Ah, Christmas in July.
Or August, actually, since that is when, according to Lee Anne Wong's Bravo blog, the episode was filmed. But we'll get to that in a second.
Having read so much about the episode before we sank into the Louis XV settee last night, we were expecting A Very Special Episode of Top Chef, something like a cross between an ABC afterschool special and Survivor: Race War or whatever the latest installment was called.
We were also prepared to write a couple of sober little essays on Diversity in the Kitchen and Diversity on Reality TV, quoting Anthony Bourdain to leaven them a bit (and goodness knows you may still see them, as we have a couple of weeks' worth of posting to fill before the next new episode).
But, really, not so much. To the extent race was involved in the episode, it was in a Terry McMillan, Fitty vs. Oprah sort of context.
Of course, we have more than a passing interest in Mia Gaines-Alt, since Miss XaXa visited her Oakdale restaurant, Feed the People!, earlier this month. We had seen hints of her temper on previous episodes (we have never quite forgotten that I'm-gonna-git-ya look she gave Ilan on their first day), but even we were unprepared for when she went all Angela Bassett-in-Waiting to Exhale on Cliff's ass, and we think some of it was justified.
At that point, we were priming ourselves for a martial-arts type of thing, something like Bride with the White Hair, where Mia used her dreads to decapitate Cliff for his effrontery in showing disrespect to a strong Black woman. When, after Mia recounted how she had to sell crack as a child to survive, Cliff rolled his eyes and asked, "Are you done being a martyr yet?" (what an asshole!) we gripped the edge of the Louis XV settee, waiting for the Spirit of Oprah to appear, strike him dumb and accuse him of dating white women (oh wait, isn't Oprah the one being pelted with metaphorical Oreos by 50 Cent and Ludacris?)
Alas, it was not to be. And anyway, it's not as if Mia couldn't have taken care of him single-handedly; she is one fierce woman. And when she fell on her sword and did her version of "And I Am Telling You I Am Going" and left the show, we half-expected, half-wanted her to do the Angela Bassett thing, throwing a lit match behind her and strutting fiercely toward the camera. Alas, that was not to be, either.
Perhaps we should back up a moment, for the benefit of those who, like us yesterday, have not seen the episode. The Quickfire Challenge, to make a drink using Bailey's, won immunity for Cliff. For the Elimination Challenge, the eight cheftestants were divided into two teams and then had to cater a "red carpet" event, a "holiday party" for Los Angeles Magazine. In August.
(Yes, and it was just as phony and bogus as it sounds. We didn't see a single person on the episode even remotely worthy of a red carpet. Not so much as a reality show castoff, 80s sitcom has-been or Hollywood starlet in terms of celebrity. Well, there was a funny chap in an eye-scarring orange shirt who looked awfully like a fat Lance Bass, but since there was no Reichen Lemkuhl, even though there were cameras around, we doubt it was the real Lance.
And we were particularly put off by the fakery of Betty "Spice Rack" Fraser wishing a guest a "Merry Christmas!" No, Bill O'Reilly, don't get worked up; it's not the war on Christmas, it's the war on Christmas in August. Or Mia telling another guest that the strawberries were wonderful, and it's great how California is the only place you can grow strawberries in the winter. Yes, we grow strawberries in the winter, but the ones you were purveying were wonderful precisely because it was the middle of summer. But we digress.)
The guest judge was Chef Lee Hefter of Spago Beverly Hills. The Orange Team--Spice Rack, Ilan, Marcel, and Sam--won the challenge, and as leader, Sam was the individual winner. The Black Team--Cliff, Mike, Elia, and Mia--was on the chopping block (well, not Cliff, since he had immunity), and Elia as the leader was about to be kicked off, but at the last minute, as Padma was opening her mouth to deliver the fateful, affectless words, Mia took herself out of the competition in order to save Elia.
We had actually been impressed with Miss Elia Aboumrad's maturity in accepting responsibility for her team's failure and the consequent dismissal from the competition. But we were even more impressed with Mia's decision In retrospect it makes sense on some level, as the groundwork was laid in the beach episode, when it was the three women who made the top dishes, and had discussions about what it was like to be a woman in professional kitchens, and how they hoped a woman would make it to the finals.
As Tom Colicchio pointed out to her, she didn't seem like a quitter. So just why did Mia quit?
We suspect it was a debilitating bout of homesickness, pangs of self-doubt, a moment of lucid self-awareness, a large dose of altruism, a spoonful of sisters-are-doing-it-for-themselves. That's quite a cocktail, even without the Bailey's.
Of course, the biggest question of all is why this debate had to take place at all. Of the three people up for elimination, Michael "Beer Bong" Midgley is clearly the least talented (and we're being charitable). We were especially delighted when he informed the judges that his task during the catering challenge was to run back and forth between the mobile kitchen and the food station, because not once did we see him run. At most, he shuffled.
At any rate, shouldn't he have been the one to go? Everyone, himself included, recognizes that he is not chef material, much less Top Chef material. (Although, a perverse sentiment would suggest he might do well on a channel like Spike, or Food Network for NASCAR viewers, where he could cook without intimidating the viewers. After all, isn't that the secret to Rachael Ray's success? Well, that, and the perkiness pact she entered into with Satan; they spat in their hands and shook on the deal. Oh wait, that was her loogie-loving lawyer-cum-consort.)
So how has Beer Bong done it? How has he escaped the Padma-wielded guillotine so many times? It may be that, as one reader suggested, it's not Sam, but Beer Bong, who is the real Keyser Söze. After what happened Wednesday night, and the way he has managed to hold on all this time, we are more than willing to believe it.