There’s a cooking technique called sous vide, in which food is vacuum sealed in plastic bags, and then placed in a water bath for a long time — sometimes up to 72 hours— at a temperature much lower than normally used for cooking. It allows food to cook evenly, ensuring a uniform texture, and keeps intact a food’s nutritional integrity. The technique has become ubiquitous, but in its early days on the culinary scene, its use required chefs to apply for variances from health officials who were concerned that the low cooking temperatures and anaerobic environment would allow bacteria to grow, possibly poisoning diners.
There’s a production technique called sous vide as well, apparently, and the minds behind Top Chef have been circulating the same lukewarm tropes over their chefs for far too long. The run-up to the finale began as the remaining four (Paul, Lindsay, Sarah and the Hydra Beverly Kim) arrived in Canada, in this season’s latest nonsensical non-twist, and though there had been some time since they’d all been together, it was all too clear that the chefs remained in a proverbial vacuum, and my, had the spores flourished.
“The biggest difference between the Sarah that walked into the kitchen at San Antonio and the Sarah now is that I’ve had time to learn a lot about myself. My goal is to stay calm and be a really nice person,” says Gruenberg, pointing to the end we all see coming. Her goal isn’t to win, as Paul Qui’s had the title of Top Chef locked down since Austin; her goal is simply to rehabilitate her image from catty, shrill harpy to supportive, caring den mother.
“Paul, Sarah and I have a special bond. We’ve been through this since Day One together. I think with Beverly, personalities clash, so it’s a little weird seeing her,” offers Lindsay Autry, who maneuvered her way right to the finale, as predicted, and is keeping herself relevant by constantly invoking her hatred for Bev. When Bev joins the chefs, the best Autry can come up with is, “You look… warm.”
During the mentors episode, Qui’s teacher Tyson Cole said of his student, “I’d show him something, and two days later he’d come back, and he’d be doing it better than me.”
Of course, to some extent, these personalities are feats of editing. (At this point it's hard to call anything the production does "feats" of anything, except predictability.) Of course these women aren’t all “nice” or “mean” or “bullies” or “bullied” or whatever, but we’re hard pressed to ignore the histrionics when we have the contestant that we have in Paul Qui.
During the mentors episode, Qui’s teacher Tyson Cole said of his student, “I’d show him something, and two days later he’d come back, and he’d be doing it better than me.” Qui’s is a quiet, contemplative, serious temperament that this season has only been revealed through his food. His drive and sense of responsibility is familiar, but not in a tired, reality-show character archetype kind of way. It’s classic.
“I feel fortunate and blessed to even have this opportunity. My great-grandfather on my father’s side fled from China to the Philippines to start a new life for his family, and I’ve always felt like I had that responsibility, being that I’m his eldest grandson. So that is what I’m pursuing here, trying to win Top Chef.”
So in the penultimate episode, chefs are sent to the top of Whistler, where they meet Tom and Snow Bunny Padma. The mountain featured prominently in the 2010 Winter Games, so it’s apparently fitting that it would be the site of their “culinary games.” There will be three rounds, and the winning chef of each round will receive $10,000 and a spot in the finale. The first challenge has the chefs cooking in a moving gondola.
The tense music starts, and Paul Qui speaks of his propensity to motion sickness. Could it be? Is this when the great chef will fall? Has it all come down to motion sickness? Of course it hasn’t, but damn it if they’re not going to make it look that way.
Paul hops in the first gondola and starts cooking some lamb chops. Sarah’s following him, and, flustered, she’s having trouble finding inspiration. Bev’s not impressed with the two induction burners and chinoise, referring to the gondola set-up as “pretty basic.” She jettisons the idea of cooking altogether and gets cracking on a salmon tartare. Lindsay, keeping in mind the complications of high-altitude cooking, chooses salmon as her protein and gets to work.
To keep things interesting (or, to make them interesting), Paul comes in fourth for his lamb loin, which the judges felt (for the purposes of suspense) was unevenly cooked and underseasoned. Sarah was third for her prune juice deglazed chorizo. Bev came in second (she was thisclose to being in the finale!) for her tartare, but lost to Lindsay’s salmon over red quinoa with horseradish vinaigrette.
At the top of the second challenge, Sarah knows she's got to win it. If it's her and Bev in the third, she might not make it! (If it's Paul and either one in the third, most of us will find out what airs on CBS in the 10:00 p.m. slot on Wednesdays.) Sarah, Bev and Qui had to get their food from blocks of ice, defrost it and cook it, in under an hour. This has zero, ZERO, zero do with actual talent. This challenge was exclusively created so that they could get film of Bev maniacally, furiously, stabbing at a block of ice with an ice pick.
This challenge was exclusively created so that they could get film of Bev maniacally, furiously, stabbing at a block of ice with an ice pick.
Paul cooked crab legs. He won.
The third and final challenge was a “culinary biathalon” consisting of cross country skiing and shooting targets to get ingredients. The took part in the grand culinary tradition, strapped on their skis, and started off. Bev chugged along, chanting to herself, “left, right, left, right” and fell a bunch. Sarah also fell a bunch. She accused Bev of trying to trip her, because she skiied right into Bev, who was completely supine. Bev is given a shot gun. She's better with it than she was the ice pick.
They don’t have Asian stuff in the pantry. Bev doesn’t know what to do.
They got to the kitchen and Bev got in Sarah’s way. Sarah complained.
The judges have less criticism for Bev than they do Sarah. Sarah wins anyway.
Before letting Bev go, Sarah tearfully hugs Bev and says a lot of nice things she really wants to mean but constitutionally is unable to.
It's hard/mind-numbing/pointless to try to guess what twists and turns next week's penultimate episode will offer/force upon us, but we can say with certainty what it won't: Paul Qui being told to pack his knives and go. It may be trying to tune in, but for the thrill and pride of watching one of Austin's best chefs represent. Hard.
Does anyone know what color his new Toyota is?