By Doris Bravo
Wow. In case you missed last night’s tear-jerker of an episode of Top Chef Chile, our resident reality cooking expert Doris Bravo is back with a box of tissues, and some tough love. For all the emotional details, read below.In case you thought I might let up, I’m still clocking Top Chef Chile. Last night’s episode had a running time of 140 minutes; after last week’s epic, shaving 10 minutes off the clock made a small difference. A half hour of the running time was dedicated to emotionally torturing the contestants. By now we’re all used to a choppy start to Top Chef Chile: the credits roll and the judges announce the challenge. Then host Julián Elfenbein jumps in to peddle something from a sponsor (sometimes in split screen, so he can banter with himself) and then a few commercials run. After 15 minutes, though, the viewer knows that there will be cooking.
Not the case last night. Even though we all celebrated the holiday months ago, Episode 8 of Top Chef Chile was an homage to mothers. Which is fine, I guess, since these personages were often a critical factor in forming these contestants as chefs: either because mom was a good cook or because she wasn’t. In a protracted preamble to the “prueba de fuego” the five contestants were subjected to sampling their favorite dish from childhood, blubbering on camera as they explained what this dish meant to them (even though it was painfully obvious), and then reviewing the contents of mystery envelopes that were hidden below said dishes. As the contestants pulled out photographs and letters written by their family members, the lullaby music swelled to unbearable saccharine levels. I have nothing against celebrating mothers (or fathers, siblings, neighbors, the mail carrier, etc.) I just don’t understand why I had to bear witness to this emo “prueba de fuego,” especially since the judges have been so cruel to the contestants in past episodes. It felt grotesque to provoke the contestants into crying. I blame all the publicity surrounding the the Teletón, Chile’s annual two-day telethon to help needy kids. Perhaps TVN is getting the audience ready for the big catharsis that’s coming in the a couple of weeks when the Teletón airs. Matters did not improve much once the “prueba de fuego” actually began. Judge Carlo von Mühlenbrock’s mother appeared in order to present his favorite childhood dish, “charquicán con huevo frito” (meat and vegetable hash with a fried egg). Contestants were instructed to replicate this dish using a protein of their choice. Not only would their dish need to be “a recipe worthy of Top Chef,” to quote Judge Carlo, but it also needed to remind him of his mom’s dish. Making this challenge even more impossible—never mind the 30-minute timeframe—was the implicit expectation that the contestants cook from the heart. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any more trite, the judges start throwing the word “heart” around. Yuck. This is neither an official cooking method nor a tangible quality. Chef Boyardee’s raviolis are delicious every time and trust me the jolly dude on the can does not have a heart. But this is a tired trope for depicting gastronomy. From Woman on Top to Rataouille writers feel obligated to replicate this cooking-with-emotions sensibility, probably because the audience cannot sample the food on screen. If the viewers know that Penélope Cruz or the rat chef Remy are cooking from their heart, well then the food must be good. Still it got to be too much on last night’s episode of Top Chef Chile, especially since the judges insisted they could taste the emotion of the contestants (cue Like Water for Chocolate). I’d like to say the waterworks were finally shut down once this round ended but that was not to be. Each contestant had the luxury of riding in their own van to the next challenge. As they opened the car door who should be sitting there but, surprise, surprise, their own mother. Hugs and tears ensued as the drivers took them to the Cajón del Maipo. At the Santuario del Río Restaurant each contestant prepared a dish featuring “congrio” (conger eel). The five mothers, along with the judges, sampled each dish. However, the final decision regarding who would go to the next round was left up to the moms. It was odd that they didn’t get to vote for best dish. You could sense they were uncomfortable voting for the worst dish since that meant possibly voting against their own child on national television which would provoke any one of these mothers to leap into the nearby ravine. But then again winners are rarely acknowledged or celebrated on this show. Among the five, Juan Morales and José Luis Calfucura (“Mapuchef”) had the loser dishes. While I wasn’t thrilled with how the show began, I’m happy I stayed up for the “última oportunidad,” which began at 11:48 p.m. for those of you keeping score. Juan and Mapuchef were given free rein over the pantry. However, each item they chose had to be integrated into their dish in a noticeable way. All of this made more sense as the camera zoomed into the pantry which was transformed into a silver wonderland. Every single ingredient in this space, including within the fridge, was wrapped in aluminum foil. My knee-jerk tree-hugger instinct was to see it all as an unfortunate amount of waste. But the art historian in me marveled at the wintery installation, though I wouldn’t want to be the intern who had to do all of that wrapping. These final challenges have been the saving grace of the show, probably because the contestants have the time to create visually interesting dishes. Nevertheless it was really gross to see proteins unceremoniously plop out of their foil wrappings, next to a wrapping of “manjar” (Chile’s version of dulce de leche) and a wrapped boat of rice. It reminded me of the Chilean tradition of yogurt-in-a-bag.
The intern who wrapped the items did a pretty good job since the crumpling hid the object’s shape. Juan and Mapuchef could only shake or grope the object to get an idea of the contents. José Luis had better luck in the selection process since he somehow created an ensemble of edible items—panko, bulgur, butter, yellow pepper, leeks, and pork loin. Juan meanwhile managed to select three unrelated proteins—chicken wings, pig’s foot, and “lenguado” (sole). He also picked up a bottle of cream in his efforts to find olive oil; somewhere along the way he got stuck with manjar. But Juan persevered and, in an unexpected turn of events, beat out Mapuchef who was sent packing. It’s come to my attention that the three judges see Juan as an equal. Whenever they deal with him it’s with a wink and they usually put down one of the other contestants, as if they were commiserating with him. Perhaps this explains the upset in the last round with José Luis losing.Next week: a filler episode to make the season just a little longer. Seven eliminated contestants (basically everyone but Gigi) returns for a shot at rejoining the cast. The remaining four contestants take a break as they participate in this judging process.
For the complete episode, click here.