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It is a hard thing asked of these contestants. Penned up for weeks at a time in a bunker, largely incommunicado, with only each other, boxed wine, and gallon jugs of Wolfschmitz for company, TV cameras always hovering, waiting to pounce at any moment of conflict or stress and fix them in their timeless glare. Sleep is a sometimes thing -- and likely to be interrupted at any time by Padma in a shocking print, rallying them to prepare a three-course meal using the contents of a vending machine. These contestants are tired. Isolated, sleepless, subjected to "stress positions" for long periods at a time, running on a schedule that changes capriciously and without discernible patterns, this kind of fiendish punishment can create in a subject, a weakened and vulnerable state of mind. Dick Cheney would blanche at some of the awful things we do these chefs. It's enough to crack anyone.
In the last few weeks of Top Chef, we have observed as extraordinarily gifted, experienced professionals have:
Won an Elimination Challenge with a bowl of steamed mussels.
Completely f---ed up an entire pasta course that any Italian nona could have won with a handful of boxed pasta, some good olive oil, a clove of garlic, and a few chili flakes.
Been sent home for botching a CHEESEBURGER.
Won an Elimination Challenge with a grilled cheese sandwich.
Been given the chop for screwing up what was basically a liquified version of a baked potato you'd find made better at TGI McFunster's.
What's going ON here?
One need only look at Angelo's face in the stew room. He seemed a shrunken version of himself. Yet to face the judges, he appeared a condemned man, waiting, ready and resigned to his fate.
These chefs are exhausted. The stress of the last few weeks has visibly ground some of them down them down to virtual nubbins. I felt sadness and enormous sympathy during the EC action, watching Carla wander through that enormous Target's empty aisles, 3 a.m., a a headless chicken blinking under the cruel, fluorescent lights. Tiffany, falling back on some hideous prepared seasoning from childhood as if drowning -- grabbing for it like a life preserver. Angelo and Mike seeking solace and security in each other's company, clinging to their fellow inmate for solace. Given their post-Gitmo state of mind, and the conditions at Camp Top Chef lately, it was an unexpected delight to see the Muppets earlier in the show. Ordinarily, I hate goofy challenges like this: fuzzy, silly, tweenie, or personality-driven guest judges. As a general rule, I'd like to see Joel Robuchon, Eric Ripert, and Grant Achatz sit in on every challenge. But this was, I thought, one of the more unexpectedly delightful QFs in Top Chef history. I tried to resist -- curmudgeonly inclined as I am -- but who among us, what hard-hearted monster could not be charmed by the sight of Richard Blais, explaining himself to Elmo? Angry Dale being heckled by furries, fighting a natural instinct to curse at the Cookie Monster? As a dad -- all too familiar with Elmo and Mr. Noodle and friends -- I was fascinated by the varied reactions as the chefs were confronted by the fact that they'd be judged by Muppets. Blais thought instantly of his own child -- and how cool he'd look later having hung with Elmo. Tiffany and Carla seemed amused. Antonia thrilled and bemused. Isabella took it in stride. Dale was understandably dismayed -- but impressively enough, went on to snatch victory from disgust. It was the expression on Angelo's face, however, that was the "tell." When he first spied the Muppets popping up from behind the table, his face fell as if punched. He looked like someone had just taken a dump on his lap. My theory is that that was the precise moment where Angelo lost it. His will to go on disappeared. From the first second he looked into those three sets of pitiless, googly eyes, he was a defeated man. He had seen the Beast. And it was brightly-colored and fuzzy.
I should interject that no one was more excited by the Great Muppet Adventure than Tom Colicchio. It was all he could talk about after. I've never seen or heard him so excited about any guest judge -- ever! And I understand now. I put off watching the QC until the very last moment -- but was immediately charmed. And bizarrely enough, no challenge has ever shown us so unblinkingly the true characters of our contestants. As I've said, these are enormously talented people, doing a very hard thing -- under ridiculous pressure. It was great to see them have a laugh. It was great to see a few unguarded moments -- children again.
End of the day, Angelo went home. He may have been a better all-around cook than some. But his soup was far and away the worst. Top Chef is like the baseball play-offs. Doesn't matter who the better team is -- or who has the best season stats. One bad day, one booted slow roller to short, and it's all over. Richard's arepa, while ugly (and its appearance was not a factor in the judging in this case) was only slightly less tasty than Dale's soup and sandwich. Antonia's courageous and delicious soft-cooked eggs were only a hair behind Richard in their wonderfulness.
But Dale? His dish tasted the best. Was executed skillfully and innovatively. And once again, hit that sweet spot with the judges as Dale figured out just right what four jaded palates might crave at 3 a.m. in an empty Target store in New Jersey.