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'Top Chef': I'm just not that into you...

April 17, 2008 | 10:15 am

Zoi Half the fun of watching these competitive reality shows is complaining. Well, OK, ripping apart the things that you don’t like. Right?

So while I’m genuinely enjoying this season of “Top Chef,” and for all the given reasons -- a pool of mostly talented (and some highly amusing) cheftestants, lots of cheeky Ted Allen, and some cleverly devised challenges of kitchen prowess -- I also am geared up to nitpick over dishes (and, um, what I imagine they taste like) and those chefs that just don’t get it.

One caveat to my shortlist of gripes: I’m aware there are some notable absences -- Spike and Dale, I’m sure top most viewers’ lists -- but, as I explain below, they don’t bother me at all. (Sound off on why they annoy you more than me in the comments section.)

Without further ado, a season-to-date bitchfest:

Nikki and her ilk, which is to say, the people who just don’t seem to get the idea of “Top Chef.” It’s a simple one: Cook your way through a gauntlet of culinary challenges. These in the past have included feeding hung-over nightclub folk, letting one of the seven deadly sins inspire an entrée, reinventing the Thanksgiving meal, cooking exotic proteins such as snake, preparing cocktails and creating a meal fit to fly (in an airplane, that is).

In other words, a Top Chef need only be a quick thinker. Someone ready to adapt. I’m tired of hearing people explain their niche. Nikki only does “comfort foods,” primarily Italian. That reminds me of Season 2's Betty, who basically had a repertoire of pureed soups and pressed sandwiches. After wowing me the first week with homemade lasagna, Nikki has impressed me less and less each week with her boneheaded decisions. Her latest? Sausage-and-pepper subs for a tailgate party. Dale makes tandoori ribs and a warm potato slaw and Nikki caramelizes some onions and peppers and throws them on to premade sausage and buns. You don’t need to be a foodie to see that the problem isn’t execution there. It’s ineptitude. In week two, she made mushroom and blueberry hors d’oeuvres that might have been good before she decided to top it with enough pecorino cheese to make it pretty but also to kill the flavors. 

A note on Ryan, last night’s cast-off with the same problem. He doesn’t get the bold headline treatment because a) I’m still not sure what this “California flair” niche is and b) I can't just can’t hate on someone who makes me physically cringe -- even if it's because he's just that self-involved.

Gail. She’s seems to know her stuff, but she’s void of personality and she's not funny. In short, she’s no Ted.

Jennifer and Zoi. After I got back from a two-week vacation, I got a bonus when I caught up with the “Top Chef” episodes I missed: They ended with Zoi’s elimination. This nervous Nelly was never long for the show, but her incessant complaining about being stuck with this, that or the other thing killed any initial affection I had for her. (And I really had some from the moment she declared her love for “pig’s head -- yeah!!!”) Her undoing -- unseasoned mushrooms -- was deserved. But this twosome still grates on my nerves because her other half, Jennifer, is still around. This is why you don’t cast couples. Jennifer’s mission is now to avenge Zoi. What else do we know about her? She cooks Italian, had brothers that played football and that’s about it. Had Zoi rocked and been unfairly ousted, I might enjoy watching Jennifer vow revenge and cook up “Greek tributes” to her fallen girlfriend, but Zoi was always put-upon, couldn’t make a good pasta salad and didn’t know how to salt food. Jennifer needs to ditch being Miss Lonely Heart, stat.

Lisa. Her miso bacon might have impressed the awesome Ming Tsai, but Lisa is a big-time whiner. I cheered when Dale called her on it last week because I’d rather watch a smug bastard such as Dale cook the heck out of food than a worrywart. Impress me with your food, not your strategizing.

Mark, the Unsanitary. I title Mark here because I like plain ol’ Mark quite a bit. Even when he gets his experiments wrong, he takes some gutsy challenges and was solely responsible for Film Week’s witty ode to "A Christmas Story," a movie he hadn’t even seen. I like him so much, in fact, that I really didn’t want to know about his sanitation habits. An unkempt work station is pretty unforgivable when we’re talking about food preparation. As someone who went to culinary school, I have to say, tasting and retasting your food with the same utensil is pretty taboo, although it does happen. To be absent-minded enough to serve up chowder to the judges using a spoon you just used to lap some up is plain dumb. Chef Tom was right to feel like walking away from the table. I felt pretty nauseated myself.

What bugs you? Richard’s adherence fine dining? Dale’s big talk? Spike's Dick Tracy hat? His entire hat collection? I'm sure I overlooked more than a few big ones. The comments link is below.

For the record: Andrew “cooking-is-my-game” D’Ambrosi is still my personal favorite, although I’m really rooting for the show’s top-tier players: Stephanie and, yes, Dale.

-- Denise Martin

(Photo courtesy NBC Universal)

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