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Cheese Course or Just Desserts: A Dramatic Exit for One Top Chef Contestant

Is it just me or does Restaurant Wars always bring out the worst in the cheftestants?

The fiercest comments on Top Chef this week didn't emanate from former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni, but rather from the contestants of the losing team.

On this week's episode ("Restaurant Wars"), the eight remaining contestants were split into two teams and tasked with running a dinner service at a restaurant for one evening, developing and executing the menu and running the front of house at the same time as the kitchen. It's a fan-favorite challenge that always pushes the contestants well past their breaking points but this season the Restaurant Wars challenge wasn't so much fun as frustrating to watch, given that the eliminated chef was an outstanding talent who went home while other, lesser contestants still remain in the competition.

It was this elimination that left me scratching my head at the end of the episode. While I've disagreed with the judges' decisions in the past, this one just left me extremely perplexed. Yes, you're only as good as your last dish but when your ten last dishes have all been pretty abysmal, how are you not getting sent home?

That's the question that I kept asking myself after the final credits rolled last night. How are Amanda and Alex still in this competition, despite some truly awful dishes and near-eliminations, while Kenny gets sent home, despite taking the reins in the kitchen?

Granted, their team--which ran the 2121 restaurant--lost in the challenge. Ed's team, which oversaw the egregiously named EVOO, had more better dishes collectively than the blue team. But Kenny kept them motivated and kept the dishes going out of the kitchen. If only the dishes themselves had been better. Which lead me to wonder: just where was the quality control at 2121? Kenny, the self-regarded "beast" of the competition, has been an outstanding competitor and has dazzled the judges in the past with his refined palate and precision. So just what happened here?

Kenny's two dishes--a salad that contained no less than what seemed to be 72 ingredients and a dessert/cheese course that featured a fried goat cheese croquette atop of a bed of strawberries and rhubarb--failed to hit their marks entirely. I'd agree with the judges' criticism that Kenny should have listened to Coco Channel and removed at least two accessories from that starter, which was over-labored and overflowing with too many ideas and ingredients. For a salad dish, there was far too much going on and it wasn't tasty either. As for the cheese issue, I do applaud Kenny for looking to reinvent the cheese course but what he created would have worked better as a starter than as a dessert replacement, really. The judges also said that it tasted soapy and the crust on it was ghastly. Neither of which you really want in a dessert, especially as Kelly's chocolate ganache tart was a thing of beauty (even if her ice cream was tasteless).

Still, Kenny not only delivered two dishes--sub-par though they might be--but he also oversaw the kitchen as the executive chef. Did he ever taste Kelly's soup? It certainly looked that way from the footage, when he advised her not to add more salt to the "thin" sweet corn soup. Which means that he was also attempting to keep an eye on the quality of the dishes going out into the dining room and failed on that account as well.

But it was clear that he had his hands full, in any event.

Amanda, on the other hand, had only one dish to execute and it was a monumental failure. Why is it that every week she seems to be struggling with an unknown protein (in this case, grass-fed beef), an unknown cooking element (here, a wood-burning stove), and outright confusion why she keeps landing in the bottom week after week? Why does she seem to fail every time she attempts to cook a piece of meat? And, even more irritatingly, how is it that she's managed to squeeze past elimination time after time?

I thought for sure that she would be the one to be packing her knives and going home, just as I thought that it would be Alex, who has long outstayed his welcome on Top Chef, who would be eliminated should the red team have lost. The fact that Alex mangled everything he touched this week would have been brought up for certain. His efforts to butcher the lamb were shockingly poor; his filleting of the fish left not only scales but bones for Tiffany to then deal with in the kitchen. No wonder his team relegated him to the front room (which the blue team should have done with Amanda), as he seems to create a perfect storm of discontent and mess everywhere he turns. (And that's to say nothing of the fact that he seasoned the fish during the Quickfire Challenge for no apparent reason and way too early, resulting in his team's loss there.)

Was the blue team right to attempt to throw Alex under the bus despite the fact that his team had won the challenge and was therefore safe from elimination? I'll get back to you on that. But the fact that they failed to bring up the pea puree was an odd moment as well, considering what a big deal that had been the last two weeks and that the cloud of suspicion still hung over Alex this week. Why not shine a light on the controversy in front of the judges?

The fact remains that the two weakest chefs at this point were Alex and Amanda and either one of them should have been the one to pack their knives. To send Kenny home seemed both a capricious move on the part of the judges and an effort on the part of the producers to inject some drama into the proceedings, following a season that's been severing lacking in narrative tension. (In my opinion, it's been the weakest season of Top Chef to date, one that's been waylaid by poor editing, lackluster casting, and tired challenges.)

Sending Kenny home was clearly meant to be a message that no one left in the competition is safe. The early episodes of the season seemed to relish in setting up Kenny and Angelo as adversaries who would be fighting until the bitter end; both were keen competitors, driven by this rivalry to outdo one another on a weekly basis. But to send Kenny home is to remove even the slightest of intrigue from the season.

Not that Kenny should have been kept around in order to justify that intrigue, but the fact that he *was* sent home rather than the two consistently weak links makes me question the validity of the entire competition. If Kenny has to go home but Alex and Amanda remain to fight another day, then what's the point in performing well? Why not play it safe and remain in the middle until the final rounds? Why be a strong chef if you can be just a hair better than the weakest of the weak and narrowly avoid elimination?

I had thought with last week's ouster of Stephen that the competition this season was finally moving in the right direction. But this move makes me question just what the judges are thinking, really. And that, more than anything, leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

What did you think of this week's episode? Was it right that Kenny was sent home? Who would you have eliminated and why? Head to the comments section to discuss and dish out your thoughts on this week's episode and this season of Top Chef.

Next week on Top Chef ("Covert Cuisine"), mystery and spyjinks abound when items in a mystery box challenge the chefs, who must then transform famous dishes into different culinary fare; later, the chefs head to the Central Intelligence Agency for their elimination challenge.

Top Chef Preview: Mystery Box

Top Chef Preview: At the CIA Headquarters


Kate said…
I agree completely. I'm not sure I see the point in continuing to watch - the show has been edited, up until now, to set up a final show down between Angelo and Kenny, with no other chef performing consistently well. So who is possibly going to keep it competitive going forward?
Karen said…
One of the things that has consistently bothered me about the editing of Top Chef is that they splice together the judges comments to build suspense as to who will be eliminated, which then makes it impossible to understand why that final decision was made. In order to create the WTF? moment, they sacrifice clarity. Kenny's dismissal made no sense in light of the comments aired -- and Gail's defense of Kenny's role in the kitchen. I feel as if Bravo is basically assuming that I want the drama rather than the explanation -- that as a viewer I won't want to know why -- that I'll just accept it without question. It would be so much better if they would give us two minutes with Tom at the end of each episode where he explained why they made the decision they did -- they could still build the drama -- still have the crappy editing -- but at least there would be some clarification so that we didn't think the game was rigged.
Mimi C said…
I came in to say the same thing as Karen. I don't understand the judges decision based on what I saw. It seemed like Amanda was finally going home. Adding a little explanation would keep me engaged in this series that I'm pretty much done watching at this point.
Steve said…
Was Kenny really an "outstanding" talent? I mean, he's talked a lot about being "The Beast," but he's only been "high/win" on two ECs...and in the bottom for four of them. Seems like his mouth was writing checks his ass couldn't cash.

I expected Amanda or Alex to go home. I really despise Alex after this episode. Amanda I sort of like - she has made the occasional good dish, and, well, she's pretty. I think she should be outta there but I'm okay with Alex leaving first.
ewench said…
Kenny made a strong first impression but to me it seems he has been hit and miss since then - his huge ego never consistently matched his talent. I did think it was Amandsa going home but wasn't that shocked it was Kenny - both his dishes were bad.

And who cares if the kitchen ran smoothly really, as the judges said - at the end of the day all the customer cares about is if the fod tastes good.

I also can't believe that the "pea puree" controversy hasn't really come up with the judges, I hope it will be discussed at the reunion!
Florence said…
I wasn't shocked that it was Kenny either. If you're going to be the executive chief, you have to take responsibility for all the dishes going out.

I got the feeling Tom wanted to send Alex home (as everyone seems to agree he should be going home) but felt his hands were tied when he said something to the effect of "you can't send someone home from the winning team."
Rwriteur said…
Kenny's dismissal was unwarranted and outright ridiculous. Two dishes and running the team? Ambitious, yes, out of the question, no. His ego is no bigger than the rest -- he's just gotten more airtime because of this supposed feud between he and Angelo. Which means absolutely nothing now that he's gone. It's only a matter of time before Angelo self-destructs, which may be next week by the looks of the trailer. Great way to set up a story, Top Chef!

And as far as Alex and Amanda go... my sympathies lie with Alex. He's a bit of a bumbler, but at least he's palatable, whereas Amanda is just annoying. I'm going with Tiffany for the win.
SamSee said…
Kenny may not necessarily have been the strongest chef this season but his skills were above and beyond both Alex's and Amanda's. They are both way past their expiration dates.
Chris said…
I'm a little surprised everybody's surprised by the decision. Two bad dishes and it's Restaurant Wars. Dale in Season 4, who wasn't a frontrunner but was coming on strong, was a Restaurant Wars casualty but most notably, Tre, season 3, left after Restaurant Wars, which remains for me one of the most shocking results.

But I wonder if at some point, chefs who've won a challenge get to come back. After all, they've spent a lot of time building up the Kenny-Angelo rivalry but, especially after last season, neither chef seems good enough to be of significant interest without the other.

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