By Doris Bravo

“Last night clocked in at nearly 120 minutes, way past my bedtime and entertainment threshold.”  She may love some pop culture, but even our resident expert on the topic, Doris Bravo, has her limits.  Last night’s episode was nearly two hours of very small dishes, focused almost entirely on the sea.  Even if you didn’t catch it, get the gist, and the point, below. 

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In order to discuss last night’s episode of Top Chef Chile it’s better to start at the end. Three contestants once again competed in the “última oportunidad” round: Carolina Erazo, Sergio Medel, and César Parada. For no apparent reason other than to give Judge Ciro Watanabe some camera time, the challenge was to prepare a Chilean-Japanese fusion dish in 40 minutes. After Judge Ciro’s demo, where he breezily prepared a Chilean Nikkei version of gyozas, the three contestants set off to prepare their dishes. There was much running around and trash talk (notably between Sergio and César) which the prudish Judge Carlo von Mühlenbrock didn’t appreciate. Clutch the pearls, the Top Chef Chile kitchen is not the nunnery where Judge Carlo apparently cooks.

The contestants presented an array of Chilean Nikkei interpretations, with each dish producing a dud (fish bones, fish scales, and raw bamboo). But for Judge Pamela Fidalgo these were unpardonable duds. If the rules allowed it she would’ve sent all three of them home. This coming from a woman wearing a flesh-colored chef jacket. Ask any Grey’s Anatomy fan, it was hard to take Dr. Addison Montgomery-Shepherd seriously when she wore salmon-colored scrubs. Better to stick with the classic colors, like Judges Carlo and Ciro. But the truly offensive factor in the episode was the round itself. Four episodes in and I can confidently say it’s a ridiculous concept.

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First of all, the “última oportunidad” makes the show excessively long; last night clocked in at nearly 120 minutes, way past my bedtime and entertainment threshold. Secondly, it upsets the balance of the game. In the second round’s group challenge the judges split the 9 contestants into two teams: orange and gray. As winner of the “prueba de fuego” Cristián Sierra was given the privilege of making the following two decisions: which team would receive the mystery guest cook; and, if he chose Team Gray, which contestant would go to the other team in order to keep both sides even. Cristián elected to have the guest cook on his side, with Team Gray, and immediately regretted this once Ricardo David (“Gigi”) emerged in a bandana that would put Bret Michaels to shame. After casting a critical eye over his team members, Cristián marked Alicia Rodríguez as the weakest link and sent her to Team Orange. Both teams cooked a seafood trio of machas (clams), picorocos (barnacles), and piures (sea urchins) with varying degrees of success: Team Orange won by a landslide. Since Team Gray consisted of a guest cook and a contestant with immunity, this left the other three in the lurch.

By my reckoning, the entire team should have faced the judges, including Gigi; I would’ve offered him a chance to be back on the show if he led his team to victory. This is how Top Chef in the U.S. operates and it works better than the format in Chile since the judges can explain why the dish was lackluster and each cook can defend their contribution to said dish. With Top Chef Chile the dish from the group round is never debated and disappears entirely. The losing cooks must prepare a new dish and the winner among these losers oddly walks away with a prize (a panini press). Therefore, the “última oportunidad” round undermines the entire competition: the participants never really find out why their group’s dish won or lost; the winning team never receives a prize; and the contestants from the losing team walk away with more cooking experience.

On this last score, I am keeping my eye on Carolina. She has been to the final round three times, which the judges were quick to point out as she “won” that round. But what the judges don’t realize is how she’s amassing invaluable experience. On three episodes Carolina has cooked the maximum amount of times and little by little she’s learning how to cook à la Top Chef Chile. She’s comfortable with the wacky challenges, the time restrictions, the curveballs, and most importantly, with facing the judges. This training is making her a stronger competitor: on last week’s “prueba de fuego” she excelled at chopping onions but failed to get her pebre on her plate. This week she produced the second-best dish during that first-round challenge.

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Speaking of the “prueba de fuego,” it was one of the highlights of the episode for me. The star ingredient was cochayuyo (kelp), a classic Chilean delicacy with many fans (from teething babies to my dad). However this task reflected how the contestants don’t seem to know how to prepare vegetarian dishes that please the eye and the palate. Something else I wasn’t too keen on was the casual sexism punctuating the show. During the first round Judge Pamela launched an offensive remark with her observation about the three female cooks: she just loves how methodical women are in the kitchen, cutting their vegetables with care and just knowing how to make them pretty. Then Sergio, the resident machista, comes down hard on Alicia for being a pastry chef; yet she led her team to victory (with the aid of Juan Morales) and avoided going to the third round. It seems that for Sergio, and perhaps the other male chefs, a female cook is hard enough to accept; but someone who works primarily in pastry is unforgivably feminine.

From what I know of kitchen culture, it’s not exactly the most egalitarian or friendly place (deal with it Judge Carlo). But in 2014 it’s not a novelty to have a woman cook savory food or to have a man with good knife skills and the ability to artfully arrange a dish. I’m disappointed that Judge Pamela would have a hand in maintaining these stereotypes, but then again the judges are constantly butting in where they don’t belong. With episode four their interference came to a head. In the second round Ciro stirred the pot (figuratively) and tried to ignite drama between Alicia and Cristián, while both contestants were cooking! By the third round the judges were actually sampling the food, giving critiques, and psyching out the contestants before the dishes were even finished. These judges were seriously ravenous—Judge Ciro couldn’t stop slurping up César’s noodles—and “última oportunidad” may just be a way to feed them after an eternity of filming.

Next week’s episode is promising since the contestants finally partake in one of my favorite Top Chef tropes: the shopping frenzy. The remaining 8 participants will be set loose in Jumbo. Though they’re clearly shopping during off-hours, they nonetheless replicate the mania of Supermarket Sweep. Running chefs always make for good television (deal with it Judge Carlo).

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