By Doris Bravo
As the challenges on Top Chef Chile continue to get more difficult each week, the time in which the contestants have to complete their assigned tasks gets shorter, greatly increasing the WTF? element of the show. That said, the participants’ irreverence for silly rules and impossible time limits is peaking, making, at least, for good drama in what has become a weird contest of teams, rather than individual chefs. Back as always with a poignant look at just what’s happening over at TVN studios is our own Doris Bravo, equally irreverent in her commentary and unwilling to budge on one judge’s choice in jacket color. (Salmon was a running theme last night).On last night’s episode of Top Chef Chile Sergio Medel’s sass could not be contained. And we should all be grateful that going on episode six at least one of the contestants has a pulse. Meaning, after witnessing the ridiculousness first-hand (impossible time limits, henpecking judges, pointless demos, one flesh-colored chef jacket) Sergio has declared a war of irreverence. My kind of battle. Sergio is too much of a competitor to lose on purpose; his tact is to win with his talent while thumbing his nose at the absurd rules.
Exhibit A: the “prueba de fuego.” Judge Carlo von Mühlenbrock ceremoniously declared that in for the past two decades sandwiches have been making their mark on Chilean cuisine. Judge Pamela Fidalgo chimed in by noting that Chile’s beloved Chacarero sandwich recently made Time magazine’s list of top sandwiches in the world and the contestants should endeavor to make an equally fabulous sandwich. I recently switched over to the Chacarero myself after being a lifetime Italiano fan (avocado and mayo instead of green beans). What Judge Carlo and Pamela gloss over is that sandwiches aren’t really very trendy in Chilean gastronomy. Of course the classics have always been around, but beyond the Chacarero and Italiano there are only a few more sandwich renditions. I think Chile is ripe for a sandwich takeover (people love their bread here) but there’s not a strong tradition of deli meats and cheeses to really support this type of revolution. Go to any outpost and you’ll be underwhelmed by the ho-hum selection of a few types of hams and maybe three cheeses. I linger on the topic of sandwiches to emphasize how much I love waxing poetic about one of my favorite food preparations. Were I challenged to prepare a sandwich for the “prueba de fuego” I would’ve had at least half a dozen recipes at the ready. And I’m not even a trained chef, just good at eating. Unfortunately, the contestants are not sandwich fans. They were bewildered by the challenge and put together some pretty dodgy concoctions (thick cheese on salmon). This challenge revealed that the contestants did not show up to Top Chef Chile with an arsenal of recipes.
Overall the failure of the “prueba de fuego” was a team effort. The judges hovered around the participants who had barely a moment to catch their breath since the challenge was only twenty minutes long. As they nervously assembled their sandwiches, the judges prodded the contestants for the name of their sandwich. According to Judge Carlo, funny names are typical to Chilean sandwiches. “Chacarero” is a tongue-twister, but there’s nothing especially amusing about it. I leave the puns to Chile’s storied tradition of Nobel Prize-winning writers and poets, not to cooks. When the judges sidled up to Alicia Rodríguez and heard her sandwich’s name they were immediately unimpressed, coolly stating that her evaluation was not off to a good start. So she tagged on the name “Vaca Azul” (Blue Cow) on the fly. After endlessly jabbing Sergio during the challenge for the name of his sandwich, Judge Pamela was not too pleased to here it was simply (and brilliantly) called “Sergio’s.”Sergio’s sass returned in the group challenge when the Byzantine rules of the competition had the teams select the leaders for the opposing side. The “prueba de fuego” winner José Luis Calfucura (“Mapuchef”) made the first shot against Sergio when he chose to be on the Team Gray in order to avoid some of the bad energy on Team Orange. After receiving this dig Sergio suggested Team Gray’s leader should be Mapuchef since he was a poor leader. Instead of brushing off Sergio, Mapuchef glowered and let Sergio’s words affect him. José Luis had much bigger fish to fry, or to be more precise, cauliflower. For the group challenge the teams had to prepare lunch for 100 tweens using a duo of ingredients: “guatitas” (tripe) and swiss chard for Team Orange; liver and cauliflower for Team Grey. This banquet was meant to be prepared in 60 minutes.
Now that we are coasting through the sixth episode, it has become apparent that the producers do not run trials of the challenges. If they did, then they would see that these challenges are not feasible: a 20-minute sandwich, one hour to cook for 100 people. Meanwhile there were two demos last night and those chefs seemed to get all the time in the world. Unreasonable time limits make for good television, I suppose, since everyone is running and there’s the possibility of a digit or limb getting the chop. Whatever time the producers seem to save does not make for a shorter show; last night’s episode ran for an eternal two hours. The major downside to this time crunch is that the contestants rarely get to prepare a solid dish. Everything is sloppy, covered in sweat, full of shortcuts. It’s unfair to hold high standards for the contestants when they aren’t given enough time to execute their craft.The group challenge ended with Team Orange’s triumph, despite being a three-member group. Sergio’s exuberance got the best of him when he impulsively ran over to Team Gray’s knife block, threw down a knife, and laughed in Mapuchef’s face. This did not sit well with Juan Morales and the old beef between he and Sergio is set to explode in forthcoming episodes. With Mapuchef’s immunity sparing him from the last round, just Juan, Carolina Erazo, and Cristián Sierra were up at bat. It was Judge Pamela’s turn to demo this week and it was a disaster. She prepared three small-plates (“locos” (abalone), scallops, and greens) with various seasonings and sauces. The contestants were asked to taste/touch the dishes blindfolded for two minutes and replicate the dishes. According to Judge Pamela this should be a walk in the park since the dishes were not complicated. Though dressing scallops with a vanilla oil, turmeric, and macadamia nut concoction does not seem so easy to me. It goes without saying that she was disappointed the contestants royally missed the mark especially since the first class of international cooking is preparing hollandaise. I may not be a trained chef, but I find this hard to believe; I am even more doubtful that cooks are taught to mix basil into their hollandaise or serve it on seafood. It’s time to give seafood a break from dairy. If not, Chilean seafood is will become lactose-intolerant, then no one will eat it. Though Juan and Cristián prepared lackluster dishes, Cristián’s was the worst and he was sent home.
The trio of women (Alicia, Carolina, and Pilar Astorga) is intact and going strong! They will face the remaining men (Calfucura, Sergio, and Juan) in next week’s restaurant wars. The previews show Mapuchef’s spectacular meltdown, so I think his number is up.