That’s more like it.

Does this shirt make me look like a grape?

Does this shirt make me look like a grape?

Took a while to get to this post, but this week’s Top Chef was more like it. Unlike Week Two’s dull episode (Kiwi forgot something at the farmer’s market? What drama! And don’t let’s start with the excitable Willie Dufresne) Week Three offered gratuitous running around Chicago neighborhoods, a dunk tank, and the Speed Addict threatening the judges! And, do the contestants listen to Padma when she describes the challenges?

The Quickfire Challenge-re-imagine the lowly taco to be served in a high-end restaurant. Your guest judge? A chef who has forgotten more about Mexican cuisine than most of these contestants will ever know-Rick Bayless. And what do we get? A whole lot of dishes that look great (and to hear Rick, taste nice), but might as well be from the corner taqueria. A re-interpretation isn’t just throwing in an exotic ingredient to a particular dish; it also means altering the presentation of the dish. I’m not suggesting Manuel should have stuffed his ingredients into those nopales, but you have to make your mark somewhere. (Oh, and I love the repeated shots of Manuel during the taco challenge. Will the producers include a gong sound effect and show lots of shots of Dale if there’s an asian-themed challenge?) So, rooster-haired Richard wins immunity simply by serving his taco on bits of shaved jicama instead of the traditional tortilla. Well done, and he didn’t have to use any molecular gastronomy to pull it off.

The Elimination Challenge got off to what I thought was a surreal start. I mean, sending the contestants out to scour the neighborhood for food the producers had obviously squirrled away in peoples’ houses so the chefs could prepare it and serve it back to them at a block party? Odd. One of the packages of meat shown in an oh-so-brief cutaway was still in its Whole Foods wrapper. Since this ep aired after Easter Sunday though, I guess it was appropriate, like a giant Easter Egg hunt. Next, the usual three hours in the kitchen, the usual visit by Tom, but the unusual camaraderie among contestants turned teammates, and the makings of an obvious victory of one team over the other. The snooze potential is high until we get to the judges table. Then. Smackdown!

An unexpected winner from the Blue Team (what did Stephanie make anyway?) sets up an acrimonious discussion between the Red Team and the judges. Watch as Tom slaps down a cocky competitor. Watch Padma actually contort her face while upending expectations (oh, and she almost ate a marshmellow). And tremble as Andrew (who’s growing on me, darn it) threatens the judges if he’s eliminated. This is what we tune in for, and it’s also what Restraining Orders were designed to handle.


Top Chef Returns!

I’m not gonna try it, you try it.
Look out! Padma’s eating this season.

Ah, the universe has been restored to balance as Bravo TV’s Top Chef has returned for its fourth season. And how about 25 percent of the contestants representing San Francisco! First local boy Chris Cosentino almost wins Food Network’s Next Iron Chef, and now the City is taking over Top Chef. With all the culinary resources, including the Wine Country, the Bay Area offers, they should just shoot the darn thing out here. But right now is the time to focus on the next few weeks of twenty and thirty something “chefs” flying around the General Electric ™ Kitchen trying not to cut and burn themselves as they prepare their “takes” on time-honored dishes. And while I like to see well executed dishes as much as the next viewer, it’s the cringe-inducing judging of the bottom tier competitors that I just love. After last night’s episode, you wonder what you’d end up with if you asked all the contestants to prepare scrambled eggs. Scary to contemplate.

Besides the obvious producer-required changes to the format like seeing Padma eat (or at least get food close to her mouth) and muzzling Bourdain, the two biggest things which leapt out at me were the bleeped expletives and the absence of any competitors of color. I’m no prude, but these young guns have to learn to self-censor during their interviews; using naughty words doesn’t require a lot of brain power. And, are you telling me no competent black or Indian cooks sent resume tapes to the Top Chef producers? And why did the one person who did make it through get to act as a comedic foil last night? How else to explain the cutaways to poor Nimma whenever the lesbianism of two of the contestants was mentioned or shots of champagne being poured were showed. Subtle. I’m going to keep watching and cheering the San Francisco contingent on, but how about adjusting the racial balance for Top Chef 5?