‘Top Chef’: Has the show hit a new low with the cream cheese challenge?

This season of “Top Chef” hasn’t been very spicy. Yes, there has been literal spice (this is New Orleans, after all), but we’ve lacked chefs who are as colorful and creative as commentators as they are in the kitchen. When NIna grumbles of the recently eliminated Michael, “Boo Boo, you’re a douche,” it wasn’t especially witty (and definitely wasn’t nice), but at least someone got fired up about something other than andouille sausage.  

That isn’t always a problem — after all, the food is supposed to be the star of the show. This week, not so much. I realize that television shows are increasingly relying on product placement to stretch their budgets. On “Top Chef,” we see the chefs driving around in RAV-4s, singing the praises of Reynolds Wrap, and I suppose we’ll eventually see them brushing their teeth with Crest, wearing Nikes and banging Martha Stewart pots and pans around the kitchen. But this week, I think “Top Chef” went a skosh too far. 
The Elimination Challenge? Make a dish incorporating cream cheese. Every. Single. Dish. Thirteen chefs, thirteen dishes (appetizers, entrees and desserts) featuring cream cheese. 
I like cream cheese. I think it’s great on a bagel, or in a cheesecake. I realize it can be used in savory dishes or in desserts. Fine. I also think if I ate thirteen dishes that tasted vaguely of cream cheese I would need a spit-up bucket after the fifth one. Let’s be honest — cream cheese is not butter. It does not make everything it touches a little tastier. When everything goes to hell halfway through the Elimination Challenge, the judges seem absolutely floored. Why aren’t all of these dishes delightful? Here’s a hint: CREAM CHEESE. While the judges very pointedly do not complain about the cream cheese itself (Philadelphia cream cheese would NOT be pleased if they did), I can’t help but think that many of the chefs struggled because they were trying to figure out how to deal with wadding cream cheese chunks into their lamb or whatever the hell they had to cook. 
I know, I know. These are professionals. They should rise to the occasion. But I have to feel sorry for the judges, who probably will not be eating cream cheese voluntarily for many, many moons after this. 
But before we get to the Elimination Challenge, let’s begin at the beguine. Padma and John Besh barge in on the chefs and demand they pack an overnight bag. Road trip! 
The Quickfire Challenge is to make something delicious featuring the Creole tomato, which has a high acid level and a thin skin. To make things even more exciting (read: unpleasant), they have to cook outside under a broiling sun. This isn’t just uncomfortable — it screws with the food temperature of a lot of dishes.
Because this is a Quickfire, I’m not breaking out every dish. Basically, everyone either made tomato soup or tomato salad or roasted tomatoes. Brian does make a “toad in the hole” that impresses John, though he thinks he cheated to use an egg and andouille sausage for some reason. 
So, who blew it? John declares Patty’s dish a mess, though the croutons could have been good. Stephanie’s flavor was good but it didn’t show a lot of imagination. Oh, and Travis’ didn’t elevate the tomato. Maybe he should have put it on toothpicks. Kidding. 
As for the best tomato dishes, Nina did a great job with the chilled soup. Carlos elevated his tomato (Toothpicks! Kidding!). Louis went with big, bold flavors, but the tomato still stood out.
Nina wins! Because, apparently, Nina wins almost everything always. I like Nina, but at some point the show doesn’t seem to be particularly surprising. Just a thought. 
For the Elimination Challenge, they’ll be cooking at La Provence, John’s restaurant, and he’ll be inviting executive chefs from eight New Orleans restaurants to dinner. Guess what they’ll be eating? While everyone except Nina (who gets to choose) will be drawing knives to determine whether they’re cooking an appetizer, an entree, or dessert, that ALL have to incorporate, yes, CREAM CHEESE! Oh, and the only dairy they get to use, other than CREAM CHEESE, is fresh milk and cream 
The winner of the Elimination Challenge will get $10,000 furnished by Philadelphia cream cheese! Surprise! 
Before they have to cook, everyone gets an evening to relax, cook out, and swim in the pool. We learn that Nina’s best friends are Bene and Travis, which is both sweet and depressing. Sweet, because they’re the Gossip Girls clique and seem to adore one another, and depressing because Bene and Travis are going home long before Nina. 
In the kitchen the next day, there’s a lot of running around, scrounging for food (they have to fight for whatever is in the pantry), and stressing out. I think Sara is in trouble. Raw lamb is not a good thing. Maybe she could take the cream cheese and mold if into a steak shape instead?
The judges are Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, Michael Gulotta (Executive Chef, August), Kelly Fields (Executive Pastry Chef, August & Borgne), Matt Regan (Executive Chef, Lüke), Alon Shaya (Domenica) Octavio Mantilla (Partner, Besh Restaurant Group), Jeff Mattia (American Sector), Brian Landry (Borgne) and Lisa White (Pastry chef, Domenica). Oh, and John Besh. Padma’s there, too.
Patty – Snapper crude with cream cheese vinaigrette
Brian – Summer squash & zucchini tagliatelle with poached oysters & emulsified cream cheese
Carlos – Poached beets & pickled carrots with peach, habanero & cream cheese sauce
Nina – Crispy zucchini blossoms with eggplant & cream cheese puree
Sara – Island spiced lamb chop stuffed with cream cheese & curry powder
Tom likes the colors. John thinks Carols’ dish had a depth of flavor. Gail thinks, as usual, that Patty needs to do a little more. Matt Regan (Executive Chef, Lüke) liked the sauce, but got a little drop on it, whatever that means. Gail thought the carrots had a beautiful floral note. Alon Shaya (Domenica) thought Nina’s squash blossoms stayed really crispy. Octavio Mantilla (Partner, Besh Restaurant Group) thinks it was a good instinct to stuff the blossom. Does anyone do anything else with squash blossoms? Sorry, but that’s kind of three years ago now. Michael thinks Brian thought outside of the box with his oyster, but Kelly declares it too salty. No one likes Sara’s undercooked lamb. Jeff Mattia (American Sector) says it was his least favorite dish. As I said, Sara’s in trouble! 
Bene – Roasted chicken breast filled with caramelized onions & tarragon cream cheese
Carrie – Vinegar-braised chicken in cream cheese sauce with chilled cucumber
Justin – Roasted duck breast with eggplant vinaigrette, chanterelle mushrooms & corn puree
Travis – Seared lamb chops with Moroccan succotash & cream cheese aioli
Josh thinks Carrie’s braise was gutsy. Gail thinks her dish was gloomy and soupy. Everyone thinks Bene’s vegetables were gross. John thinks Travis’ lamb stood out, but Gail noticed not every lamb was cooked well. Kelly says hers was evenly raw all the way through. As for Justin’s duck, Brian Landry (Borgne) felt it was the most focused and flavorful. Tom then tells a story about cream cheese pinwheels from the 1960s, which were disgusting in any era. I’m sure Philadelphia cream cheese does not like this story, Tom Colicchio!
Louis – Graham cracker with blackberries & cream cheese mousse
Nicolas – Funnel cake & carrot cake with peach flavored cream cheese
Shirley – Philadelphia steamed egg custard with macerated blueberries
Stephanie – Cream cheese, peach & cherry mousse with cream cheese short dough
Kelly thinks something terrible happened to Stephanie’s dish. Tom thinks there has to be a story about it. Once upon a time there was a little cream cheese mousse… kidding! Nicolas’ is everyone’s favorite. Gail thinks Shirley’s custard is overcooked. Lisa White (Pastry chef, Domenica) thinks Louis’ bar was soggy and chewy. 
Just an aside here: it’s really hard to make a dessert incorporating cream cheese (and not using butter) that doesn’t taste like something made from a recipe found in a magazine trumpeting “Great casserole dishes for the whole family!” on the cover. 
With this nightmare meal concluded, the judges wonder why everything sucks (HINT: CREAM CHEESE). Could it be that the chefs were intimidated? Tom thinks that’s crap. Drake Leonard (Sous chef, La Provence) also thinks that’s crap. They are all silently thinking “CREAM CHEESE!” but not saying it.
Sidebar! What kind of farm animal would you be, chefs? Louis would be a bull so he’d be left alone. Sara would be a sheep because she has big hair. Brian thinks Shirley would be a duck because they’re majestic birds. She thinks Brian would be a cock. Stephanie would be a horse. Nina thinks nobody wants to be a pig. Travis would! Oh, dear. Maybe in the next challenge the chefs will get to pick their proteins — EACH OTHER! Mwahahahaha!
Then, the stew room with the dreaded camera aimed at the judges. Padma can’t believe the chefs didn’t do better with all that lush produce. The meal didn’t live up to Gail’s expectations. What stands out to John is Nicolas’ dessert. Gail thought it was above and beyond. Nina’s blossom is deemed awesome, and Justin’s duck is by far the best entree. 
More griping. Travis’ vegetables were improperly cooked. Tom thought Bene and Travis made bad family meal dishes. Sara’s lacked a balance of flavors. Tom thinks Stephanie’s dessert was a mistake that she had no choice but to serve. 
Nina, Nicolas and Justin are the top three. The winner is… Nina? Nicolas didn’t win? She wins everything. This may become “Top Chef”‘s most boring season. I do want Nina to win, and I think she will. But only if the other chefs don’t smother her first in a fit of frustration. 
Sara, Bene and Travis are in the bottom. Sara admits she messed up. Bene explains he accidentally steamed his vegetables. Tom tells him he tried to do too much. Travis loved his dish! Tom tells him the vegetables were like mush. Travis back peddles slightly. 
The judges talk about the badness. Padma says Sara’s lamb was so raw it was blue. Gail thinks Travis’ vegetables were miserable. Padma thinks Travis made a travesty, ha ha! Tom thinks Bene took a detour from farm to table and went to cafeteria. Zing!
Bene gets the boot. And will never eat cream cheese again, I’m sure. 
Do you think “Top Chef” has gone too far with product placement? Do you think Nina is going to win the season?