Word of Mouth

Top Chef D.C., round five: Kenny curries favor in Elimination Challenge

Last night, Kenny Gilbert finally won the big one -- the Elimination Challenge -- and the look of relief on his face was palpable. He's been an obvious contender from the beginning on this season of Top Chef, but various glitches kept him from what he obviously feels is his rightful place. Sweeter still for him, arch-rival Angelo Sosa won nothing.

The chefs had been sent to an organic farm to create a farm-to-table dinner -- you know, the kind of thing where eaters are seated at a long table out in the open air, with local produce served in big dishes, family-style. Top Chef has caught on to the organic, local craze, but not enough to introduce us to the actual farmers and their heirloom animals, or to explain anything about their methods and philosophy -- which would have been a kind of sweet interlude. (I always loved those scenes on the Two Fat Ladies and Rick Stein's Food Heroes.) Still, we did see an amazing array of meats and vegetables.

Kenny's dish was sweet-and-sour curried eggplant which, truthfully, sounded awful. So I checked out the recipe on the Top Chef website, where Michael Voltaggio demonstrates the winning dishes every week. This one called for onion, garlic, diced bell peppers, crushed red pepper, curry powder (Voltaggio didn't specify what kind; presumably Kenny didn't mix his own), lemon and lime zest and juice, and a half cup of sugar -- which sounds way too sweet, given that bell peppers have a lot of sweetness, too. Perhaps the citrus was sufficient balance. Kenny finished with a chiffonade of celery and carrot leaves: the kind of cunning detail that separates real chefs from home cooks. But wouldn't the whole thing have tasted better if the leaves echoed a taste of carrot and celery in the dish? It's fun watching Voltaggio at work though; his knife skills alone amaze.

Timothy's exit was as predictable as Kenny's triumph, though it was sad to watch. The man seems equable and affable, but he's been on the bottom several times, and he didn't seem to have a clue what to do with his produce. More troublingly, he couldn't figure out what was wrong with the dish. Although the judges (this week including the smart, analytic Patrick O'Connell, owner of the Inn at Little Washington) liked almost all the dishes, it's a miracle the meal came together. The chefs hadn't come to any consensus on organization for this open-air feast beforehand. Some paired up, some didn't. Some planned well, others squabbled over vegetables. Kelly and Andrea seem to have set up a nice, mutually-respectful partnership over time, and it's a pleasure watching them work together. Angelo is bragging less, and appears infatuated with Tanesha, whom he advised on her dishes. He seemed sincere, although he's considered a conniver, and some of the other contestants expressed doubts about his motives.

Several Top Chef fans have commented that this group hasn't gelled yet. The dynamics aren't interesting, and there's really no one for the viewer to root for. Remember how we all grieved when Kevin Gillespie went home in Season Six? There was also an odd segment last night that extolled Kenny's sex appeal, but for me the man is way too full of himself and too dismissive of the women on the show. There's also no one left to loathe now that Lynne's gone.

I'm not sure if this is what's wrong, or if the problem is the silly gimmicks, but Top Chef has seen a falling off in viewership this season.

One more comment about this week's episode. For the Quickfire, the kitchen exploded with living Maryland blue crabs, intended as the main ingredient. (Ed ended up winning for his jumbo lump crab with Thai basil and mango and cucumber salad. Mangoes, cukes and seafood really are a combination made in heaven.) I know it's hypocritical and squeamish and stupid, since I eat crabs, lobsters and many other things that once lived, but the unskillful way that many of the chefs killed and handled the creatures bothered me, particularly the image of a crab writhing in hot oil.

And it's slightly ironic that the farm everyone visited for the Elimination was Ayrshire, which is s certified as both organic and humane.

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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