Top Chef: Season 9, Ep. 16
Fire and Ice
Michael Richardson
Reality television offers a bit of a paradox for writers like me. On one hand, you have to address the inherent fake-ness of the genre, to a far greater degree than one has to address the behind-the-curtain actions of other shows. We can take the plot lines of sitcoms and dramas on their face because we accept that it came out of the writers' room. The story editor on a reality show, for whatever reason, doesn't get the same kind of leeway even though they are doing almost exactly the same thing. Whenever Bev is complimented on the show and Sarah makes a face, we imagine some editor selecting from an entire reel of faces she has made throughout the show, trying to pick exactly which one will fit the mood. In the endeavor to create the veneer of reality, the show's minor flaws get exaggerated in our brains. This season, it seems like the generated parts have become much more awkwardly placed among the parts that are organically produced - the major drama is comparatively tame, so it's ginned up with editing tricks that tip the producer's hand a bit too much. Between that and the chefs themselves, it's made for a pretty mediocre season of Top Chef.

But even if you're a cold-hearted monster who can't suspend your disbelief for just an hour, your enjoyment of these shows probably depends on whether or not there is at least one character that you enjoy watching. As the finale came down to the wire, I knew that if the final two were Sarah and Lindsey it would take a lot of effort to even tune in next week. Reality television (and, for that matter, fiction in general) is all about identifying with the contestants. If we are specifically talking about competitive reality shows, having likable people is basically the easiest way to gets viewers attached to your show - way more than talent. This show depends on having engaging people cooking, because no matter how much fun it is to watch someone cook, without the human element it's pretty much worthless.

But enough about how reality television works - you came here for me to joke about food. Tonight's first challenge was actually one of the better quick fires of the whole season. The show brings on three experienced Asian chefs to help the cheftestants cook their meals, though they're not helping in the traditional manners. Our three guest chefs begin cooking a meal, and without speaking with one another, must switch off with their assigned cheftestants at regular intervals. Like the best kind of challenges, the show takes a fairly abstract skill that chefs need to know - identifying a potential dish quickly from different ingredients - and throws in an interesting twist. That, and it's always fun to watch the contestants confuse themselves. After some traditional brown nosing from Sarah, the chefs get assigned their partners: Anita Lo, Floyd Cardoz, and Takashi Yagihashi play alongside Lindsay, Sarah and Paul respectively. Oh, if only Bev were here. She would have destroyed the competition. Paul realizes exactly what Yagihashi is going for. Unfortunately, he's going for geoduck, which is the most disgusting looking animal on Earth, bar none. The other two contestants seem to be a little off with the chefs who started out their dishes. Lo's scallops prepared three ways gets pared down to scallops two ways by Lindsay, while Sarah prepares a curry - a food that is pretty hard not to recognize and thus mess up. It eventually earns her a substantial prize - $20,000. Even though Paul aligned himself with Yagihashi early on, he over spiced the dish with chili flakes, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Tonight's elimination challenge, unfortunately, plays into a season-long problem for the show. It starts off fine - the challengers are given a point of inspiration - "fire and ice" - and are told to cook a dish and prepare a cocktail that evokes this. The only problem is they have to cook it for 150 people. These are not caterers we're judging, mind you. They're chefs, who work best when they're allowed to work on one plate at a time and make it perfect. This late in the competition, it should be clear that they can cook for a crowd. But that's like having a concert pianist prove he or she can tune the damn thing. It's unrelated to the act that the show is supposed to be about. None of the chefs this season have cooked anything truly mind blowing, but that's no reason to totally obscure their ability to make a single, delicious plate rather than a hundred of them.

Because the problem now seems that while they are confident in serving a large group of people, that confidence does not necessarily extend to their dishes. Each contestant tonight decides that, in order to really wow the judges, they need to make one last minute changes to their dishes. Paul, likely still wary about the chili flake fiasco, holds back and adds some arugula to add some green to the dish and manages to cross Tom's increasingly specific hatreds of techniques. Seriously, the guy has a lot more specific qualms this season about the most basic things. Sarah adds a ginger sformata on top of her canolli, but the anti-griddle freezes it too much. And Lindsay throws on a tomato ice garnish, thinking that it is both red and icy and what a contradiction and perfect fit for this challenge, hey guys?

There isn't any drama left on this show, and the challenges are so dull, that the eliminations are the only thing worth talking about still. Sarah is excused fairly quickly, but not before Padma tries to stop her heart by faking her elimination. She will kill somebody eventually, mark my words. Then it's between Paul and his damned arugula, and Lindsay and her sub-par cocktail. That sentence should tell you a lot about this season and it's total embrace of boredom. Lindsay goes home, and it's an all-Texas finale. With one more episode to prove itself, it better be a doozie if it wants to earn some redemption.

Grade: B-

I thought this week was the finale because there were only three chefs left, but that's up to next weeks show. Do they not normally have three chefs in the finale? Am I going crazy?

Tags: Top Chef
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