By Doris Bravo
Last night, seven of the retired chefs had the chance to fight their way back into the competition. There was (raw) lobster, frustration, and ultimately, another upset. Back again for another look at just what’s going on in the Top Chef Chile kitchens is our own reality cooking expert, Doris Bravo. The drama, below.
For the past few weeks I feel I’ve done a good job outlining the defects of Top Chef Chile: notably the unreasonable challenges and annoying judges. But last night’s episode seemed to defy the odds and turn out a show worthy of Top Chef, to quote Judge Carlo von Mühlenbrock. This change is due to the unorthodox format of the episode: instead of a typical show, episode 9 featured the eliminated contestants battling for a spot back on the show.
This battle entailed a straightforward two-part cooking challenge: “examen de grado” (final exam) and “última oportunidad.” The judges emphasized that all the former contestants were present even though the math obviously didn’t add up: with eight episodes under our belt there should be eight contestants, though only seven were there last night. Ricardo David (“Gigi”) was inescapably missing. The producers of Top Chef Chile may wish to rewrite history and strike Gigi from the record (in the manner of ANTM with Adrianne Curry, the winner of the first cycle) but I won’t put him in the corner.
The first round was meant to mimic the final exam culinary students take in order to graduate. The seven hopefuls could thus show off their technique, skills, and knowledge as they took on a very choice protein: lobster from Isla Juan Fernández. Not only does the archipelago produce a glorious crustacean, but Robinson Crusoe Island is part of the chain, for all you literary types out there. Unfortunately, this is where the good times came to a crashing halt. To my astonishment, most of the contestants had never prepared lobster in this manner before, i.e. whole. César Parada went so far as to admit that though he has cooked lobster he’s never had to break it down, it’s just arrived to him ready to be cooked. Unfortunately neither the stork nor the tooth fairy were flying over the picturesque lake in Chicureo so he had to do all the dirty work himself.I’m not a fan of lobster, but that doesn’t mean I’ll stand for its mistreatment. An hour is more than enough time to prepare a lobster dish and I have it on good authority that a lobster can be cooked in 20 minutes. So with three times as much time there really isn’t any excuse for the contestants to serve undercooked or raw (!) lobster. I hope none of the fishermen in Isla Juan Fernández were watching this challenge.
As if the lobster couldn’t get worse treatment the cooks were getting stingy on the salt. Judge Carlo repeatedly asked the contestants to add salt. In his opinion a creature of the sea must be cooked in liquid that mimics saltwater. I couldn’t agree more. But after living in Chile I realize that seasoning is wholly contextual. In Chile sugar reigns. There are dishes that are replete with sugar (pasta sauce) for no apparent reason. If you have diabetes or do not wish to develop it steer clear of desserts. Sugar has basically blown out the palate of Chileans. With this in mind, can we really trust them when they remark that something is salty? Even if a dish is perfectly balanced, they complain there is too much salt. Most of the dishes I’ve eaten in Chile have been grossly under-salted, but maybe the other diners feel it’s perfect. I believe that salt is a misunderstood condiment in Chile, therefore it isn’t surprising that most of the lobster dishes arrived to the judging table flavorless.The four contestants who have their spots secured—Juan Morales, Carolina Erazo, Alicia Rodríguez, and Sergio Medel—participated in the judging. Judges Pamela Fidalgo and Caro selected three among the eliminated contestants to continue on to the “última oportunidad” while the quartet of “secure” contestants voted for one among the eliminated. As the quartet sat down to eat their mostly inedible lobster they were able to experience what the judges go through each week: eating food cooked in a rush which most of the time is pretty horrible. Will this inspire the remaining participants to cook edible dishes in the future? Hopefully, for the sake of the judges. However, I’d like to see the tables turned and challenge Carlo, Pamela, and Ciro to undertake something ridiculous, like cooking coq au vin in 60 minutes with a gag in their mouth and no red wine.
The final round featured four contestants—Sebastían Araya, José Luis Calfucura (“Mapuchef”), Cristián Sierra, and Quersen Vásquez. For this challenge the hopefuls were asked to replicate the dish that originally sunk them (i.e. caused their elimination). Complicating matters was the rule that they could only enter the pantry once, therefore they had to be mindful of what they picked up. Mapuchef was the first to be eliminated, which came as a surprise to me since I thought he had the chops to return to the roster. Judge Ciro Watanabe was uncharacteristically catty as he announced the second elimination: “I looked up “disaster” on Google and saw this dish in the results.” He should leave the snide remarks to Judge Pamela, it’s just not a good look for him. The disaster in question was Quersen. He left in a much more joyful spirit than Mapuchef who couldn’t even be bothered to say goodbye to his colleagues. The next move of the judges came with a twist since both Sebastián and Cristián came back to the show.
Next week: the gang goes south of Santiago to the Carozzi factory (and makes the sponsor very happy in exchange). The two teams (three on three) must cook for 200 Carozzi employees. One of the eaters found a dish too salty, confirming that you can’t win them all.