Top Chef: Season 9, Ep. 14
My Mentor Me A New One
Michael Richardson
There were always two major options for Last Chance Kitchen in this year's season of Top Chef. One option was the elite contestant wrongfully terminated, who through a string of wins gets placed back at the top (We'll call this "The Nyesha"). The other option is that one of the most recently eliminated contestants gets in by winning one or two extra challenges and basically just invalidate one of the latter episodes in a season (We'll call this "The Bev"). But let's say "The Bev" wins LCK? Does that totally invalidate the whole conceit of LCK? If Bev had gone home tonight, the whole thing would have been absolutely pointless. But she made it into the final four, and the producers sigh in relief that everything they worked on wasn't meaningless.

This week's episode starts right at the end of last week's. The chefs take their bets on who will come back: Ed bets a pack of cigarettes that it's Bev, while Sarah proves that she doesn't understand how betting works. At this point in the season, I'm unclear if the producers want us to think of Bev as the villain or the scrappy underdog. It seems she was initially a villain, but the more I've come to loathe Lindsay and Sarah the better she looks. And yes, it has to be one or the other - that's how reality TV works. Take your nuance and shove it! Either way, the looks of suppressed rage from Lindsay and Sarah when Bev walks back in made LCK worth it, even if those looks were probably faked.

The Quickfire tonight is a blind cooking test, more or less. The chefs have to don blindfolds while raiding the pantry, and will have to cook with every ingredient they come back with. Then they can take them off and get to work. There's another catch: The winner gets to choose from a brand new Prius, or a guaranteed spot in the finale, without having to cook in the main challenge. It should bother me that such a high-value prize rest on such a silly competition, but this was a fun challenge overall. Each of the chefs in turn talk about how taking the guaranteed spot is a cop-out and they should challenge themselves, which makes me think that chefs self-select the 'logic' gene out of their ecosystem. They put on their blindfolds and walk off. Feeling their way through the seafood drawers and produce. Bev gets confused and Padme has to point her back towards the pantry. Everybody ends up with what they wanted, for the most part. Bev ends up with an avocado - what the hell did she think that was? - and poor Ed gets pork casings without the sausage with which to stuff them. The competition ends with Ed's udon, garnished with a broth made from those casings, and Sarah's dish incorporating peaches and mushrooms. Sarah slightly edges out Ed, and takes the spot in the finale. It makes me sad. She takes the guaranteed spot, which Ed thinks shows weakness rather than clear-headedness.

But then it's on to the next competition. Last week, I fortuitously mentioned my favorite episode ever, where the chefs had their families arrive and had to cook something based on their family history. This week offers up something just as good: the chefs' mentors. Each chef has one of their former bosses come in and give a few words about how much they mean to each other. The reaction range from cool stoicism (Ed) to crying like a slapped baby (Paul). It's a damn lucky thing to say you've had a mentor. Lindsay says how her mentor taught her how to balance how to be a lady and a badass at the sometime, which is one of the worst judges of one's own character I have ever seen. Now, mentors are cool. But they are all fundamentally their individual bosses, and Paul and his mentor cry as if they had been reunited long after that magical, erotic week in the south of Spain. So when the chefs are told they have to cook for their mentors, there's a personal and professional element to their challenge that is heightened from the normal competition. Sarah is excused to go hang out with her mentor Tony Mantuano and get drunk on tequila shots, which sounds like a dream day. And after a few words of encouragement, the mentors are off to try not to act embarrassed, and the chefs are off to cook.

This is a pretty good challenge. The chefs have plenty of time to cook pretty much whatever their heart desires. If anything, it lacks focus without having a clear point of inspiration. But in a season where it's been impossible to pick out individual styles, this might be the closest we've seen to the chefs actually showing off all of their moves. Bev breaks out the woks (has anybody on this show pointed out how Asian she is?), Paul crafts a simple vegetable soup, and Ed makes a braised pork belly with a (canned) scallop sauce. The guests and the judges seem mostly happy with the food, with no standout praise or complains from the actual dinner table. And while the mentors get some time to speak at the table, the reactions of their protégés from earlier rendered much of what they said redundant.

At the judging table, the judges praise Paul's soup, which Tom declares as expertly simple and a perfect showcase for how paring down a dish can be just as impotent as making it flashy. Paul takes home a car to place upon his pile of winnings. They also declare that Bev's dish was good enough to keep her safe from elimination, proving that using those woks may have been risky but definitely paid off. The fact that Bev is in the finale now probably validates LCK a bit, though perhaps not enough for a renewal next season. That leaves Lindsay and Ed. Ed seemed to be in good shape, except for one little thing. The judges have expert noses for sub-par ingredients, and Hugh asks a pointed question: were the scallops fresh? If he hadn't had to answer this directly, I think Ed would have made it through. But because they were canned, the judges pounce on him and the dish is eviscerated. Ed goes home, and Lindsay stays. The dream of an all-Asian finale gets snuffed out.


For the finals, Top Chef is going to Canada. It's like they're trying to get me to hate this season entirely. Maybe it will join the short list of things from Canada I like. (For the record, that list consists of Leonard Cohen, lacrosse, and the comics of Kate Beaton).

Tags: Top Chef
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