Top Chef: Season 9, Episode 12
Block Party
Michael Richardson
This season of Top Chef has not been great. It has had a handful of great moments, and a couple of great characters. But it has not produced the level of cooking that other seasons have shown us. Part of this is the chefs themselves, who are, for the most part, of a lower caliber than in past years. Even when there are only six chefs left, it's hard to point to any established styles or predilections among what they put on the plate, with a couple of exceptions. When each chef is a chameleon that can produce standard food for every challenge, you lose a bit of the thrill of seeing styles compete as well as chefs compete. But if the chefs warp so well to the challenges, let's lay the blame there too. Most of what I've read about this season has to do with the challenges - too many team challenges, too many caveats, to many weird rules or limits. That is the main problem with tonight, and I'll get to that soon.

Our first competition tonight is one of those team challenges, but considering that immunity is no longer granted it is not so offensive. The chefs are divided into teams of two, and are tasked with a two-part challenge: they have to prepare a certain quantity of three ingredients (make pasta, prepare shrimp, and shuck corn) and then begin cooking with those ingredients, using whatever time they have left, all of which is worth 10,000 dollars between them. It a good idea, considering how Padma points out that Top Chef "is all about speed," but this challenge was done last year with different ingredients. You'd think you could reach back a bit farther if you're going to reuse ideas. Also, these six are still on the show for a reason - it's safe to assume they can quickly prepare food considering they've been doing it for over 10 episodes. The only major problem is Grayson's pasta, which she has to roll repeatedly. Otherwise, shucking corn is not the most engaging thing to watch. The dishes that come out aren't particularly interesting, considering the ingredients were chosen for them. Paul forgets to plate his shrimp - not 'ran out of time,' mind you, but just forgot. The judges hate tarragon, apparently, so Sarah and Lindsay watch their chances wash away. Despite having the least amount of time, Grayson and Chris win the challenge. Sarah and Lindsay look on shocked - it looks like they were finished halfway through the competition.

Then it's time for the main competition, where the chefs will be cooking for a block party, each cooking for 200 people. But, here's the twist: they keep the teams from the first competition, and have to choose a dish that they will each cook separately. The competition will have the former team mates going head to head, so one person from each will go to the top three, and one to the bottom three. And the winners and losers will be chosen by the people at the block part. And it all has to be low-fat - something they find out after choosing their dishes. At this point in the competition, this is ridiculous. These are the best chefs of the original lineup, and this type of challenge puts certain people at a deep disadvantage. They've come this far, and they should be allowed to present us with their best. Last week was a great episode because the competition offered inspiration, where each person, independent of one another, can produce their own ideal dish. These competitions only hamstring our chefs, and that's no fun when we've come this far. As for letting the attendees pick the best food - not to sound like a snob, but none of the people at these things ever know what the fuck they're talking about. I count myself among the uneducated here; I don't have the knowledge to decide which of these dishes are 'better,' in the sense that I'm just as happy with a food truck slice of pizza then the hand-crafted dishes in my city's finest restaurants. Taste is always subjective, but even more so when you have no training.

Chris and Grayson choose chicken salad sandwiches with a watermelon salad side, Paul and Ed make Asian barbecue, and Lindsay and Sarah make meatballs. Each of them makes their choices to lighten up the meal - there's a lot of lean turkey and grilled beef. Chris gets creative by replacing mayo with a tofu emulsion in his chicken salad, something that sounds absolutely terrible. Ed decides to omit the empty calories of rice with the empty calories of bread, which will eventually earn him the judges' scorn. The real problems come at the party itself. Chris, who is allergic to bees, is overrun with them, and his pre made sandwiches begin to dry out in the Texas sun. Truly nature has seen fit to send him home. His line runs smoothly, compared to Grayson who is making sandwiches to order. In a way, this makes sense now that these people are choosing who wins. So much for it being all about the food. Ed sets up a make your own sandwich station, except he only made enough bread for open-faced sandwiches. Cue the Sisyphean task of asking people to please, for the love of God, take one slice of bread. Some shithead kid takes five pieces, and we all get a good laugh.

At the judges' table, the problems with this competition become obvious. Despite being in the top three, it becomes clear that Grayson's chicken salad was one of the worst three dishes, while Sarah's meatball was one of the best. It doesn't matter though - their counterpart made a slightly worse and better version, respectively. The winner and the loser are then easy to pick out, once you realize who should actually fall where. Ed's attempt to "replace" empty calories with other calories falls flat, but the judges have too much of a grudge against chicken salad. Chris is headed home, which is a shame - he was the only one this season who had a definable style. He won me over, as somebody who is not predisposed to enjoying modernist cuisine. We're left with some great chefs, but the season just got a bit more generic. And at this point in the season, that's pretty substantial criticism.

Grade: C+


As somebody who complains near constantly about the heat here in D.C., this season of Top Chef has convinced me to never go to Texas. When you can see the heat, something is terribly, terribly wrong.

I joke about the way the show flaunts its sponsors like a common harlot, but I'm always happy that they put the charities that these events benefit from front and center. It's one of the reasons that this has always been my favorite reality show - it's educational and does some good.

Tags: Top Chef
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