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Confrontation and Cuisine: Another Look at the "Top Chef Reunion Dinner"

Where there's Marcel, there's drama.

Last night's Top Chef Reunion Dinner, a nice twist on the culinary series retrospective, offered both Marcel and drama in equal measure. After all, there's been maybe one other Top Chef contestant (cough, Tiffany, cough) who has stirred up as much conflict and confrontation as Marcel has.

From the head-shaving almost-incident to the post-series bottle-throwing, Marcel has been at the heart of some memorably tense moments, including one from the Season Five finale that had never before been aired in which he suddenly becomes involved in a verbal battle with supercilious judge Toby Young.

While I already hinted at my thoughts about the Top Chef reunion special (you can read my advance review here), now that the episode has aired we can discuss some specific details from last night's special.

Personally, I really enjoyed watching the reunion. While it was a break from the competition itself (as well as the current series), it offered not only a breather but also a look back... and I'd have much rather had some new Top Chef content this week than face an evening of repeats, as we often have to during the course of the series' run.

Given that there have already been five iterations of the series to date, Top Chef has produced some memorable contestants, including some that are known for more than just combative personalities; I was glad to see that the producers brought back not only the most dramatic cheftestants (and thank goodness Spike wasn't there!) but also some extremely talented competitors.

It was interesting to see what all of the previous contestants were up to, how they had changed, and whether their time on the series had shaped them. Marcel, of course, hasn't changed all that much. He's still cocky, combustive, and has an innate way of rubbing people the wrong way. I was beyond confused why he would agree to return for this reunion if he had no intention of discussing his past. Isn't that the very point of a reunion? Did he honestly believe that no one, not the producers, not host Fabio Viviani, would bring up any controversy?

I'm glad Fabio did say something to Marcel at the table. No one forced any of them to sign up for this reunion or rehash things on camera. Marcel could have politely refused the invitation and gone on his way. But he chose to participate. And choosing to participate means having to discuss unpleasant or uncomfortable things. With the others. On camera. Of course, the head-shaving thing is going to come up, especially as Ilan is there. Of course, Fabio is going to ask about the guy who threw a bottle at Marcel's head. It's all on the record and it has to be asked.

Likewise, I'm glad that Casey and Carla were able to talk about what went wrong in the season finale that cost Carla her shot at the grand prize. But Carla being Carla, she's not harping on it or even blaming Casey, who clearly feels some guilt over what happened in that final challenge. They were able to bring their feelings into the air and move on. And that's really what a reunion should be all about, in the end.

Of course, it wasn't all accusations and haughty glares across the table as the chefs prepared a beautiful five-course menu for themselves to enjoy... without the stress of elimination, immunity, or wacky restrictions about only using food from the vending machine or a particular aisle of the grocery store. It was all about the food.

So what did the chefs prepare? Let's take a look course-by-course:
  • First Course (Season Three's Casey, Dale, and Hung): Fanny Bay oyster puree, puffed forbidden rice, cilantro, pickled watermelon, cucumber, green bean, and red onion; crab pierogi with mushroom and asparagus ragout and curry hollandaise; sardines with a black pepper- caramelized sugar pork broth and scallions
  • Second Course (Season One's Harold and Tiffany): seared scallop with scallop sashimi noodles and tom yum broth
  • Third Course (Season Two's Marcel and Ilan): sea salt-encrusted Thai snapper (stuffed with basil, lemongrass and lemons) served with ratatouille
  • Fourth Course (Season Four's Richard and Lisa): corn-fed beef, duck pate, and corn puree with Captain Crunch air, spicy pickled radish salad, and savory root beer caramel
  • Fifth Course (Season Five's Stefan and Carla): raspberry panna cotta, rhubarb sauce, chocolate mousse, and almond crisp

Other than Dale's disastrous crab pierogies (dubbed a "trainwreck" by Tiffany), I have to say that I was impressed by the other dishes and how well the chefs worked together after all of this time apart. Loved that Marcel cooked the Thai snapper in a salt crust; besides for being ideal for family style serving it's also a dramatic showcase and allowed him to fillet and bone the fish tableside. Likewise, Hung's sardines sounded incredible and bowed the chefs into a shared silence. Harold and Tiffany's scallops were simple but focused the attention on the flavors... and they spend the majority of their $500 budget on wine and champagne.

All in all, a fun look back before the competition on the current season really heats up. Reunion episodes can be overly formatted and at times snidely shocking. This was one dinner that I wished I was at and which played an equal amount of weight on the confrontation as it did the cuisine.

Next week it's back to the competition on Top Chef: Las Vegas ("Strip Around the World"), as the day begins with a Quickfire Challenge that tasks the chefs to create the perfect breakfast in bed for guest judge Nigella Lawson and Padma in their hotel suite; the chefs visit casinos to gain inspiration for their Elimination Challenge.

Top Chef Preview: Breakfast in Bed:

Top Chef Preview: Casino Inspiration:


Brodie said…
I was thrilled that Fabio finally put all of the whiners and complainers (Marcel) in their place. No one was forced to do the reunion show so, if you don't want to be asked about the past, then maybe you should attend! I don't know why Marcel keeps coming back to the show when he clearly has several issues that he needs to work out. Get over it, dude!
Bella Spruce said…
The reunion certainly wasn't the best thing I've ever seen on television but, as you said, it was much more fun than a repeat episode and it was nice to see some of the Top Chef faces from seasons past.

That said, I CANNOT WAIT for Nigella next week. She is a food goddess and will be a perfect Top Chef guest judge!

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