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?