I’m back from vacation and am on the clock again for ESPN and for Top Chef. I’ll be chatting on Thursday, just at a later time than usual, and will be in Nashville for the winter meetings next week. I’ll also do a Hawai’i eats post as well as posts on the books I read on the trip. In the meantime, here’s an abbreviated recap of last week’s episode of Top Chef to get you ready for tonight’s show.
* Quickfire. Each chef gets one of 17 different dumpling styles from around the world and must cook an authentic version including sauce. The chefs get five minutes to research their assigned dumpling types on Kindle Fires (just $199!) in what I can only assume is a bit of product placement.
* Stefan gets the German dumplings called klopse, which he grew up eating. Sheldon also gets one he knows, the Chinese dumplings called jiaozi. It seems like there’s a big imbalance here across the assignments.
* Brooke ends up with no flour to make dough to wrap her dumplings. How is there a flour shortage? And why does this count against her – shouldn’t this be on whoever’s stocking the kitchen? Why are we judging chefs on their ability to source ingredients from the central kitchen? This really annoyed me given how clearly it seems to work against the purpose of the show.
* Kuniko didn’t get to plate. Time management remains an issue. This is known in the business as “foreshadowing.”
* Bart tops his dumplings with fried spaghetti, and Dana Cowin calls it “crazy fried hair.” This is the most insightful thing she has ever said on Top Chef.
* Brooke is in the bottom three, which is bullshit, in case you were wondering how I felt about her. Carla’s South African fufu was inauthentic. Kuniko fails with the empty plate.
* Top three: Josie’s Korean mandu, Stefan’s klopse, and Micah’s manti from Kazakhstan. Josie wins. I might have given edge to Micah for cooking something unfamiliar, although that’s without me tasting the food. I also find Josie kind of annoying in way “college freshman coming home for Christmas break and acting all superior to kids still in high school” way.
* Elimination challenge: Cook thanksgiving dinner for the staff of Farestart, a nonprofit that provides culinary training for homeless and disadvantaged individuals. The chefs are split into two teams, with Tom and Emeril each leading one. Each team must prepare the turkey, sides, and desserts.
* Tom talks up basting the turkey, which is odd to me, since I was reared on the words of Alton Brown, who always opposed basting, saying it has little positive effect but causes you to lose heat every time you open the oven. If you put some form of fat on the skin at the start, it should brown without any help from you, and basting doesn’t make the interior any juicier.
* Emeril thinks bread because Tom will do pasta. I always made bread when we hosted Thanksgiving, so I approve.
* Josie volunteers to do turkey because she has immunity. This is known in the business as “foreshadowing.”
* The whole episode seemed much faster to watch because each team had a leader making a set menu up front. We didn’t have mid-cooking shifts and we avoided a lot of petty squabbling. Maybe that’s not more compelling for TV but it meant far more focus on the food.
* Three of the best-looking dishes: Brooke’s sweet potato biscuits with orange zest, Carla’s carrot soup with turkey meatballs, and Chrissy’s pecan pie bread pudding with whiskey sauce, all of which eventually earn raves.
* Stefan needs more room to work in the kitchen, a spat that seems to go nowhere when it’s not broached again on the show.
* Josh is making fresh pasta but it looks like he’s putting way too much filling in the middle.
* Kuniko is making a form of potato gratin called a pavé and talks about emphasizing clock management. Then we see Kristen asking if she has time, to which Kuniko says “I think so,” while ignoring her dish to help others on the team finish theirs. This is known in the business as “obvious.”
* Stuffing has foie gras pancetta and belly. John doing stuffing and pumpkin torte with Kuniko helping. Too much filling in Josh’s ravioli?
* Tyler says he’s been sober for seven months after 25 years of problems with alcohol. Having lost two family members to alcohol abuse, I have no snark to offer here.
* Carla is losing her shit again, saying she doesn’t want to be called “sweetie” or “honey” when her male counterparts are just called “chef.” She’s not wrong. The kitchen can be a pretty testosterone-soaked, misogynistic place. Stefan says, “that’s why I left Europe – European women,” because European men are apparently such a prize.
* Serving time, starting with Team Emeril: Josie’s triple spice turkey with cayenne and hot sauce is a little pink in the center … or a lot pink. You can’t serve that, ever, and a quick thermometer check would have verified that it was still gobbling. Emeril’s mom’s stuffing with chorizo and a cornbread stuffing with ground turkey and diced bacon score well. Kristen’s assiette of root vegetables, parsnip truffle puree, and crème fraiche is under-seasoned. Tyler’s gumbo lacks depth, has a bitter finish, and lacks heat; Emeril thinks he didn’t add Tabasco (blech) or Worcestershire sauces. Kuniko’s pavé is uncooked, and Tom correctly points out that she should have noticed it was resisting the knife when she cut it. Sheldon’s collard greens aren’t falling apart yet, which turns out to be a lack of understanding of the dish on his part. Brooke’s biscuits and Chrissy’s bread pudding both score really well, while John’s spiced pumpkin torte with goat cheese and ricotta is good but a little grainy by his own admission. There are four items here that really flopped – the turkey, the gumbo, the pavé, and the collard greens.
* Team Tom looks like they’re struggling to plate. Out at the table, Dana’s comments are useless; I don’t know if she’s suffering in editing, or if she can’t come up with insights on the fly, but she’s not adding anywhere near enough to this show for me. The turkey was “braised” (pretty sure that’s what they said) with tons of butter underneath the skin, although again, I don’t see how that would work in practice. The stuffing has foie gras, kale, pancetta, and pork belly. Carla’s carrot soup is an enormous hit, overshadowing the bird. Bart’s fennel, gorgonzola, orange, and pumpkin seed salad isn’t “refined” enough for Padma. Josh’s ravioli were tough because he didn’t even out the edges; I’m wondering if he rolled the dough extra thick to support all that filling, which would have produced edges that wouldn’t cook before the dumplings exploded. Micah’s roasted Brussels sprouts with cranberries, bacon, and shallots look great and elicit little comment – Thierry loves them, others say they were under-seasoned, and we move on. Lizzie’s potato purée with a ton of butter is great … of course it is, there’s a ton of butter in it. Stefan’s panna cotta with jam may have too much cardamom, although Tom likes that. Eliza’s chocolate tart with white chocolate and mint syrup has too much chocolate overall. That’s three flops here – the ravioli and both desserts, with only the ravioli a real mess.
* Team Tom wins unanimously. I like that the editing showed the discussion at the table of which team won, skipping the false-drama of revealing the winning team at judges’ table when it seemed pretty lopsided during service.
* The ever-quotable Carla says “I need a subtitle” when Tom reveals he thought she was making cabbage soup, not carrot soup. Her dish is the winner, and she says she made it “basically with one hand” after slicing her right hand in the previous episode. Her dish also seemed the most inventive of any on Tom’s team.
* Loser’s bracket: Josie is such a bullshitter, which is part of why I’m having such a negative reaction to her. Just own up to the mistakes – you undercooked it, don’t try to finesse it by claiming it was on the raw side of medium or something. She had immunity but was sent to Judges’ Table to send her a lesson. Tyler realizes now that he should have added Tabasco and Worcestershire, which is how you take responsibility for an error. Kuniko says she was pushed on time, to which Tom responds that she had five hours. Josie pipes up that Kuniko spent a lot of time helping the team, which was an honorable move and perhaps something the judges should have considered (although Padma indicated they wouldn’t). Sheldon says he didn’t want the collard greens to be mush, but done correctly, they are kind of mush.
* Kuniko is eliminated. She says she has no regrets, and that if she didn’t help anyone and just took care of herself that would have been worse than going home. John points out correctly that she blew an easy dish, but no one wants to speak ill of the recently eliminated, so he gets hammered for what is a pretty dead-on assessment of the situation. On the bright side, she’ll be heading for Last Chance Kitchen, so perhaps she can bring her not-insignificant skills back to the main show.