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Knife's Edge: The Competition Turns Ugly on "Top Chef"

Say what you want about FOX's trashy Hell's Kitchen, but Bravo's superior Top Chef has usually managed to stay above the fray and remain relatively classy (well, except for that head-shaving incident last season, anyway).

So I was a little upset to see the competition take an ugly turn this week on last night's episode of Top Chef ("Guilty Pleasures"), especially considering that this crew of chefs seemed on the whole to be more supportive of one another. Well, except for maybe Hung. I've never really been a fan of Howie, either, but last night his true colors really came through.

Howie really is an aggressive bulldog of a chef, barking commands, snarling when confronted, and unable to work as part of a cohesive group. It's telling that any time there has been a team challenge this season, Howie's team has ended up placing in the bottom. Coincidence? More on that in a bit.

Last night's Quickfire Challenge was yet another product placement one; this time chefs had to create--not an ice cream itself--but an ice cream mix-in for Cold Stone Creamery's sweet cream base. Um, sure. For some reason, we only saw a few of the contestants' dishes, including Howie's balsamic-macerated berries which were torched with sea salt and sugar; Dale's "peach cobbler," consisting of Grand Marnier-flambéed peaches, candied pecans, and cobbler topping; and Tre's combination of candied hazelnut, shiso, cherry, and raspberry-ginger sauce. A low point had to be Hung's mess of a topping which, among other things, contained tempura flakes, gelée, and a white chocolate-cauliflower foam which he described as a "palate refresher." It was as if he had melded minds with Marcel to create something so over-the-top and inedible that it deserves praise just for being that nasty. Kudos too to Casey for making guest judge Govind Armstrong (of Table 8) shudder when he tasted her Sriracha-laced concoction. Ick.

It was only fitting then that the winner was Dale; his dish elevated the mix-in to an elegant and textured flavor component of the ice cream and he seemed to truly understand the brief: devising something tasty that worked with the flavor of the ice cream but also keeping it sophisticated and yet approachable. Bravo, Dale. As the winner of the Quickfire Challenge, Dale gained immunity, a private four-course dinner with Armstrong at Table 8, and didn't have to participate in what came next.

I had to say that I loved how the series' producers set up last night's Elimination Challenge; it was manipulative, underhanded, and brilliant. The chefs were told that they had the night off to go and enjoy Miami Beach's many nightclubs and it was great to see the contestants--whom I've now begun to assume live in their chef's whites--dressed up and all glam. So it wasn't a surprise to me that our erstwhile chefs wouldn't get to party: this is a reality series, after all, and the producers don't just give you the night off because they feel like it. There's ALWAYS a catch.

The catch this time was that our glammed-up chefs would divide into two teams (with Dale sitting out) and plan a selection of bar menu items which they would cook in two mobile kitchens for drunken bar patrons. The evil side of me wishes that producers would have let the cast party all night and THEN force them to cook hangover food while, well, hungover. But, alas, not the case. Instead, the teams had to figure out how to organize themselves in the space, shop for ingredients, and create some mouth-watering food for a bunch of drunk people.

The Black team--comprised of Hung, Tre, Sara M., and Brian--developed a vastly different menu that included a raw bar with oysters with a watermelon mignonette, teriyaki chicken wings, onion rings, bacon-wrapped shrimp with cheese grits, jerked beef soft tacos, and, um, hot chocolate (not sure where that last item came from). Brian completely took charge of the group, placing himself down on the ground where he kept the energy high among the revelers and oversaw the raw bar and created a fantastic ceviche dish. The star player of the night was definitely Tre, whose shrimp and grits dish was a beautifully composed dish that, while completely fulfilling the task at hand, was plated so elegantly and so thoughtfully constructed that it could have been served in a fine dining establishment as is. (Bravo, Tre!) Sara M.'s tacos also looked stunning. I was unsure about the raw bar (take loads of alcohol, introduce raw oysters, and you could have a problem on your hands), but it appears to have worked out in the end. The Black team really came together and functioned as a cohesive unit and it was clear that they--and their customers--were having a great time.

Not so on the side, unfortunately. The Orange team--consisting of Howie, Sara N., Casey, and CJ (poor, poor CJ)--created a menu that included media noche (Cuban sandwiches), sliders with milkshakes, quesadillas, ceviche tacos, chocolate-covered bananas, and cafe con leche. It was clear from the start that this was an uphill battle: Howie was barking orders, Sara's head was not in the game (so stunned was she that they really weren't going out), and Casey seemed oblivious to everything going on around her. CJ tried to take control of the situation but, sadly, proved ineffectual at motivating his team. Not that that was the only problem. Howie's media noche was doughy and dry and not pressed, making it a pale substitute for an actual Cubano sandwich. Sara was moving at the speed of molasses, only cooking three or four sliders at a time, which slowed down the entire group. Sure, the quesadilla may have tasted good, but it looked a soggy mess to me. It was obvious that this team was going down.

At the judges' table, Howie turned on Sara, calling her the "baby of the house" and cruelly remarking that everyone has to always do everything for her. I thought his criticism was completely uncalled for and unnecessary. The fact remains that Howie was the one who took charge of the menu, based on his experiences cooking in nightclubs in Miami Beach and locked Sara out of any discussions; additionally, if he had problems with her performance during the challenge, he should have raised his objections then, not during the judging. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I don't like Howie. Sara was stunned and gutted by Howie's accusations and the other contestants leaped to her defense.

Still, it wasn't enough to save Sara, who was told to pack her knives. Personally, I think it should have been Howie who got the boot, but I could see what Tom said about one of them being more suited to the competition. BTW, I loved the final shot of Howie sitting alone, isolated, while the other chefs sat several feet away from him. Only fitting.

Next week on Top Chef ("Restaurant Wars"), it's the moment we've all been waiting for as the chefs must battle to launch two new restaurants and develop the most innovative burger, Tre gets stuck in the weeds, and all of the chefs face guest judge Daniel Boulud.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Big Brother 8 (CBS); My Name is Earl/30 Rock (NBC); Smallville (CW); Ugly Betty (ABC)

9 pm: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS); The Office/Scrubs (NBC); Supernatural (CW); Grey's Anatomy (ABC)

10 pm: Without a Trace (CBS); ER (NBC); Men in Trees (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares Revisited on BBC America.

Missing a softer side of Chef Ramsay? Watch as Gordon revisits one of his former Kitchen Nightmares projects, La Laterna, to see if the Italian restaurant has managed to turn its financial problems around. Are they even still open? Find out tonight.

8:30 pm: 30 Rock.

It's Televisionary's favorite new comedy from last season. On tonight's repeat installment ("Up All Night"), it's Valentine's Day on the set of TGS: Liz gets flowers from a mysterious admirer, while Pete forgets Valentine's Day when the cast has to pull an all-nighter. First you lose your wedding ring in a poker match and now you've forgotten Valentine's, Pete? You, my friend, are gonna be in the doghouse.

9 pm: The Office.

On tonight's repeat episode ("Cocktails"), Michael and Jan make their ongoing relationship known at a cocktail party thrown at the home of the Dunder-Mifflin CFO, Jim meets Karen's ex-boyfriend, and the rest of the gang head out for some happy hour drinks. Directed by Lost creator J.J. Abrams!


Cass said…
the judges on top chef really piss me off. i thought it was awful the way they used sara's discomfort with cooking in heels and club clothing against her. padma gave a weak, "oh, i get it" kind of comment, but i think ultimately the situation gave the women a disadvantage.
The judges may not have had sympathy for Sara but I don't think they used her "discomfort" against her. I know the situation must have sucked but get over it! You're in a competition and this is a reality show so anything goes. And, as a chef, you should be able to adapt and bounce back quickly in frustrating circumstances. I think Sara is talented but she did not handle the situation well and I think the judges were right to send her home.
Anonymous said…
I agree with Danielle. I don't see why Sara's "discomfort" should have affected her cooking. Sure, it was an inconvenience but that's all. I don't think it should have undermined her the way it did. Sara M didn't have a problem with it and as soon as Sara N said that she felt demoralized by the challenge I knew that she was the one going home. Too bad as she seemed like a talented chef.
Bianca Reagan said…
That's what I'm saying, Cass. Furthermore, Padma stated in the reunion a few weeks ago that she doesn't have to cook in the skimpy outfits that she herself chooses to wear on the show. So how can she use that against someone who was forced to prepare food for over 100 people in club wear?

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