Top Chef D.C., round two: Silly bipartisandwiches, sensitive Colicchio

The early episodes of any Top Chef season tend to feature nonsensical challenges, probably because a large number of chefs are still in play. (I constantly have to remind myself who in the current sixteen is whom. Is that Ed over there? Alex?) Someone has to get sent home each week, and at this point it doesn't much matter which of the weaker contestants falls.

But last night's Quickfire, on the second segment of Top Chef D.C. was particularly idiotic. The chefs were told that since bipartisanship is essential to good government -- you'd think that particular trope would be as dead as the euphoria that greeted Obama's inauguration by now -- they were to create bipartisandwiches.

I'm hoping the unanimous laughter with which they greeted that sally was pure sycophancy. They were then divided into groups of two, each group received one apron, half-red, half-blue, to share, and every chef competed one-handed -- sort of like a three-legged race. People hopped, shuffled, opened bottles with their teeth, winced as they held bread for their partners to cut. Producing a fancy sandwich under these circumstances didn't seem that meaningful -- and none of the results looked particularly appetizing.

Angelo partnered with Tracey, who was thrilled to spend half an hour with her arm around him, and they came out on top, which gave them both immunity. Telluride's Kenny Gilbert, meanwhile, was breathing down their necks.

Angelo -- who won both the Quickfire and the Elimination last time -- calls himself a sniper, a ninja, an orchestral conductor of flavors; Kevin identifies as the alpha male. The two of them are providing most of the drama at the moment. But though their hostility is real and palpably simmering, it's also drearily predictable -- like the comments every single season about "coming here to win" and knowing "this is my challenge." Do people get coached to say this stuff? There are surely more interesting and original stories bubbling beneath the surface, and I wish the producers would stray from their formulaic editing, slick choppy cuts, and surges of portentous music and show them.

Part of the problem is that where Top Chef was once a contest for genuine unknowns, this year's competitors are hard-eyed, self-marketing professionals, which leads to a lot less looseness, surprise, self-discovery and plain innocence in the kitchen. It's hard to know how much these people care about food. What is clear is that they're passionate about money and fame.

The elimination challenge was inspired by Michelle Obama's healthy food for kids campaign, and White House chef Sam Kass was a judge. The competitors were grouped into teams of four and told to prepare lunch for fifty middle schoolers on a budget of $130 -- no trip to Whole Foods this time. The lunches were to be healthy and delicious. The menus would be judged as a whole, but each cook would also stand or fall on his or her particular dish.

You knew Amanda, with her sherried chicken legs, was in trouble from the start: Americans don't tolerate the juxtaposition of kids and alcohol. Jacqueline's low-fat chicken liver mousse almost got her sent home last week, but low-fat was the watchword this week, so she should have done better. She also revealed an intriguing side of herself when she spoke of raising her little sister after their mother's death, thus saving her from foster care. Still, she floundered, dropping the chocolate for her planned banana-chocolate dessert because it cost too much, and serving heavily sugared starchy banana pudding that ultimately got her sent home.

Some groups cooperated in planning and executing their menus, others postured and fought. Vail's Kelly Liken irritated her partners: "I feel confident I can lead this group," she announced to the camera. The others were less convinced.

Angelo had picked Kenny for his team, and there was suspicion that this was a calculated move and that he intended the team to lose: Since he and Tracey had immunity, this would increase the chance of his rival's being sent home. The suspicion increased when his contribution to the lunch was peanut butter and celery on a tuile -- way too simple, Tom Colicchio observed at Judge's Table -- though he had tried to foam the peanut butter, and the tuile was a nice touch. (Was it sweet or savory, I wondered. How flavored? Not a lot of focus on the actual food or the chefs' reasoning at this point in the game.) There were no vegetables in the lunch made by Angelo's team, and they did indeed lose, though Kenny, who made bread pudding, survived.

Alex, Andrea, Kevin and Tim produced a fine lunch: The judges were impressed with the use of apple cider instead of sugar to sweeten the barbecue sauce, with the fact that the coleslaw dressing contained more yogurt than mayonnaise, and with the yogurt foam that looked seductively like whipped cream on a melon kebab.

Despite all the friction, Kelly's team -- which included Arnold, Lynne and Tiffany -- was also a winner, and their flavors sounded like the liveliest and most vibrant of the challenge; I have a suspicion that Arnold, who got himself a facial in preparation for the contest and who hasn't really come to the fore yet, is an excellent and original cook. Kelly's pork carnitas tacos with pickled onion and cilantro won the entire challenge. As for the middle schoolers, they were clearly thrilled by the departure from their regular fare.

Still, there was an overlay of unctuousness to the entire challenge, and Kass in particular came across as annoyingly self-righteous: a tomato is not a vegetable, he informed a quietly seething Kenny -- a fact that's actually debatable. The tomato is indeed the plant's fruit, but since it's used primarily in savory dishes, cooks tend to think of it as a vegetable.

Colicchio's feelingful and well-informed blog on school lunches is well worth reading, however; his mother ran a school lunch program for twenty years, and was reluctant to leave her job because for many kids, her lunches were the only food they got all day. Colicchio demolishes the idea that obesity is due to irresponsible lifestyle choices. Poor people are forced to buy as many calories for their money as they can, he points out, and many kids actually long for the fruits and salads their parents can't afford. Then he suggests that a nation as wealthy as ours should provide free lunches for all children, deftly adding the touch of soul the season has so far lacked.

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