Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having interest in Top Chef Season 7 D.C., are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the season is now screening. God save the faltering and the kind.
Stately, plump Kevin Sbraga came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A white wifebeater, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:
I didn't think I'd make this far!
Trust us, Sbraga, we didn't either. Sbraga's puny features on his pudgy face wrinkled like crinoline in the mirror as he straight-razored his small filthy hairs into the drain. In another room Tiffany ominously packed away her Dopp kit. Ed traipsed about, in search of his yellow nightie. Kelly smoked—filthy habit—and Angelo opened up. He had been married, it turns out, to a proud Asian woman with whom he has a son. But her proud family disapproved of his profession and this weighty shame had poisoned the marriage. Sosa got divorced last year. That explains the son, the strangeness and the mail order bride. Feelings for Angelo—at least in my heart—turned a corner. Angelo at that moment became Shmangelo, just another nutter trying to get by. Vulnerability is like cologne: A little is alluring, a lot is repulsive.
As the sun crests over the Tidal Basin, five contestants are left. When it would set, only four would be. Ms. Padma Lakshmi appears in the kitchen next to Food & Wine Editor Dana Cowin and a table laden with wine. Lakshmi wore a rather fetching grey blazer with contrasting black shawl collar as if she had come from an Annie Hall party or perhaps a heart-warming all-lady version of Dead Poets Society, recast in a continuing education program at American University? O Captain, My Captain! (Speaking of Robin Williams, Old Dogs was on right before Top Chef. Between that and Teen Mom, 9:30-10:00 might be the most depressing half hour of television in America, an I.V. drip of tainted mental morphine.) For this refreshingly brand-free Quickfire, contestants had to pair wine with food. This challenge uncovered a number of things: the contestant's deep ignorance of wine and also what "pairing" means. Evidently, it means "cooking with" and so the merry five poured wine in and around their proteins willy-nilly hurly burly şöyle böyle. Sbraga picked Merlot and in his static-y radio silent brain decided to slow braise pork belly in an hour. He threw the fatty stuff in a pressure cooker—good idea—but with a few minutes left, opened it to check—bad idea—thus relieving the pressure and revealing his own failure. He made small quail legs instead. There is something so obscene about his big hands touching tender quail legs like an old mattress on the banks of a tranquil childhood swimming hole.
Shmiffany and Shmangelo vied for top seat and a trip to Lon-DON, a city in the UK that Padma can not not pronounce in a silly English accent. Shmangelo won not only the Quickfire and a trip to Lon-DON but retrieved his confidence which had hitherto been kept in the Washington D.C. Hilton's Lost and Found, next to wedding rings taken off and placed on bedside tables during extramarital trysts, and then left in panicked post-coital haste.
Now we're at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, a place so secretive even access to its website is forbidden. Why? It might have something to do with GSFC being home to the archetypal Lady Scientist Stereotype, the fragile lab-coated mold from which all other Lady Scientists are cast. She's like the The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, can't go out or she'll be crushed. Years spent in NASA's zero gravity HQ have weakened her bones and teeth. (Speaking of John Travolta, how did he go from this to this? Surely it can't simply be the ravages of time. Age begets dignity, doesn't it? DOESN'T IT?!?!) Anyway, LSS has braces, serious H.R. Giger-grade braces that don't do well being illumined from underneath. Neither does Colicchio's soul patch, incidentally. In fact, underlighting is always underminery. Remember Jill Greenberg's photos of McCain for The Atlantic?
Two real astronauts speak to the contestants via videolink. Something I didn't realize about space is the gravitational time dilation, the effect of time passing slower in space. It turns out it's still the early '90s up there in space and Burger King chic—a maroon polo tucked into khakis—is all the rage. Space: Have it Your Way. The astronauts unpack their lunches which float about in space like beads of Dial Nutriskin or the cranberries in Smirnoff's Cranberry and Lime spritzers. The challenge is to make freeze-dried food. Wait, is it? No. It's to make food that could be freeze-dried. Confusing just as space is confusing.
To Whole Foods our lads and lasses merrily go, pipin' The Nut-Brown Maiden as they jump into a Toyota Avalon that will be the bounty for the challenge's winner. This of course occasions rapture much more enthusiastic than what the Toyota Avalon—nice reliable car though it be—deserves. Shmangelo drives it and does a horrendous job parking. Eddie runs to the spice aisle. Kevin blathers on about how he comes from a long line of freeze-dried chefs. Tiffany gets the freshest white fish they have and lots of mussels. And Kelly does something, who knows what? She kind of just takes up space, that one, inoffensively like an expensive understated floor lamp or a nice desk. Kelly Liken is the nice desk of this show.
In the kitchen again, Tiffany places her mussels to cool in a Monogram fridge. Don't forget it: It's a Monogram fridge. Monogram embroidered into our brains like they were nothing but soft spun terry-cloth towels. Kelly places a penholder and a Dell on her back—Bics of burden—and rolls an Aeron Executive chair beneath her midsection. She'll just stay there for a while, in the corner. Eduardo makes a complicated Moroccan lamb dish. Tiffany laughs uncontrollably—as she has of late—as Beard Award-winning chef Tom Colicchio approaches. Emmy Award-winning chef Tom gives Shmangelo a deeply suspicious look when Shmangelo says "short ribs" to which Shmangelo responds by mugging for the camera a la Tim in The Office.
"Why the look?"
"Oh, no reason"
"No, seriously, why the look?"
"Why give me a look like that if you aren't going to explain why you gave it to me?"
It's like a failing marriage. Ouch, too soon. Shmangelo continues, softly muttering to himself. Kelly gets dusty and is wiped off. Kevin tells the camera, "I guarantee I want to be here more than anyone else." Hmm, dubious! Tiffany approaches the Monogram fridge to retrieve her mussels. The mussels are dead, frozen to death by an uncontrollable appliance. The Monogram fridge has failed her. The Monogram fridge has betrayed her. Intemperate and unable to regulate its temperature, the Monogram fridge has ruined her mussels. Major Tiff to Ground Control. Major Tiff to Ground Control. Your circuit's dead, there's something wrong.
Judges' Table tonight is a pretty heavy-duty cast: Buzz Aldrin, second man (first loser) on the moon; Tony Bourdain, wearing a black-and-scarlet ensemble to make Hester Prynne proud; Eric "The Ripper" Ripert; that astronaut lady who wore diapers and went crazy (kidding); a dashing male astronaut with mustache named Leland Melvin who came to aeronautics after playing for the Toronto Argonauts, a football team, and Lady Scientist Stereotype. The dishes were all pretty good and all demerits were given largely on the basis of whether or not the food would or could be successfully freeze dried. Largely the answer was no since the things that make dishes good—a rich lustrous and generous sauce, crispy texture, nice portions of meat—do not hold up to freeze drying well. Ripper found fault with the complexity of Eddie's dish. Tony mounted a stout defense. The LSS was a downer—duh!—because what else would she be?
In the end, Angelo beat out Kevin's lack of creative will; Kelly's desk-like Provençal classic and Tiffany's atrophied mussel-less fish. It was nice to see his mojo working again and a much different experience after realizing he's less conniving than simply nutty. What happened next though sucked all the joy from the room, kitchen, world. Sunk by her lack of mussels—to cut the broth and to lend depth of flavor—Tiffany was sent home. Sunk by the avarice of the producers and the ineptitude of GE's refrigeration division, she was declaimed and exiled. Things I never want to see again: Tiffany cry, her eyes pink and bloodshot and that thousand-watt smile dimmed. Things I can't wait to see: watching Kevin Sbraga's eyebrows raise like a mountain in surprise, when he's told to pack his knives and then deepen into an angry valley as he storms, cursing and crying no doubt, back to Rat's and from our eyes forever.
[Video by Whitney Jefferson]