Top Chef Returns and Goes Darwinian on a Cheftestant's Ass

Here’s the mistake I make every time I watch an episode of Top Chef: I forget to eat beforehand and consequently spend the entire hour craving gourmet food. Then I spend the subsequent hour trying to satisfy that craving, eating whatever cheap, easy-to-make crap I can find in my cupboard. Last night I ate couscous smothered in palak paneer from Trader Joe's. I'm pretty sure I got off decidedly cheaper than if I had eaten a meal prepared by any of Top Chef's sixteen cheftestants.

Things got off to a great start with the reality competition’s return to Bravo on Wednesday night. The fourth season takes place in Chicago, the Windy City, the home of, as everyone knows, deep dish pizza -- which means it should have been no surprise to anyone involved that the first challenge involved Chicago's trademark food. I’m not even a chef and I expected it. And yet some of the cheftestants were flummoxed -- especially Nikki, who, when faced with this Quickfire challenge to create a unique take on deep dish pizza, didn’t even know what amount of dough to use. She ended up presenting guest judge Rocco DiSpirito with a starch pie and a touch of truffle oil to grimace at. Don’t you think she should've looked that up before arriving in Chicago? Ah, natural selection is a wonderful thing, isn’t it, my friends? It took Charles Darwin more than twenty years to find enough evidence to support his theory of evolution and ultimately publish The Origin of Species, yet I’m pretty sure just a few seasons of today’s American reality television would have given him more than enough material to prove that the most successful members of an ecosystem -- like, say, a Chicago kitchen -- will outstrip their competition, eliminating the weakest members (in this case, Nimma, an anxiety-ridden Atlanta chef who was already asked to pack up her knives). Darwin aside, how embarrassing is it to be sent home during the first week of any reality competition? All you have to do is not suck more than fifteen other contestants. It’s a skate-by week, for crying out loud.

This week’s episode also served as a lesson to a disturbing percentage of the cheftestants who, young hotshots all, had skipped learning the classic dishes that chefs of an earlier generation had been expected to master at a very young age (at least according to judge Tom Colicchio). Take for example the soufflé, which neither Erik nor Zoi had made for years: they stumbled through it, amazed their dishes even rose in the oven. Then there were Ryan and Valerie, charged with concocting original takes on chicken piccata. The judges were appalled by both dishes, pointing out that neither came even close to qualifying as chicken piccata. The most amazing thing about these four cheftestants’ failures is that Nimma actually made two dishes worse than theirs because of her inability to use salt correctly. Just as in nature, the weakest die off first. Not very exciting, I’ll give you that, but it always gets better as the stronger start butting heads.