Word of Mouth

Top Chef D.C., round eleven: dumb challenges, sausagey fingers and "affluencers"

It's time to put Top Chef out of its misery. At this point the show has deteriorated so wretchedly that half the time I forget to watch and have to play catch-up later. I didn't find myself rooting for any of the remaining six chefs this week, or hoping anyone would get sent home, couldn't bring myself to care either way. Probably because, even this deep into the season, I can't figure out how a single one of these people feels about cooking, food, or the life of a cook.

The producers seem to think we'll be so thrilled at seeing political figures, sportspeople, and--wow!--the inside of CIA headquarters at Langley that we won't care about all the show's tawdry, overworked gimmicks: the slivers of scenes showing the chefs relaxing and implying that perhaps there's a little hanky-panky going on at the house (more likely everyone's just having his or her own personal breakdown); the dumb challenges; the portentous music as chefs march in to face the judges at the end; the giveaway moments that signal who's going to be in trouble this episode and who might win. Was there anyone who didn't know Amanda was going home after she decided to cut up her tuna for the Elimination Challenge--which involved making food for a concession stand on a baseball field--the night before? Of course it turned gray. Or that Angelo would come a cropper for picking big doughy hot dog buns for his sandwiches? And the squabbling. Every damn week over some inane issue. This week: everyone's working as a team, and they realize someone needs to take orders at the park. Angelo offers to do it. The next day he realizes this means he won't be able to complete his own food, panics, and tries suggesting everyone else help. The fact that, in the end, Angelo does do most of the order taking, doesn't stop Tiffany from contradicting his account of what had happened at the Judges' Table, or Kevin from chiming in.

More titillating bits: Angelo's into self-help; as a kid he had a wall of photographs of famous chefs that he prayed to. His Russian fiance may be a mail-order bride. Ed put on Tiffany's yellow dress at the house as a joke. Amanda--or maybe it was Kelly--thought the baseball players were sexy, though they seemed pretty dumb to me as they stuck their sausagey fingers into the food. Ed said Amanda couldn't cook. Kevin turned out to be a sulker. Oooh, and Angelo advised Amanda on her tuna, so her getting sent home was probably a result of his machinations. Though it might have happened because bossy Kelly suggested--strongly--that Amanda make fish instead of the shellfish she planned because she, Kelly, was working with crab. Didn't everyone get a bellyful of this kind of stuff in junior high? Truth is, these people are probably decent enough. Very few of us would behave well under the kind of stress they're undergoing.

Not to neglect my narrative duties: The guest judge was Rick Moonen. Kelly and Amanda were on the bottom for the Quickfire; Kevin (who made bacon three ways, including foaming the stuff; I can't wait for this trend to be over) and Ed were on top, with Ed winning for gnocchi. Ed also won the Elimination with corn and shrimp arancini and aioli (I checked these out on the Bravo website, and they do look good). Tiffany's meatballs, too, were highly praised. Everyone else was scolded.

Sometimes I think about a profile of Lauren Zalaznick, head honcho at Bravo, that I read in the New York Times a couple of years back. She was told that a contestant being considered for Top Chef had a seafood allergy. "That's funny," she replied. "Let him do a seafood challenge." Zalaznick's target audience for Bravo, carefully sliced, diced and behaviorally modeled, consists of "affluencers"--urbanites who are either very rich or want to be. Which explains why almost all the non-judges shown eating on Top Chef are glossy young professionals with expensive bags and shoes, as well as the endless product placements. And also why food has become more and more an afterthought. For affluencers, food is about being trendy, surfing fads, being seen at the right places. Pleasure? Sensation? Not so much.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman