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Gastro-nauts and Space Cadets: Another Frustrating Episode of Bravo's Top Chef

It's only fitting that a frustrating and uneven season of Bravo's Top Chef should have yet another frustrating twist in the final challenge in Washington D.C.

I've been extremely vocal about my dislike of this season of Top Chef, which is strange to me as I've been an obsessive devotee since the very first episode of this culinary challenge series, which is also the first reality series to dethrone CBS' The Amazing Race from its Emmys perch.

But while last season rightly snagged an Emmy Award, this season of Top Chef has been almost painful to sit through and several times I nearly walked right out without paying the bill. Lackluster casting, poor editing, and some head-scratching challenges have left me questioning whether there needs to be a shake-up behind the scenes of this series, or whether they just need to cast better next time.

Bravo would appear to be launching an All-Stars edition of Top Chef for next season, which Reality Blurred reports is already filming in Manhattan. Andy has the full list of cheftestants returning for another shot at culinary glory, but I'd advise against reading the piece unless you want to be potentially spoiled about the outcome of this season.

It might be a step in the right direction or at least bring back some familiar faces with the grit, determination, and--above all else--the talent to make the competition interesting again.

Which isn't to say that there haven't been some stand-out chefs this season, because there have been but it seemed to take so long to slog through the also-rans and talent-deprived this season that it sucked the fun out of the proceedings, really.

And then there was last night's episode ("Gastro-nauts")... So what did I think about this week's installment of Top Chef and why am I steaming? Read on.

I had made up my mind a few weeks back that the Final Four this season would be Angelo, Tiffany, Ed, and Kelly. Each of the four was among the most talented, inventive, and consistently great chefs in the bunch and I was increasingly impressed and blown away by Tiffany, who managed to come up from the middle of the pack to win time and time again these last few weeks. Considering that I had nearly written her off in the first episode, I was surprised by how much I'd come to love Tiffany over the last few months and was rooting for her to take it all the way to the finale.

It was not to be, sadly.

I'm still shaking my head in disbelief over last night's judging decision, which sent Tiffany packing while keeping Kevin in the running. With only four spots available for Singapore--the first time the series has gone international--I had every hope that Tiffany would be among those heading overseas and competing for the top prize. After all, the judges have been extremely impressed with her work and her ability to coax massive flavor out of just about everything... whereas Kevin hasn't been as strong a player, in my mind, anyway.

Tiffany brought a much needed spark to the competition and she seemed to provoke the best kind of reactions in her competitors, who seemed to love her carefree nature and her killer culinary instincts. Her success the past few weeks have pushed everyone towards climbing higher, imbuing the competition with some much needed energy and charm the last few episodes.

Hell, she nearly won the Quickfire this week--in which the chefs had to create a dish that would be paired with a specific wine--for yet another fantastic plate, though she was edged out by Angelo in the end with his sautéed foie gras with black salt and fennel salad. While I was impressed with Angelo's dish and would gladly order it at a restaurant, it was Tiffany's dish that had me salivating: a cocoa- and black pepper-crusted Wagyu tenderloin with spring risotto, which seemed to leap out of the screen and into my stomach. Beautifully cooked, elegantly plated, and infused with so much flavor and complexity, it was a gorgeous dish that she should be proud of.

Which is why what happened next was so entirely frustrating.

For their final Elimination Challenge before the finale, the chefs were tasked with creating dishes that could be freeze-dried and taken into outer space. While space-obsessed Kelly was enamored instantly with this task, I thought it was a pretty lame challenge to offer the chefs as their final showdown in Washington D.C. It seemed like something that should have come far earlier in the season rather than the last major hurdle before earning a spot among the Final Four.

Even more puzzling: the chefs didn't have to actually freeze-dry anything. Despite the fact that the dishes were meant to be designed to be eaten in space--and therefore must be fried-dried before breaking through the upper atmosphere--the dishes were going to be served as-is to the judges back on Earth. So who is to say that any of the dishes were really suitable?

While Kelly was taken to task for the excess liquid on her dish (pan roasted halibut with artichoke-fennel barigoule and salsa verde salad), not a single complaint was raised about how well fried onion rings--which would then be freeze-dried and reheated--would hold up under those conditions... while Angelo used candied ginger for his dish (ginger-lacquered short ribs with pea puree, pickled mushrooms, and horseradish crème fraiche), despite the fact that they were expressly told not to use a high concentration of sugar.

So what were they really being judged on then? If the dishes weren't being eaten in the context or format that the task was designed for--unlike previous years, where they had to actually freeze ready-made meals and then reheat them--then how could anyone really judge the final product?

The judges also said that they would be giving points for originality and creativity. Which confused me then how Kevin's traditional home-style dish--NY strip steak with bacon, jalapeno, corn puree, and onion rings--managed to get through and sit among ginger-lacquered short ribs, artichoke-fennel barigoule, and Ed's Moroccan-inspired yogurt-marinated rack of lamb with eggplant puree, cous cous croquette, and hummus, but Tiffany's dish failed to make the cut.

For the record, her dish was a gorgeous pan-seared Alaskan halibut with coconut curry, snow pea shoots, and jasmine rice, which matched what the NASA organizers set as the brief in the first place. Despite it being a curry, it wasn't overtly runny or too liquidy; it had heat, and the halibut would freeze-dry easily.

Should Tiffany have not cooked the pea shoots in the fish sauce? Definitely. It was a rare misstep from Tiffany; the pea shoots were there to provide crunch and contrast with the other elements. But by cooking them in the fish sauce, it took out the essential verdant crunchiness of the shoots in the first place.

And then there was that pepper skin, which seemed to lose Tiffany her spot. The judges thought it amateurish that she left it in the dish and said it lent a bitterness to the dish. Um, yeah? But it also negated everything else she had done? It was more of a blatant flaw than Kevin using sirloin at this point in the competition? It got her booted?

For a season obsessed with missing pea puree, it might be fitting that a top contender would be sent home for pepper skin but that doesn't make it any less of a bitter pill to swallow. Tiffany seemed poised to perhaps take it all; she had made front-runner Angelo a little less certain of his victory and she made all of them better chefs by example. While I'm intrigued to see what Angelo, Ed, and Kelly cook up in the final rounds, I have to say that I'm a less than excited now that Tiffany is out of the running and Kevin took her spot in the final round. It's not to say that Kevin is a bad chef because he isn't, but he seems to lack the creativity and energy that Tiffany brought to the kitchen--and the show--each week.

And when you have a season as lackluster and dull as this, you need every last bit of spark that you can find.

What did you think of this week's episode? Should Tiffany have been the one to go home? Should it have been Kevin? And what do you think of the Final Four? Head to the comments section to discuss.

Next week on Top Chef ("Finale, Part One"), the competition moves to Singapore as the chefs are narrowed down to the final three.


Ally said…
Your final four is the final four that should have been. I was rooting for Tiffany to win.

Hated last night's episode. Hate this season.
Sarah said…
I was also VERY disappointed. Especially because it seemed like they didn't like Angelo's dish that much and he won and they seemed to like Tiffany's more than Kevin's and he lost. Strange and uneven at best.
Anonymous said…
Don't worry. Tiffany will reappear in the finale and be given a chance to take her rightful spot in the final four. She probably won't get it, though.
Unknown said…
Ugh. I was really rooting for Tiffany and hoping that Kevin would be the one to go. I'm so tired of hearing him complain about how much of a fighter he is and how he wants this more than anyone. Let your food do the talking!

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