By Doris Bravo
Last night’s Top Chef Chile featured a challenge of international proportions.  With distinguished guests from a variety of embassies on hand, as well as a bunch of cooks that weren’t exactly sure what to do with the cuisine of a country they’d never been to (really, you can’t make ceviche?!), it was another shit show of bungled dishes and upset egos.  Back this week with a spot-on look at this week’s episode, it’s our own resident pop-culture expert Doris Bravo, unapologetic and, frankly, a little upset with a Latin lack of Latin knowledge.  Damn. 

[Top Chef TVN]

[Top Chef TVN]

There were no hijinks on last night’s episode of Top Chef Chile. Just a world cultures test gone wrong. I should’ve guessed there was something odd to come when Judge Pamela Fidalgo explained the “prueba de fuego” in the first round. The contestants needed to apply the brunoise technique to onions since this vegetable, though not originating in the Americas, is a staple of the Latin American kitchen. Okay, that’s kind of a roundabout way of setting up this skills test, but whatever. I love a good skills test since I can barely hold a knife and admire anyone who can dice an onion into small, uniform cubes. The judges evaluated quality and quantity. Three contestants (Carolina Erazo, Quersen Vásquez, and José Luis Calfucura, the “Mapuchef”) made it to the next mini-round, where they made pebre from their onions. Pebre returns and so it seemed we were venturing again into the familiar terrain of Chilean cuisine.

No, instead we moved beyond Chile and into the mysteries of Latin American gastronomy. Well, not exactly “Latin.” After a few weeks of tossing around this regional denominator, Judge Pamela begins shifting between Ibero American and Hispano American. As a Latin Americanist art historian this was a subtle change I couldn’t ignore and it all made sense once the judges explained the group challenge. The contestants would prepare meals at the Estadio Español in Santiago for delegations from the embassies of Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, and Spain. With our Spanish cousins replacing Brazilians, suddenly Top Chef Chile leaves Latin America to celebrate our common Hispanic heritage. Frankly, including Brazil may have improved matters since it’s more likely the contestants have traveled to this great nation than most of the others on the roster. The cooks were bewildered about Ecuador in particular, almost as if they were hearing this word for the first time. The ten participants were split into pairs by the judges, sparing us the knife pulling ritual. As winner of the first round Mapuchef had the privilege of designating groups, which he did on a scale from most difficult (Ecuador) to least (Peru). Each country came with its own signature dish and the pairs had one hour to create a preparation that was faithful to the original. In lieu of a recipe, or sample of the dish, each team was given an array of specific ingredients.

[Top Chef TVN]

[Top Chef TVN]

Let the wincing begin. Not only have most of the chefs never traveled to their respective countries, they’ve also never prepared these dishes. This confirms a mutual ignorance between Chileans and the outside world: most people can’t place Chile on a map and apparently the reverse is also true. But is it fair to expect the participants to be able to cook a Mexican Mole Poblano on the spot? Maybe they haven’t had the opportunity to travel or to try good Mexican food in Chile. Though there is a notable history of immigration to Chile—hence the Estadio Español, a sort of country club established by Spanish immigrants—it has not been sizable enough to give the nation a diverse gastronomy. As an art historian it would be unfair to expect me to know the entire history of art. But I am expected to know at least something about a lot things. And though I specialize in Chilean art, I fashion myself a Latin Americanist and can discuss key points about Mexican art history, for example. You would think that a chef, regardless of where they are from, would be curious about food in general. They would seek the chance to try different cuisines and build their reservoir of knowledge. Unfortunately, last night showcased a group of chefs who lacked that interest. But they did what they could and plated all their dishes within the allotted time.

The ambassador from each nation, and his entourage, judged the dishes. The Ecuadorian contingent were baffled by what was present (rice and tostones) and absent (avocado slices) from their country’s Yapingacho. However for a dish that was perceived to be the most difficult—and called for a sunny side up egg—I think Sergio Medel and Pilar Astorga did the best they could. Meanwhile, Mapuchef and Sebastián Araya bungled the Ceviche de Corvina, which was initially seen as the easiest dish given the popularity of ceviche in Chile (parallels curry in England). Mapuchef and Sebastián added oil, of all things, to the ceviche and skimped on seasoning and spice. On this last count, Mapuchef ruffled my feathers. Sebastián was keen on making the ceviche spicier but Mapuchef told him to lay off after spotting women in the Peruvian delegation. Apparently, the gendering of spicy food was not my mother’s invention just an inane practice that definitely explains the blandness of food here. Don’t let the name fool you, there is little chile in Chile.

Once the guests had their fill, they were instructed to vote on an equally inane premise: was this a faithful preparation of the dish? Obviously the resounding answer across the board should’ve been “no.” How can a group of chefs, most who have never sampled the dish, cook a version that does justice to the original? The results from the votes were surprising. The Ecuadorians, perhaps just happy to have been invited, gave their dish a thumbs up; so did the Spanish delegation, despite additional ingredients appearing in their Paella. Was the voting rigged this week? I doubt it. What we witnessed was a completely subjective opinion being forced into a “yes” or “no.”

[Top Chef TVN]

[Top Chef TVN]

The losing groups—Carolina and Juan Morales for Mexico, and Sebastián and Mapuchef for Peru—moved onto the “last chance” round. However, since Mapuchef had immunity he was spared. No good comes from denying women their spicy food, Sebastían. The three contestants had to prepare a dish using tongue, shrimp, and a surprise last-minute ingredient of jibia (cuttlefish). But before they could cook, the judges trotted out Chef Sergio González from Restaurant NoSo at the W Hotel. González proceeded to give a demo using up valuable time, which could’ve been better spent in the second round (i.e. allowing the contestants to sample the dishes they needed to duplicate). Last week it made sense to have an expert give a demo so viewers could understand molecular gastronomy. But “surf and turf” is a no-brainer in Chile (hello, Curanto). In the end Sebastián’s dish just didn’t fuse the flavors as good as the others and he was sent home.

On a side note, I know it’s late-night television but the S&M vibe to the show was kooky rather than kinky last night. In a twist to the first round judging, the contestants sampled each other’s pebres. They did so blind-folded which meant that host Julián Elfenbein had to feed the pebre to the contestants; even though they could’ve just eaten from a covered container, I mean all pebre pretty much looks the same. Elfenbein coaxing the spoonful of chunky pebre into the awkwardly opened mouths of these chefs was just not doing it for me. Plus, I prefer eating pebre on bread, but that would’ve been too intimate.

Next week the contestants are off to the coast, to immerse themselves in seafood for a change. I’m over the moon about Gigi’s return, especially since he’ll be rounding out the group challenge so it can be a fair five-on-five competition.

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