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'Top Chef: Texas': Crooked as a barrel of snakes

February 2, 2012 |  7:30 am
Lindsay in “Top Chef: Texas”
Like a bad meal that has so many flaws you don’t know where to begin, the current season of “Top Chef” went off the rails from the moment we sat down — 29 chefs were brought in at the start, a de facto confession by the show’s producers that they had no idea how to cast the show — and never regained its direction.

Wednesday night's episode encapsulated the season’s struggles: a bizarre challenge that had nothing to do with cooking, and cooking itself that was far from impressive.

We understand that all television shows need to reinvent themselves to remain fresh. If you look at NFL broadcasts, you’ll see all sorts of new flyover cameras, sideline reporting and diagrammed replays. But the heart of any broadcast remains the football game, as it should be.

“Top Chef: Texas” is no longer a cooking competition, though. It’s a game show, an obstacle course, a juggling contest — that just happens to have food as a theme.

Like other “Top Chef" watchers, we’ve come to fear the ridiculous tests to which the show will subject its chefs. For years, “Top Chef” has put an artificial and unreasonable emphasis on speed.

When you give a chef only a handful of minutes to prepare a meal, you automatically eliminate any number of techniques that great chefs rely upon: brining, braising, baking, butchering — and that’s just the Bs!

In season 9, however, time has been among the more benign constraints. Instead, we get gimmicks. There have been cooking suggestions sent in by Twitter, ingredients spinning around on a conveyor belt, meals prepared from the contents of a backpack of survival food. Maybe next week the remaining chefs can open cans with their teeth, chop onions with guitar string and barbecue ribs over candles.

On Wednesday, the remaining five chefs had to ride around town on bicycles, try to find a kitchen in which to cook, and pack everything up on a bike again and deliver it to the Alamo, all to serve food to ... Pee-wee Herman? ("Oh, my God," my 7-year-old said. "That guy is so creepy.") While we’re reluctant to quote Sarah about anything, she put it best when she said of Pee-wee's bike-delivered elimination challenge, “I would never have had the opportunity to do anything this absurd in my life.”

“Top Chef” should not be about absurdity but virtuosity, particularly this late in the season when in theory only the best chefs remain. Maybe the show had to drum up some false drama because Paul and Lindsay, the season’s best chefs by far, are not exactly bubbly personalities.

But the core interest in “Top Chef” is watching great cooks face revealing tests, not riding bikes while balancing a tray of chicken breasts on one hand. That feels more like the circus — "Big Top Pee-wee," maybe.


'Top Chef: Texas': Fixin' to get interesting

'Top Chef: Texas': Diners are all hat, no cattle

'Top Chef: Texas': Which cooks are walkin' in tall cotton?

--John Horn

Photo of Lindsay in “Top Chef: Texas.” Credit: Virginia Sherwood / Bravo