By Doris Bravo
When Ricardo David (aka “Gigi”) was unceremoniously axed last night from the premiere of Top Chef Chile he did not perform a high-kick befitting his David Lee Roth attire. Instead he took off his apron, tossed it on the ground, said some mean things to the judges, and walked away. Judge Pamela Fidalgo was unsurprisingly offended and felt he was, indeed, the right participant to be nixed given his bad attitude. This moment in reality competitions always makes me wince: a contestant, dismissed and left standing vulnerable, dares to verbally retaliate to the judges panel, a group of people who, drunk on power, take their position way too seriously. But this is precisely the brew that makes for terrific television programming and Top Chef Chile is off to a promising start.
I am not privy to the details, but TVN bought the rights to air Top Chef in Chile; therefore many elements—graphics, music, overall show structure—will feel familiar to fans of the original U.S. show. Since the premiere was a nearly two-hour long sorting ceremony I doubt what we saw last night reflects the order of things for the rest of the season. I hope not since episode 1 was pretty intense. Fifteen contenders gathered at the Estancia El Cuadro in Casablanca, a winery in the valley between Santiago and Valparaíso. Each participant pulled a knife at random, which placed them with one of three judges: Pamela Fidalgo, Ciro Watanabe, or Carlo Von Mühlenbrock. With the teams sorted Julián Elfenbein, the show’s host and token attractive person, informed the contenders that they would actually be competing with the other members of their group in the first round. During this phase, the presiding judge makes one of three decisions: you may receive a Top Chef Chile knife kit, which automatically secures you a spot on the show; the judge could decide to send you to the “last chance” cooking challenge to compete one more time for said knives; or, you will be asked to leave. Of the 15 present, only 11 will ultimately win a knife kit and stay in the competition.
The judges had their respective groups cook a specific ingredient (jurel, for Ciro’s gang and rice, for Pamela’s group) or preparation (pino, the classic Chilean empanada filling, for the group with Carlo). During the 40 minutes of this round, the judges paced around the small kitchen as the contestants worked in a frenzy. As with the U.S. show, participants had access to a beautiful spread of proteins, produce, grains, spices, condiments, etc. The cooking wares, not so beautiful, but they worked. The Chilean cooks, like their U.S. counterparts, were similarly unnerved being in a new kitchen. This is something I always find fascinating and which is always underestimated; my game is off if someone misplaces the blade to my food processor. But the Chileans are professionals and they whipped up a bevy of dishes with their key element. The judges tasted them, gave their comments, and made their decisions. Curiously, the three contestants that were immediately dismissed happened to be at the end of this line-up; perhaps as the producers filmed the close-ups of each dish they drafted a hierarchy from best to worst.
Five contestants walked into the Top Chef Chile studios with their knife kits, and settled into the lounge to watch the second round. The judges instructed the seven hopefuls to prepare a dish that reflected their personality. This type of cooking assignment has to be one of my pet peeves since it always seems to set up inarticulate chefs for failure: “chicken with peas and carrots…uh, Forrest Gump changed my life (?)” Also, I don’t see the point of having a second round since all the contestants except for one were going to receive the knife kit. Meaning, if you present something satisfactory you’ll move forward. It makes me feel bad for the one person who just couldn’t cut it; as if the whole exercise were put together just to show how mediocre one person is in comparison to the others. In this case, it was Gigi. Unfortunately, we the viewing audience cannot taste the food. We can only imagine if the ingredients go well together, rely on our sight, and note the reaction of the judges. But seriously, Sebastián Araya overcooked his pasta, which is a capital offense in my book. My beloved Gigi made food that was by all accounts tasty, the presentation was just off. And who cares, honestly. I don’t relish food that’s been assembled with tweezers.
Though Carlo had quipped earlier “sabrosa y rica, después bonita” (tasty and delicious, pretty later) he didn’t extend this philosophy to Gigi. Perhaps as an older chef with a big personality, the judges felt they couldn’t mold Gigi or at least impart contemporary foodie values. Top Chef Chile is working hard to establish their gastronomical point of view: modern dishes composed with local ingredients. For better or for worse, the perception of the U.S. as a cultural melting pot has translated into clearer messages on the gringo version of Top Chef. Cooking an “American dish” can really mean a lot of things. But Chile is going through a culinary identity crisis, which was plain on last night’s show. Alicia Rodríguez, the red-head pastry chef turned savory, prepared quinoa in her second-round dish in order to recover Chilean ingredients. But it was a limp gesture at best that barely made any impact beyond a faint smile on Carlo’s face; earlier in the show, as they were preparing distinct versions of pino, this judge had tried to inspire his group by stating, we must “dale un valor a lo nuestro” (value what’s ours). I’m curious and excited about how the show will explore the concept of Chilean gastronomy, especially through the presence of José Luis Calfucura, the self-styled Mapuche-chef.
I’m also keeping my eye on Pilar Astorga. She seems steady and talented, two qualities that are essential for any reality competition show. At this stage I’m betting the grand prize on one of the five contestants who scored a set of knives straight-away. On these shows the cream always rises to the top and it’s rare for the winner to have begun at the bottom. I’m also keeping my eye on judge Pamela. With her tough but fair character she’s currently my favorite judge. Pamela and Carlo both dealt with touchy situations in their kitchens—a mouthy misogynist (Sergio Medel) and an overwhelmed wallflower (Pía Poblete), respectively. Carlo came off as a brute and I didn’t care for how he hovered and intimidated Poblete.
Next week, we go to the main train station in Santiago where the contestants cook outside and no doubt hilarity, tears, and screaming will ensue.