Furious foodies

Top Chef at midseason
By SARA FAITH ALTERMAN  |  December 16, 2008

TYPECAST? Don’t tell Radhika she can’t cook American.

As food porn goes, season five of Top Chef (Wednesdays at 10 pm on Bravo) is some of the most titillating, with high drama, celebrity guest judges, pressure-cooker challenges, and, of course, glistening close-ups of succulent-looking cuisine. Plus, it's the only reality show ever to boast ties to Salman Rushdie, who was once married to the show's host, Padma Lakshmi. It's a veritable entertainment smorgasbord.

The goal of Top Chef is of the straightforward, even-a-monkey-could-do-it variety: cook great food in a limited amount of time. Try not to sweat or spit in it. Why, season after season, this proves to be harder than the shell of an ostrich egg is mystifying. By the end of the half-hour show, the contestants have so often and so gloriously underseasoned and undercooked their dishes, the viewer's forehead practically smacks itself.

As usual, this season features an array of "cheftestants" proclaiming in one-on-one interviews that "it's all about the food." Dummies. It's never all about the food on reality cooking shows. The skills of these food-czar wanna-bes run a competency gamut. Some, like Stefan, a 35-year-old Finland native who runs his own catering company, seem to be lovechilds spawned from the loins of Alice Waters and Daniel Boulud. Others, like 21-year-old culinary student and Quincy native Patrick (who was booted in this season's first episode), might have made their first peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich just yesterday for all their kitchen buffoonery.

As of last week's episode, about halfway through the season, we were left with 12 of the original 17 contestants, most of whom fit the usual reality stereotypes. There's Jamie, 30, the misunderstood, ambitious bitch. Jeff, 30, the golden boy desperate to prove that he's more than just a pretty face. Carla, 44, the African-American from the South who sprinkles her modern soul-food dishes with a little bit of love. And Radhika, a first-generation Indian-American who keeps whining about how her ethnicity doesn't mean she can cook only Indian food even as she continues to cook only Indian food. Then there's Fabio, 30, the effervescent Italian whose accent could charm the marinara off linguini.

Each episode, these archetypal characters compete in two challenges: the fly-by-the-strings-of-your-apron Quickfire and the longer Elimination. Although the goal, as always, is to cook a fantastic dish, the challenges themselves have grown increasingly asinine as the season has progressed. Make Thanksgiving dinner for Foo Fighters using only a microwave! Name every ingredient in this bucket of mystery sauce by tasting it once! Have a conversation with Botoxed special guest Rocco DiSpirito without poking him in the face to see whether it's the real Rocco DiSpirito or just a wax replica!

Judges Lakshmi, Gail Simmons of Food and Wine, and chef Tom Colicchio are rarely harsher than a hippie guidance counselor, and that's often disappointing. It'd be much more satisfying to see a mouthy, idiot contestant get sent home with, say, a pot of boiling water thrown in his or her face than it is to watch Lakshmi purse her lips and instruct the loser to "please pack your knives and go."

With several episodes left and several contestants who haven't truly screwed anything up yet, there's a farmer's market of possibilities. One can only hope that the final Elimination challenge involves creating a 12-course tasting meal out of the extra fat liposuctioned out of DiSpirito's body and feeding it to the Flobots.

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