Top Chef: Season 9, Ep 3
Michael Richardson
For Christmas one year, we bought my father an Appalachian cookbook. The aim of the book was to accurately represent the dishes consumed by the rural poor who occupy the mountains of the South primarily. Looking through it, it wasn't hard to sensationalize the food: squirrel stews, the proper way to clean and dress skunk and porcupine, and other descriptions of small woodland animals most of us are more confortable imagining as Snow White's little helpers rather than fodder for the grill. At best, it could give you a window into the lives of people who might as well live in a different country on a different continent. At worst, it was could be used to mock, distort and jape at a "lesser" culture.

I bring this up because Top Chef can often embody both of these worlds. I don't hold reality television to any academic or philosophical standard, but it wasn't hard to notice two polar ends of the rattlesnake challenge from the beginning of the episode. After faking out the contestants, who upon looking at the solid wood boxes in front of them had good reason to think there might be a live rattlesnake in there, the chefs got to cooking. The two camps: chefs who saw the opportunity to cook with a new protein, trying to figure out exactly how to complement the texture and cooking style; and the other "Ew! Snake!" group. I found it a bit disappointing that chefs with such worldly experience would be freaked out by snake - it seems a hell of a lot more appetizing than some French delicacies.

Still, the first segment was strong. I tend not to be a fan of gimmicky challenges, preferring simple "everybody gets the same proteins" competitions. I don't understand why need to have the cheftestants cook a meal using just what's in their dashboard compartment or some such nonsense. Just look at the variety of the dishes that came out of the rattlesnake challenge - beer-battering versus Korean high-cuisine for the win. These are the best chefs in the country, and I'd prefer to see them at their best.

The second segment, in which our chefs cook for a young girl's quincianera, was thankfully lacking in cultural confusion. The young girl explaining some of the food might be my favorite shot of the night - cue chefs furiously scribbling down the basics of what makes each dish special. In the cooking stages there isn't much to notice. Keith got in trouble for buying pre-cooked shrimp, a move that put him in deep shit among his teammates. Bless these editors, who cut in a video of him specifically asking if pre-cooked shrimp was ok right after some of the feistier kvetching. The preparation the day of is a completely different story.

Today We Learned:

An enchilada is made with corn tortillas. Burritos are made with flour tortilla. Points off.

Tilapia makes Tom scrunch up his face. Points off.

Gazpacho is always delicious - one of the only dishes to get unanimous praise. Points awarded.

Never add cabbage. Points off.

And then there was cake.

Desserts on Top Chef have become absolutely notorious. Part of this is understandable - Michael Jordan wasn't very good at baseball it turns out, so who would expect people who probably haven't baked since culinary school to produce a perfect cake? Today offered a truly amazing example - the great cake tower of 2011. This cake looked like a pile of frosting, as gaudy as its surroundings were elegant. I don't watch Top Chef Just Desserts, but I can tell you I wish they brought on chefs rather than bakers to revel in failure each week.

In the end, the Green Team pulls it off, sending the Pink Team to the judges' table. Now, the best part of Top Chef is that the drama is never the real point of the show. It may be alone in the reality show circle for that distinction. So it was a bit off- putting to see the chefs getting in to it in the very first elimination challenge. It was about shrimp, leadership, and all sorts of other things, no matter how much the judges tried to make it about food. Sarah knew that Keith was using the wrong kind of tortilla, but didn't say anything. I think the show has set some precedent before about shopping issues: if you want to cook it a certain way, you have to buy it yourself. You're judged by what comes out, not what goes in.

I'm sad to see Keith go. I complained the last few episodes that it was impossible to pick out real personalities among all the people the show thows at us, but he was one of the exceptions. It also reflects poorly on Sarah and Lindsay - all that backbiting might come back to bite them, so to speak.

Grade: B+


Everybody laughed way too hard at Padme's "I'd better see some motherfucking snakes on those mother fucking plates" joke. "Jokes" the producers rejected: "Whatyoo talking bout, Rattlesnake?!" and "You can't handle the snakes!"

Beer-battering anything makes it good.

Everything I know about quincianeras I learned from King of the Hill.

Chefs have gotten in trouble for serving dishes cooked in alcohol to minors before on this show, but the tequila-glazed goat goes over very well, and without a word.

Tags: Top Chef
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