June 9th, 2011
11:04 AM ET
As this season of “Top Chef: Masters” heads for the finish line of next week’s finale, I can’t say that the new format ever really won me over. But we have gotten a decent mix of interesting moments along the way.
That was certainly the case last night, with an episode that was cringe-inducing and tugged at the heartstrings… both in good ways.
For the final Quickfire, the chefs’ stations were split by a divider. The contestants had to prepare a dish in 20 minutes, but also talk a mystery teammate through preparing the same dish. Judging was based on both taste and how identical the two dishes were.
The show could have gone in a few directions with the mystery teammates (sous chefs, eliminated contestants, “Top Chef” winners), but we ended up with family: Mary Sue and Floyd’s sisters, Traci’s brother and Naomi’s dad.
First of all, I have NO IDEA how none of our chefs recognized their family members’ voices. Second of all, poor Naomi’s dad.
While everyone else takes the tactic of dumbing down their dishes to account for a partner who’s not as adept in the kitchen, Naomi goes with a strategy that involves shouting, louder shouting, and exasperated shouting. Other chefs seemed put off by her approach, and she’s appropriately embarrassed when she finds out it’s her dad that she’s been yelling at. Awkward!
In the end, Traci ends up with the winning dish, which her brother matched to perfection, both in terms of taste and presentation. Impressive, indeed.
On to the Elimination challenge, where family plays a big role as well. Each chef is assigned a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, and meets with a family member of a serviceman who’s recently returned home from serving overseas.
The challenge is to create a homecoming meal tailored to the servicemen’s favorite foods. The meal will be served buffet-style, and the diners will vote for the winner.
Throughout the cooking and the meal, there’s really not a whole lot of drama. Everyone seems pretty crunched for time, and Floyd has some concerns about making sure his steak doesn’t get overcooked. But for the most part, the show takes a respectful tone, playing down the usual melee that a challenge can turn into as it honors these servicemen, and by extension, ALL the men and women who serve.
After the meal, we get the most affecting moment of the episode, and possibly the entire series. The Army captain that Floyd cooked for wants to thank him, and does so by giving Floyd a special coin as a token of his gratitude, a tradition that apparently happens in military units.
Floyd, who is appropriately gracious in his own right, seems pretty overcome by the gesture, and it’s understandable. Throughout the show, all of the chefs have talked about their desire to pay tribute to the service members. So to have that gratitude reciprocated, and in such a meaningful way, really must have hit home.
Despite not winning the challenge, Floyd declares himself the winner based on that gift (corny, yes, but allowable under these circumstances). But the diners voted Mary Sue as the actual winner, so she’s moving on to the finale.
As for Critics’ Table, a major complaint seems to be that some chefs didn’t present meals that had a “wow” factor. Traci is knocked for not cooking up to “Top Chef: Master” standards, and Floyd is hit for not showing his personality by serving fairly bland food. The problem is, that’s exactly what their respective diners wanted.
So we’re back to the same issue we’ve come up against before: are the chefs supposed to cook for the critics or for the diners? It seems especially discordant in an episode like this, where the diners decide the winner while the critics decide who to eliminate. It’s a problem that the show needs to find a better solution to, if it’s going to insist on doing this in the future.
In the end, Naomi is eliminated, leaving us with Mary Sue, Traci and Floyd competing in next week’s finale for the title. I found Naomi annoying on several occasions this season, but she also put out some incredible dishes. And finishing fourth in this group of contestants is nothing to be ashamed of.
Thoughts on last night’s episode? Predictions for next week’s finale? Sound off below!
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