2
Feb
2012
Top Chef: Season 9, Ep. 13
Bike, Borrow, and Steal
Michael Richardson
Top Chef Episode 13

If you made a Venn diagram of things I dislike, Pee-Wee Herman, bikers, and outlandish challenges on Top Chef would each be fairly large circles unto themselves. So how much did I like this episode? Two guesses, and the first one doesn't count.

But let's get into the nitty-gritty part of the show itself. After the departure of Chris Jones, the show lacks a certain amount of levity. It's a good thing Ed is here to where a dressy top and jacket with shorts. What a joker! Luckily he changes before going off to the Quickfire challenge, where the gang is presented with a table stacked with pancakes. I hope they were fake, because otherwise some poor intern had to cook a couple hundred pancakes and then presumably throw them all away after. They are also presented with the one and only Pee-Wee Herman entering stage left on his red bicycle. Let me state for the record that Paul Reubens did not enter to judge. Paul Reubens is a funny, interesting guy who probably has a lot of cool stories to tell over dinner. Nope, Reubens is playing his iconic (and note that iconic does not always mean good) character, Pee-Wee. Hopes for this episode collapse instantaneously. I don't know how much money Reuben was paid for this appearance, but it probably wasn't enough. Especially considering this week's lucrative Scwinn sponsorship ("Ooh, the Panther" Sarah says with the faked sincerity of a hooker's good-night kiss).

The challenge is to make pancakes, a dish a surprising number of our chefs admit to having never made. So after spending a couple of minutes laughing at some terrible jokes, they're off. They're making pancakes. There aren't many ways to make pancakes interesting. Sarah uses sprinkles, which is only a breakthrough in the pancake world if you've never been to an IHOP. Paul manages to use liquid nitrogen to freeze champagne, making me think that brunches at his house are a real drag. Grayson shapes her pancakes like Minnie Mouse, and I'm surprised the Disney Corporation did not make NBC Universal blur it out. In a move that was actually thoughtful and really creative, Ed forgoes the traditional pancake and instead just splatters some batter on a hot pan, purposely creating those delicious crispy bits that fall off in the pan normally. Pee-Wee makes the rounds, giving everyone the same recurring line which was funny the third time and tiresome the fifth. Ed takes the win, and deservedly so. I'm going to make the same thing this weekend.

Then comes the elimination challenge. I talked last week about how I personally think the more outlandish challenges are left to the early episodes, where there are still weak chefs who produce outright bad dishes. By the time that the final four or five are left, we are confident that they are competent - we want to see what they can do at their best, not at their worst. My personal favorite episode in memory was last season's at Ellis Island - the last contestants were told to cook something inspired by their history, but otherwise had no restrictions. The food they produced was actually memorable - thoughtful, unhurried dishes that actually said something about individual style and professional abilities. Tonight's episode showed off biking abilities and polite smiling. The challenge: take their bikes and go off into town, buying whatever ingredients they need and then commandeering any local kitchen they can find, with the caveat that there can be no sharing.

The chefs all head off to the farmer's market to pick up some basic ingredients, either to cook with or to barter with the chefs whose kitchens they'll be borrowing. Paul and Grayson finish shopping and find restaurants fairly easily. Ed finds himself at a B&B, working at a less-than-fully-stocked kitchen run by the friendliest people imaginable. It's understandable when he later admits he also helped them cook their breakfast orders for their eaters as well. Sarah sneaks in and steals Lindsay's restaurant when she's out looking for ingredients, and she's forced to go cook at some kind of outside beef stand. Call me a sucker, but I briefly considered how awkward it would be to request use of these kitchens. Then I remembered that they have cameras following them, as well as producers with release forms that need signing. I don't think they had to do much convincing.

The gang returns with their dishes to the Alamo to finish their prep work and bring their family-style dishes to the table. Pee-Wee offers a nuanced critique of the class issues inherent in having the country's finest chefs cooking the food of the proletariat for celebrity judges, and is obviously well read in Marxist theory. Wait no, that's not right - he made funny faces. I get those confused. The food is well received, but overall not very memorable. This episode was more about biking than the food, and the dishes mostly run together. At the judges' table, Lindsay wins with a stuffed zucchini that looked delicious. In the bottom three are Ed's undercooked chicken, Sarah's underspiced eggs and Grayson's egg-stuffed chicken, and it's the latter dish that falls at the bottom. Grayson was always one person away from being eliminated. She wasn't the best chef, that's for sure. But she was absolutely the most enjoyable person on the show. Now all we have is Paul (boring), Lindsay (smug), Ed (cranky) and Sarah (annoying). I don't really care who wins this season anymore, and that's not good news for the show.

Grade: C-

Miscellaneous:

On Last Chance Kitchen, Bev goes head to head with Grayson. People continue to make disparaging comments because Bev makes Asian food, which comes from one of the world's most ancient cultures, going back thousands of years. Heather, one of the perpetual complainers about some relentless Asian-ness, works at a restaurant that serves food you might find at your Midwestern Aunt's fanciest backyard shin-digs - the kind of event where the invitation is written in Comic Sans. Unfortunately, they don't reveal who wins. If Bev wins, it'll be fun to see Sarah and Lindsay go apoplectic. If Grayson wins, than this whole experiment has been totally pointless. We'll find out next week.


Tags: Top Chef
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