Skip to main content

Mamma Mia: Product Placement and Seasonal Seppuku on "Top Chef"

Was it just me or was that a particularly enjoyable episode of Bravo's Top Chef?

I wasn't sure how they'd manage to top last week's satisfying elimination of Frank (thank god he's gone), but the producers managed to do just that this week, with a twist ending that I didn't really see coming and a fantastic elimination challenge that really pushed the chefs to work together and produce tasty, beautiful food for 200 guests at a holiday party. (I still wonder what these guest thought at attending a party during what Padma kept referring to the "party season" in the middle of a hot--and extended--LA summer.)

The one low point in the entire episode was the Quickfire Challenge, which forced chefs to create a cocktail using Baileys Irish Creme and pair it with a tasty bite. While the brief seemed (notice I used the word seemed) to call for a savory amuse bouche, most chefs went the obvious route and created dessert pairings. The whole thing was basically an extended five-minute commercial for some new swill that Baileys is pushing on an unsuspecting populace; the chefs weren't thrilled and neither was I by this blatant shilling and forced product placement. The Quickfire Challenges are meant to test chef's abilities and palates, yes, but they should never be soapboxes for corporate sponsors. Plus, the guest judge was one of the most awkward and uncomfortable participants ever to appear on Top Chef; she was completely devoid of any charisma or personality and she seemed so completely awkward eating their dishes on camera. Seriously, guys, let's not put the audience through this again.

Immunity was awarded to Cliff for his dish, a beautiful pairing of original Baileys, rum, vodka, and vanilla bean and grilled beef, creme fraiche fondue with nutmeg and chocolate. I was really impressed by Sam's sweet-and-savory apple and rosemary french toast as well; he's definitely one to watch. Mia's dish was selected as the least favorite by the guest judge and Betty was also called out for her drink, in which the cream-based Baileys and lime juice curdled, creating a disgusting looking drink. Ouch. Then there was Marcel, who in true Marcel fashion created a series of little dishes, including a tapa on top of a vanilla vapor. Seriously, Marcel? Vanilla vapor? To that I say one big UGH.

Cliff had immunity going into the Elimination Challenge, in which the chefs were separated into two teams and given $1500. Their task: to create a memorable holiday cocktail party for 200 guests on the Warner Bros. lot. A tough challenge, to say the least, especially on such a tight budget. Right from the start, it was obvious that the two teams (Sam, Betty, Ilan, and Marcel on the orange team; Cliff, Elia, Mia, and Michael on the black) couldn't have chosen more different approaches to the task. The Orange Team had a much more elaborate take on the event and decided to create 15 dishes and stagger their deployment throughout the event. Their dishes had a wide array of ingredients, tastes, and variety, including a mix of both sweet and savory, meat and seafood, crab cakes and blue-cheese stuffed beef roulade. It was an incredibly ambitious and possibly risky attempt to produce so many different dishes so quickly and keep them hot and fresh and keep the crowd fed and happy.

The Black Team, on the other hand, took a different tack. At first they were going to make only two (yes, TWO!) dishes, both of them seafood-based, but eventually realized that they needed to have more than two options at a cocktail party. I say eventually realized, but it was more of a spur-of-the-moment decision at the bulk restaurant supply store when Cliff called Mia and Michael to tell them that he was nixing the lobster and potato dish they had discussed; Mia thought this was a huge mistake and told Cliff so. Earlier she had felt that the chefs weren't listening to her ideas--which included figs wrapped in prosciutto atop Gorgonzola--and clashed with her teammates early on. Michael, meanwhile, grabbed some filet and lobster tails and created an impromptu surf-and-turf nibbly that actually caught on with the crowd later. In focusing on only four dishes (which included a rather novel sweet and savory strawberry dish with pancetta and a beautiful marmalade-glazed scallop perched on a Belgian endive cup), Elia's team believed that they could maintain rigorous quality, rather than send out a sub-par quantity of different dishes. However, a cocktail party is made or broken on the selection--and variety--of its dishes and had they extended this quality to, say, eight dishes it would have been commendable rather than misguided.

As it was, the Orange Team managed to keep their table laden with beautiful foods and offered guests a huge selection to choose from. They also wisely put Betty out front to interact with guests (she's a consummate salesman and host) and staggered the dishes, starting with a first batch, then a second later into the night, and then moving desserts into the mix slowly throughout the event. At no time did it seem as though there was a lack of food or the table was empty or people were kept waiting. A huge feat considering that they only had four chefs, $1500, and a kitchen-on-wheels to work with... and still managed to produce 15 dishes under those conditions. Meanwhile, the Black Team struggled. Elia and Cliff were cooking many of the hors d'oeuvres to order, meaning that there would be periods in which two of the four platters on their nearly-empty table were, well, nearly empty themselves. Not exactly a promising sign for a cocktail party... Food needs to be coming out of the kitchen constantly and there can't be even a few minutes in which there's nothing for guests to eat. Badly done, team.

Obviously, the Orange Team won the challenge easily and their team leader, Sam, was awarded a gorgeous 20-piece set of Global knives (I had to wipe the drool off my television). Marcel just had to speak up (quelle surprise) and say that while Sam may have been the de facto leader of the team he managed to work independently and didn't need any guidance. Oh, Marcel. Just keep your mouth shut, vanilla vapor boy. Despite everyone else on the team agreeing that Sam was the winner and justified to win the prize, you really had to speak up? Grr.

Marcel wasn't the only one who couldn't keep their mouth shut in front of the judges, as Mia exploded with rage at Cliff, unleashing an obscenity-laden verbal assault on the immune chef. I have to say that I was a little surprised by all of this. Of course Cliff was going to throw you under the bus, honey; you were the most argumentative of the entire bunch and I didn't really see you do anything to try to help the team to a win other than whinging and complaining the entire time. Elia may have been the leader but she wasn't directly responsible for the loss (I do think it was a team effort) and Cliff was immune. Mike, as much as I'd like to see him go already, came up with a dish on the fly and saved their communal asses, so he couldn't really have been called out. Which leaves Mia.

Mia starts screaming at Cliff and begins to have a major breakdown in front of the judges, which was completely unprofessional. I'm all for defending yourself, especially in front of Tom and Padma (and Gail when she's there) but to actually flip out like that and say the things that she was saying to Cliff was just plain wrong. Afterwards, Mia cried in the corner and suddenly started to spill way too much personal information about herself, including her how she was homeless, sold drugs at age 11, walked the street trying to sell rock to feed her family, etc. And then suddenly became fixated on the notion that she would eliminate herself from the competition and save Elia from a possible expulsion by the judges. Which would have bee hugely altruistic had we not seen Mia at the beginning of the episode say how homesick she was and how much she missed her family. I don't mean to think the worst of people but most of the time it's rare for someone to do something completely selfless. Was Mia unhappy being there? Yes. Did she think that the other chefs failed to value her opinion and experience? Yep. Did it look more noble to eliminate oneself in order to "save" a comrade than to simply quit and walk off the show? You betcha.

Either way, the judges had conferred and were about to issue their proclamation when Mia suddenly said that she would pack her knives and go and pleaded with the judges not to eliminate Elia. Personally, I'm not entirely sure that it was Elia who was going home that night, despite her inclination to take the blame as the team leader for the loss. While Cliff had elimination, it could have been any of Elia, Mike, or even Mia herself who were going home. Instead of letting things play out naturally, Mia threw herself on her sword (claiming it was for Mia) and offered herself instead. How was she that certain that Elia was going to be sent home? I'd be really, really curious to know who Tom, Padma, and the guest judges intended to boot. On his blog, Tom insists that they were about to send home Elia and calls Mia's action "one of the first acts of genuine selflessness I’ve witnessed on the show to date." Me, I'm still not too sure, but that might be because, despite living in Los Angeles, I'm still a jaded New Yorker at heart.

In the end, Mia packed her knives and left Top Chef. While she's proud of what she has accomplished in her life, I do wish that she would have stayed in the competition rather than eliminated herself in order to save Elia. Was it really Elia's head on the chopping block? I don't think we'll ever really know the truth, despite what Tom says. Having it seem like it was Elia makes for good drama and it doesn't make Mia's sacrifice (whatever the reason) in vain.

What did you all think of that ending?

Next week on Top Chef: chefs must create a seven course dinner inspired by... something that we'll have to wait until next week to find out what it is, for Debi Mazur and guests. Meanwhile Ilan and Marcel clash, Ilan tells Marcel to "keep making [his] foams and go cry in the corner," and several of the chefs are accused of committing a culinary sin, leading Marcel to yet again arrogantly lash out at the judges. I cannot wait!


Anonymous said…
Do we know for sure that the season was filmed a while ago? Cause that's all I kept thinking was...what were all these guests thinking?

I have to say, I am a pretty cynical lass, and I know she said she missed her family, but I am more cynical about reality show editing. She could have said that in week one and they just put it here. I think I land more on the side of selflessness. I do think Elia was going to go. Missing her family may have strengthened her resolve, but I do think it basically came from wanting to see what was right, instead of just being cutthroat.

And much as I love Cliff, he was just an ass. Sorry. Total ass.
I think Cliff and Elia were just as responsible as Mia (if not more) for their loss. The whole idea of only having a few dishes was nonsensical. And then not being able to keep the table full was equally as distrubing. That said, I think that Cliff and Elia are both highly talented and will make great chefs one day and, because of that, I'm happy that they both made it through to the next round.
Anonymous said…
Love the blog. Just found it last month. Keep up the great work. Cliff is a total asshole and he will not win this whole thing. Yes, Mia was a bit over-the-top but her act was selfless. I didn't love her and I didn't hate Cliff before this episode but now I hate Cliff and love her. Great season so far ... it's all in the casting.
TxGowan said…
Don't watch the show, but this kind of product placement, which we discussed earlier this year, is just becoming more and more prevalent.

The other night a friend of mine was watching Criminal Minds. I had my back turned and thought a commercial was on. Turns out one of the characters had just bought his mother a CHEVROLET with ON*STAR and mentioned them several times by name.

I know some shows have skewered this new trend and I find it way too blatant and obvious. It's like in the 50s when they'd be in the middle of the show and suddenly turn towards the camera and say, "Oatie O's! They're good for ya!".
Anonymous said…
Mia's rant reminded me of the "Chappelle's Show" skit "When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong".

I think that she has done a pretty good job of keeping her composure throughout the show. However, in this episode, the combination of loses, being ignored in the challenge, and Cliff's curt style just broke her...and took her for a moment to a place in her life--"the flatlands" in East Oakland, CA--that she's tried (successfully, for the most part) to move beyond.

Popular posts from this blog

Pilot Inspektor: CBS' "Smith"

I may just have to change my original "What I'll Be Watching This Fall" post, as I sat down and finally watched CBS' new crime drama Smith this weekend. (What? It's taken me a long time to make my way through the stack of pilot DVDs.) While it's on following Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars on Tuesday nights (10 pm ET/PT, to be exact), I'm going to be sure to leave enough room on my TiVo to make sure that I catch this compelling, amoral drama. While one can't help but be impressed by what might just be the most marquee-friendly cast in primetime--Ray Liotta, Virginia Madsen, Jonny Lee Miller, Amy Smart, Simon Baker, and Franky G all star and Shohreh Aghdashloo has a recurring role--the pilot's premise alone earned major points in my book: it's a crime drama from the point of view of the criminals, who engage in high-stakes heists. But don't be alarmed; it's nothing like NBC's short-lived Heist . Instead, think of it as The Italian

Katie Lee Packs Her Knives: Breaking News from Bravo's "Top Chef"

The android has left the building. Or the test kitchen, anyway. Top Chef 's robotic host Katie Lee Joel, the veritable "Uptown Girl" herself (pictured at left), will NOT be sticking around for a second course of Bravo's hit culinary competition. According to a well-placed insider, Joel will "not be returning" to the show. No reason for her departure was cited. Unfortunately, the perfect replacement for Joel, Top Chef judge and professional chef Tom Colicchio, will not be taking over as the reality series' host (damn!). Instead, the show's producers are currently scouring to find a replacement for Joel. Top Chef 's second season was announced by Bravo last month, but no return date has been set for the series' ten-episode sophomore season. Stay tuned as this story develops. UPDATE (6/27): Bravo has now confirmed the above story .

What's Done is Done: The Eternal Struggle Between Good and Evil on the Season Finale of "Lost"

Every story begins with thread. It's up to the storyteller to determine just how much they need to parcel out, what pattern they're making, and when to cut it short and tie it off. With last night's penultimate season finale of Lost ("The Incident, Parts One and Two"), written by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, we began to see the pattern that Lindelof and Cuse have been designing towards the last five seasons of this serpentine series. And it was only fitting that the two-hour finale, which pushes us on the road to the final season of Lost , should begin with thread, a loom, and a tapestry. Would Jack follow through on his plan to detonate the island and therefore reset their lives aboard Oceanic Flight 815 ? Why did Locke want to kill Jacob? What caused The Incident? What was in the box and just what lies in the shadow of the statue? We got the answers to these in a two-hour season finale that didn't quite pack the same emotional wallop of previous season