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.