed our stiff-upper-lipped Howie off the screen. Instead she grimly said, ”Thank you,” in her best, sternest, disappointed-Mama-Bear-y, icy-distant-supermodel badass voice, when she should’ve just busted up rudely at Howie — guffawed in his face and called him out on what a dumb and transparent tactical move that really was.

Whatever really went down at that moment, it made Howie feel he needed to redeem himself in the elimination challenge. The mission there was to serve colorful, ”fun” canapés to the Beautiful People (Who, Let’s Be Honest, Didn’t Turn Out to Be That Beautiful) aboard a yacht called the Venetian Lady. Brian, because he won the quickfire with a dish made of Spam, was the executive chef — or maybe just the leader, nobody knew for sure, not even Brian — and he gave Howie free rein to make the two dishes that got him shoved off. One Howie dish, as Hung noted, looked like dog diarrhea; the other was an asparagus cigar that was apparently greasier than a lubed-up phallus. Two wipeouts in one show! If by chance you weren’t also scientifically keeping score on a laptop at home, then take it from me, that’s pretty much one more whole wipeout than anyone else. Howie clearly lost! Dude was done, game was over. See you next week!

And here’s where I give Howie a lot of credit: Standing in front of the judges’ table last night, even though rote criticism was directed at his fellow chefs, Howie realized all the judges hated his two dishes, and his number was surely up, so he stepped back, and said, ”Can I address the panel?” This was followed by a gonglike noise on the soundtrack, and many shots of chefs’ eyeballs rolling toward the ceiling, but what came next was a genuine surprise. ”I’m going to withdraw myself from this competition,” he said. There was very little false nobility in this — Howie was a goner for doing this, and surely he knew it. And yet the judges didn’t let him go! In fact, the whole superior lot of them seemed ticked off that Howie dared to assert some control over the proceedings. After one befuddled moment consulting with her gang, Padma said, ”It’s a judges’ decision, Howie. Not yours.” So they sent him back to the holding pen, then kicked him off a few minutes later anyway. Thank God they did — shipping out Exec Chef-Spammaster Brian instead might’ve erased the show’s last shred of credibility. But still — the judging team on this show, I’m more sure than ever, might be bad for America.

Anybody totally agree with me? Let me succinctly mention what else happened this episode: Casey won the elimination challenge with a tasty beef carpaccio; Hung is sure they served bread pudding exactly 800 years ago; and at the end of the night, unfortunately, I’m still not sure that anyone deserves the title of top chef. Damn you, judges! What do you people think?

Episode Recaps

Top Chef

Tom, Padma, and Gail tell the cheftestants to pack their knives and go.
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