I'm usually a blur when watching Top Chef. My fingers clack away at the laptop, my eyes dart back and forth between TV and computer screen, as I mentally organize plot summaries, attempt to compose some pithy Tweet while simultaneously taking bites of my microwavable box pasta (furnished by Healthy Choice!).
Then there was this episode, in which I took copious notes for 50 straight minutes, sat frozen for the last 10, stunned (to the degree a Top Chef episode can stun), as I tried processing this most uncomfortable episode.
The good news, if you’re any sort of hometown homer, was that no Chicago chefs were sent home in this week’s double elimination episode. With 10 chefs now remaining, four hail from our fair city. The bad news: Chicago figured into much of the tension, mediocre cooking, sniping and negativity.
Last week’s show foreshadowed the Heather Terhune vs. Beverly Kim friction. In the challenge where contestants cooked for 200 rodeo guests, Terhune thought Kim didn’t contribute enough to their team (Kim peeled and de-veined 400 shrimps). Those resentful feelings carried over this week, and it manifested into a full-fledged, one-sided smackdown.
We’ll just gloss over the quickfire challenge, since it was of no consequence but Chicagoans looking bad: cook a dish deemed worthy to pair with a sponsored brand of tequila. Spiaggia’s Sarah Grueneberg, Moto’s Chris Jones and Terhune were on the bottom three of least favorite interpretations.
In the elimination challenge, chefs were paired with the person they stood next to in line. Each team had to cook a different wild game and serve to a panel of established chefs. Contestants also judged each other's dishes, then decide between themselves who to send to the gallows. Luck of lucks, Terhune and Kim were forcibly teamed. (Set up!)
It’s pretty clear producers set out to portray Terhune (of Sable Kitchen & Bar) as the antagonist in this episode. Other contestants, in their "talking heads" cross interview, used adjectives such as "bossy," "controlling," and "abrasive" to describe Terhune in competition, and one used a PG-13 noun not appropriate for a family newspaper. When judges praised Kim's dish during the quickfire challenge, they cut away to a reaction shot of Terhune appearing displeased. It happened again with Edward Lee’s dish. The editing this week did her no favors.
Not once did Kim (executive chef of Aria) push back. She was all sunny disposition, calm and steady in light of being bulldozed. Right after Kim made a remark about Terhune being a controlling partner, she recounted a story about living in an abusive relationship, and how she’s since learned to channel that negative energy into a positive force.
Though judges and fellow contestants didn’t think the Terhune/Kim duck breast collaboration was bad, it lacked focus. The Asian notes of five spice didn’t mesh with the farm-rustic polenta and pickled cherries. Judges said it felt like two people working on two dishes that ended on the same plate.
Then came the part when I stopped typing. At the judging table, Terhune laid into Kim for not trusting herself, and accused her of operating under a different work ethic from her own. Kim seemed shocked when Terhune said they haven’t seen eye-to-eye throughout the competition. Kim stood there with tears in her eyes, taking in the body blows.
"Sometimes you don’t have enough self-confidence to push through and get the results," Terhune told Kim.
Back in the waiting area as judges readied a verdict, tensions flared even higher. Shrimpgate was rehashed, and some wondered why Terhune would take down her partner, given this challenge was a double elimination where both members of the team would be sent home. It was a tense, cringe-worthy, ugly segment of television, where viewers were directed a clear person to root for and against.
(For Terhune’s part, she tweeted Wednesday night after the episode: "I call it like I see it. If you don't like it, that's okay. I am nothing but honest." Several other chefs-contestants came to the defense of Terhune, claiming the biased editing made her come off worse than what actually happened.)
The Terhune-Kim fued didn’t figure into the elimination, as the team of Nyesha Arrington and Dakota Weiss got sent home for undercooking their venison in an otherwise fine dish. And so the tension between two Chicago chefs remains unresolved. You’ve got to admit, it makes for compelling television when the gloves come off, especially if it revealed brass knuckles instead of bare fists.