PLEASE READ BEFORE COMMENTING!!!
As usual, there's a lot of sneaky intel out there, but I'm endeavoring to keep this blog a spoiler-free zone. This isn't just for the readers, but for me, too -- I don't want to know what happens! As such, anything that's already been broadcast or has been posted on the official Bravo site is fair game for discussion. I will, for example, discuss the preview of next week's show at the end of the post. But if you've heard rumors that one chef has been hosting a lot of dinner parties, or that another chef was spotted boarding a plane to an exotic locale, please keep them to yourself.

September 19, 2012

Season 10 Announced... And Changes Afoot...

Greetings, all!

Well, that was a longer layoff than I expected. But a post is clearly in order because the big news of the day (well... aside from all of the actually important news) is that Top Chef Season 10 has been officially announced, it will be taking place in Seattle, and it premieres on November 7th.

Here's the thing...

I have reached the conclusion that it's time for me to hang up the Top Chef Power Rankings. It has been a huge amount of fun for, lo, these eight seasons (Top Chef 4-9 and Masters 1-2), and I've been waffling on it for months, but this thing takes an awful lot of time. In addition to family, work and Skillet Doux (which, unlike TCPR, is most definitely NOT going away!), I've managed to pile on even more obligations since season nine, and I'd much rather sign off than turn this into a chore... which is what I fear it would become.

But here's the other thing...

One of those aforementioned new obligations is a community food discussion site we've been trying to get started here in Phoenix called PHXfoodnerds.com. And dare I say, the best thing about TCPR hasn't been the actual rankings, but rather the little community and discussions that have sprung up around it. So I figured if I'm not doing the rankings, maybe we can keep this group going in another location that, quite frankly, is a whole lot better suited to discussion anyway.

So let's officially make this the final missive from the Top Chef Power Rankings, and let me invite all of you to come on over to PHXfoodnerds.com, where I've already kicked off a preseason thread, and will add a new discussion thread weekly once season ten is underway.

Thanks for all of your support over the years, guys... and here's hoping this ends up being little more than a change of venue.

See you there!

March 7, 2012

Top Chef - S9 Postmortem

No, I didn't lose my will to finish the season recap. Though I don't know why I watch the reunion shows. It's like they take all of the stuff I hate most about the show and make an hour long special out of it. But no, this is not the reason for my extreme tardiness. It's just been a very, very, very busy week.

In any case, I'm not sure that I have any great wisdom to share this season, beyond echoing the sentiment that it was a disappointing one. What's doubly frustrating, however, is that it got so much right while still getting so much wrong.

First, the good:

  • Last Chance Kitchen. Arguably more enjoyable than the regular show. Why? Probably because the challenges were mostly very straightforward, people were cooking for their lives, and the short format meant that what was missing was the usual dramatic BS. No fuss, no muss, compelling TV. InterTV. Whatever.
  • The play-in round. Again, I hope this returns. It seems like it really helps to eliminate some of the clunkers that can make the first third of the season a frustrating joke. And it's good TV. I'm more than okay with this practice sticking around.
  • The finale format. Seriously, bronze it please. One could argue with the inclusion of some of the dregs of the 29-person field in the sous cookoff, but that strikes me as a small sin in an otherwise fabulous structure. The whole setup made for just enough reality show intrigue while keeping things simple and straightforward and allowing the chefs to do their thing. If the show does exactly this for the finale every single season, I'll be thrilled.
  • Showing off the location. Though the manner in which they did so wasn't always the most conducive to good cooking, and though I may be in the minority here, I really, really appreciate that they tried to get out of the kitchen a bit and show off the locale. Though it has little to do with the food, I think it makes for a more compelling show.

Sadly, all of this good... and there was a lot of it... was derailed by the bad:

  • Inconsistent judges. And by this I don't mean inconsistent judgING, but inconsistent judgES. For the first two seasons, we had Tom and Gail. Then, to allow Gail to handle some other obligations, we went to Tom and Gail and an occasional alternate, who the elves tried to keep consistent across seasons (Ted Allen in seasons three and four, Toby Young in five and six). Then the alternate judge started changing every season. Now we're up to Tom, Gail, Padma, Hugh and Emeril. I'm of the opinion that the guest judges, when they're good guest judges and not gimmicky ones, provide the necessary fresh perspective. But just as it's good when a viewer establishes a connection with the contestants over the length of the season, so too is it when they establish a connection with the judges. But other than Tom and Padma, it's like musical chairs. I wish there were a little more consistency here.
  • The challenges. I appreciated the effort to work in Texas-specific challenges. Unlike many, I actually appreciated the chili cookoff. But BBQ is just too specialized and too touchy, I think. And while I have no problem with well-designed catering challenges, this season seemed dominated by tests of endurance and challenges where the chefs were set up to fail. The result? The instances where we got a true look at the contestants' food were few and far between. Time and time again, it's been proven that watching the contestants survive isn't nearly as enjoyable as watching them thrive, but this season's challenges seemed designed to give us more of the former and less of the latter. And don't even get me started on the culinary olympics. Like Rome before the fall. Let's feed some Christians to the lions while we're at it. Yeah, that'll be exciting stuff. Ugh.
  • Drama. Oy. Yeah, it's high pressure. Yeah, stuff happens. Of course we're going to see that, and some of it is interesting. But the bickering and sniping just gets tiresome. Really, really tiresome. And while they can't control whether or not it happens, the editors can certainly control how much of a focus it is. More food, less childish BS, please.
  • The suspense edit. Speaking of the editors, this has become one of the worst aspects of the show. Please, elves... the occasional amount of suspense we might feel at the end of an episode is far, far less compelling than actually seeing the judges' true feelings about a dish. Listening to them doing backflips over Paul's soup would have been a whole lot more fun than wondering if he was going to win by a little or by a lot. Editing out the passion -- positive or negative -- is removing one of the most compelling aspects of the show, and for what? A cheap surprise? Maybe on occasion? Plus, it undermines the credibility of the show by making it clear that there's no attempt to honestly portray how the food is received. We can't taste, so we have to rely on the judges. But we're learning that we can't rely on the judges because their comments have been selectively edited into oblivion. So what the hell are we watching, exactly? It's a terrible, terrible tradeoff. Please stop this.

In general, I suspect it's an unfortunate matter of insecurity on the part of the elves. Top Chef has been around for a while now. Viewership isn't what it was at its apex. But now it seems as though they're just trying too hard, attempting to manufacture artificial excitement and drama rather than trusting in what made the show a success in the first place. This competition is compelling stuff! Seeing that food, seeing that passion, seeing the judges' reactions... THAT'S what makes this show compelling. Not sleep deprivation and childish bickering and manufactured suspense. That's why, for all of the good ideas to come out of this season, most of us here see it as unsatisfying. The spirit of the show is getting buried under a pile of crap.

Find your roots, elves. Go back to what made the show a success in the first place. Let that passion and energy and FOOD come through. Please.

Consider this post the final one for season nine, and home base for any off-season discussion. Though the fact that this is now its own blog means that I'll probably be less hesitant to post little updates here and there as news trickles out. Check back.

Thanks again to everybody for making this a fun place to discuss the show, even during a down season. I LOVE that some of you might actually be getting together as a result. Community, community, community. And I apologize for the fact that an unusually busy schedule has meant that I've been a little less hands-on than in some seasons past. Hopefully that'll be remedied next time around.

Until next season, all!

February 29, 2012

Top Chef - S9E17 Postmortem

I'm sure there are people who were hoping for a different outcome... buuuuuut I don't know any of them.

That's a great finale. Two great chefs, both bringing it, even if the finale judges are starting to sound like Pee-wee ("I have to say, these are the best [pancakes] I've ever tasted."). And a close call, it would seem. (It's been suggested below that it perhaps wasn't as close as the edit would indicate... but I wouldn't know because video on the Bravo site is flaking out as usual... *facepalm*) And though I'm probably in the minority here, I would have been cool with Sarah winning after presenting a meal like that. It looked freaking fabulous.

As with the routine recurrence of Restaurant Wars, can we write this finale structure in stone?

I love the sous chef blind tasting. No, it doesn't necessarily demonstrate what they're looking for in sous chefs. It's probably more important to have somebody who can take and nail instruction, and is easy to collaborate with. But I do kind of like the notion that the food speaks. If Marco Canora doesn't put one of the best dishes on the table, he doesn't get selected. And if Tyler Stone does, why shouldn't he? The reason Sarah ended up with him was precisely because she was trying to game the system rather than playing along. It adds a little bit of reality show interest and fun while still keeping it about the food.

And though others have expressed reservations below, I like the fact that two judging teams trade off. One of the most important parts of running a restaurant is consistency, and if you can serve a fabulous dish in the first half of the evening but can't pull it together in the second, I'm more than okay with that potentially having a bearing on the outcome. In general, this format is an excellent way to gauge how these chefs perform in a real world setting. No BS, just run a restaurant for the evening, and serve your best menu.

If every finale were structured like this, I'd be a happy, happy camper. Please don't change a thing, elves.

No rankings this week, obviously, but I'll put up a season postmortem after the reunion episode.

Discuss!

UPDATE : I have to share this, just because it kills me. From Hugh's blog:

"Nobody picked Marco Canora. WTF. This man eats young chefs like this for a midday snack. He burns his own cuts shut. He poops saucepans."

February 27, 2012

Top Chef - S9E16 Power Rankings

Gail Simmons: "It’s the final showdown between Paul and Sarah. Who would ever have known it would come to these two?"

*ahem*

(Allow me this moment of arrogant pride....................... okay, thanks.)

If the elves ensure that every episode of season ten is at least as good as this one -- a solid, workmanlike episode -- I will consider forgiving them for the culinary olympics.

That's a fun quickfire. And I hear some gnashing of teeth over something kind of gimmicky and chaotic in the finals, and my teeth might have joined the choir if not for the fact that it had absolutely no bearing on the elimination. Unless you consider giving somebody the opportunity to potentially get under Paul's skin as having a significant bearing on the elimination (A. Didn't seem to stop him, and B. is it my imagination, or does he look like he's constantly on the verge of throwing up due to nerves?). Kudos to Sarah for stepping into unfamiliar territory and roping a win and $20K. I find it especially odd that debate over Sarah's range broke out the same week she tag-teamed a stir-fry and worked curry and the antigriddle into her elimination dish, but we'll get to that later.

Fire and Ice. Cue Pat Benatar. Even though they were free to interpret the phrase loosely, I'm a total sucker for temperature contrast. One of my favorite dishes of 2010 was a brûléed foie torchon served with fig mochi, and fresh figs both raw and torched. In Hot Potato, Cold Potato, Grant Achatz has made a signature dish out of a completely classic flavor combination distinguished by its stark temperature contrast. (He once famously complained that those who wait too long to eat it end up with "Warm Potato, Warm Potato" and completely miss the point of the dish.) Hey, even when it comes to something as simple as a fried fish sandwich, crispy hot fish set against cool bread and cold cole slaw can make for something special. Which is why it was kind of disappointing that the chefs didn't push that envelope more. Or if they weren't going to go the temperature route, I would have at least liked to have seen somebody rock out a chile and menthol pairing. Blais, can you get on that?

We're nearing endgame... not much more to say. Let's do this.

The power rankings are not purely a prediction of who is most likely to win, or an assessment of last episode's dishes, or a reflection of the contestants' historical performance, but rather a nebulous amalgam of all three, combined with a little bit of gut feeling, to provide a relative measure of current awesomeness.

Wins
Top
Bottom
1 Paul Quickfires
3
4
4
Last Week: 1 Eliminations
6
8
1

Naturally. Which isn't to say that this isn't closer than I think a lot of people give Sarah credit for. But for one week, due to Paul stumbling on the first quickfire of the season, he would have gone wire to wire in the top spot heading into the finale. Despite the fact that I've kind of fallen backwards into the role of Sarah advocate this week, you won't hear me arguing that this isn't Paul's to lose. Despite the head fake of sending Sarah to the finale first, the supplemental materials make it sound as though his was a clear first place dish. He has nearly double the wins of anybody else. I believe he's already won more cash and prizes than the winners of the first few seasons. He has flavor pairings coming from... damned if I know where. Aaaaaand, he's clearly into "he's his own worst enemy" territory, and that's where the intrigue comes in. Seriously, the guy looks like his stomach is in danger of turning inside out. When he's gotten into trouble, it's usually because he can't stop second-guessing himself. I hope he turns those nerves into positive energy, because it's rare that I'm so openly rooting for somebody to win. TCPR is officially endorsing Team Paul. Woo!

2 Sarah Quickfires
2
6
1
Last Week: 2 Eliminations
3
6
5

That said, Sarah belongs here. This is exactly the final matchup I've been hoping for since midseason. And for those who have been active in the comments, I'm repeating myself here, but I'm still trying to wrap my head around the notion that this might be a minority opinion. Sarah has come across badly, I'm sure at least some of it is well-deserved, though precisely how much is, as always, something we'll never know. In a bit of hilarious timing, an old friend from my Los Angeles days was in town last weekend, and while talking about his work, which has encompassed a number of different aspects of television production at different times, it came up that at one point he was a writer for a reality show. Yyyyyyou heard me. So I asked him how, precisely, one writes a reality show. He replied, in a manner that should surprise nobody (but probably will anyway), that you can write any scene you want provided you have the ability to edit skillfully. Where you can get into trouble, he said, is when you do it too well.

"Hey, this is great stuff! Can we work in some more of this?"
"Uhhhhhhh, no. It took me three days to find and edit together all of the pieces to make that much."

It's been a long time since we've covered this ground, but an exchange like that is just too good of an opportunity for a reminder. Good editors are not limited by their footage, only by their honesty. Unless you see it all in one continuous take, assume nothing. And even then, treat it with a healthy dose of skepticism. And none of that is to say that the elves are giving us a badly skewed version of Sarah. Just that they could be. And it's probably a lot harder to detect than you think. That said, let's assume the worst. She still deserves to be here, and I'm increasingly of the opinion that if she had the personality of Stephanie Izard or Carla Hall, folks would be falling over themselves about how fabulous her food looks rather than dismissing her. It's a broad generalization, but I don't think it's a straw man. And I could be wrong. But if we're so far down the wild creativity rabbit hole that Blaisian/Voltaggian has become the new norm and the kind of restrained, smart creativity that typifies some of the world's most beloved chefs who work exclusively within one genre qualifies as not all that creative, I think it's time to reassess. I dare you to tell me that Enrique Olvera is doing just Mexican. Of course Sarah dips into the Spiaggia well and her food reflects Tony Mantuano. Paul dips into the Uchi well and his food reflects Tyson Cole. I'd say something was wrong if their mentors didn't rub off on these chefs. My point is simply that while I agree that Paul's the clear favorite, I think Sarah's shown a lot more than a lot of folks want to give her credit for, and I won't be all that surprised if she takes this thing.

3 Lindsay Quickfires
3
5
0
Last Week: 3 Eliminations
2
5
3

I am very, very relieved that the poster child for "don't amaze, but don't screw up" has come up short. I'm going to repeat myself, but while she's clearly, clearly skilled, I never got a distinctive vibe from her. I never got a sense that the food was hers. And that may be entirely a matter of perception on my part, but I never got the sense of an auteur at work. And I don't mean this as a criticism. There are many different kinds of chefs, and you can be incredibly talented and run a tight ship that turns out fabulous food day in and day out without doing something wild or distinctive. But while there are shows that feature those kinds of chefs, this isn't it, and I'm glad that the two to remain are the ones who, to me, produced some of the most interesting food.

WARNING : MINOR EPISODE SEVENTEEN SPOILERS AHEAD

OH GOD, THEY'VE BROUGHT BACK TYLER STONE!!!

Breathe, everybody. He has to cook his way into a sous chef position. I'm... um... not concerned. But I'll be very curious to see if he's amended his attitude in light of his total pantsing in episode one. And I really, really, REALLY hope Tom surveys the sous chef competition. All of the potential sous chefs have to cook their way in, the field is an odd collection of eliminated contestants, and Tyler isn't the only one who didn't even make the cut to sixteen. Strange. Here's hoping Nyesha makes it, but it'll be nice to see her again either way. Having a beast like that would be a serious leg up for somebody.

The final challenge is a full service, though it's unclear whether the chefs will be judged on anything other than the plates they send to the judges. I do like that the finales as of late have more closely resembled the environs in which they actually work on a day to day basis. It could be argued that Sarah has a leg up right off the bat, since there's a wine pairing requirement. It looks like the ones being offered are Californian rather than Italian, but still, it's a whole lot easier to pair wine with Italian than it is with Asian. That said, Paul's shown time and time again that he's less about pairing specific flavors and more about pairing flavor characteristics, which makes me think he'll do just fine.

One week ago, my enthusiasm was barely a tick and a half above zero. But I'm jazzed. Looking forward to this finale, and looking forward to the food... from both of them. See you all on the other side.

Discuss!

February 22, 2012

Top Chef - S9E16 Postmortem

Well, that's better.

Due to a wee vegetable peeler mishap, typing is somewhat less enjoyable than usual, so I'm going to keep this short and save it for Monday. But I'll say that I'm pleased with the finale matchup. I had Paul and Sarah 1-2 in the preseason, and every episode since E5. Whatever you think of her, Sarah's a helluva chef and she didn't stumble her way into the finale... she earned it.

That said, I hope Paul smokes her.

Discuss.

February 15, 2012

Top Chef - S9E15 Postmortem

Yeah, I got nothing.

Rankings Monday if I can summon the will. If not, catch you next Wednesday.

February 13, 2012

Top Chef - S9E14 Power Rankings

Bummer.

I'm still feeling Ed's loss, though that's largely because I just reviewed his exit interview (one of the better ones, BTW). But I can't complain about how it happened, because this was a pretty decent episode, blindfold idiocy aside.

First, though, a quick apology... in playing with the blog's settings this weekend, I discovered that there's a comment spam filter much as there is for an email inbox. Contained therein was mostly spam that had been automatically removed, but there were a couple of legit comments that had been removed as well. Something about them (I can't imagine what) must've triggered the filter. I had no idea this filter even existed. In any case, I restored the few real comments that were in there, so if you were wondering what happened to yours, it wasn't censored. At least not by me. I'll try to keep an eye on it from now on.

Okay, the show. Dumb quickfire. Really dumb quickfire. Like, "I can't believe a car is riding on this crap" quickfire. But it was a quickfire, not an elimination, so I can't get too bent out of shape about it. The first 15 minutes of the show is the time for the dumb stuff, I say. As amusing as it is to watch the chefs bumble around the pantry, and to see that Beverly is just as unaware of the degree to which she's invading others' space while blindfolded, I can't find any redeeming qualities in the setup. Soooooo we're going to move on.

The elimination, on the other hand, was right on the nose. Bring in some meaningful guests for your drama, and when it comes to the cooking, just set them loose. I noticed that given Ed's downfall, there have been some complaints about the elves' decision to use Whole Foods for shopping excursions. I can't speak for San Antonio. But even setting aside a sponsor relationship that's been in place since the show's inception, there are plenty of places where that's your best bet for one stop shopping... Phoenix included. Believe me, I wish it weren't this way. But if you come to Phoenix and tell me I have to cook the meal of my life and I can choose just one place to do my shopping, I pick Whole Foods.

A little side thought... it isn't ordinarily something I even think about, but am I the only one who thinks fan favorite is a total tossup? I think Grayson probably snags it, but really, I wouldn't be all that surprised if Paul, Ed or Ty-Lör got it either. And if LCK weren't web only, I'd add Nyesha to that mix as well. Not the usual TCPR fodder, I know... but I confess to being a little curious to see who takes it.

Okay, let's do this...

The power rankings are not purely a prediction of who is most likely to win, or an assessment of last episode's dishes, or a reflection of the contestants' historical performance, but rather a nebulous amalgam of all three, combined with a little bit of gut feeling, to provide a relative measure of current awesomeness.

Wins
Top
Bottom
1 Paul Quickfires
2
3
4
Last Week: 1 Eliminations
5
7
1

You can't ask for a stronger finish going into the finals than that. Since Restaurant Wars, Paul's been on top of all four elimination challenges, winning three of them. And Gail's blog indicates that the elves heavily downplayed how well his soup was received in the edit. To hear her tell the story, it may have been the best dish she's ever tasted on the show, which is impressive given its simplicity. The recipe might not be entirely complete (as is often the case), but I suspect it's close. Tyson Cole's presence at the end of the regular season is actually wonderfully appropriate, because I think that in terms of public perception, this run of Top Chef has changed Uchiko from a Tyson Cole restaurant to a Paul Qui restaurant. Even if Paul somehow manages to crash and burn in the finals, I doubt it will have any significant impact on people's perception of him. Unlike the other three chefs, this felt like a true passing of the torch, and I'm a little angry that the elves watered that down in the interest of trying to maintain suspense. Seeing that table freak out over the excellence of Paul's dish would have made for much, much better viewing than whatever faux suspense was manufactured at Judges' Table. This has happened before, but rarely in so blatant a fashion. Too bad. In any case, yeah, Paul, number one going into the finals. By ten lengths with a bullet. Nobody's ever a lock for the win (not even close). But I think this is about as close as a Top Chef contestant can come.

2 Sarah Quickfires
1
5
1
Last Week: 2 Eliminations
2
4
5

It should come as no surprise that Sarah holds number two. If she's at her best, she'll give Paul a run. But if they're both at their best, she won't win. She seems to have a really nice touch, and the kind of restraint that only comes with a great deal of culinary maturity. That quickfire soup, with corn, mushrooms, chiles, and peaches, certainly looks like a winner, though I'm puzzled that Tom expressed reservations at the combination of corn and mushrooms. Really? Corn and mushrooms? Talk to Mexico. And have some huitlacoche while you're at it. Also, it was the corn and mushroom combo that threw you and not the peach and mushroom combo? Very strange. In any case, so long as she doesn't start speaking to Beverly in a tone so condescending that I wouldn't use it with my five year old again, I'm really looking forward to what she cooks for the finals.

3 Beverly Quickfires
0
3
3
Last Week: n/a Eliminations
1
4
4

And I'm looking forward just as much to what Beverly has to offer. As I've mentioned, I'm highly suspicious of Asian fusion, which is what Beverly's food most closely resembles, but she's really won me over. And though the judges took the words right out of my mouth before I had a chance to type them, let me reinforce the notion that doing a stir-fry for that many people under those circumstances was really, really ballsy. There's a reason stir fry dishes are generally done in one batch, dropped on a plate and sent right out. It requires very, very close attention, split second timing, and isn't at all forgiving to even the smallest errors. Two woks, two batches, composed plates, and from the sound of the comments, zero errors. Ed had it right. Countenance aside, she's a bulldog, and if the break before the finals is all about preparation (see: Mike Isabella), who in this crowd is going to prepare harder than Beverly?

4 Lindsay Quickfires
2
3
0
Last Week: 3 Eliminations
2
5
2

And we come to the enigma. This was one of Lindsay's weaker showings, and though I waffled a bit on whether to put her or Beverly at number three, this bit of wilting under pressure combined with Bev's strong reentry (coming in second to Paul's best dish of the season is easily overlooked, here) makes me feel as though this is where she belongs going into the finals. But I really don't know what to expect from her. Perhaps it's just the edit, but other than the witch's stew, I'm having a hard time coming up with a dish of hers that the judges seemed thrilled by. Most of her dishes, particularly in the second half of the season, have looked strong. It's clear that she's highly skilled. But when talking about her food, the judges have seemed to emanate respect more than love, and while the former keeps you alive deep into the competition, the latter is what wins it for you. But who knows? I wonder if she's going to pull a Mike Isabella on us, kind of hanging around all season long only to return from the break looking like a completely different chef. I still can't quite peg her style, though she obviously likes to use seafood a lot. Seafood stew aside, has she made anything this season that you could look at and call a Lindsay dish? I don't mean to denigrate someone who is obviously a very talented chef, but am I the only one who finds her kind of weirdly out of place here?

5 Edward Quickfires
1
3
2
Last Week: 4 Eliminations
1
4
6

Ah, Ed, you couldn't hang in there just for just one more challenge, huh? Extended JT made it clear that this decision was more of a no-brainer than the edit let on, particularly since Lindsay clearly thought she was toast when they were critiquing her dish. Even Ed concedes in his exit interview that his dish was probably too busy, though he's mum on the oyster issue. As discussed in the comments, I suspect the issue isn't that he didn't use fresh oysters. The issue is that it tasted off to the judges, and of all the reasons your dish can be off, "I couldn't find the fresh ingredient I wanted so I substituted a packaged version instead" isn't one that's going to cast you in a favorable light. I don't know packaged oysters from Adam. I have no idea if this was a terrible call. But it didn't play out. We've seen this story countless times before. If you can't get what you need, don't try to force it with a substitute. The chances you'll get away with it are slim, particularly in the final rounds. A shame, too, since the move with the pork casings was a brilliant bit of thinking on his feet, and nearly won him the quickfire. I assume he would have taken the car over immunity, so we'd still be wishing him well. But at least he'd have a car.

WARNING : MINOR EPISODE FIFTEEN SPOILERS AHEAD

Well... if the elves are trying to combat the growing sentiment that Top Chef has jumped the shark, I'm not sure having the chefs cook in moving gondolas, chip their ingredients out of solid blocks of ice on snowy mountaintops, and compete in a culinary biathlon complete with rifles is the way to do it. I'm all for working in the locale, but c'mon. Still, I strive to keep an open mind, and my hopes up.

Finals Part I Postmortem on Wednesday night... discuss!

February 8, 2012

Top Chef - S9E14 Postmortem

Aaaaaaaaa! Well, I suppose I should consider myself fortunate that I went this deep into the season before one really hurt. I was bummed to see some others go, but this was the first one that got me, even if I'm not surprised. And I was thisclose to getting my midseason wish for the final four, too. Bummer.

No, this was clearly no Ellis Island (that has to be the best episode in the history of the show), but it was still a solid finish even after an incredibly stupid start. Looking at some comments below, I didn't see Ed's comment at the end that way at all. He's been one of the few who have stuck up for Bev. It struck me as some harmless blowing off steam in a safe place to do it rather than something genuinely misdirected or malicious. I'm actually a little surprised it struck some folks so negatively. But then I've enjoyed Ed an awful lot, so I'm probably inclined to have a more positive interpretation.

We've got our final four. Even if Lindsay still seems like a weird interloper, somehow. I can see it, I can rationalize it, but she still seems weirdly out of place in a way I can't quite describe.

No more Last Chance Kitchen! Rankings Monday. Ish. You know how it goes.

Discuss!

Top Chef - S9E13 Power Rankings

Running a little late this week! Between Top Chef and powering through eight posts about China over two weeks, I needed to take a few days. But let's squeeze in some rankings before the new episode tonight.

Can we just stop and take score right now? The four remaining chefs are my preseason 1, 2, 5 and dark horse 7. The return and survival of Bev or Grayson would make that look a lot less impressive :-)

That could have been a lot worse. On a lot of fronts. Since I made such a big deal about it, I feel like Pee-wee had his moments, but there's definitely something odd about seeing such a grossly exaggerated character in a non-exaggerated context. It goes from good weird to weird weird. I suspect everybody missed the funniest bit, though... the look on his face for a split second during the "judges looking sternly straight ahead" shot at the beginning of Judges' Table. Priceless.

Anyway, we got a nice, straightforward quickfire (not to mention a scintillating cameo by Mr. Breakfast -- pancake table, front and center), thematic but with plenty of room for creativity. The elimination was the one that rightfully gave everybody hives, and the fact that it wasn't a total disaster is as much a matter of blind luck as it ia a testament to the remaining chefs. The fact that everybody has to pretend this isn't all carefully laid out ahead of time is really stupid. As I've said before, all it does is undermine the show's credibility. And there's no reason for it. It wouldn't have been any less interesting if they'd just been forthcoming about how the challenge was set up. In any case, even though the actual structure of the challenge was far safer than the purported structure of the challenge, there's so much that could have gone wrong, so many stupid ways somebody could have been eliminated that had absolutely nothing to do with food, that we're fortunate it turned out as well as it did, I think.

One thing I will stand up for, however... I suspect one of the driving ideas behind this challenge, liks some others this season, was to really get the chefs out and into the city, interacting with their surroundings. I mentioned it earlier in the season, and thing is something I think they've always needed to do more of, and I love to see them doing it... just perhaps not quite like this.

Okay, hopefully it isn't too obvious at this point that I'm totally phoning this week in. On with the rankings.

The power rankings are not purely a prediction of who is most likely to win, or an assessment of last episode's dishes, or a reflection of the contestants' historical performance, but rather a nebulous amalgam of all three, combined with a little bit of gut feeling, to provide a relative measure of current awesomeness.

Wins
Top
Bottom
1 Paul Quickfires
2
3
4
Last Week: 1 Eliminations
4
5
1

Surprise... another solid week from Paul. His pancake recipe was mostly straightforward, with a little MG twist. I'm a little curious what tossing the batter in an iSi canister accomplishes... a little aeration to keep them light? I'd be curious to know if it achieves a significantly different texture than just pouring in the batter, or the move was simply one of convenience. The champagne dippin' dots (can we use that name now that they're dead and buried?) were simply champagne and agave blended up with liquid nitrogen to turn it into little frozen spheres. A simple but clever recipe, and I wonder how it stacked up against the others. His elimination dish looked fantastic as always -- red curry gastrique, yes -- and Gail notes in her blog that what kept him out of the winner's circle was balance. Everyone, Paul included, agreed that it was a touch on the sweet side. So Paul continues to cruise. Which is just how we like it.

2 Sarah Quickfires
0
4
1
Last Week: 2 Eliminations
2
4
5

This is the third week in a row that Sarah's ended up on the bottom with what it sounds like was essentially a very good dish, just not quite as good as some others. Though underseasoning is flirting with disaster, to be sure. Love the look of that salad, and there's nothing that doesn't sound awesome about chicken skin vinaigrette. Two chefs did a vinaigrette based on crispy rendered animal fat, and note that one chef did something a little different and interesting, while the other went to a grossly overplayed (if delicious) version. Just one of the reasons Sarah's still hanging in there at number two and Grayson's gone. But all of a sudden, there's somebody breathing down Sarah's neck... aaaaaaand it's not who I would have guessed a few weeks ago.

3 Lindsay Quickfires
2
3
0
Last Week: 4 Eliminations
2
5
1

I'm still not sold on her, nor can I explain what the heck her style is, exactly (that can be a problem in the finals), but she's kind of forced my hand. However she's doing it, Lindsay's on a roll. That's five consecutive top elimination finishes, and she finally has a solid, solo elimination win to call her own. Her recipe is surprisingly straightforward, some braised beef cheeks with a little tomato rice, zucchini, greens and goat cheese, with the addition of some celery and carrot pickles for punch. But she apparently nailed it. I still don't see the kind of food that I expect will win this thing, but there comes a point where you have to recognize and respect when somebody is routinely banging out good dishes, and since the midpoint of the season, that's Lindsay.

4 Edward Quickfires
1
2
2
Last Week: 3 Eliminations
1
4
5

Ed's making this kind of easy, though. For the most part, I still feel like Ed's peaks have been more noteworthy. I like the look of his elimination dish, and as simple as his quickfire was, I love the idea of serving only the crispy edges of the pancakes. But this is now two weeks in a row that Ed's flirted with disaster. If he makes it to the finals, I suspect he'll be sharp when he returns. But man, he's teetering on the brink of oopsing himself out of a trip to Vancouver.

5 Grayson Quickfires
2
3
3
Last Week: 5 Eliminations
1
5
4

Along with everybody else, I hate to see Grayson go. But you all know that in my opinion, this is the basement finally catching up to her. And her elimination dish was a great example of the problems that have dogged her all season. She made an odd choice to "go healthy" without actually going healthy, and though it didn't receive a huge amount of attention on camera, Gail's blog suggests they were really bothered by the fact that her recipe was at total odds with her concept. If you're going to try to do a lower-fat dish, after removing the beautiful chicken fat, why on earth would you turn around and smother it with bacon? There's just an odd disconnect there. Plus, we have more Flintstones portions, and though it went unsaid, I suspect there's a certain amount of feeling that a spinach and gorgonzola boneless skinless chicken breast just isn't enough interest to overcome some flaws. Again, I think this is what Tom was trying to get at with her last week. But this is largely speculation. In any case, maybe she's gone, maybe she's right back in it... we'll see!

WARNING : MINOR EPISODE FOURTEEN SPOILERS AHEAD

Not so much with the spoilers this week, because the elves sure didn't reveal much in the previews this week. We'll find out if it's Bev or Grayson and then... who knows? Incidentally, I wouldn't read anything at all into the clip of a weepy Paul. That plays like classic elven misdirection. Unless it's the double head fake. But though I know there are many who disagree, I'm of the opinion that trying to decipher the "hints" is an exercise in futility. I'm happy waiting to see what happens. Gail notes in her blog, however, that episode fourteen is season nine's Ellis Island, so fingers crossed, maybe we'll have a nice coda for the regular season.

Sorry again for the delay, folks... discuss!

February 3, 2012

Top Chef - S9E13 Last Chance Kitchen

Okay, that was brutal. And it should have been soooooooooo predictable. I'm a little ashamed I didn't see it coming.

For our overseas compatriots, Last Chance Kitchen has a winner. And of COURSE the final web episode ends in a cliffhanger, with the decision and the reveal to be shown on next week's episode.

Great finish, kind of a simplified mirror image of the Top Chef finale. Half an hour, give me your best shot, one dish. Beverly does a seared red snapper with coconut broth, some kind of vegetable stir fry and a fennel mango salad. Grayson goes to the scallops, seared with bacon, a cherry and champagne grape gastrique, tarragon, arugula and pistachios.

Aaaaaaaaaand, we'll see! I'm really sad to see LCK go. I've enjoyed it as much, if not more, than the regular show. Here's hoping we see it again in S10.

Discuss!