On to the food … The qualifying stuff is gone, and the fifteen surviving chefs head off to Seattle for the real fun.
* Quickfire: The chefs break down into five teams of three. The judges include three past contestants who didn’t win their respective seasons – Josie, Stefan, and CJ. They must make a dish using local seafood in twenty minutes. John profiles Kuniko as a knife-skills expert because she’s Japanese … but he’s not wrong, in this case. Meanwhile, he’s game-planning while Padma’s talking about the challenge and she goes all Catholic-school on him and smacks his hand with a ruler. Don’t mess with Padma.
* Several chefs focus on digging in one muddy bin for geoduck (pronounced “gooey duck”). Kristen says it “looks like a penis … a really big one.” Maybe a dinosaur’s penis? Even John Holmes feels inadequate next to one of those.
* Carla, who looks like Señor Wences’ puppet Johnny, says she wants to win a James Beard award and have a nice ass. Later, she yells at her teammates that she “can’t keep running around like a stupid.” She’d be hilarious if her voice didn’t sound like a jackhammer scraping down a chalkboard.
* John referring to himself as most hated chef in Dallas has already gotten old halfway through episode two. I also don’t think he’s quite as much of an asshole as he’s making himself out to be – he’s blunt, but there’s zero evidence so far that he’s the least bit malicious.
* For all the talk about the time limit, every camera shot of prep work has the chefs working deliberately. Only plating ended up rushed.
* Judging. John, Kuniko, and Sheldon won for their thinly-sliced gooey duck sashimi, which was sliced more thinly than that of the other team that used the dinosaur penis. Bottom dish was Josh, Danyele, and Eliza, whose razor clam and corn chowder was underseasoned; they wanted to use gooey duck but there was none left for them to utilize. John wins immunity on a random draw.
* And the twist … the three former contestants are reentering the show! Why are the new competitors all complaining? You still have to beat a ton of other chefs. And it’s not like these are past winners.
* Elimination: now we have six teams of three, with the former contestants forming the sixth team together. The challenge is to make a dish using regional ingredients for local chef Tom Douglas. They get 47 minutes to prep and cook in the Space Needle, the time required for it to make one full revolution. I lived there for a summer and never went up. When we wanted a great view, we went to Kerry Park on a clear day, where you get the skyline and Mount Rainier in one shot.
* Now John calls Kuniko a risk taker and praises her for it. He might not play well with all of the others, but if they’re trying to make him this season’s villain, he’s not complying.
* Danyele, Josh, and Eliza are using a fish they can’t identify. That won’t go well. If that fish showed up in Arizona they’d deport it.
* Josie says people call her the “Global Soul Chef.” It’s probably a bad idea to ever use your own nickname on a reality show, unless you want your new nickname to be the Insufferable Douchenozzle Chef.
* Two teams cook at a time in a fairly small kitchen, although that ends up a non-issue.
* Kuniko wants to poach cod fish in chili oil and there’s instant agreement that that’s the team’s dish. Sheldon makes dashi while John does the veg. I don’t know if this is just good chemistry, or if we’ve got three chefs who are all mature and/or laid-back enough to jump immediately to the same page.
* Team Carla is doing poached salmon on seasonal veg. She insists on using a chinois for beurre blanc, saying that’s the only way to make one … I may have missed something in her plan but I have no idea why that would be the case. She’s even annoying chefs who aren’t on her team.
* Chef Douglas is at the table, wearing Meatloaf’s hair. This is not a good look for anyone.
* Kuniko’s chili oil reaches the smoke point and she has to start over. I’m completely confused about how she could “lose focus” (something she says she does a lot because she’s always thinking … that sounds familiar) in a kitchen that small. Was she working on something else? She couldn’t have gone far.
* Judges’ table. Team Kuniko’s cod is poached perfectly, with just the right amount of heat, and a spot prawn shabu shabu that also gets high marks.
* Team Carla’s poached salmon looks like spam. I have never understood the appeal of poached salmon; I don’t know of any other fish that develops so much flavor when seared or otherwise browned, yet poaching just produces a flavorless, gummy pink slab. It’s over fava beans, baby carrots, and baby fennel, as well as that beurre blanc. Sure enough, the judges say the salmon has very little taste, but it’s saved by the sauce. Meanwhile, Carla only enhances her image as Chef Train Wreck by reaching into her knife bag and slicing her hand open.
* Next two groups include Jeff, Brooke, and Bart, where there’s already discord when Brooke thinks Jeff has overcooked the halibut by searing both sides (skin off) but doesn’t seem to speak up in the kitchen. Team Retreads changes its dish at the last minute to try to do something different from the other five teams, which are all making fish; their new dish is quail with a cherry emulsion-broth that no one likes. Meanwhile, Stefan keeps making breast jokes, because those aren’t tired and unfunny at all.
* Josh, no one thinks you’re just this little guy from Oklahoma. They think you need to shave and maybe stop being so paranoid.
* Back to the table: Team Retread’s quail breast with confit spot prawn, porcini, mashed potatoes, and cherries goes over poorly. The quail and spot prawns are all overcooked, the broth is slightly bitter at the finish, and the cherry mixture isn’t sweet. I guess experience is as overrated on Top Chef as it is in October baseball.
* Jeff, Brooke, and Bart serve pan roasted halibut with mushrooms, English peas, and wheat beer with herb sabayon. Padma’s fish is hockey-puck overcooked.
* Final two groups start with Daniele, Josh, Eliza, and the mystery fish, which turns out to be cod. They pan-roast it and serve it with sautéed mushrooms, fava beans, and pickled apples. The apples get raves but there’s too much raw garlic in the sauce.
* Micah, Kristen, and Tyler serve seared pacific salmon with seasonal veg and another spot prawn butter sauce. It doesn’t seem very creative, but they “crrispy-seared” it, which is how you treat salmon, dammit. Kristen can really sell a dish – her descriptions are always detailed and highlight what makes each dish distinctive. She knows what to say that will get judges’ attention. It’s like subliminal advertising. Anyway, their salmon is far better than the other salmon dish.
* John, Kuniko, and Sheldon win again. John is very quick to credit Kuniko in front of the judges, again defying the villain tag. She’s cooked ling cod (native to the U.S. and Canadian Pacific coast), but has never poached in chili oil before. The dashi was flavorful, John’s spot prawns were perfect, yata yata. Kuniko wins, making me wish the racist from the first episode was around to see that. John has a kiss for her on the head as they walk out.
* Bottom two: Team Retreads and Team Brooke/Jeff/Bart. Josie can’t even identify why they’re there, which has Tom wearing his Smuggie. Stefan doesn’t realize the quail was overcooked, then makes excuses when confronted about it.
* Brooke is fairly polite in disagreeing before the judges. Jeff overcooked the fish with hard sear on both sides. Bart’s sabayon was flavorless. The judges were far harsher here than at the table; from this discussion you’d think this wasn’t fit for your dog.
* The killer here seems to be Jeffrey starting the fish too soon (14½ minutes to go) and hard-searing both sides, so by the moment of service it was already dry in the center. He goes home, with a pretty clear explanation of why. Padma’s already crying; episode 2 waterworks has to be a new record for her.
* Still way too early top three: John, Kristen, Micah, with Kuniko just on the outside because she might be her own worst enemy if she can’t maintain focus. None of the three retreads was remotely impressive this time around.