Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Top Chef All Stars Are In the Bahamas and Certifiable

This post is even later than usual because of a horrible week with a burned-out computer. I am NOT going to complain, though, but just say remember the Red Cross and all their efforts in Japan.

Welcome to my office hours. Clearly I’m not a Scientologist, because I believe that ALL the contestants on Top Chef could do with a little sit-down (or in Richard’s case a LIE-down) with a good shrink to work out their many issues. These have been prominently on display in the Top Chef kitchen and have seriously impacted each chef’s performance…for good and bad.

I’m dispensing with the blow-by-blow (mostly) for this week’s post. One reason is to talk about the psychological problems of these wacky chefs, but the other reason is because I found this episode to be a completely lackluster and rather dispiriting hour of television and not worth my time (but especially yours) to describe it in detail. They (not the chefs, but the producers AND the judges) seemed to devote SO LITTLE ENERGY to the actual challenges that I’m not going to dignify them by reporting on them minute by minute.

Take the Quickfire. (Please.) Each chef had to cook against the chef that won his or her season. It was so glossed over that I felt sorry that the chefs had to waste their (and our) energy thinking about it, much less DOING it. They were in an old ruin and they were told to cook a protein that Tom had picked. Again with the cooking in a dodgy environment with dicey sanitation.

The long-awaited return (if only by his immediate family) of Hosea amounted to almost nothing, but, in this case, it actually wasn’t his fault. He did say that this was an opportunity to prove to “the haters” that he deserved to win Top Chef.  But the whole challenge was so rushed and so irrelevant that we didn’t even CARE who won.

I had thought there would be an elimination in the Quickfire, which would have added a little vim to the situation, but, no. Each group cooked and one person in each group won $10,000. Then the former winners left and the current contestants stayed. Kind of dumb.

BTW, Tiffany beat Kevin; Hosea did beat Carla, but not because of anything HE did. Carla’s rice was completely undercooked; Richard beat Stephanie and Stephanie beat Antonia. (Richard actually allowed himself to enjoy the win. Good step in the right direction.) And Mike beat Mike Voltaggio. That was pretty big. And all the more pointless for Mike (V.) to have gone there.

But let’s move on to the psychological assessment of the chefs.

Carla described herself as someone “who gave her power away” in HER season of Top Chef, so this time she was super-conscious of cooking her own food, her own way. She had success in different challenges with this new attitude, but it’s worrying that she talks about this season being about Redemption. That says to me that if she doesn’t win, in HER mind she wasn’t redeemed and was, in fact, a failure.

I find it fascinating that the chefs don’t view the situation as simply their DISHES being failures. Instead they look at THEMSELVES as failures if their dishes fail. What’s that old saying? – You can hate the act, without hating the actor, so can’t a chef have a bad dish without being a bad chef?

Richard has been showing doubts from the beginning. He’s a minefield of psychological torment. He tells us at the beginning of the episode that he’s not only worried about losing another round of Top Chef, but also about missing the birth of his daughter, Embryo Gingerroot, Embry Lotus.

Right before the judges taste his food in the Elimination Challenge, Richard says, “It’s disgusting.” Tiffany asks who he’s talking to and he says himself. She says he should talk to someone. I take that as meaning a mental health professional, but she probably just means one of them.

Richard says later his dish might be awful in many different ways. Then in their (Bahamian) stew room, he says, “I hate everything I do.” He repeats that TO THE JUDGES, looking for their reassurance. He seems to have so little self esteem for whatever reason, which manifests itself as crushing doubt in everything he does. Obviously his food is an extension of that. That’s why he pushes and pushes himself for the need to prove that he’s not unworthy. That’s a heavy burden to carry with EVERY dish that he cooks.

Plus how can Richard win, if ALL he thinks about is losing? Hasn’t he ever read The Secret? Hasn’t he ever studied the law of attraction? Also, as we saw in the Ellis Island episode, he was so cowed by the opinion of his wife that it’s easy for him to become frozen by self-doubt and blow the whole thing. All of this in spite of his superior technical skills.

There must have been a female figure somewhere in his life that held great sway over him as he was developing emotionally. Someone needs to tell him it’s about HIM now. It’s all on HIS shoulders, win or lose, triumph or burn. It shouldn’t matter about pleasing people in his past (or present), who probably cannot be pleased all that easily. He needs to be able to rely on himself. Of course, this is probably all hooey, but I see the same patterns in Richard over and over and they seemed pretty clear in this episode.

My spin about Mike is that this Top Chef season for him has been about discovering family. At about the same time that he came to grips with the long-ago loss of his grandmother, he found out that Antonia was a distant cousin. Interesting. He had been avoiding cooking his grandmother’s Italian cuisine his entire career. By embracing it, he won a challenge AND began to appreciate his and Antonia’s common heritage. It was actually sweet (which is not a word you think of with Mike) that his feelings for Antonia instantly changed (and HERS for him) the minute he found out they were related.

Talking about Antonia, clearly she projects an image of strength and capability. She’s a single mother who really wants to be a great example to her daughter. But she seemed most affected when she learned about her MALE relatives at Ellis Island. She was impressed by how they came to America to make better lives for their families.

And it was interesting that in that challenge, she pretended to be a mid-century housewife preparing a meal to please her husband and the father of the family. Clearly, that’s NOT who she is at the moment, but that ideal seems to hold great sway for her.

Who am I missing? Oh, Tiffany. Actually, there’s not much grist for the mill in analyzing her. She’s straightforward and seems well-adjusted and basically wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s not conflicted and tortured about anything.  She does call herself an underdog, but she doesn’t really cook like it.

A few other observations about what went on in this episode:

The chefs were told that their Elimination Challenge would be a meal for Bahamian royalty. I don’t know which is dumber – that the chefs thought there WAS a King of the Bahamas or that the producers thought they could pull that off! (Obviously, they did.)

Eric Ripert, one of the guest judges, poured it on when he told the chefs that it was an honor that they were being included in such a prestigious event. Not ONE chef thought to say, what the hey are you talking about??! There IS no royalty in the Bahamas!!!

The chefs KNEW they were going to the Bahamas. You would have thought they would do a bit of reading up on the fact that it became fully independent in 1973. (It used to be a British colony and is still a member of the Commonwealth.) Did they really think Queen Elizabeth would come strolling in to participate in a Top Chef challenge or that Kate and Will would stop by? Dumb, dumb, dumb!

The most noteworthy king in the Bahamas is usually found under a limbo pole – Action, The Limbo King is his name.

So after the chefs spend a day planning a fancy schmancy meal for “royalty”, it turns out they’re cooking for the Bahamian equivalent of the Mummers.  Percy “Vola” Francis, the King of Junkanoo, is a jovial guy and very regal in his bearing, but you get the feeling it’s not a palace that he’s going home to. He explains that Junkanoo is “a celebration of life in the Bahamas” like Carnival or Mardi Gras. The chefs find out they’re cooking for all the gaily-garbed celebrants in a little tiny local restaurant.

Antonia actually says that this was not the king and queen she was expecting. WHICH KING AND QUEEN WAS SHE EXPECTING??! I really want to know.

Chaos ensues when the kitchen (and restaurant) has to be evacuated when a fire breaks out in a fryer. The kitchen is cleaned up and Tom tells the chefs that they will be cooking ALL over again and serving later that night. I’m getting the same cooking-till-you-drop feeling that happened at Target.

The thing that bothered me most about his episode, though, was what happened when the chefs served their food. The King, in half regalia, arrived in the restaurant with Tom, Gail, Eric and Padma. They ALL squeezed into a booth with very little elbow room. It was hot, they were sweaty, it was probably 2 in the morning or later and there was just no energy in the room. That’s kind of ironic, because these dancing folks were in the most beautiful, brilliantly colored feathered costumes. That’s another thing., NO WAY would they go out and eat in their costumes. Dumb again.

Eric is SQUISHED in the corner, Gail is melting between Tom and Eric and the King says he likes sweet food (unlike the judges, in the case of Carla’s dish). The only one who looks relaxed and cool is Padma. The other judges are a bit short as they say what they don’t like about all the dishes. I just hate the setting. I hate the WAY they’re doing the tasting. The conversation is stilted and I just want them to get out of there.

So what happens? Mike wins and Richard is the second one who’s safe, Who goes home? Carla. It could have been Tiffany or Carla, and I wish it hadn’t been Carla. But by the end, they didn’t make me care about any of them. I just wanted all of them to go home, fight off dehydration and get some sleep.  That’s what I intend to do. 


Anonymous said...

I am very confused about Richard. He is always hating on his food and his ability, but in all of his on-camera interviews he says his dish was better than the winning dish, that he has better skills, that he's the one to beat. He either loses that bravado when he's in front of the judges and cooking, or he's playing some serious mind games with them all.

And I was annoyed by the fact that they made them cook AGAIN. Let the people get some rest. They are tired. You shouldn't expect them to dish out awesome food when they're exhausted AND have to prepare the exact same thing again because you put them in an unsafe kitchen.

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

You have to wonder if these folks were truly confident, truly happy, truly believing in their food adn their skills, would they be on this show? Maybe they think this will help them somehow prove themselves ? My most favorite chef in the world is often encouraged to go on Top Chef, but he refuses. I'm sure he knows his own greatness. *I* know his own greatness (Oh Erik Johansen, if we weren't both already married, I'd marry you today!)

Sounds as if this show was really some kind of exploration of personal demons rather than a cooking contest! I suppose it is whatever the producers want it to be though.