By Doris Bravo
Last night was another nearly two hour-long marathon of Chilean cookery on the all new, first-ever season of Top Chef Chile. Our resident pop culture expert and lover of all culinary competitions, Doris Bravo, takes us inside the drama, the sausage, the tears, and more. If you missed out, get the details below.With their second episode, Top Chef Chile is establishing a pattern of random outbursts. This week’s surge of emotion came from Sebastián Araya who, after receiving praise for his team’s dish, could barely contain his excitement and jumped around seated diners as if he were on a pogo stick. The keyword here is “random” because the show is pretty restrained (I’ll no doubt drift into a coma during José Luis Calfucura’s next gloomy confessional). “Random” also in the sense of not fitting into the task at hand: a competition. Any socialized child worth their salt knows how to undertake a game. If you listen to the rules, make sure everything is set up accordingly, and play fair the winner will emerge. Celebrations, Sebastián, come when you’ve secured the win not during the game; that’s just bad form. But by the time Sebastían had his infamous outburst, the whole endeavor had collapsed entirely.
One of Chile’s key terms is “collapse.” When the winter rains return like clockwork but the city officials neglected to fix the sewers, thus causing the roads to flood: collapse. When there’s an electrical short in the metro’s grid and the backup generator was out of service: collapse. When natural selection somehow maintains the world’s most uncoordinated people in the gene pool: an actual collapse. Last night, we witnessed the spectacular collapse of a game. For the second round of cooking—the “prueba en grupos”—the 11 contestants were split unevenly, with six going to Team Gray and five to Team Orange. The numbers got fishier when the participants were given their challenge: prepare Chillán-style sausages for 100 guests in 90 minutes.
Utter madness; according to my personal chef you need at least three hours to break down meat, grind it, feed it into casing, etc. Unsurprisingly, the team with six cooks was in the lead as the judges hovered once again in the cooking process. When the timer ended, Team Gray was plating while Team Orange was still trying to figure out how to case the rest of their sausage meat. As Team Gray’s round plates—piled with mashed pumpkin, pebre, and sausage—were delivered to the hungry guests Team Orange’s square plates were in expediting limbo, awaiting the sausages. The chant that arose from the seated invitees, “We want the square plates!”, became the soundtrack to this collapse. Judge Carlo von Mühlenbrock was breathing down the necks of Team Orange, willing those sausages to cook. For a moment he allowed service to continue and some plates did make it out with a sausage, purple potato, and charquicán. But Judge Carlo ultimately stopped service in a dramatic move that left Team Orange at a considerable disadvantage, not to mention dozens of guests hungry.
In the rules of competition this type of interference is unacceptable. Once the meal was over the 100 diners cast their vote for the winning sausage and, lo and behold, Team Orange won. Before the winner was announced, of course, the judges shared their impressions of the challenge. They were disappointed with the leaders: Jose Luis, the “Mapuchef,” was too dim while Sebastián was too manic. I’m not sure I would’ve gone off like a frog in a sock, but it’s pretty encouraging to hear the Mayor of Chillán (a portly man who clearly knows his stuff) choose your team’s dish as his favorite. Upon receiving the news of his team’s loss, Sebastían’s emotions understandably plummeted and the host, Julián Elfenbein, offered some curious words: “You should never celebrate too early.” I’m not sure how involved the pretty-boy Elfenbein is in the proceedings, but this smells like a fix. And one of the capital offenses in competition is a fix, especially when one team had an obvious lead. The judges rushed to note that Team Orange won based on taste, but I find it hard to believe people who never received that team’s plate would still vote for them. Based on the fact that Team Gray got one sausage to every guest they should’ve won on numbers alone. But as we’ve seen, numbers caused this whole round to collapse.With episode two we can begin to see the pattern of the show unfolding: three rounds of cooking for nearly two hours. Yikes, it’s exhausting, and all I’m doing is watching. The members of Team Gray went onto the “Last Chance” round, minus Juan Morales who won immunity in the first round’s “Quick Fire.” At this stage in the episode we leave the pedestrian world of sausages and step into molecular gastronomy. The judges bring forth Matías Palomo, a chef of avant-garde cuisine. Palomo prepared a panna cotta “egg,” thus introducing the challenge for this stage: trampantojo, or what my art history brethren know as trompe l’eoil. Unfortunately English does not have a snappy word for “visual illusion that deceives the eye” but it’s a cool concept in any language. For this challenge the participants were given 60 minutes to prepare a trampantojo dish. Since the judges would evaluate these dishes blindly their hovering was put on pause. Had they been present there would’ve been considerable henpecking. Once again, the judges laid out an impossible challenge that was setting these cooks up for failure. There’s nothing more pleasurable than watching a documentary on elBullí, with the chefs floating through the kitchen and delicately crafting dishes of molecular gastronomy. But this type of cuisine cannot be rushed, and I don’t think Top Chef Chile or Chilean gastronomy achieves anything through this kind of pursuit. In the end Víctor León’s dark matter on veggie-hash lost out to Carolina’s flavorless but pretty faux sushi rolls. The show’s judges continue to dismiss a dish that tastes good but lacks visual appeal.
Though this episode was a bit of a train wreck, I do appreciate the choice of Estación Central as a location. We must support the rail system in Chile, our roads simply cannot handle more vehicles especially when the winter rains arrive. The great expanse of sidewalk in front of the station served as the eating area, which was necessary since the 100 guests sat down for their meal. In a very Chilean move, the show set up long tables with proper utensils and the mystery yellow drink that is always present at meals here. Unlike their counterparts in the U.S., Top Chef diners in Chile simply cannot eat standing up or with their hands. Another great Chileanism was the choice of palta as the main ingredient for the first round; tip, when working with avocado halves you should salt them before filling. Some other interesting bits of Chilean culture are peppered throughout the show: apparently expletives can be dropped freely after 10pm.
There are two things I could do without at this point in the season. For starters, there is too much knife-pulling. Perhaps the producers paid a pretty penny for those blocks, but does every decision really need to be preceded by a knife pull, it’s kind of barbaric. Secondly, there are too many captions. As a fan of Vh1’s Pop Up Video I don’t mind a random fact or two, but on Top Chef Chile these comments are distracting and would be more useful on the show’s website.
Next week’s show is full of chopped onions and diplomats evaluating how the contestants fare with world cuisine.