Category: John Horn

'Top Chef: Texas': And the winner is...

Sarah and Paul in "Top Chef: Texas."

And the winner is…the right chef.

When “Top Chef: Texas” lead judge Tom Colicchio remarked that the final showdown between Sarah and Paul was “about as close as it can get,” we were inclined to believe him.

While it may seem a little unfair—especially to Sarah, who not surprisingly couldn’t take her loss gracefully—that either chef had to lose, Paul cooked a dinner whose only apparent error was that his first course couldn’t be served at the right moment, as the judges were switching restaurants. 

Sarah, on the other hand, made a couple of actual culinary blunders that while individually small collectively added up to defeat. Raw beets pickled overnight in the refrigerator seem like a fundamental error of both invention and execution. 

Judge Gail Simmons complained, “What we saw from Paul is what Paul does every day,” suggesting that he didn’t take enough risks, a risible conclusion given that two of his courses were the egg custard dish chawanmushi and the rice porridge dish congee. Yes, that might be within his ethnic range, but one false step, and you have got a plate of curdled eggs and a bowl of unset cement.

We’ve complained a lot this year about how “Top Chef” could have been better, and we're happy that it's finally over, even if the last night's cooking was as superb as the judges kept saying it was. 

Admittedly, it wasn’t the strongest cast, and even the judges in the middle weeks seemed to sense it—the cooking was nearly as lifeless as the chefs’ personalities. When he was crowned the winner, Paul looked about as excited as someone at a soda fountain who discovers there are free refills.

But as with many Quickfire tests, sometimes necessity is the mother of invention, and the show’s producers should have come up with better challenges to expose the contestants’ true skills, rather than swamp them with silly gimmicks.

The time pressures have moved from frustrating to ridiculous. Speed is important in horse races and fast-food dining, but hasn’t “Top Chef” heard about the slow food movement? If diners can linger over a meal, why do the people preparing it have to work at the speed of sound? Chefs need to be agile, but the “Top Chef” tests force them to be superhuman. 

There are a number of inspired challenges from past seasons we would have loved to have seen repeated in the just-concluded ninth season.

In season three, the chefs had to take a handful of the simplest ingredients—chicken, potato, onion—and make a dish, which Hung won with butter-poached chicken and Pommes Dauphine. We loved the blind taste test in season five, where chefs had to guess ingredients in a sauce to prove how sophisticated their palates were, with Stefan and Hosea detecting an insane amount of the components in Thai green curry and Mexican mole.  In season seven, the contestants were asked to prepare a meal from exotic ingredients such as yak, crocodile, duck tongue and ostrich, with Kelly’s emu egg omelet beating all the challengers.

These tests were of course a bit impractical, but they weren’t nearly as absurd as what we saw in “Top Chef: Texas,” which included chefs competing in a biathlon to get ingredients.

And one final note. We understand that product placement makes a ton of money for Bravo. But if “Top Chef” goes one step further with its brand-name plugs, it risks becoming the television equivalent of David Foster Wallace’s satirical novel “Infinite Jest,” in which even the years were sponsored.

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'Top Chef: Texas': Finalists look to cook some winning vittles

--John Horn

Photo: Sarah and Paul in "Top Chef: Texas." Credit: Virginia Sherwood/Bravo.


 



'Top Chef: Texas': Lindsay's jig is up

Top Chef Texas

Thank goodness a random piece of arugula didn’t cost Paul a chance to win “Top Chef: Texas.”

With only three remaining contestants left in Wednesday’s semi-finals, the judges were forced to find the smallest faults with the chefs’ elimination dishes, and for a minute it looked as if Paul’s grossly unacceptable, criminally negligent garnish—at least that’s how Tom Colicchio saw it—would send him home. 

For one of the few times in recent weeks, the “Top Chef” challenges—both the Quickfire and elimination tests—did not feel inane, and the judging (outside of Colicchio’s strange arugula obsession) was not mercurial or unreasonable.

Lindsay was dismissed not for failure, but for her halibut being less great than Sarah’s cannelloni and Paul’s crab. And Sarah was justly rewarded for taking a risk, even if her frozen mousse was the consistency of a paving stone. “I thought your dish was really brave,” Colicchio said, somewhat fulsome praise for baked pasta.

The only real drama now is not whether Sarah can win, but whether Paul can lose. As in past seasons, there’s always room for a last-minute choke, like a golfer with a tournament-winning, tap-in putt who suddenly gets the yips and misses the cup entirely.

Most “Top Chef” viewers can recall Richard Blais’ stagger in season four, Stefan Richter’s not clinching it in season five, or (a dreadfully ill) Angelo Sosa coming up short in season seven. 

Paul has shown no signs of faltering at all.

With Wednesday’s elimination win, Paul is as hot as any “Top Chef” contestant ever has been heading into the championship. He’s won three straight elimination challenges and six of the last eight. He’s faced elimination just once all season, while Sarah has been on the bottom five times.

This is of course a subjective contest, and if there’s any weakness in Paul’s game, it’s his ability to control spiciness. His Quickfire dish on Wednesday was too fiery, while his winning elimination dish not quite piquant enough.

Sarah’s food tends to be too bland too often, and it will be interesting to see how carefully they season their dishes next week.

Let’s just hope if Paul uses arugula, he does so for a reason.

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--John Horn

Photo: Paul in "Top Chef: Texas" Credit: Virginia Sherwood/Bravo

 

'Top Chef: Texas': Let the silliness finally stop

Top Chef Texas

Take your pick for what was more ridiculous: the way “Top Chef: Texas” determined its three finalists, or the fact that Sarah made it in while Beverly didn’t.

The current season of “Top Chef” has been one of the least compelling in a long time. The show’s producers don’t deserve all of the culpability—they couldn’t have known when they cast the show so many months ago that most of the current chefs would have the effervescence of flat soda water.

But like chefs who fail to improvise when handed a batch of inharmonious ingredients, the “Top Chef” decision makers compounded the problem by steering the season away from cooking and toward gimmickry.

Wednesday’s three-step elimination challenge marked the nadir of absurd tests, a Winter Olympic-themed competition that almost seemed to parody a season of oddball trials. Cooking on a moving gondola, hacking ingredients out of blocks of ice and shooting a gun at ingredient targets might have sounded fun in the “Top Chef” production offices, but in reality it played more like British Columbia version of “Wipeout” than a highbrow contest.

If the show runners really wanted to have fun, they should have asked Paul to chop vegetables with speed skates, Sarah to beat egg whites with a curling broom, Beverly to skewer kebabs on a ski pole and Lindsay to cook salmon on a snowboard plank. All while flying off an 80-meter ski jump. Blindfolded!

Having thrown the equally bizarre real challenges at the four remaining chefs, the judges then had the nerve to forget what they had forced them to do. Paul was criticized for the uneven cooking of his lamb—meat that was grilled on an induction burner in an unheated gondola. Sarah was penalized for soup with frozen cream that separated as soon as it was thawed—as frozen dairy tends to do on this planet.

But even with so many inane obstacles, the real injustice was the selection of the third finalist. We have no quibble with Paul and Lindsay’s inclusion, as they have been the best “Top Chef” contestants pretty much every week. They deserve to be in the finals.

We’re far less sure about the judges’ choosing Sarah over Beverly. We know that the assessments shouldn’t factor in personality, which is clearly why Sarah wasn’t eliminated weeks ago. In her face-off against Beverly, Sarah twice complained that Beverly was cheating—once by intentionally tripping her up on skis, the second by somehow having more bullets to shoot at ingredients. “I feel like she had way more shots than I did,” Sarah whined. Maybe Beverly's targets were bigger, too?

While we obviously couldn’t taste their food, the judges seemed less impressed with Sarah’s rabbit than Beverly’s arctic char. Head judge Tom Colicchio praised both cooks for taking risks, but clearly Beverly took more—trying a new technique of slow roasting and avoiding her typical Asian influences. Sarah, on the other hand, did what she typically does, and played it safe, braising her rabbit (and, according to the judges, not at all well).

“I want this so bad,” Sarah said when she made the finals. “Thank you for seeing that.”

But “Top Chef” isn’t supposed to be a show about wanting. It’s supposed to be a show about executing. And the show itself, like so many of the season’s contestants, failed to do that at nearly every turn.

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--John Horn

Photo of Beverly in "Top Chef: Texas." Credit: Beverly Sherwood/Bravo.

 

'Top Chef: Texas': Finalists look to cook some winning vittles

Edward, Sarah, Lindsay and Paul in "Top Chef: Texas"
Now the fun can finally start.

With the once-massive “Top Chef: Texas” field pared down to its four remaining contestants, what has been an otherwise pitiful season of cooking at last has a chance to become a little more interesting.

We’ve known for a long time that Paul was the favorite not only to reach the finals but also to win the whole thing, and even if Lindsay barely squeaked into the championship Wednesday night, her presence at the end is not that unexpected.

What is bit surprising, though, is that Beverly managed to stay alive in the “Last Chance Kitchen” spinoff, and that Sarah’s typically cautious work has been rewarded so favorably.

Beverly has been one of the season’s most fascinating characters, in the way that Charlie Sheen’s sobriety has been -- you have a slight passing interest in everything working out, but you’re more captivated by the unvarnished personal drama.

That Beverly, who often is as close to cracking as an egg tossed from a skyscraper, has managed to get past Nyesha, Chris J. and Grayson in the Web-only spin-off series is significant.

The challenges often are particularly stressful, requiring good instincts and steady nerves. Even if Beverly’s cooking tends to be ethnically one-dimensional -- typically, Asian twists on pretty much everything -- she has shown exceptional technique.

There was something especially delicious about the anguished look on Sarah’s face when she found out that Beverly was back. In her usually generous manner, Sarah remarked, "I’m not happy to see Bev."

The dig was inspired by Sarah’s personal and petulant dislike of Beverly, but it might more accurately describe the very real threat Beverly presents.

Sarah hasn’t won an elimination challenge since the eighth week (with her pork sausage-stuffed cabbage), and every one of the remaining chefs, including Beverly, has a more recent triumph.

As for Lindsay, she’s amazingly consistent: Not counting Wednesday night, she has faced elimination only once -- in the very first episode in which it was possible.

That’s right, she has not been on the bottom. Even though she has only two wins, it’s steadiness -- or the lack thereof -- that almost always determines who wins it all, and who doesn’t.

And in that regard, no one touches Paul. We wish he had a bigger personality, but we can’t complain about how generally lackluster the cooking has been this year and obsess about something that has nothing to do with gastronomy. With Wednesday’s top finish, Paul has six elimination wins -- as many as all of the other three remaining chefs combined.

We will miss Edward’s dry wit (and the fact that he doesn’t like Sarah), but his expulsion now opens the doors wider for Paul. He’s the chef to beat, but we also can't help but root for Beverly, or at least hope that somehow she can be the one to send Sarah home, where she can stew in her own resentments and anger.

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Photo: Edward, Sarah, Lindsay and Paul in "Top Chef: Texas."

Credit: Victoria Sherwood / Bravo

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

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.

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--John Horn

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

'Top Chef Texas': Remaining cooks looking a bit whomperjawed

Top Chef Texas
"It's all about the details now."

That was head judge Tom Colcchio's admonition to the remaining six contestants in "Top Chef: Texas," but we're not so sure that's the main issue right now.

The season's consistently best cooks--Paul and Lindsay--are fanatically focused on the smallest things, which distinguished the cooking of Wednesday's winner, Paul, (who put eggplant in his low-fat Korean barbecue kalbi to give it mouth feel) and runner-up, Lindsay (who substituted chickpea flour in her meatballs to keep them light). Yet the details aren't really all that was missed by the lower finishers, particularly Sarah and the no-longer-with-us Chris J.

Those two cooks failed in their ambition, not just their execution.

The elimination challenge required the half-dozen cooks to prepare "block party" food for 200 guests. Yet again, and somewhat annoyingly, the time restraints were absurd--2 1/2 hours to prepare the dishes. "An insane challenge," as Grayson said, "a little intense" in Lindsay's opinion. Even if the constraints were tough, at least four of the chefs (the partners of Sarah and Lindsay and Grayson and Chris J.) could have come up with dishes a bit more ambitious than their respective meatballs and chicken salad.

Throughout the ninth season of "Top Chef," the contestants have cooked as if they were more worried about failing than inclined toward winning. They remind us of studio executives who look at every script that passes over their desk trying to avoid a bomb rather than find a hit. As Colicchio upbraided Grayson for picking chicken salad as her dish, she was quick to remind him that her rivals' meatballs were hardly more daring. That's probably why Edward, who at least attempted to make a healthy version of a more difficult dish--another version of kalbi--wasn't sent home, even though his dish appeared to be the least edible.

And while we're on the subject of healthy eating--the evening's tie-in was to entrees by "Top Chef" sponsor Healthy Choice --it didn't look like any of the Texas diners had eaten a healthy dish since the Mexican-American War. We don't intend to be cruelly weightist, but if you're asking amateurs to judge low-fat food, maybe the "Top Chef" producers could have found some locals who actually eat it. 

Furthermore, there's a real debate about whether Healthy Choice entrees actually are that good for you. Some critics say they are typically high in sodium, are frequently built around simple carbohydrates like pasta and feature such small portions--350 calories, in some cases--that consumers may eat two of them or have an entirely separate meal a few hours later.

But we digress. Paul's win and Lindsay's strong showing reinforce our belief the two will make the finals. As much as we dislike Sarah, she was on the bottom Wednesday night only because of the way the challenge was set up--she even may have cooked better than Grayson, who was in the winner's bracket. Yet whoever wants to win this thing better turn their cooking up a notch. As I tell my Little League-playing son says, it's better to strike out swinging that take a walk.

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--John Horn

Photo: Chris J., left, Edward and Sarah in "Top Chef: Texas." Credit" Victoria Sherwood/Bravo.

 

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

Top Chef Texas
Are we excited, or just resigned?

There are now only six contestants left in “Top Chef: Texas.” And like much of their cooking during the ninth season of the reality series, it’s hard to get that energized about any of them in absolute terms.

In relative terms, it’s even more disheartening: Consider some of the chefs who preceded this season’s cooks, and you realize how much less dazzling the current bunch are than the brothers Voltaggio, Richard Blais, Stefan Richter, Stephanie Izard, Carla Hall, even Fabio Viviani — we could go on, but you get the picture.

Wednesday’s show, where the challenge was to cook a meal fit for an evil queen (in a naked cross-promotion by Bravo owner Comcast, the guest judge was Charlize Theron, the star of an upcoming movie from Universal Studios, also a Comcast entity), the preparation across the board for the very first time this season was superior and inspired. 

“In all the years of doing this,” lead judge Tom Colicchio said, “this has been one of the finest meals I’ve had the pleasure of eating.”

To find anyone to send home, the judges picked some mighty small nits, ultimately axing Beverly for … using arrowroot as a thickening agent?

We’re hoping the remaining six don’t soon return to their mediocre form, as one of the last half-dozen inevitably must win by more than default, while four will advance to the finals. And don’t discount Beverly, who beat long-running “Last Chance Kitchen” survivor Nyesha and could potentially return to the finals.

Here’s our handicap of the remaining chefs, ranked in order from least to most likely to win:

Chris J.: He always seems to be trying to be too clever and generally failing not only at being witty but also competent. Like everyone else, he put out a great dish Wednesday (a stuffed apple dessert), but once you get past the sizzle and the strange hair, there’s not much meat on the bone, is there? Time may be running out for him and his liquid nitrogen.

Grayson: We still can’t forgive her hula-hoop-sized steak a few weeks back, about enough beef to make a Lady Gaga meat dress. She’s never been that impressive, and never that terrible. In Wednesday’s elimination challenge, she ended up on the bottom, but definitely swung for the fences, turning out a chicken dish that served the spirit and letter of the task.

Sarah: It’s a little hard to like her cooking and a lot harder to like her. There have been plenty of talented chefs with worse personalities (season four’s Lisa Fernandes comes to mind), but Sarah has never really wowed us; and like her attitude, her food preparation is almost always defensive — working not to be eliminated rather than to win.

Edward: All season, we have been transfixed by his strange way of talking, which calls to mind a hockey player who’s had his jaw wired shut. No matter. He rarely panics, is often in the running for a win and appears to be flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances.

Lindsay: We know from last week’s “restaurant wars” that she’s better off in the kitchen than at the front of the house, but that’s a very small demerit for a chef who may have only one top finish but has been on the bottom only once — in the very first episode. Even with immunity, she nearly won Wednesday’s elimination challenge. She feels like a lock for the finals.

Paul: Week in and week out, he’s the very best chef on the show. Although he cooked guardedly at first, he’s become riskier but no less accomplished. Of the remaining chefs, he’s the only one with three wins and seems poised to reach the finals if not take it all.

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--John Horn

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

 

'Top Chef: Texas': Sarah turns wolverine mean

'Top Chef: Texas' Sarah turns mean


When Sarah said to her team at the beginning of Wednesday’s “Top Chef: Texas” restaurant wars, “We have to stay calm, we have to trust each other,” you felt as if you were watching Charlie Sheen swearing, “I’m not crazy anymore.” It’s like a scene in a movie where a man turns to his girlfriend and says “Life couldn’t possibly be better” just as a meteor crashes through their roof, or when George H.W. Bush pledges, “Read my lips. No new taxes.”

In other words, you know it won’t happen.

Sarah is turning as sour as week-old buttermilk left in the sun, as bitter as bolted radicchio, as unpleasant as rancid olive oil.

And yet, like that jar of pickles in the back of your refrigerator, she doesn’t go away, even when her cooking is as pitiable as her personality. But the longer she lasts, the worse she becomes. Sarah reminds us of what an Oscar-winning producer once told us about Eddie Murphy: “The word grateful is not in his vocabulary.”

In Wednesday’s restaurant wars, the four remaining women were pitted against the four remaining men in a competition Chris J. smartly likened to a “Kobayashi Maru,” an unwinnable Starfleet training exercise in “Star Trek.” The time given to plan (45 minutes) and prepare (five hours) a three-course, two-option menu borders on the absurd; and, not surprisingly, none of the food really looked that good.

But the conceit of restaurant wars is less about the food, and more about the contestants — specifically, not only how they will manage the division of labor but also how they will cope with the pressure. No sooner were Sarah’s United Nations remarks out of her mouth that she turned on Beverly (for suggesting the team cook beets!) and Grayson (who thought sliced berries would be better than whole ones!).

And while graceful losers are hard to come by in life as in television, Sarah distinguished herself as a graceless winner, saying after Beverly won the evening’s top prize that Lindsay deserved “as much praise or more” than Beverly.

We will miss the eliminated Ty-Lör, whose cooking was often as sharp as his wit, and typically treated his colleagues as if they were friends and not rivals. But his shrimp and crab dish was deemed the worst of the evening, by judges who seemed to have forgotten the conditions under which the food was planned, prepared and plated (I’d pay to see Emeril Lagasse try to serve 100 people nothing more complicated than breakfast with just two other people in the kitchen). 

Whenever guest judge Hugh Acheson gets all high and mighty about ineptitude — he called Chris J.’s dessert “a bit of a jumbled mess in a bowl” — we feel compelled to remember that he was the very first chef sent home when he appeared on “Top Chef: Masters” a year ago (he was reinstated only after John Sedlar was forced to withdraw from the competition).

So maybe Hugh and Sarah can have a cold beer together, calm down, and try to behave just a little more kindly. As New Year’s resolutions go, it shouldn’t be that hard, should it?

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Photo: Grayson, Beverly, Sarah and Lindsay (from left) in "Top Chef: Texas." Credit: Vivian Zink / Bravo

-- John Horn

'Top Chef: Texas': Tom Colicchio tighter than bark on a tree

Top Chef Texas

Tom Colicchio doesn't seem to be having much fun in the current season of "Top Chef." Perhaps the cooking competition's lead judge hasn't been impressed by the overall cooking, or maybe he doesn't like the heat and humidity. Or maybe he'd just rather be greeting diners at Craft. But he's always seemed to understand the essential challenges of the punitive pressures under which the "Top Chef" contestants must work -- until Wednesday night.

In the evening's "BBQ Pit Wars," the remaining nine chefs were divided into three teams, mandated to barbecue three proteins (chicken, beef brisket, pork ribs) and plate two sides for 300 diners -- with no sleep. The sheer logistics of the task were daunting enough, but when the team of Ty-Lör, Edward and Sarah lost the latter member to apparent heat stroke, Tom heartlessly failed to appreciate what the two chefs suddenly had to do: 100% of the work with 33% less manpower. As Sarah keeled, Edward went into overdrive, logically deciding that he and Ty-Lör (who had immunity from winning the Quickfire challenge with an inventive watermelon with vanilla bean honey concoction) never would be able to carve their food to order. Instead, they cut up their meats early, admittedly hacking them as if they were feeding downed trees from the windstorm into a wood chipper.

Throughout the nine seasons of the show, Colicchio has repeatedly urged his contestants to improvise -- if a dish or an ingredient isn't working, ditch it. But when Edward and Ty-Lör did the very same thing, he was tempted to send both of them home for allowing the meats to steam on warming trays.

Anyone who has had the privilege of dining at one of Colicchio's restaurants knows that the staff-to-client ratio is as high as an ultra-deluxe resort; you can measure in nanoseconds how long your dropped napkin might be on the floor. So why would a man who floods the zone with service believe that two people could and should do the work of three times as many? By Ty-Lör's own math, he and Edward had to make 2,100 "plate strokes" to serve 300 diners each seven items. But when it came to judging, Colicchio showed no mercy, repeatedly crabbing about their cutting the meat too soon. Maybe he should have insisted that Sarah revive herself in the walk-in freezer and keep at it.

If Chris J. has a chill pill like the weird miracle berry he served in the Quickfire, he should slip Colicchio one -- and fast. 

It would have been even more merciless for the judges to send Sarah packing, who was after all so sick she had to be wheeled off by paramedics (not that we are rooting for her to stick around long). Chris C. was forced to say goodbye for a Dr Pepper glaze and spice rub that was too salty even at a restaurant called the Salt Lick.

And while we're talking about the Salt Lick, we can't let go unchallenged Padma Lakshmi's absurd, boosterish contention that it serves the best barbecue in Texas. It's not even considered the best such food in Austin, an honor that goes to Franklin Barbecue, or JMueller BBQ. Maybe those two joints simply didn't want "Top Chef" shooting in their restaurants, and were thus demoted.

So let's get a little perspective on "Top Chef," and maybe the rest of the season will be better.

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 -- John Horn

Photo: Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons in "Top Chef: Texas." Credit: Vivian Zink / Bravo

 

'Top Chef: Texas': Excellence rarer than hen's teeth

Top Chef Texas

Wednesday night’s loser on “Top Chef: Texas” wasn’t just Heather, but the Whole Foods Market butcher counter, whose gristly cuts played a role in not one but two disastrous meat dishes.

But even if it’s easy to aim some blame toward the upscale market, the inescapable takeaway from the episode was that it’s really hard to get excited about any of the remaining cooks.

We are just one week from reaching “Top Chef’s” halfway mark, when eight of the final 16 chefs will be left. And so far the unevenness of the cooking — not as it relates to steak — has been startling. Every remaining chef except Paul has finished on the bottom at least once, and nobody besides Paul has more than one elimination win (Paul also has two Quickfire wins, more than anyone else).

Heather, who was booted for a beef stroganoff whose dumplings were leaden and whose cut stumped judge Emeril Lagasse — “I don’t even know what it is,” he said of Heather’s mystery meat — and the long-departed Chuy were the only other chefs with more than a single-elimination win.

So what can be said of the remaining contestants? First, there’s apparently no Michael or Bryan Voltaggio (from Season 6) among them, someone who not only consistently meets the fundamental aspects of a cooking challenge, but also exceed them. Second, we’re not sure there’s even an Angelo Sosa (season seven), a cook who shows constant creative flair and is not married to a particular style of preparation.

Beverly seems one personal slight away from a total emotional breakdown, and rarely strays from her knitting. Grayson, who also served up some ghastly Whole Foods meat Wednesday night (in a portion so large it looked like a souvenir from an Ultimate Frisbee convention), rarely makes smart choices, and Chris C. continues to throw so many things on the plate it’s hard to find his entrée or its purpose.

We like Chris J., but finishing a steak with A1 sauce (as he did Wednesday) and his sweet potato debacle from a previous week don’t bode well for his long-term prospects, and even though Ty-Lör has one elimination challenge win, he’s been on the bottom on three separate occasions.

So that leaves Paul, who is clearly the most solid chef week in and week out, and ... Lindsay? She never wins anything (except one Quickfire), yet she’s rarely in trouble, either. Edward? It’s easier to get excited about the Indianapolis Colts finally winning a game. Sarah? She won Wednesday night for her sausage and stuffed cabbage, and has only been on the bottom once, in the first real episode (after the also-rans were excised).

Maybe the weeks ahead will clarify the picture. But right now it’s murky, which is good neither in a soup nor a contest.

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-- John Horn

Photo: Edward Lee, left, Beverly Kim and Sarah Grueneberg of “Top Chef: Texas.” Credit: Vivian Zink / Bravo

 

 

'Top Chef: Texas': Heather goes catty whompus

Top Chef

The stakes were twice as high in Wednesday’s “Top Chef: Texas”—in a double-elimination challenge, where the test was cooking game, two chefs would be cut loose. The judges considered the failed dishes carefully, and there were several two-person teams that easily could have been dispatched. But they still picked the wrong loser.

Heather should have been sent home—twice.

If you’re simply evaluating the food, it was a close call. Chris J. and Grayson’s elk was uninspired, Dakota and Nyesha’s venison way undercooked, and Heather and Beverly’s duck neither crispy nor ambitious. But this is reality television, and while the judges may not see what happens behind closed doors, they did witness how hardheartedly Heather trashed her partner, Beverly, and not so much for how she cooked the night’s meal, but for how Beverly prepared shrimp an episode ago. Cooking is a team sport, and just because Heather was paired with Beverly in the kitchen—in terms of chemistry, imagine Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich trying to be civil as each other’s date at a gay wedding—didn’t mean she didn’t have to try to work out their differences.

“You guys clearly didn’t work together, and it really showed,” lead judge Tom Colicchio said.

To say that Heather threw Beverly under the bus is an insult to Greyhound. It was more like Amtrak, United Airlines and the Queen Mary put together. Worse, Heather refused to man up to the behavior she so publicly displayed.

“I felt I had no say in our dish,” she said, a statement refuted by all of the commands she barked Beverly’s way. “I’m not selling her out,” she also said, again about as credible as a radio commercial touting 2% home loans. But Heather wouldn’t stop there. She also had to psychoanalyze Beverly—“She doesn’t trust herself,” “She doesn’t think like a chef”—but failed to examine her own conduct, or even her own cooking. When the other 11 chefs nominated Heather and Beverly’s quail for potential elimination, Heather assumed they were getting back at her “because I was on the top last time,” a reference to her win last week for her (borrowed and repeated) cake recipe.

While we’re all for a little bit of drama, it’s disappointing that Heather survived. Perhaps she could take a cue from Dakota, who had the courage and class to admit to her own shortcomings in the kitchen, plating a dish of venison so rare we thought we heard the “Bambi” theme song playing in the background. Sarah remarked early in the show, “karma’s a bitch,” and we wonder, in fact hope, if Heather’s going to get hers soon.

--John Horn

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Photo: Heather Terhune in "Top Chef: Texas." Credit: Vivian Zink/Bravo.

 

'Top Chef: Texas': Haven't we seen that cake before?

Top Chef Texas
Was that a snake in the grass? Or is Heather an even bigger conniver than Sarah?

After a few weeks of fledgling mediocrity, the remaining 13 chefs in “Top Chef: Texas” revealed some of their true colors Wednesday night. The cooking was so dismal that lead judge Tom Colicchio said he had no trouble sending a cook home.

Even on the scale of “Top Chef” disasters, Whitney’s uncooked potato gratin (just the kind of cool side dish you want when it’s more than 100 degrees outside) was an epic fail — a bad idea poorly executed. And when you’re grilling steaks in Texas, as Ty-Lör did, it’s probably best to cook them just a shade more rare than a 20-year-old horse saddle.

But what really caught our eye was Heather’s demeanor. We had just started warming to her when she recycled her Quinceañera cake from three weeks ago, passing off as her own creation a dish that is actually based on Edward’s recipe. She compounded her error by calling out Beverly in the stew room and generally acting like a bully in the kitchen.

Chris J. cooked a delicious steak salad, Grayson excelled in the Quickfire with her scallop ravioli, and Nyesha, having stumbled early with her sauces, redeemed herself with a compound butter.

We’re at that point where it’s possible to discern the winning (and unlikable) personalities more so than their cooking. We continue to root for both Chris J. and Chris C., but we’re off the Heather bandwagon. She and Sarah deserve each other, but we’re not sure if it’s physically possible for them to throw each other under the bus at the same time.

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Photo:  Heather Terhune in "Top Chef: Texas." Credit: Vivian Zink/Bravo

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