Top Chef 2: Episode 11

Filed in ReviewsTags: Food/Wine, Top Chef, TV/Cable

Episode 11: The Bitter End of Bullying

The Quickfire Challenge continued the ad nauseum corporate sponsorship, tasking the contestants to create a dish using Nestlé Chocolatier. Surprise guest judge Eric Ripert chose Sam's dish as the winner:

Shrimp & Bananas with Chocolate Chipotle, Black Bean & Cilantro Pesto Sauces
Photo © Bravo TV

The Elimination Challenge, which was to determine the four who would move on to the final in Hawaii, tasked the contestants with each preparing a dish in a five-course, romantic dinner. The chefs were given nearly limitless freedom in budget and food choices, and were to pair each dish with an appropriate wine. Sam, as the winner of the Quickfire Challenge, had the option of choosing his course and dish protein, which none of the other contestants could then use.

Knowing the stakes of the challenge, each chef put forth commensurate effort - as the meal's outcome proved. However, the judges chose no winner for the Elimination Challenge, due to events that took place following the completion of the challenge.

Judge Colicchio explains what happened next:

When I got to the set, the producers told me that the previous evening Cliff, Elia, Ilan and Sam had been drinking. While Marcel slept peacefully in the next room, they made a decision to shave their own heads (only Ilan and Elia actually went through with it) and then to shave Marcel's, whether he liked it or not. Cliff jumped him, abruptly waking him up, and hauled him into a half-nelson, while the others laughingly captured the incident on a crew member's camcorder and debated shaving his head. Marcel was bruised and understandably freaked out, and the video footage had found its way back to the Producers.

The next morning, the producers scrambled to try to resolve the situation, and in the end, Cliff was disqualified for violation of contest rules that prohibit physically accosting or threating another contestant. In, again, Colicchio's words:

The whole thing brought to mind that famous quote, "All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing." Any one of them could have spoken up and said, "This isn't cool, guys. Knock it off."

But they didn't, so as far as I was concerned they were all to blame and I was ready to send the lot of them home and let Marcel win by default.

(Ed. Note: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." is a quote generally attributed to Edmund Burke.)

Kudos to Tom, for wanting to do the right thing by dismissing the lot of them. However, the show's producers vetoed that decision - after all, the show must go on. Cliff was dismissed for explicit violation of contest rules, no winner was declared for the Elimination Challenge, and following the Judges' Table, Sam, Ilan, Elia, and Marcel were sent on to the final in Hawaii.

I cannot express the extent to which the decision not to dismiss Sam, Ilan, and Elia disappointed and upset me, for several reasons.

First, the events of Episode 11 were the climax of a situation that not only had been building up for several episodes, but one that the show's producers actively encouraged and fomented. The editing of each episode has clearly intended to justify and to promote the anti-Marcel attitude amongst the other contestants. In fact, during the airing of Episode 11, Bravo even ran a television poll asking "Who Hates Marcel the Most?" - with the choices being "Sam", "Cliff", "Elan", and "Me". It is ironic that Colicchio should reference the Burke quote, since the show's producers, editors, and judges allowed the situation to escalate as it did, with several instances of bullying taking place with nary a response. Frank threatened Marcel with physical harm in Episode 6. Sam publicly berated, swore at, and humiliated Marcel in Episode 9 - the same episode in which all the contestants helped each other serve their Elimination Challenge dishes except for Marcel, who was left to serve his dishes alone. This anti-Marcel sentiment was actively encouraged by the show's staff, and led directly to the outcome in Episode 11.

For a show purported to showcase quality food and professionalism of a group of individuals vying for acclaim as a "Top Chef", the producers, editors, and judges have instead given the viewers a product not "all about the food" but instead sometimes about the food, and more often about interpersonal conflict. If I wanted reality drama, I'd watch Real World. I want what was advertised: a show that brings the best out of a group of creative, professional contestants, and in the process encourages my own culinary imagination.

Second, I generally have an innate response to seeing someone subjected to group outcast and bullying. I can empathize all too well with such people, because growing up through much of elementary, junior high, and high school, I was that person. I know how it feels to be made fun of, to be different, to be unaccepted - and, yes, to be bullied. (Granted, most of the bullying ceased by the time I was in high school; not many bullies choose to take on someone nearly six feet tall and over 200 pounds.) I understand the mental and emotional toll enduring such things incurs. Books such as Frank Peretti's non-fiction and auto-biographical The Wounded Spirit resonate very well with me.

Fortunately, thanks to my parents and my faith, I endured those days, and became the person I am today. In my case, what I endured was because of the immaturity of kids, adolescents, and teenagers. Most of those people have now grown up and matured, and I hold no ill will. However, in Marcel's case, the instigators are not immature teenagers, but rather (equally immature) adults. Cliff, Ilan, Sam, Betty, Frank, and the rest have no excuse for their behavior. Others have said that Cliff's actions amounted to felony assault; regardless of the degree of legal severity, his actions were abetted by Ilan, encouraged by Sam, and not challenged by Elia.

I am especially saddened that the show's producers insisted that the end - the show itself - justified whatever means - up to and including the events of Episode 11 - of its completion. The producers should have let Colicchio send all of Cliff, Sam, Ilan, and Elia home. Given that the show had a three-month gap between the filming of Episode 11 and the planned filming of the final two Episodes in Hawaii, more than sufficient time existed to come up with some alternate means of completing the show (other than letting Marcel win by default, if that outcome was so undesirable). But instead, cowardice and profit motive superceded principle.

Most of what else could be said has already been said (see Gail's, Andy's, Harold's, Lee Ann's, Padma's, and Shauna's blogs).

The show's staff have a lot of work to do to salvage season two, not to mention to redeem the Top Chef franchise itself.