Top Chef 11 – Semi-Final

2006.May.25 Thursday · 0 comments

in Books & Other Media

Buenos Aires – I have to admit, I was truly disappointed in the outcome of this episode, though I’m not sure I would have made a different decision than the judges did. It had to happen sooner or later. This was the first week of the “finals” in Las Vegas for our remaining three chefs, Harold, Dave, and Tiffani. Plopped down in a luxury suite at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, they had a chance to relax and enjoy a bit before jumping into the first round of the finals. Once again, I was surprised to see when they were surprised at something very basic – they were informed that the day’s “quickfire” challenge was really going to be an elimination challenge and that the finals would only be two of them. First, they ought to expect some twists by this point, second, it was really only a semantic twist. They’ve had a chance to get used to one person being eliminated each round, “quickfire” or “elmination” shouldn’t matter, they should have known one of them was not going to be in the final competition. There’s no second or third place in this game.

However – what wasn’t made clear in the show was how long it had been since the pre-finale stage. Only by reading Tom Colicchio’s blog afterwards did I find out that the filming of the finale took place four months after the reunion episode, and that none of the three had been cooking professionally, so were a bit rusty. During that time, Harold had quit his job and hadn’t worked for most of the four months, instead looking for investors and space for his own restaurant. Dave had gone back to the restaurant he had been working for – to “discover” that it had been closed down – what, he didn’t keep in touch with his boss at work during the entire show??? Tiffani had returned to her job as a waitress, still wanting more front of house experience. Bluntly, any rustiness was their own faults. Even if they weren’t cooking in a restaurant (though I’m sure any of them could have been), they should have been practicing, checking out restaurants, hey, given the competition, they could have gone to pretty much any top restaurants around and said, “I’d like to work with you a couple of days a week just to refine my skills” – most chefs would be pretty cool about that.

Guest Judge Hubert Keller, who’d judged the first episode, returned for this one, mostly observing their work in the kitchen. Pretty much, this was a test of on-the-fly creativity and speed. Three separate challenges actually took place – essentially, three versions of a “room service” challenge. They had access to one of the amazingly well stocked kitchens of the MGM Grand, with pretty much anything they could think of available to them. That’s where all three of them got a bit off their ground – they were all so overwhelmed by the availability that they were trying to inventory everything that was there in a space of ten minutes. Smart money would have been to focus on a few key things and go from there. The first challenge required them to come up with two seafood dishes, one cold and one hot – for a trio of “high rollers” in one of the suites to try. The show tried to make a big twist out of the high rollers being the last three competitors eliminated (Lee Anne, Stephen, and Miguel) – but since the current trio didn’t know about it until afterwards, and the three judging didn’t know whose food was whose, other than by guessing based on style, it was pretty irrelevant. In that first round, Harold’s two dishes came out on top. What was missing for both Dave and Tiffani was seasoning and sauces (Tom’s blog says Dave clearly lost, but I think that was more hindsight, based on the judge’s commentary, at least on camera, they both did pretty badly), and for all three of them, any sense that these dishes were for a high-roller’s dinner. Even Harold’s winning duo was a couple of slices of sashimi and a bowl of mussel soup. Given the instructions, there should have been caviar, foie gras, lobster, scallops, and the like, all over their plates.

In the second round, they were asked to come up with four snack foods for some players at a poker table – two of whom were real championship poker players, and one was one of the show’s judges. By the way, I mentioned Tom’s blog above (also Gail Simmons writes one) – post-show roundup style. What’s been interesting is to find out some of the behind the scene’s stuff that isn’t made clear on the show – for example, and it will become clear shortly why I point this out – off-camera, the challenge instructions are repeated to the competitors again, along with a question and answer period to make sure they understand what it is they are to do; the challenges are put together, not surprisingly, by non-foodies, by a creative team from Bravo who come up with stuff they think will be entertaining to us. Back to the challenge – they were told snack food, for card players. Dave, king of the junk food, came up with dishes that the judges really liked – simple, direct, easy to eat. Harold wasn’t far behind, though perhaps went a bit overboard with using all frozen, pre-prepared stuff; Tiffani seemed to ignore the instructions completely and came up with four dishes that required knife and fork to eat (she was “trying to raise the standard of eating for the poker table”) – most interesting because she works in Las Vegas, as a waitress in a casino, she should have known better – but, as usual, let her ego get in the way.

In the third round, they had to prepare three dishes – high protein, high carb, low fat – for a group of performers from Cirque du Soleil. Here’s where things got a little weird for judging. Harold did a good, solid job, as always – no risks, but no real faults. Tiffani’s dishes were completely panned by the cast – flavorless, and not low fat (she had a whole speech about providing “good fats”) and was the clear last place contender. Dave had two solid dishes, both of which were the unanimous favorites of the diners. But note – two dishes. The instructions were for three, and here’s where my note about the whole re-reading and q&a thing off camera comes in. There should have been no mistake in that number, but at the end, he said he wasn’t clear how many dishes he was supposed to have made. (This brings up similar questions about past episodes with various competitors – how did they just so totally misunderstand some of these challenges?) Tom made it clear at the final decision, that had he made a third dish, any dish, he certainly would have been in second place, and possibly could have won the day, as he would have come out on top for two of the three challenges. But he was elminated because of not producing the third dish – “it’s as if you just left one person’s order off of a dinner ticket” was the quote.

And, I can’t say the judges were wrong. After all, this game isn’t just about the quality of the food being put out, but the whole package of what it takes to be a top chef. Much as Tiffani’s dishes came in last place, that doesn’t mean they were bad, just the least favorites of the three of them, and although in the snack food challenge she didn’t exactly follow the instructions, she had an explanation, even if misguided. Much as I hated to see Dave go, his frantic kitchen work, and emotional breakdowns, really did in the end leave him unable to compete at the top level.

I will say, this is the first episode with challenges that I think were completely off the wall unfair. In three thirty-minute slots (yes, only thirty minutes from the time the clock started ticking), they had to come up with their dishes – 2, 4, and 3, respectively – and make them, without the benefit of planning time or staff to help them prep or cook. Not surprising that, for example, in the snack challenge Dave and Harold chose to use pre-made frozen ingredients. This is the first episode that I watched and said, “no way I could do this.” I can think and change direction on the fly, but this was over the top.

The finale was last night, downloading as I write, news at 11… as they say.


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