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School Lunch Project: Thinking Outside of the Lunch Box on Top Chef

Is it just me or is it blatantly obvious from the opening minutes of each episode of Top Chef just who is going home that week?

I've taken the editors of Bravo's culinary competition series to task in the past for obvious editing but last night's episode ("Outside the Lunch Box") featured the most egregious editing yet, in my opinion. Within about two minutes of the installment beginning, I had identified just who I thought would be packing their knives this week... and was completely correct on that front.

Sure, it happens from time to time, but it seems to be happening with alarming regularity on Top Chef of late. Keep an eye for who seems to be the focus of attention that week and who is getting a majority of screen time and nine times out of ten, you've got your eliminated contestant.

Which isn't to say that there aren't other enjoyable and rewarding aspects of the series, because there are. But this is, after all, a reality competition series and part of that format, week after week, is that there is going to be a winner and a loser. By removing all drama about who that eliminated contestant will be, the editors deflate a lot of the tension from the individual installments, a necessary component to the long-term health of a franchise.

There are a number of reality series that do this but I feel it most keenly with Top Chef, particularly at the beginning of a season when the personalities/identities of the contestants are a little less known. There is bound to a fair amount of elimination fodder in the early rounds and I get that; I just don't want it telegraphed to me each week without any sense of subtlety.

But enough about that. Let's move on to the culinary aspect of the series, which this week featured the contestants pairing up to create biparti-sandwiches (UGH!) whilst working with one hand behind their backs and then, working in teams, to create a healthy, nutritious, and delicious school lunch as part of First Lady Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign. (Fittingly, the two challenges featured guest judge Sam Kass, the White House chef.)

So how did they do? Let's take a look.

Quickfire Challenge:
  • Tamesha and Amanda: grilled sandwich with sliced prosciutto, Swiss cheese, dijon Mustard, and pepper salsa
  • Andrea and Kevin: Philly Cuban Sandwich with roasted pork, pickles, whole grain mustard, and gruyere
  • Angelo and Tracey: sandwich with flounder marinated in fish sauce, spicy Sriracha mayonnaise, pickled red onions, and herb salad
  • Arnold and Kelly: curry-rubbed grilled chicken with honey, Indonesian sambal, cucumber, mint, dill, and cilantro
  • Kenny and Ed: Korean chili-rubbed Ahi tuna on an open-faced sandwich with cucumber and mango slaw on multi-grain bread
  • Tiffany and Lynne: flatbread saltimbocca sandwich with goat cheese, artichokes, yellow peppers, and white asparagus
  • Jacqueline and Stephen: grilled chicken and avocado sandwich with rosemary skewers
  • Timothy and Alex: croque madame with ground lamb, mornay sauce, and poached egg

I loved the fact that so many of the chefs were scoffing at the challenge--a half an hour to create a sandwich--before they realized that they'd literally be doing it with one hand tied behind their backs. Some of the teams worked better together than others, though I will admit that I was surprised none of them ended up needing medical attention from knife wounds. Some had some real inspiration while others (such as Jaqueline and Stephen) didn't really create anything innovative or different. I knew that the top two would definitely be Angelo and Tracey for their flounder sandwich and Kenny and Ed for their ahi open-faced sandwich with slaw. Both showed a real understanding of the challenge and a real creativity when it came to devising something original and delicious.

No surprise that the win went to Angelo and Tracey, earning Angelo his third consecutive win and giving both team members immunity from elimination. The latter would, of course, prove to be a real boon as the challenge was team-based. Whereas each member of every other team had a 25 percent chance of getting eliminated, their other two team members--second placers Ed and Kenney--had a 50 percent shot at packing their knives this week. Did Angelo in choosing them to be on their team look for the strongest players in an effort to win? Or did he choose them hoping to throw the challenge and get one of them sent home? (Namely, his closest rival, Kenny.) Hmmm....

Elimination Challenge:
  • Amanda, Tamesha, Stephen, Jacqueline: braised chicken thighs in a sherry jus; bean and tomato Salad with pickled red onions and apple cider vinaigrette; sweet onion rice with tomato, carrots, and green onions; and banana pudding with skim milk, strawberries, and strawberry sauce
  • Alex, Andrea, Kevin, Timothy: grilled apple cider BBQ chicken; picnic coleslaw with yogurt; mac and cheese with whole wheat crust, skim milk, and low-fat cheese; fresh melon kebab with orange Chantilly, dipped in yogurt
  • Tracey, Angelo, Ed, Kenny: chicken burger with fiesta rice; “Peanut Butter and Celery Crudite” with crispy tuile; sweet potato puree with cinnamon; apple bread pudding with cinnamon yogurt
  • Kelly, Arnold, Lynne, Tiffany: braised pork carnitas tacos with pickled onions and cilantro; roasted corn salad with cilantro-lime vinaigrette, chili oil, sugar, salt, and lime juice; black bean cake with whole grain and sweet crispy potatoes; caramelized sweet potatoes and sherbert

I knew Amanda's team would be in the bottom. Her chicken was so revolting to the children and so inappropriate, given the presence of cooking wine in the dish, that it should never have been served in a school cafeteria setting. The fact that Amanda defended the dish by saying that she liked chicken that way defeated the entire point of the challenge. Stephen's rice even looked gummy on screen. And then there was Jacqueline's dessert. Last week, she attempted to make low-fat chicken liver mousse for no real reason; this week, she poured two pounds of sugar (!!!!) into a starchy banana pudding, turning what was meant to be a healthy dessert into a high-caloric, high-sugar dish. I was really, really stunned.

I want to praise Alex's team for really thinking outside of the lunch box and being creative in transforming tasty food that the kids know and love into healthy food as well. Using apple cider rather than sugar in the BBQ sauce was a stroke of genius, as was lightening the cole slaw by using a little mayonnaise and a lot of yogurt instead. The dessert--a colorful, interactive melon skewer with a yogurt dipping sauce--continued the theme here. The only low point: Timothy's mac and cheese, which failed to win over the judges.

As for Angelo's team, I really don't know what to say. Just looking at the plate, it looks very uniformly brown. There's very little color here and there seems to be A LOT of sweet happening on the plate, between the dessert, the sweet potato mash, and Angelo's bizarre peanut butter-celery crudite with tuile, which seemed completely out of place on a kid's lunch tray, not to mention the fact that it was a poor attempt at delivering vegetables to the plate and was loaded with sugars. I also question Ed's decision to load his sweet potatoes with cinnamon and chili, making it far too spicy for most kids' palates. Just odd and I couldn't shake the notion that Angelo threw the challenge in an effort to get either Kenny or Ed sent home. He knew that this was not a winning dish and he didn't care as he had immunity for himself. Gamesmanship is a part of every reality competition series but I'd prefer to see the chefs stop thinking about the game and more about their own individual dishes. Sigh.

Despite their bickering (which made me want to push each of them in the Potomac), Kelly's team nailed the challenge completely, delivering a plate that was bursting with color, flavor, and healthiness. It just looked delicious and appetizing. The pink swirl of the pickled onion and green of the cilantro set off the lusciousness of the carnitas, itself swathed in a homemade oatmeal-based soft taco. (The fact that they made the tortillas from scratch was a huge advantage here.) Despite Arnold bemoaning his "salsa," he delivered a delicious corn and tomato salad that was filled with deftly layered flavors. I loved the sweet potato "wig" on Lynne's black bean cake, which again made it fun and interactive for the kids and the fact that Tiffany combined a vegetable--sweet potatoes--and a low-fat sherbet into a delicious dessert that was delicious, healthy, and low-fat. Well done all around.

No surprise that the team of Kelly/Arnold/Lynne/Tiffany walked way with the win this week... nor that it would be Jacqueline who would be packing her knives. I pegged her as an early cast-off straightaway and the editing this week underscored her imminent departure from the competition.

Best line of the evening: "I love vodka, but I'm not cookin' with it." - Gail Simmons

What did you think of this week's episode? Who would you have picked to win this week's challenge and who should have packed their knives? Tired of the predictable editing? Head to the comments section to discuss.

Next week on Top Chef ("Capitol Grill"), the remaining chefs are tasked with creating a pie from scratch for their Quickfire Challenge and later, the contestants must grill up a classic picnic.

Top Chef Preview: Desserts? No!

Top Chef Preview: Serving George Washington


Anonymous said…
Gail's comment was my favorite line too! And I completely agree about the editing. I expect shows to edit the content to keep the winner/loser suspenseful (as I'm told is sometimes necessary on the dating-type shows), not to make it obvious.
Sianne said…
I love Gail! Her comments are always spot on and often amusing too.

Thank goodness Jacqueline was sent packing. Hopefully, Amanda will go next week. Both of them seem totally confused and lost!
Annie said…
Lazy lazy editing. Like you I knew it was going to be Jacqueline right away. Not sad to see her go though!
Ellen said…
I'm a fan of the show, but as the seasons go on, there begins to be certain sameness to it. Some of the contestants look like former contestants and as you said with the editing, it all takes away from the originality of it all.
Anonymous said…
it's weird to me that you omnisciently describe the taste and quality of the food, having only watched it on the screen rather than tasted it. "luscious" carnita, "delicious" salsa... how do you know? did you try them?

also, why are you judging food? are you a food critic or a tv writer?
Jace Lacob said…

I always love that the rudest comments emanate from those too frightened to even put a fake name.

Half of enjoying cuisine is the appreciation of the look and presentation of a dish, which can be easily seen, you know, on the television screen. The other half of my so-called "omniscient" writing comes from the judges' comments. I know, a novel conceit, really.

I'm a foodie. I talk about food, write about food, and cook food. First and foremost, Top Chef is a culinary competition series on television. I don't see what the problem is, really.

My rule of thumb is: if you don't like it, don't read it.
Wes said…
@Anonymous: You are an asshat.
Eli said…
Jace...I've always loved your commentry entries on Top Chef, pls keep them coming!!! What I appreciate is your critical viewpoint of the show, food and chefs. And anyone who's watched the show knows that the adjecives you use to describe the food were used by the judges themselves.
Kate said…
I heart Wes

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