9
Nov
2011
Top Chef: Season 9, Ep. 2
The Heat Is On
Michael
Last week's episode, in retrospect, could be favorably compared to a normal Top Chef episode. It had a reasonable amount of cheftestants, competing in reasonable challenges, facing judges who have no previous biases. Unfortunately, that fine episode is linked to this episode as the second part of a bloated, two hour premier that was likely more fun to produce than to watch. With only five coats remaining, the show still had to get through 10 more contestants and the people still on the bubble. Bad sign your show has too much going on? You can't even get through the first round in an hour.

The last 10 people have a far harder challenge than the other contestants, and they're already at a disadvantage. They're competing for a proportionately fewer number of coats with judges who are less inclined to give as many of them away. On top of that, their challenge is by far the hardest. They get to choose their food, but along side it comes a seemingly arbitrary time limit, different for each ingredient and not revealed until you've made your choice. Compare to the other challenges, where everybody had the same amount of time and also had some choice over their main ingredient. It's like playing speed chess, but one side has half the time and can't use their back pieces.

Luckily, the tougher ingredients seemed to get the longest amount of time to work: witness Ashley who lost the wild mushrooms (20 minutes) to a game of rock paper scissors only to settle for the oxtail (60 minutes), and didn't seem that heartbroken any more. Most unfortunate of the night was Chaz, who was given the herculean task of cooking a risotto in 40 minutes. He lost track of time and wasn't even able to plate, forcing to judges to eliminate him without even a taste. This may seem unfair, but so much on Top Chef is focused on the actual plate that it's probably easier to get rid of someone like that quickly. Also, I'm not sure how good a 40 minute risotto would taste considering how picky these judges often are about the dish.

The bubble chefs get a bit more fair of a shot - they get to cook with anything in the kitchen with a 45 minute time limit. As one of the contestants notes, having such a breadth of choices might be more restrictive than, say, having to use rabbit. Hilariously enough, most of the dishes end up looking very similar - a lot of scallops and shrimp. Edward consciously decides to mix it up with some duck, but the allure of seafood in a 45-minute cooking window lets everybody riff on the same basic protein. That is not to say there's no inventiveness in this round - some of the dishes that didn't even get through were praised for their originality. Out of all four rounds, this one had the most at stake and the most interesting display of skills. Too bad it was presented as an afterthought.

Because this is the first episode, it's hard to pick out personalities to root for, often just relying on the superficial or the most basic biographical details - tonight we had the Kentucky Asian, the heartbroken lesbian, and the cruise chef. But we can already see some personalities emerge. Grayson's answer for why she wanted to be a chef: She was 15 and she just wanted to drink. Lindsay wasn't above helping a fellow contestant working a pressure cooker while also bringing out a winning dish herself. Edward pulled perhaps the most impressive move after suffering a deep cut in his hand, moving the paramedic around so he could keep cooking with this other hand. But these little sketches are small potatoes.

Looking forward, this season has a good collection of chefs. I wasn't able to detect much variety among them, aside from a few people cooking primarily Asian cuisine and a food truck aficionado. Perhaps that hasn't been revealed yet. Reality shows in general are only fun when you have established personalities or styles to root for, and that's just one more reason why this first episode suffers from a glut of contestants. I had trouble telling some of the chefs apart, at least in the quick establishing shots, and because of that the stakes are always shifting for different people. Little humanizing details aren't enough this early on - I want to know their style of cooking and their attitude during the competition. The bloat of this episode doesn't help us concentrate on the competition, and that's always what Top Chef does best.

Grade: B-

Miscellaneous:

"In France, you either become a chef, a priest, or an army guy."

Yet another chef who seems to be here only for Padme. Chaz had a picture of her in his locker in middle school. Don't think too much about those implications.

I enjoy learning about little prejudices in professional environments. Chefs on cruise ships aren't taken seriously apparently. Who knew?

Polenta is just one of those foods that used to be for poor people and now every fancy chef throws it into every recipe. It shows up practically once an episode.

Same thing goes with scallops. I'm all for a complete moratorium for scallops on Top Chef.
Tags: Top Chef
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