Word of Mouth

Top Chef D.C., round six: A meaty gimmick

It's getting hard to watch Top Chef D.C. and harder to write about it. I keep waiting to feel the kind of excitement I felt about the show in the past.

It may be that this is an uninteresting group of contestants, but I think it's more the smug idiocy of the organizers, and their shallow, gimmicky ideas. These contestants are professional chefs. That's what's interesting about them.

I want to see them cook, cope with disasters in the kitchen, discuss their philosophy and training, surprise themselves, turn out amazing dishes and sometimes humiliate themselves--as cooks. I would like to think about the ways personality and cooking style intersect.

What's not interesting to me is these people's bitching, bragging, and puerile speculation on each others' motives. And if Kenny calls himself a stud and an alpha male one more time, I'm gonna puke. What made me like him so much at the beginning was his swift, sure hands and his quiet confidence at his work. Nor do I want to hear the phrase "under the bus" ever again. The judges aren't above the middle-school-style bitchery either. This week, the chefs divided into teams for the Elimination Challenge; each team judged food made by members of the other. As the second group filed in to eat, Tom Colicchio said, smiling like a Cheshire Cat, "You should have heard what they said about your food. Oh, my God."

First silly gimmick: The contestants were confronted with an array of unusual meats. Some of them weren't really all that challenging: foie gras, ostrich, wild boar (oh, those flavorful wild boar dishes you get in Italy, and the sexy way Italians say "cinghiale"), frogs' legs. But there were also rattlesnake, crocodile, llama, and duck tongues and duck testicles. (An aside: last semester one of my students brought alligator tacos to class, deliciously sprinkled with lime juice and cilantro. She'd caught the beast herself. Top that, Top Chef.) Each chef eventually came to terms with his or her ingredient, with Angelo planning to make marshmallow with those testicles. I've no idea what he meant by that, but somehow I don't think it involved hot chocolate. No sooner had these decisions been made than the judges told everyone to switch meats.

For the Elimination Challenge, the reference was the Cold War, and the chefs did their planning on the USS Sequoia, where Kennedy had discussed the Cuban missile crisis and Nixon signed the nuclear arms treaty. A mistake, since this portentous background only underlined how superficial the show has become. Kenny mused that the paranoia of the Cold War "ties into the psyche of judging each other." At the end, Colicchio intoned, "The Cold War finally ended. Unfortunately, for one of you, your time on Top Chef is at an end." But the title meant only that the chefs had to come up with a cold dish.

The intrigue this week? The Quickfire was judged by a chef called Michelle Bernstein, a rival of Andrea's. It was kind of nice hearing Andrea question Bernstein's credentials, since the contestants usually gush about guest judges. But when Andrea's Quickfire dish ended up in the bottom three, you had to wonder how fair Bernstein's judging was. Kelly, who had struggled with an emu egg, won and received immunity for the Elimination Challenge.

Which really set the scene for more plotting and intrigue as each chef group were called on to select a winner and loser from the other. Several contestants vowed to be fair, but nonetheless mused on how helpful it would be if this or that rival were sent home. Group one--which included Angelo--was highly critical of everything they tasted. They named Kevin the winner and Kenny again ended up at the bottom, convinced--as he later told the judges--that he'd been ambushed because he was the biggest threat. No, Bernstein assured him, his lamb really did taste lousy. Group two was much kinder, and no one even attempted to throw Angelo under ... uh ... to the wolves. Instead they declared Tiffany the winner and nixed Tamesha's scallops on rhubarb jus. Angelo had been acting friendly to everyone, and freely giving out advice during the preparation process. He'd worked particularly closely with Tamesha. Though he seemed to genuinely like her--he referred to her as a lion in an earlier episode--there was much suspicion about his motives among the group. He had tasted Tamesha's dish, Tiffany pointed out. He understood flavor. Why hadn't he warned her? Trouble was, I couldn't bring myself to care about this, or about Tamesha's ultimately getting sent home. Though it was kind of nice to see how happy his first win--for a duo of veal and tuna on romaine with pine nuts and Mediterranean condiments (vinegar? mustard?)--made Kevin.

Bernstein was a brusque, critical judge, but I did like her vivid way with words. After telling Tamesha that her scallops were seared on one side only, and the other side was slimy from contact with the rhubarb, Bernstein concluded, "It was almost like putting another tongue on top of your tongue."

As always, many dishes were shown and lists of ingredients and techniques recited, but the only entry I can remember now is the omelette Kelly put together with the monster emu egg--creamy-textured, according to the judges, traditional enough to be delicious and comforting, but original enough with its harissa vinaigrette, fennel salad, olives and almonds to pique interest. Both Kelly and Tiffany (whose tuna was another of the evening's favorites) seem to be the kind of cooks who are more interested in taste and technique than pretentious frippery--and I guess I would be just a little sorry to see either one of them pack her knives and go.