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Top Chef is playing with our emotions.  Or at least they’re trying to, though many Washingtonians seem less than enthralled by the current season despite its being filmed right here in our backyard.  After a week where there was next to no Washington connection, we’re back in full force with a lobbyist-influenced Quickfire and a “power lunch” elimination challenge, both of which featured famous-for-DC types.

So why doesn’t this season have folks on the edges of their seats?  This may be Top Chef’s most diverse pool of cheftestants, but they still come across as pretty vanilla.  The field is still too unwieldy to care about everyone, and the Angelo vs. Kenny drama really isn’t all that compelling.

But we here at Capital Spice are watching with a different eye, looking out for the ways in which the producers remind viewers that they spent six weeks or so filming in the Nation’s Capital this spring.  The clips of landmarks and monuments help, sure, but we all know that DC provides near limitless fodder for challenge themes and pun-heavy episode titles.

This week we opened with a challenge that did a great job of marrying “official Washington” with Top Chef in the form of a “Toothpick Rule” challenge judged by a Member of Congress.  Afterwards, it was on to one of Washington’s storied white tablecloth restaurants, the Palm, for a Power Lunch served to a Senator, a top lobbyist and a host of NBC hosts.

After the jump find out more about the Toothpick Rule (we’ll keep it short, we promise) and all the special guests

The “Toothpick Rule” was an outgrowth of the ethics reforms put into place by Congressional Democrats upon regaining the majority after the 2006 elections.  Lobbyists and the businesses and organizations that employ them were already barred from giving most gifts to Congressional Members and staff, but these reforms added meals to the list of verboten freebies.  An exception to the rule, as Congressman Aaron Schock of Illinois explained to the cheftestants, is food that can be eaten standing up without utensils – hence the “Toothpick Rule” shorthand.  Nevermind the fact that you could spend more on a Kobe beef slider or a cracked lobster claw than you could on an entire plate of salmon or chicken…everyone knows you can’t buy influence without the presence of a fork and knife.

Image from Rep. Schock's Facebook page

The Quickfire was judged by Congressman Aaron Schock of Illinois.  Schock has the distinction of being the youngest Member of Congress (he’s 29) and the first born in the 1980s.  He’s a freshman Member, elected in 2008 to succeed now-Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood in Illinois’ 18th Congressional District.  He is actively working on expanding the Republican party’s efforts to reach out to younger voters.  And just to bring the ethics discussion full circle? He hosted a Top Chef watch party at We the Pizza last night as a low-dollar fundraiser for his re-election campaign.

The Palm, the site of the Elimination Challenge, opened its second location in 1972 at the urging of then-UN Ambassador George H. W. Bush (the first President Bush).  Since then, they’ve been turning out lunch and dinner fare to lobbyists and leaders alike.  As you saw on the episode, one of their ‘innovations’ is the preparation of four-pound lobsters for two.  Perhaps best known for their decor that features caricatures of regulars and personalities who have dined there over the years, they should be best known for Executive Director and longtime maitre d’ Tommy Jacomo.  After a significant renovation in 2007, he Palm is definitely still a see-and-be-seen location, though perhaps not as frequented for deal-making in the current political climate.

The Palm
1225 19th Street, NW
Washington, DC
Palm on Urbanspoon

Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) joined the judges for lunch at the Palm.  Warner is a freshman Senator, elected in 2008, but he previously served as Governor of Virginia from 2002 to 2006.  Warner was elected in 2008, succeeding 30-year Senate veteran John Warner (no relation).  He had run unsuccessfully against Warner for the same seat twelve years earlier.  In the Senate, Warner has been a leading voice on the Budget and Banking Committees, where he has been active on financial services reform.

John Podesta currently serves as the President and CEO of the Center for American Progress, a progressive/liberal think tank and advocacy group.  You may remember their name from our recap of the third episode (the intern cookout at Mount Vernon).  Podesta served as President Bill Clinton’s White House Chief of Staff and as co-chair of President Obama’s transition team.  Between his own accomplishments and his brother Tony’s role as the head of a major lobbying firm, John Podesta is pretty much a one-man power lunch.

Chef Art Smith is no stranger to the world of Top Chef, serving as a guest judge during Season Four in Chicago and competing in Top Chef Masters.  Though he still lives in Chicago, his influence is all over the menu at Art and Soul restaurant here in Washington.  Located in the Hotel Liaison on Capitol Hill, Art and Soul has quickly become known as a destination for politicians and foodies alike.  Their Southern-influenced cuisine and cocktails include plenty of traditional flourishes (their pickled “put-ups” are worth a trip all by themselves).  Through June and July, Art and Soul features “Crab and Beer Wednesdays” on their outdoor patio, and they’ll certainly make use of their large outdoor firepit as the weather starts to cool down.

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If there were ever an argument to be made that the producers of Top Chef paid close attention to our contest at the end of last season, it’s this week’s Quickfire challenge:

Congratulations to FrenchTwistDC for such a spot-on suggestion!  And further congrats to Sarah for suggesting Chef Art Smith as a guest judge.