Thursday, May 29, 2008

Top Chef: If you don't eat your meat, you can't have any peanut butter mashed!

Haven't written about "Top Chef" in quite some time, but seeing as we're almost to the end of this oddly unsatisfying season, I'll offer up some spoilers just as soon as I pat down my scallops...

So why hasn't this season been doing it for me? The chefs have, for the most part, seemed quite talented, and other than the continued, cockroach-like presence of Lisa, the top 4 contains the people you would have expected to make it there all along. (In fairness to Lisa, Spike absolutely deserved to go home last night; it's just that there were so many other times where Lisa should have been gone, notably last week when she was at least as bad as Dale and didn't have his prior record of impressive challenge performances to serve as a tie-breaker.) As a believer in meritocracy, I should be okay with how this has all played out, but instead, I'm watching out of habit. Among my complaints with this year:
  • 7 out of the 12 elimination challenges have involved people working in teams, or at least in pairs. I haven't gone back to previous episodes to break down whether the total was roughly the same, but it's certainly felt like there have been fewer opportunities for the chefs to shine individually than there were, say, last season. Not only has that led to people succeeding or failing based on the work of others (again, see Dale getting knifed because he was executive chef on a lousy team), but it's prevented the chefs from really standing out on their own. I get that Stephanie's clearly been one of the best chefs, for instance, but I really have no sense of what kind of food she likes to make.
  • Along similar lines, these chefs haven't taken a lot of chances. There haven't been many spectacular failures or amazing successes. When they fail, it's usually a matter of poor execution than someone's ambition exceeding their abilities, and when they succeed, it's usually a matter of them executing a recipe they're already familiar with. Richard's gadgeteering is the closest we've come to something really memorable either way, but he hasn't used the gizmos in quite some time (mainly because they didn't always work well), and you got the sense that he was using them in ways he had used them plenty of times in his own restaurant.
  • Not a lot of interesting interpersonal dynamics among the chefs. Having the lesbian couple in the house together didn't amount to much because neither of them was very good. The frat guy bonding of the Spike/Andrew/Mark triumverate was briefly amusing, but beyond that, most of the relationship stuff we saw was of the more sour personalities (primarily Dale and Lisa) cursing each other out with such venom that it was just unpleasant rather than entertaining.
  • Tom Colicchio seems to be mailing it in. Too many weeks, Chef Tom gives off the impression that he doesn't really want to be judging these same challenges again, doesn't want to have to listen to Padma try to appropriate the other judges' opinions and make them sound like things she thought up on her own, etc. Sometimes, that leads to him seeming bored; other times, he comes across as excessively nitpicky with his complaints. (There are Judges Table interrogations where you can tell he's going to jump down the chef's throat no matter what answer s/he gives, and no matter which of two bad options s/he had to choose during the course of the challenge.)

Still, I'm hopeful for the finale, because the top 4 will have been away from the hamster cage for a while and should have their creative batteries recharged. (See how much better Dale was in the season 3 finale than he had been at any point during that season.) I'm assuming the winner's going to be one of Stephanie or Antonia, both because they've clearly been two of the season's three strongest contestants and because it would allow Bravo to put that "Can a woman win Top Chef?" question to bed, but Richard could smoke up some plate so amazing that he'd make it impossible for the judges and producers to stick to what I assume is the script.

What does everybody else think? Has this season been more appetizing to you? Who are you pulling for in the finale?


Anonymous said...

I've loved this season, but I watched it because of the Chicago connection, so this is my first Top Chef outing. I'm thoroughly hooked and am working through season three thanks to the marathons Bravo is fond of scheduling from time to time (note to Bravo: it would help the replay value if you didn't flash pictures of the three previous winners in the opening credits... not to mention bring them back on for guest spots, although I guess that's standard reality tv fare).

I'm pulling for Stephanie. I love her personality and she takes bigger risks than Antonia... although I wouldn't be upset if Richard or Antonia won.

I got the feeling that Dale's gone and Lisa's around because Dale was a threat to win the season (I believe he had almost as many elimination challenge wins as Stephanie) and the producers wanted one of the other three to be associated with the show forever.

h said...

Interesting post. I've enjoyed the last 3 episodes but I prolly watch for different reasons than you.

Totally agree Tom is "phoning it in". Sadly, he's "phoning it in" running the Craft Empire as well.

He's spread to thin.

Eric Fingerhut said...

Agreed that this season hasn't been that exciting, but at least we've got a wide-opn final four where I can picture three of the chefs possibly winning. Last year, by this time, it was pretty much Hung's competition to win or lose.

bill said...

I've had Richard and Stephanie as my favorites since the first episode and I'd have preferred Dale and Andrew to round off the final four. Despite Antonia's impressive streak over the last 5 weeks, her food doesn't excite me -- competent and dull.

This is the first season I've watched. I've caught some of the repeats of the previous seasons and those chefs seem much more unpleasant than the current batch. I'd prefer the editing to focus on skills more than personality conflicts. Everyone said Jennifer was an amazing chef when she was cut, but Bravo never gave us any indication of that.

Matt Brown said...

Rick Tramonto seemed kinda flat to me. I don't know if he was nervous or what was happening, but he certainly didn't exude any kind of presence. I was hoping he'd be more effervescent or something, but maybe he's only that way when he is in the kitchen.

I was disappointed that Charlie Trotter didn't make an appearance. I was glad to see Rick Bayless there, and I realize that "Top Chef" didn't need to bring out every Chicago chef, but it would have been nice to see the town's King of Cuisine. Maybe he'll be there at the finale??

Grunt said...

I actually don't like the stupid interpersonal drama. One of the reasons I've liked this season, especially over the past four or five episodes, is the lovely way that Richard, Antonia and Stephanie work together. They really enjoy working together as a team and when they were all told they were going to Puerto Rico they were genuinely happy for one another.

The key to being able to work in a busy kitchen, to a large extent, is your ability to pull together as a team. In my opinion one of the main reasons Dale didn't win (and consistantly couldn't win in team challanges) is his inability to be a team player. Lisa has the same problem. Spike just couldn't cook and should have been out the door much earlier (to be honest, I would have sent him home instead of Andrew, who I find annoying, but a better overall chef). He was much more impressed with his cooking than anyone else was. I mean hell, even I know you don't use frozen scallops in a signature app dish!

If anything was wrong with this seasons it was the team challenges, you're right, but not because of the team aspect of them. Think of the Restuarant Wars episode. Antonia, Richard and Stephanie did some great things there...really innovative stuff. It's been that this hasn't been so much a Top Chef as a Top Caterer(sp?). It's a different kind of cooking and should not be encouraged.

bill said...

For the fun of it, I tried charting accumulative performance and here's how the final four ended up:

score/# top group finishes/# bottom group finishes

1. Richard 5/14/5
2. Antonia 1/13/5
3. Stephanie -3/11/8
4. Lisa -22/6/11

Alan Sepinwall said...

I should say that I don't want people to fight. I appreciate that three of the top four seem to genuinely like each other and work well together. My issue is that we didn't get much in the way of personalities, especially given how much non-cooking time we get in each episode. Either show more of the food or do a better job telling the manufactured personal stories, you know?

KendraWM said...

I think we are seeing the same problem as Project Runway. They are picking contestants who are too well established, I don't get that burning desire I want to win this to start my career. They are already Executive Chefs or own their own restaurant.

We don't have any stories like Dave in season 1 who gave up everything cashed in his 401k to try to open up his own restaurant. Or Last year with Dale who gave up cooking and this was his last shot.

Even in their interviews last night, all they wanted to do was make it to the top 4, not one said I want to win, it seems they are all saving face on TV so if they lose they can go back to their restaurant and not look like a fool.

And I wish Bravo would change their editing, as soon as we learned that Spikes grandfather was a butcher, I called my friend and said, Spike is going home. Without fail as soon as you learn something about their personal life or a friendship that has formed they are going home.

KendraWM said...

Forgot to add that I didn't really notice Toms disconnect until Anthony filled in for him last week.

It was the first time I wanted Tom replaced, of course only if they replaced him with Anthony.

Anonymous said...

Guess I can throw out my conspiracy theories... Anthony Bourdain has a great blog post about the Dale/Lisa stuff from last week.

Anonymous said...

No one is taking any chances because one screw-up could mean going home. The fact that there is no (officially, anyway) carryover from previous shows hurts. Also, the prizes for winning vary so much (from cheap book to new kitchen) they don't provide much incentive. (I've seen that on other shows (Amazing Race, to name a non-Bravo show), and it never makes sense. I guess sometimes the promo department scores and sometimes it doesn't, but it seems like they could make it more consistent from week to week.)

A lot of challenges this season have had people going home for catering/logistic mistakes instead of food or cooking issues. The quickfire challenges have been more about cooking and creativity.

And of course this season started with too many people. It would be nice if they could start with fewer people and go for a couple of weeks without eliminations, so we could get to know the cast and something about their food.

Anonymous said...

I haven't been able to put my finger on why I'm not as invested in this season, but I think Kendra nailed it. No one this season seems to really care about winning, only about not losing too early. I also agree that large chunks of this season have seemed more like Top Caterer than Top Chef.

Agnes B said...

If Bravo weren't hedging their bets to guarantee a female Top Chef, we wouldn't have to deal with Lisa. But hopefully her inadequacies will become clear very quickly.

I agree that Tom has been phoning it in. Over at the AV Club, someone suggested Tom stepping down and letting Bourdain take the reins. How much fun would that be? The last time he was on, in Tom's role (!), he had insightful comments, constructive criticisms, and enough colorful comments to paint a clear picture of the dished made by the chefs (something helpful for the audience is watching from home).

David Dust said...

Bravo is going to make sure there is a female winner this year. They don't want to lose anymore shows to the Lifetime Network.

CLICK HERE for DavidDust's Top Chef Chicago recap.


Susan said...

I like it when there's less personal drama - the harsh second season with Ilan/Cliff ganging up on Marcel just left a bad taste in my mouth What I didn't like about this season so far is how many of the challenges have been for the "common person." I watch this show to be wowed by what they can do, to learn what jicama is, that kind of thing. Off the top of my head, so far this season they have had challenges where:
- they had to cook a healthy dinner for a family of four with kids helping (i.e., kid had to be able to make it)
- cooked for a group of tailgating sports fans
- cooked with whatever they could find in normal people's kitchen pantries

And I'm sure there's more I'm forgetting. It's just been... boring.

Stef said...

I'm still watching, but I agree with the general sense that this season has been boring and just a bit "off." I was so frustrated after season 2, that I LOVED that they pulled in more experienced, relatively more mature chefs for season 3. And that season just had a lot of fun, cuz we definitely got to know the personalities of the top 1/2 or so. This one hasn't offered us many creative boom-or-bust recipes or any charismatic personalities. All that being said, I'd be happy with either Stephanie or Richard winning.

Anonymous said...

The healthy cooking episode was really bad. There should be more challenges that show off what these chefs can do, and less cooking healthy to impress the pudgy guy who cooks for that paragon of health, Oprah.

This week's episode was the first one in awhile in which Tom seemed excited to be participating.

I wish they had used local resources more, too. I'd love to have seen them use Hot Doug as a judge and do a Chicago dog challenge. And I'd kill to see what they could do if let loose in Stanley's produce or the Paulina Meat Market.