We’ve officially reached the halfway point of this season’s Top Chef, and while we’ve well established that hometown chef Sara Johannes hasn’t quite risen to the top level of competition yet, an equally pressing concern remains unanswered: Why don’t viewers like her?
That’s not to overblow the amount of ire Sara faces from the online trenches. She’s nowhere near as hated (she’s not even hated, per se) as Top Chef: Texas' resident bully, Heather, nor is she as divisive as John Tesar, the know-it-all jackass from last season who embodied the coke-bloat of the 80s dining scene with every fiber of his being. But Sara definitely isn’t loved, which might have more to do with a systematic problem of the long-running Bravo series’ current season than it does any of her actual actions.
I appreciate that Top Chef producers don’t feel the need to manufacture as much fake drama as any version of The Real Housewives franchise would, but I’d also bet you’d be hard pressed to find any dedicated Top Chef fan who would rank this season as one of their favorites. There are a number of problems: few chefs outside of Nina have broken away from the pack, challenges have been middling at best, and very little kitchen drama outside of a grill fire has been generated. With creepy Michael and pretty boy Jason eliminated after just a few episodes, this has turned into the Top Chef season without a true villain, which might just have made Sara one by default.
But what has Sara really done to deserve the rude online comments and tweets? Her personality troubles seem to have festered in the fourth episode, in which the chefs were asked to work in teams to create Vietnamese dishes. It was in this episode that show editors started threading together their very flimsy “Bossy Sara” narrative, a label that originated when Sara’s barking orders in a supermarket rush apparently ended with a key ingredient being left out of the cart.
The fact that Sara had her worst showing in an Asian challenge (Shoyu, where Sara is an executive chef, is a modern Japanese restaurant) also lost her viewer support. Following the episode, Television Without Pity commenter Gagic wrote in the site's forums, “Sara was awful as well. So controlling and know-it-all because she works at an Asian restaurant. Then she screws up cooking rice. Her stupid hair and fake crying can't cover up her lack of basic cooking skills.” Yikes – and that’s before the next commenter accuses her style of Asian food of being like a “fancy Panda Express.”
Since then, Sara has been shown voicing a few strong opinions about food and offering Louis some unwanted advice about how to butcher a pig. Could these moments be read as bossy and rude? Objectively so - but Sara’s sour notes thus far appear to come more from dissatisfaction in her own performance than they do spiteful jealousy or pot-stirring. I don’t consider a cheftestant a true Top Chef villain until they start claiming winning dishes actually sucked or insisting that they’re more talented than anyone else in the competition, regardless of what the judges have to say. Sara hasn’t done anything of the sor yet, which is why the “Sara as antagonist” narrative just isn’t sticking to the ribs.
Still, without a top three showing since the first episode, a good chunk of the hostility and/or ambivalence around Sara could just be viewer impatience in anticipating her elimination. If Sara wants to gain some fans, the first and easiest step is to impress us with some high-caliber dishes.
Top Chef: New Orleans airs Wednesdays at 9 pm on Bravo.
Sara starts this episode of Top Chef complaining about how she thinks she’s become the gooch of the season. Urban Dictionary informs me that this word apparently actually means something far too crass for print (even internet print!) but Sara uses it in this context as a summation of her growing sense of unease in the competition, namely her fear that she’s bringing bad luck to all of the team challenges. As she has in weeks prior, Sara laments her fading success in the contest thus far, noting her singular early brush with the top and reminding us just how much she hates landing firmly in the middle of the pack.
So where does Sara wind up at the end of this week’s elimination challenge? Well, the middle, but let’s not lose the forest through the trees here. Yes, Sara is once again absent from the better half of the judge’s table, but it also occurs in a week that Tom Colicchio calls one of the best in 11 seasons of the show and one where even all three of the dishes in the bottom have elements to them that are universally praised. There’s not a lot of attention placed on Sara or her dish this week, but we can safely presume from the blanketing praise that her dumplings were more than impressive. That’s not a bad place to be in at this stage, at least not when the crucial component of confidence comes into play. Sara still can’t trump the Ninas of this season, but knowing that she’s still capable of scoring a hit is hopefully all it takes to push her into overdrive.
My criteria for weighing the success of this season has been how much the individual challenge components speak to New Orleans culture, and this week delivers a one-two punch. First up is a supremely entertaining (and refreshingly simple) Quickfire that has jazz legend Dr. John asking the cheftestants to make him a hot sauce. Actually, he asks for a hot sauce with a “hip tang” to it and continues to use words and phrases like “flavorocity” and “Trinidadily too hot,” much to the contestant’s chagrin and my sheer and utter amusement. It does not get more N’awlins than Dr. John.
There’s a lot of flavors in the air here including pineapples from Shirley, apricots and coffee from Nicholas, and anchovies from Justin, but ultimately it’s Brian who wins for his green jalapeno and serrano hot sauce with lime and yuzu juices. I’ve criticized Brian before for being too eager to skate by on complacency, but two weeks of immunity in a row have made him into a bit of a dark horse, even on a topsy-turvey challenge that saw Nina land in the bottom for seemingly no concrete reason other than the seemingly random whims of Dr. John. At one point he uses “clipped my wings” as a method of praise, which practically throws all my bad middle school poetry asunder. We don’t get to see Sara’s (or Travis’) hot sauce on TV, likely because those precious seconds were needed to lovingly linger on shots of Dunkin Donuts coffee and Keurig machines. Sigh.
The main challenge starts immediately when a 300-pound dead pig is wheeled into the kitchen. It’s a pretty grotesque image that feels strangely fitting of NBC’s Hannibal, but the contestants are downright giddy to start hacking up the ill-fated oinker as part of the New Orleans tradition of boucherie, in which members of a community come together to butcher a pig and utilize every single one of its parts. There’s a bit of drama involving Sara when Louis accuses her in a talking head segment of being bossy without contributing to the butchering, but it also appears that Sara didn’t pass Justin’s “raise your hand if you’ve butchered over 10 pigs like I have” test to actually get her hands on a knife like she clearly wanted to. Justin is increasingly grouchy and later almost burns the entire set to cinder.
Each chef is responsible for a different part of the hog and will have to prepare an individual dish for 250 outdoor diners. As already mentioned, Sara’s har gow (a type of Chinese dumpling served in dim sum) with pork, shrimp and crab barely gets any screen time, but it looks delicious and Tom calls it “really good.” As tasty as it is, Shirley also makes dumplings out of freaking pig kidney and upstages Sara. Shirley ends up in the top 3, a place I always want to see her. Nina’s also up there with her roasted pig’s head ragu, which Tom says should be the national dish of “Ninastan.” Carlos ultimately gets his second win for his pozole verde with fried chorizo tacos. Tom wants the recipe. If Sara doesn’t make it to the end, the combination of Shirley, Carlos and Nina is probably the ideal top three scenario.
Stephanie, Justin and Louis are the night’s worst three dishes (although Travis justly gets called out for not making his own ramen noodles), despite the judges finding something to like in each of them. Justin is absolutely incredulous that his pork breast is called dry (worth noting that Padma seemed much more mad about this than anyone else) and releases a string of expletives about it in the Stew Room. The judges love the flavor of Stephanie’s brodo (broth) but felt her pork belly was overworked and that the dish was missing a few ingredients. And while Tom says that a good dish is going home no matter the outcome, he didn’t seem to like any component of Louis’ pork leg except for the pork, critiquing both the texture of the melted corn and questioning the addition of popcorn to the dish. Louis goes home feeling he didn’t get to leave a mark of his own on the competition, which is probably what happens when you make people cook with cream cheese for entire challenges. If you’re following Last Chance Kitchen, Louis is the first person to beat Janine, so there’s a chance we could be seeing him again. I keep forgetting he has a Michelin star.
Next week – Restaurant Wars! Sara is front of the house, a position that should send a shiver down the spines of any veteran Top Chef viewers.
After last week’s embarrassment of a cream cheese challenge (I actually skipped over the bagels on my grocery list in protest), this week’s Top Chef rebounds nicely (mostly) from that ill-conceived advertorial to deliver a pair of challenges that actually had something to do with this year’s host city. A jazz-themed challenge was an inevitability for this New Orleans season, but it’s certainly not unwelcome, especially when you throw jazz great Kermit Ruffins into the mix.
This week’s Quickfire Challenge was so fun to watch unfold that I barely noticed how utterly flawed it was in concept until the winner was announced. Basically the challenge is musical chairs with chef stations instead of chairs and knives and loose electrical wires instead of sanity and sound decision-making. The concept is that - like jazz musicians - chefs should be able to improvise on the spot, which is why each chef ends up changing food stations four times, searching for dish continuity along the way. It’s fun watching chefs wander around to the sound of trumpet music (Sara did a jaunty dance!), most likely while pondering why so many jazz musicians are named Kermit, but ultimately this challenge just isn’t fair. Justin (who’s slowly turning into this season’s resident grouch) starts out nicely at the quail and flounder station but later gets stuck at the finishing point with tofu, a microwave and Patty’s lame attempt at couscous. There’s really no justice here.
Sara gets royally screwed here as Brian ends up winning the challenge and immunity for the Asian-inspired duck and mussels dish that Sara worked on for half of the four rotations. Brian is rightfully excited, but also a little embarrassed, as his self-admitted contribution to the dish was mainly centered on the plating. Earlier, Brian avoided making a big move by sautéing vegetables instead of dealing with frog legs, a dish Louis unfortunately got saddled with. Sara’s good-natured about not scoring a win on what’s essentially her dish, but I’m less even-tempered as I think Sara’s confidence really needs a boost at this stage. She serves a trout dish that was initially Carrie’s. It goes over well. Luckily, Sara is never at risk of needing immunity in this week’s big challenge, but Brian's win still stings.
Speaking of, the Elimination Challenge this week is also jazz-themed as the chefs are asked to work in groups (under the thin veil of jazz quartets or something) to make food for Kermit’s potluck. Puerto Rican chef Patty has never heard of potlucks before, but Midwestern girls Sara and Carrie (an Iowan native, if you need a refresher) have a much better grip on the concept, but still don’t exactly want to put their best ambrosia salad or tater tot hot dish recipes forward.
The groups get to pick their teams (or “bands,” as Tom Colicchio was forced by producers to say) and Sara picks a pretty solid one in Shirley, Justin and the momentum-gaining Louis on Team Blue. Less together are Team Gray, who are not only saddled with the immune Brian and iffy Patty and Travis, but also Nicholas, who had to sit out the Quickfire due to a possible case of strep throat. He’s back before he’s forced out of the competition, but not before doing his entire ingredient shopping via Travis and a cell phone.
Despite the paradoxical nature of the challenge (is a catered potluck really a potluck?), there’s a lot of fun to be had in watching jazz musicians (A Marsalis! A Neville! That guy Steve Zahn essentially plays on Treme!) shoot the breeze and eat the most uniformly good food the show’s had in weeks.
Sara’s team plays it smart by aiming at the local crowd with food that’s both comforting and indulgent, including grits, okra and beef. The teams ends up in the middle, with most of the praise falling on Louis’ grilled and pickled vegetables with sunflower seeds and mustard vinaigrette. Justin scores some love for his super-buttery grits, but also gets nailed for not having enough as much seasoning as the locals are used to. Sara splits her work with her BFF Shirley on a glazed beef with charred onions, melon pickles and a pickled ginger vinaigrette. At judge’s table, it’s called a bit dry, but all the scenes of the diners eating it appear to be positive. All in all, not a bad week for Sara, especially since I’ve rewritten that Quickfire in my head to be in her favor. Her makeup process continues to stun me.
The Green Team wins with their Italian-style dishes. Nina gets kudos for her gnocchi despite making gnocchi three times already, which is frankly kind of irritating. Carrie went weird with a nectarine, pistachio and goat cheese tiramisu that involved microwaved sponge cakes in a way that I still don’t understand. It’s beautiful, but not a resounding success. Instead, the winner is Stephanie, who surprised the judges with a nice fried artichoke dish with preserved lemons and anchovy aioli. Stephanie says she hasn’t won anything since “Most Improved” in high school basketball and I continue to love everything about her.
The losers are the gray team, who underwhelm despite Brian’s stellar fried chicken. Nicholas (who did most of the prep work, drawing a good-natured accusation of performance enhancing drug use from Stephanie) fizzles with a bland and unevenly prepared barramundi fricassee, while Travis gets knocked a few rungs down the ladder for putting too much rub on otherwise well-prepared caramel-glazed BBQ ribs. That means Patty finally goes home for another indifferently prepared dish. Her tomato watermelon salad (so much watermelon this season! Can this be the end, please?) is called bland by the judges, who also note that it really needed a savory element added somewhere along the way of its uninspired genesis. Patty was canon fodder since week one, but her hair was always very lovely.
Next week Sara appears to draw the ire of Louis during a horrific-looking pig butchery challenge. I’m concerned.
Man alive, those Bravo editors can just be cruel sometimes. Having finally whittled the number of contestants down to one that the producers can actually juggle, this episode of Top Chef immediately gets to work sketching in some of the character beats that we’ve been sorely missing so far. Although we actually get to learn a lot (lovable Carlos gained the majority of his cooking skills working for free in kitchens after he crossed over from Mexico, Nina is besties with Travis and Bene, Sara has a cute boyfriend), what most sticks out about these scenes is just how much this show expertly avoids playing into audience expectations of how episodic narrative arcs for reality contestants should normally operate.
Of course the show can’t resist the nice obvious symmetry of Nina’s best bud, Bene, leaving the competition right as she’s on another major upswing, but if you’re invested in Sara’s journey the way most of you reading are, the pacing of this episode ends up being a real heartbreaker of denied gratification.
Initially, the time spent on Sara early on in this episode appears to be setting up a redemption arc. All the ingredients are there – she admits to the disappointment of falling to the middle of the pack in recent weeks, she admonishes herself for her “sh---y attitude, she gives us a boyfriend back at home as her primary method of motivation, and most importantly, even offers a manifesto of positivity to guide her through the week’s challenges. We expect a turnaround immediately. Instead, we get a Quickfire Challenge in which Sara’s dish doesn’t even warrant 5 seconds of screen time. It only gets worse from there.
The first challenge (make a dish using Creole tomatoes for guest judge Chef John Besh in 20 minutes) is actually a good one, as it’s entirely free of gimmick and gives the chefs one of their first real chances to show off their individual styles. Louis breaks free of his “file not found” status to impress with a tomato seed bouillon, while Carlos also makes an impact with his use of edible flowers. Ultimately, and rather unsurprisingly, it’s Nina who gets the win and immunity for her chilled watermelon soup, a dish that earns extra praise due to Nina’s ability to keep it cold on what appeared to be a very sweaty day. Resident quote generator Stephanie appears ready to self-flagellate after failing to woo John Besh with her too-simple tomato steaks. She says it best: “I made the worst impression on someone I think is a stud.” I think I’ll cry when Stephanie goes home.
Continuing with the Louisiana farm theme, this week’s actual elimination challenge is a complete and utter bomb, for a whole variety of reasons. Top Chef has never had a subtle relationship with product placement (Sara’s such a trooper for delivering that RAV4 name drop with only the slightest bit of self-loathing), but most of the time it doesn’t actually interfere with the integrity of the show. The same can’t be said for this week’s challenge, which requires each dish to prominently feature Philadelphia Cream Cheese. I actually gasped. There’s some talk about also using fresh ingredients from a Louisiana farm (and no butter whatsoever, although none of the chefs seem derailed by a twist that’s delivered as a bombshell), but other than that, this week’s challenge bares almost no relevance to New Orleans. Worse, we don’t even get to see the chefs complain about the awful challenge, as any comments about the inherent grossness of main component cream cheese would draw the ire of the financial backers. I don’t like it at all.
With only 90 minutes, there’s not much time for the contestants to prepare a family-style meal for eight of Besh’s executive chefs at La Provence. Time management is the main issue for almost everyone, hurting even those who eventually end up in the top. Sara’s hit especially hard, as her idea of stuffing lamb chops with an island-themed curry is hindered by the time it takes to get the filling out of uncooperative piping bags. With not enough time, the lamb is severely undercooked (“mine was not red, it was blue,” says Padma) and Tom’s face contorts at the thought of curry powder combining with cream cheese.
Sara thankfully doesn’t have her vegetables called “miserable” like Gail calls Travis’, nor is her food compared to cafeteria cuisine like Bene’s is by Tom, who seems personally affronted by t. Bene goes home, which seems about right, but not without dealing what appeals to be a fatal blow to Sara’s self esteem in the process.
Which brings me back to the question of Sara’s role in this contest, at least in the minds of the show’s producers. Despite some bouts of bossiness and a weird effort this week to make her look petty and resentful of Nina’s success (Nina wins for the fourth time, by the way), she’s not at all playing the role of the show’s villain, at least not yet. In fact, every down moment for Sara as of late has come with a humbling dose of mournful disappointment, which suggests that we're not meant to be rooting against her at this point. While Travis almost always gets defensive (he apparently wanted his meat to be cut raggedy, so says he), Sara is the first to point out her shortcomings, even referring to Gail as “ma’am” tonight. I can't tell what the narrative game plan is at this moment - especially with tonight's bait and switch - but I know it ultimately comes down to the dishes no matter what. With Nina and Justin quickly separating from the pack, Sara’s going to have to keep up the positive energy if she wants to reclaim her early glory.
Do you think Sara can rebound? Are you surprised Bravo viewers only rated John Besh's hair a 5 out of 10?
By MARCUS MICHALIK
For a short while, it looked like this season of Top Chef was setting itself up for an intense and long-simmering rivalry between the two New Orleans native sons, Justin and Michael. That didn’t happen. It didn’t even get close, really. While Justin broke away from the pack early on, thanks in part to his quietly determined and focused resolve, Michael just couldn’t stop talking without showing any real receipts.
I probably should have realized this back in episode one when he proudly assumed the role of New Orleans tour guide to helpfully explain to everyone else that they refer to neighborhoods as wards in NOLA (gee, thanks!), but I suppose that’s all moot after tonight’s episode, in which Michael gets sacked for his forgettable arancini (Sicilian-style fried rice balls). Michael had essentially turned himself into the human equivalent of picking at a scab, so I can’t say this is particularly a sad turn of events. What’s actually depressing, however, is just how unremarkable the rest of this episode was, made even worse by some less than stellar food outings for Minneapolis’ own Sara Johannes.
Before we get to the dud of a main challenge, I have to admit the Quickfire Challenge this week was pretty amusing, albeit very cluttered.Never a show to back away from its own history, Top Chef recreates the Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil challenge (sponsored by Reynolds Wrap!) from a few seasons ago, only this time with the added twist of Gail and Padma’s mothers picking out all the foil-covered ingredients and cookware for each of the two teams. This makes absolutely no sense, but our adorable judges have predictably adorable moms, so it’s probably best not to think too hard about it.
The challenge is mostly problem-free other than Carrie not having a whisk for her sabayon and Nina having to make due with using cherries, carrots and beans for her potpourri of a soup. Over on Team Simmons, Sara and Stephanie also appear to end up with all the bastard stepchild ingredients nobody else wanted (everything picked up by the moms had to be used) and end up serving lamb and fonduta with sharp cheddar and roasted mushrooms.
Padma’s mom gives Sara credit for not overcooking the lamb but later admits that the dish didn’t fully come together for her, which is probably to be expected when you’re dealing with both lamb and cheese at the same time. Team Lakshmi ends up winning and gets to split $10,000 among themselves. Considering there are, like, seven people on this team, I hope they all enjoy having enough extra cash to spring for airplane Wi-Fi on their flights home.
Despite this episode probably filming sometime during the middle of last summer, this week’s challenge is all about Halloween and is hosted by Top Chef superfan, Lea Michele of Glee fame, who graciously takes some time away from her day job as Anne Hathaway’s dark side. You really get a sense of how exhausting it must be to work as a caterer after hearing this challenge’s stipulations. Lea is normally a vegan (missed opportunity for Halloween sound effects at this reveal, based on the chefs’ reaction shots) but is willing to give herself a break to indulge in her passion for cheese for a change. From the way she talks about it, it’s safe to assume this girl loves cheese even more than she loves Barbra Streisand.
Lea also wants the food to have a scary theme, maybe touch upon her Italian ancestry, and of course be delivered in an easy finger-food package. At one point she actually says “I’m not a big sweets person, so make it spooky and fun and cheesy.” With this many random caveats, three chefs (including Sara) wind up taking the easy route with arancini, all of which get presented as if they’re eyeballs. Shirley makes noodles and claims they are worms. Surprisingly, nobody asks Tom Colicchio to close his eyes and stick his hand in a plastic cauldron full of peeled grapes.
In contestant personality updates, the always-hilarious Stephanie loves Glee like it’s 2009 or something and wonders if it would be creepy to ask Lea to hang out with her. Sara graciously serves as the obviously smitten Carlos’ wingman, effortlessly following up his “Do you like Mexican food?” question with “Do you like Mexican men?” Meanwhile Michael informs us that he once dressed up as a pregnant nun for Halloween and got laid because of it. That's quite enough of that.
That insanely creepy comment sets the tone for the rest of the episode. Nina gets stuck with Michael as her partner and the two instantly clash. Michael keeps communicating with Nina via pet names like “Boo Boo” and “Babycakes,” but she’s more pressed by what she sees as Michael taking the opportunity to coast off her talents. The episode sets them up to be in the bottom, where they are joined by canon fodder Brian and Bene, who serve two different vegan salads under the banner of “Spa Food.” Lea -- who’s actually a pretty smart judge for all the grief I’m giving her -- is not impressed, as both of their dishes get slammed for being boring and equating the vegan lifestyle with bland quinoa. Tom rightfully says to Bene that no one is going to win Top Chef making tomato salad. Still, Michael sucks and his arancini is both dry and doused with an overly sweet and heavy sauce. Nina is spared because of good gnocchi, but not before Michael accuses her of latching her star to his wagon in the Stew Room. Bye, Michael.
The judges like Nicholas’ butternut squash cannoli and Patty’s lemon arancini with smoked mozzarella, the fact that each went with an autumnal theme instead of a horror one seemingly irrelevant despite the challenge’s clear guidelines. Padma gets in some expert shade at Patty’s expense by asking her what it’s like “to be on this side of things,” just going to show that Patty has a little bit more atoning to do before she can land a win. Instead, half of that honor goes to Travis, another contestant badly in need of redemption. He and Carlos win for their Dia De Los Muertos-inspired vegetable ceviche and goat cheese fondue. There was liquid nitrogen involved. It was all very alluring and apparently tasty, too.
That leaves me a tad worried about Sara. It’s been a while since she’s been on the winning side of anything, and while her evil-eye arancini with Moroccan tomato chutney certainly wasn’t the judges’ least favorite dish of the night, I’m starting to think she really needs the confidence boost of a win in order to compete with the more obvious front-runners again. As this episode proves, fortunes can change back in just one challenge. Just ask Travis.
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