February 10th, 2011
01:59 PM ET
Asking “Top Chef” contestants to whip up some classic favorites may make for a great lunch, but I’m not sure it makes for great television.
On the other hand, it did help me finally figure out what’s been quietly bothering me about this season of All-Stars.
But before we get to that, let’s talk about the fondue party.
And it really was a party during the Quickfire challenge, with the contestants all trying each other’s food and acting as the judges. I always enjoy seeing the “at home” clips of the chefs, when they cook for each other and let their guards down, and this felt like one of those moments. (But Richard, please don’t ever again mention a naked fondue party. Boiling hot liquids and nudity don’t mix. Let’s be safe out there, people.)
Angelo’s food must have been tasty, because he was voted into the top three despite the overly-complicated manner of eating it. The other top dishes came from Antonia and Dale, with Dale winning for his Pho-ndue (his play on the Vietnamese dish Pho).
For the Elimination challenge, the chefs ended up on Jimmy Fallon’s show, picking one of his eight favorite dishes to make for his birthday lunch. Options included a burger and fries, chicken pot pie, Philly cheesesteak and Ramen noodles.
Not that my list would look that much different, but we’re not talking about the highest level of cuisine here, nor the most challenging, other than the beef tongue that Antonia selected.
And that was, I felt, the failure of this challenge. The chefs weren’t asked to re-interpret or deconstruct any of these classic foods. They were just asked to serve them, and specifically to a celebrity for his birthday. No one did anything outrageous. (In fact, I think Richard lost points from Fallon for NOT doing his usual Richard craziness.)
I don’t think anyone’s dishes were horrendously bad (though Fabio’s more-meatloaf-than-burger burger and Dale’s overly salty cheesesteak were clearly the worst), but nothing stood out as tremendously wonderful.
And here is where we get to the problem I’ve been having all season: these chefs are just too good. That shouldn’t be a problem, especially in a competition like this, but hear me out.
Part of the fun of "Top Chef" is watching these contestants flail around in the kitchen. Since everyone here has gone through this once before, they know how the system works. Other than one Quickfire with Dale, no one has failed to finish a challenge.
We’ve had some unique contests, but for the most part these chefs haven’t been challenged tremendously to test and stretch their skills. They are talented enough to bang out great dishes consistently (the dim sum challenge excluded). It’s the double-edged sword of bringing back All-Stars: they make great food, but they do it with little drama along the way.
They’ve also watched their seasons (and presumably others) and know exactly what kind of dramatic TV pitfalls to avoid. Are you telling me that Mike and Spike seem less abrasive because their personalities have changed, or did they just figure out what not to do in front of the cameras?
Most of the Judges’ Table sessions seem completely devoid of conflict (Jen and Marcel are the exceptions here, I know), and other than Jen, everyone has taken his or her elimination incredibly well, almost jovially.
Don’t get me wrong. I love “Top Chef,” I love most of these contestants, and I truly enjoy watching them work and what food they come up with. (I’m starting to sound like Fallon with the over-praising.)
But this season has felt like a longer version of those one-off shows where they bring back old contestants to do one meal or challenge together, and the stakes are significantly lower. (An odd feeling, since the stakes are higher in this season than any other.) The challenges haven’t been the most demanding, and when everyone is cooking at such a high level, it becomes fairly easy to spot who’s going home week to week.
This week, it was Fabio. His burger (which he admitted to approaching more like a meatball) underwhelmed the judges, and his decision to offer cheese as a melted side topping fell flat. Of course, he took his elimination in the best manner possible. If he doesn’t have his own show in less than a year, I’ll be shocked.
The winner this week was Carla, whose chicken pot pie solicited universal praise. She’s starting to make a move late in the game, just like she did in her original season, so the other chefs better watch out.
What did you think about last night’s episode? Sound off below!
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