Film and TV

Twitter and Tales from Everyone's Childhood on Top Chef: Texas

I left a dinner tonight at Roost earlier than I would have liked -- I really need to stop making dinner plans on Wednesday night, but my job more or less necessitates that I eat out every night -- and will circle back around to this fact shortly. Needless to say, Kevin Naderi is doing the kind of cooking at his new restaurant that I'm pleased to say would never fit into Top Chef: Texas's mold of what Texas cooking should be. Roost is wholly Houston and wondrous in its sense of time and place, and also has nothing whatsoever to do with tonight's Top Chef -- which is exactly what makes it so splendid.

Tonight's Quickfire challenge is to cook a meal in 30 minutes using "suggestions" thrown out by Twitter users. I have a deep love-hate relationship with Twitter, one that can't be explained in 140 characters or even one blog post. As expected, I'm conflicted about its role in the show tonight. Is Bravo trying too hard to keep up with social media trends? Or is Twitter now acceptably mainstream?

Regardless of the answer, Twitter offers up "bacon" as the first demand for the contestant's dish. This is the Internet, after all. Its atomic structure is composed of bacon neurons and kitten protons.

This challenge is inherently unfair but hilarious to watch, as only Ugly Chris is smart enough to keep his bacon extremely simple from the start, knowing that Twitter -- as it is wont to do -- will throw a bunch of misspelled bullshit their way in just a few minutes. The first is to make a hash (some Twitter hack "cutely" reasons that they should do a hash for a #hashtag challenge and I fight some bile back down my throat at this), the second is to pick one item from the pantry and hand it off to another chef, the third is... I've stopped paying attention. Twitter encourages gnat-like attention spans, you realize.

Oh, and Paul won tonight's Quickfire challenge. Obviously. He's winning this whole thing, folks.

And then...Patti Labelle shows up.

Wait, did I have too much Burgundy at dinner? I'm not sure what Patti Labelle has to do with Texas, but I'm certain that she needs to stop singing "Lady Marmalade." Stop. Forever. Moulin Rouge has ruined that song for all of us. No one likes that song anymore and she is shattering my eardrums with that final note. Can't she stick to the slightly more appropriate "Stir It Up"?

Whatever. The main challenge tonight is to cook "soul food" that's inspired by the person who first inspired the contestants to cook. This means lots of weeping is ahead, and not the fun, overly dramatic kind like on that dumb art show that comes before Top Chef: Texas. I'll admit that I'm vaguely interested to see what the different contestants' concepts of comfort/soul food are, but that's about it. There's nothing even remotely Texan about this episode -- which is either good or bad depending on how bitter you are.

Lots of filler about everyone's grandparents and childhoods. I'm reminded of the recent XKCD cartoon that states: "An American tradition is anything that happened to a baby boomer twice." Considering my generation's own sick love affair with nostalgia -- as evidenced by this particular episode -- I wonder if we'll eventually control almost every facet of pop culture in the same ways that our parents unconsciously do today. (See also South Park's recent "You're Getting Old" episode for further discussion on this topic, but only if you want to end up cynical and depressed.)

And along comes Emeril Lagasse, guest judge once again, decrying someone's use of A1 in the demiglace. But wasn't the entire challenge asking someone to make a dish that's comforting and soulful and reminiscent of the person who taught them how to cook? What if the person who taught you how to cook made brilliant use of A1 or deliberately served meat in unwieldy portions or topped cabbage with fried eggs? What if A1 sauce is your goddamned madeleine?

Who is Emeril to say otherwise, to say that your sense memories are not valid? They're valid because they're your own, and therein lies the entire problem of asking someone to make comfort food and then define it by your own interpretation of the "genre," if we can even call it that. Everyone's idea of comforting or soulful food will be different depending on their background and childhood -- especially this diverse group of chefs -- and so every dish will reflect that. Not what you, as a judge, deemed comforting at some long-distant point in your past.

I officially hate this challenge.

I do, on the other hand, want to taste Foghorn Leghorn's bibimbap because -- bear with me -- this would be comforting to me, having just said all of that. This nebulous notion of "comfort food" cuts both ways. It's maddening.

In the end, the judges are clearly more swayed by those contestants that modernized their "comfort food" dishes, like Foghorn, rather than those like Grayson who kept it old school. Grayson, unsurprisingly, is in the bottom three along with megabitch Heather and Used To Be Fat Chris. THIS COULD BE THE NIGHT, Y'ALL. THE NIGHT THAT HEATHER FINALLY GOES HOME.

But first, Sarah officially wins the challenge. Good for her; she's a Texas girl, after all, and I find myself liking her guilelessness more and more with every episode. And -- finally, like manna after a long wilderness (okay, maybe not quite that dramatic) -- Heather is gone. Beverly, naturally, is fucking thrilled.

Tonight at Roost, I reeled happily from one dish to the next -- curried lentils topped with tangy yogurt and seared scallops or roasted cauliflower topped with wiggling bonito flakes -- and thrilled to see how young chef Kevin Naderi is incorporating his Persian roots into decidedly modern, notably Gulf Coast-style cuisine at his little Montrose restaurant. This is exactly what the Top Chef judges were looking for in tonight's dishes: childhood influences woven seamlessly and respectfully into updated, forward-thinking dishes.

But they'll never have a chance to showcase that on this show. For better (not for worse), Houston has marked itself apart as a rebel in part by not appearing on the show, setting itself up as the smart kid in the back of the class defiantly and confidently doing his own thing. And for that, I am happy.

Quotes of the Night:

"The least you could've done is open it for me." - Lindsay to Chris about a bottle of Sriracha.
"Is that what Southern gentlemen do?" - Used To Be Fat Chris, in response.
"That's just generally what gentlemen do." Lindsay, with a sick burn.

"Grayson probably just made the dish she had every night at home." - Colicchio, sneering at Grayson's version of comfort food. UGH. SEE ABOVE.

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Katharine Shilcutt