This season of "Top Chef" has been a struggle for me. While I still look forward to watching it every Wednesday night, something has been "off" -- and not just because of Carla's bug-eyed expressions and Leah's disturbingly Samara from The Ring-esque hair. (Seriously, buy a brush.)
I have continuously voiced my opinions about this season's chefs' lackluster personalities, but that isn't the only reason I find myself yawning my way through the quickfire and elimination challenges. The problem can quite simply be summed up by acerbic judge Toby Young's assessment of Fabio's red snapper last night. He enjoyed the dish, but felt it was "like someone forging a painting." Close, but not quite right.
Toby's words can in many ways be seen as an allegory for this entire season of "Top Chef." The show is still entertaining, but feels forced -- like the abominable "Friends" spin-off, "Joey." It is missing the same magic that previous seasons of "Top Chef" seemed to create so effortlessly. There was no need to center an entire episode on some slum dog "romance" between two of the most boring contestants in the show's history -- there were enough sparks flying around in the kitchen to start a brushfire. Last night's episode of "Top Chef" was only another reminder that this season lacks substantial bite. It has been reduced to a sad formula of predictable sound bytes intermixed between passionless challenges.
The show began with the typical cliched statements from the remaining chefs. Stefan is "so happy" to still be there -- even though his face looked about as happy as a man about to receive a root canal. Hosea feels pressure as the "last American male chef," and Carla makes the shocking conclusion that she's "underestimated." Really? You think, Ms. Hooty Hoo, "I'm the oats girl?"
After all the revolutionary opening statements, the chefs plunge into this week's quick-fire challenge -- filleting fish that will then be judged by Eric Ripert, who Fabio describes as the "God of the French chef." Hosea is nervous because he's the fish guy, Stefan looks like a giddy child at Disneyland, and Leah feels she needs to prove herself since her "record with fish is not so great." (Hey Leah, it's not just your record with fish...) The chefs begin with three sardines, and Carla, who is "underestimated," immediately proves her mad skills by butchering hers with something other than love. Leah struggles, whining, "Oh my God, I should just go home right now," (please please please!) but somehow still manages to impress Eric Ripert. She makes it to the next round -- filleting an arctic char, but gives up mid-way through because she "gets nervous." Right.
With Leah and Fabio out, it's down to the evil European and the big American fish guy in the final round. Chef Ripert presents them with fresh water eel, and Stefan's eyes glisten with glee as he trolls off the one playback worthy one-liner of the episode: "In Germany, skinning eel is like riding a bike." As he begins nailing the head of his eel into the cutting board, images of him as a young lad running through the sun-kissed fields of his homeland, in search of bunny rabbits to skin alive and chipmunks to roast over a spit, fill my head. It is disturbing to watch, but at the same time, I can't tear my eyes away from his passionate skinning of the eel. Hosea is intimidated, but is "going to try [his] hardest" and is "is not going to give up" (like his former snuggle buddy who he clearly is "just not that into" anymore). Despite Hosea's valid efforts to copy everything Stefan is doing, the big bad European ceremoniously wipes the floor with the poor American fish boy.
The chefs are then invited to have lunch at Eric Ripert's restaurant, Le Bernardin, where they are presented with a six course meal of fish entrees. Everyone "oohs" and "aahs" over the plates, while the perpetually lovesick Leah becomes all googly-eyed over Ripert who she thinks is "super sweet and cute." In the most "I did not see that coming" moment of the episode, the six remaining chefs are then charged with their elimination challenge -- recreating one of the six fish dishes. Stefan, the victor of the Quickfire, gets to select his dish (he chooses the lobster with hollaindaise), while the others must draw knives for theirs.
At this point, the already steamless episode takes a turn for the worse. As the chefs begin preparing their recreations, it immediately becomes apparent that there really is no passion in this season's "Top Chef" kitchen other than Fabio's enthusiasm for talking about monkey-ass and pasta, and Stefan's enthusiasm for skinning eel and scaring people. The challenge to, as Carla says, "[recreate] the Garden of Eden," sucks the kitchen dry of every small glimmer of personality these cheftestants have to offer. The chefs are reduced to copycat zombies and emblems of everything that has gone wrong in this season. Not even the judges seem to be able to come up with quotable assessments of the dishes. Everything is either good - like Stefan's lobster, "fine" -- like Fabio's snapper and Carla's escolar, or "not fine" -- like Jamie's "toxic" over-salted braised celery, Hosea's dry monkfish, and Leah's greasy miso.
In yet another predictable "Top Chef" judge's table, Stefan is announced the victor (Cough. Clap. Clap. Clap.) for his dish that comes "dangerously" close to Ripert's original, and Fabio and Carla receive apropos kudos for their recreations as well. Unsurprisingly, Leah, Hosea and Jamie are sent to the chopping block, and Jamie is sent home for her sea bass that Padma declares "wasn't appetizing to look at or to eat." Of course, that doesn't stop Padma from comforting Jamie with the parting words, "It was a pleasure to eat your food." (Subtext, when it wasn't unappetizing.) Jamie proceeds with the usual, "I learned so much," blah, blah, blah spiel, and I turn off the TV feeling disgusted by yet another episode of "Top Chef" forgery. It's enough to make me actually miss Marcel and his frou-frou foams.