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'Top Chef': The kitchen starts to resemble the congress

July 22, 2010 |  8:45 am

1 Finally, "Top Chef" is embracing its Washington, D.C., setting--but not in the manner you might have imagined.

Yes, Season 7 has been filled with lots of beauty shots of landmarks in and around the nation's capital; in Wednesday night's episode, there was even a cruise along the Potomac. The show's producers have invited some local chefs and political personalities (Restaurant Nora's Nora Pouillon, White House assistant Sam Kass) to judge what has largely been some pretty average-looking food.

But not until the most recent episode did "Top Chef" fully engage Washington's true spirit: partisan backstabbing.

Democrats and Republicans can call each other all the names they want, and cook up whatever reasons to vote for (or against) a piece of legislation. Yet our elected leaders have truly excelled lately at throwing their rivals under the bus--and "Top Chef's" contestants seem to be quick studies.

Episode six, appropriately titled "Cold War," gave the show's chefs a "Survivor"-like opportunity to toss a top challenger overboard. The elimination challenge in itself wasn't terribly interesting: create a cold entree. But the dynamics were as hot as the main dishes were cold. In splitting the remaining chefs into two teams--and then giving them power to nominate one member from the opposing team for elimination--"Top Chef" encouraged its remaining cooks to be as petty as a high school clique.

"I'm feeling nervous because I think the other chefs are out to get me," Kenny Gilbert said early in what would turn out to be a prescient observation. 2

Some of the chefs initially didn't appear to realize the power they wielded, particularly because front-runners Kenny and Angelo Sosa randomly landed on opposing teams.

With a wink and a nod and maybe a promise of future kindness (that sounds a bit like the legislative process, doesn't it?), the teams could form "Lord of the Flies" alliances and suddenly be free of the very people who could beat them in the weeks ahead. "I don't think anybody at this point," Amanda Baumgarten said, "has grasped the gravity of the situation."

They did soon enough. "Maybe if they were out of the competition," Stephen Hopcraft said of Angelo and Kenny, "a lot of other people would have a lot of breathing room. That's a lot of power in our hands."

Amanda offered Alex Reznik a taste of her chicken galantine. He said it was fine, even though he knew that wasn't the case. "I think there's a piece of cartilage," he said after she left. "But I'm not going to say anything. It's a game." Who says chivalry is dead?

Andrea Curto-Baumgarten said, "I hope everyone will be fair," which is about as optimistic as President Obama believing that both parties would "seek common ground" in the healthcare debate.

One team--and that would be Kenny's--clearly played more fairly. Angelo's team seem determined to tear down everyone's dish, especially Kenny's, while Kenny's team was far more charitable, and even complimented some of their rivals' cooking.

But Kenny, who with Tamesha faced elimination, knew that it wasn't just food being judged.  "I feel that I'm a threat to the other competitors on the other team," he said just before Tamesha was sent home (did you really think this was it for Kenny?).  "It would make more sense to try to get me out of the picture than some of the other competitors." 

--John Horn

Photos: The "Top Chef" contestants savage their rivals' cooking: David Giesbrecht/Bravo