I should be back on a regular Top Chef recap and chat schedule next week, and sticking to Thursdays for Top Chef recaps after that.
* Quickfire: The judge is Marilyn Hagerty, author of that awful Olive Garden review in the Grand Forks Herald last year that went viral (with, I think, some early help from me after a reader sent it my way). Now she has a book deal with Tony Bourdain. What on earth is someone who knows little to nothing about food – for God’s sake, people, she praised a restaurant that is the chain equivalent to Chef Boy-ar-dee – doing on Top Chef? Our one male cat knows more about fine food and he eats plastic wrappers off the floor.
* The challenge is to make a sweet and savory holiday dish based on your ethnic heritage, and you have to use Truvia to satisfy the marketing department. The stuff, which uses the natural sweetener stevia, is twice as sweet as sugar and has a bizarre aftertaste, not as bad as artificial sweeteners but not pleasant and definitely not an acceptable substitute for sugar. You want to cut calories? Eat less. Unless you have a blood-sugar issue, or are cooking for someone who has one, I wouldn’t recommend stevia – and even then I believe Truvia contains some sucrose.
* The twist: There’s one knife for everyone. Lizzie draws it, but leaves it on her cutting board while she heads for the pantry, so Josh grabs it – fair play as I see it, and he didn’t hog it for long. Why should the knife sit idle? And if she wanted to use it straight off she should have taken it with her. Meanwhile other chefs are cutting with scissors, graters, and so on. No one has a mandoline slicer? Or a pastry cutter?
* Danyele and John both reveal that they’re adopted; Danyele ends up making her mom’s post-Christmas bread pudding with leftover ham.
* Lizzie is from South Africa, so Christmas there is warm. She’s making bobotie, pronounced “buh-BOO-tee” apparently, which I’ve only had at the Boma restaurant at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. Lizzie’s looks a little different, though.
* Micah is half black and half Mexican and refers to himself as “Mexigro or Blaxican.” I’m just going to stop this point right here before I get myself into trouble.
* Eliza says her mother called her “pleasantly chunky” when she was a kid. In a related story, Eliza’s mother was a fucking moron.
* I don’t know how much range Sheldon has, but even staying within food traditions from Hawai’i he gets to draw on a lot of Asian cultures, and his banana lumpia looked pretty amazing. So did Josie’s tamale with habanero masa and a papaya and mango salsa on the side. Neither made the top three, though.
* Hagerty, meanwhile, is very sweet, but is overmatched by the food here. The bottom two are Bart’s chicken and waffles dish, which she said had “too many things going on,” and Micah’s “taco” (actually a tamale, but that’s okay Marilyn because you’re old), which was dry.
* Top three: Josh’s jonnycakes, Stefan’s latkes with smoked salmon tartare, and Brooke’s apple crostada with cheddar cheese, which Padma called “homey.” Brooke wins, much to her surprise, since she felt she was playing it safe. Personally, I think cheddar cheese is unpleasant to begin with and would never in a million years pair it with apples, but most people think this is a good idea.
* Elimination challenge: Anna Faris and Burt Macklin, who apparently are married. I’d like to see Faris on a Parks and Rec episode where April spends 22 minutes mumbling threats of unspeakable violence against her. Also, Danyele is a Parks and Rec fan, so major props to her. The challenge is to cater their giant homecoming party and the winner gets a Prius. On a slightly related note, I just rented a Kia hybrid when I went to LA this week and was shocked at how smooth the ride was, and how quiet the engine was – quiet enough that I didn’t realize I’d started the car, pressed the button again, and of course turned it off in the process. I expected a much choppier ride but couldn’t tell when the engine was switching energy sources unless I checked the dashboard.
* Faris and Andy … er, Chris want Seattle-oriented food – wild salmon, Dungeness crab, wild game – and food that brings in their German and Norwegian heritage, meaning meat and potatoes dishes. Pratt says “lots of calories” is the way to go.
* I hate Anna’s hair, the color, the cut, all of it. And the dark brown eyebrows with platinum blonde hair just look odd to me.
* We interrupt this episode of Top Chef to bring you a not-totally-obvious Prius commercial.
* Josh says Stefan was “douchey” and “kind of an asshole” on his season. Cough cough, Josh.
* Kristen says she loves making fresh pasta. She’s my pick to win this whole thing. Meanwhile she and der Hundchefkoch are flirting again.
* To the food: Bart does a loin of elk with cherry and beer sauce and mushroom couscous. Padma likes the way he cooked the elk (a meat I’ve never tried). Brooke’s lamb-stuffed squid on black rice with coconut milk gets some odd looks but immediate raves. Chris loves it, Tom loves it, and guest judge Rick Moonen praises her for going for it with immunity. Sheldon does a braised Okinawan pork belly and seared scallop on rice congee, which also gets high marks. Stefan makes a German gulasch with fried marjoram dumplings and sour cream. I couldn’t tell if Chris was joking around about not really knowing what gulasch was – he was kind of making the Andy face but he might have been serious about never having a proper gulasch before.
* Kristen does a delice de bourgogne tortellini, with dried apricots and triple cream cheese. Rick says it’s a perfect single bite, and the dish looks like it’s delicately made with powerful flavors. Micah does briased pork ribs with celery root puree, grilled apples, and a celery leaf salad. He clearly screwed up the puree, adding cream to make it smoother and ending up with a gloppy mess. I like celeriac but it’s pretty fibrous and I would have cut it with potato to improve the finished product’s texture. Lizzie does a crusted wild salmon with roasted radish and beet salad, but the salmon isn’t seared or seasoned enough. Eliza’s elk ribeye with elk sausage polenta and spiced carrots is a dud. The judges say the meat’s not bad, but the rest of dish isn’t good and the carrots are nearly raw. The meat looked way undercooked to me – more blue than rare and not sliced consistently.
* Final group: Danyele’s pan-roasted boar chop and tomato bacon marmalade gave her trouble from the top. Chris, who says he always orders boar when it’s on the menu (how I feel about duck), doesn’t like the meat, although he says the marmalade is awesome. Tom says the meat is sliced too thin and I can already hear the judges’ table conversation coming. Josh does a roasted pork shoulder with grilled corn puree, succotash, and a fennel and apple salad. The pork isn’t seasoned and there’s a huge piece of meat on every plate. Chris says, “it might not be great, but there’s a lot of it,” reminding me of the old (20+ years old) saying about IBM: “It may be slow, but it’s hard to use.” Josie does a creamy polenta with Malbec-braised short ribs, crispy pork belly, sous vide cipollini, and figs. There’s not enough contrast for Rick. I just see a jumbled mess. John does a seafood chowder with cockles, Manila clams, mussels, sockeye salmon, and Dungeness crab, using a chowder base he learned when working for Rick (which he chose before knowing Rick was one of the judges, apparently). This gets enormous praise, including from Rick, who calls it a “hug from the ocean.” The salmon looked almost raw on TV, but he cooked it at 140 degrees (per the lengthy recipe) and that low temp plus the natural color of the sockeye is probably what gave it that appearance.
* The bottom dishes during the judges’ discussion (with Anna and Chris) were pretty clear: Micah, Eliza, Josie, Josh, and Danyele. Josie ends up escaping the actual judges table, though.
* Top dishes: Kristen, John, Brooke, and Sheldon. Brooke says she took a risk because she had immunity. Tom says to keep cooking this way. It is amazing how every season we see chefs play it safe even though safe never wins and often leads to midseason eliminations (if not sooner). Rick says John’s chowder was like soul food. Kristen says she loves to play cheese and dried fruit off each other, something I haven’t tried myself. Sheldon’s dish gets praise for being very autobiographical, and again, he’s showing off his range within his heritage, which could be why I’m underestimating him. The winner is Brooke, who seemed to have the most inventive dish other than perhaps Sheldon’s. John might have won if he hadn’t done something so traditional here.
* On to the bottom dishes: Micah’s celery root puree was too grainy and his ingredients all out of balance. He says the celeriac was fibrous, but isn’t it usually? Josh’s pork shoulder chunks were too and not seasoned enough. Eliza’s elk was unevenly cooked, the carrots weren’t cooked through, and they were dry in parts. Danyele’s hoppin john and relish were fantastic but the boar wasn’t good. She panicked when she saw it overcooking and curling on the flat-top and never recovered – Tom admonishes her not to second-guess herself.
* Eliminated: Eliza is eliminated, which makes sense given what we saw and were told. She also says she was fighting a cold, which might have affected how well she could taste her own food.
* LCK: Eliza vs CJ vs Tyler in a battle of pickles and carrots, the two ingredients that got these chefs eliminated. I thought Eliza would win for her paprika-seared scallops on carrot puree, but CJ wins instead, in part (I think) because he charred and roasted the pickles, which seemed to surprise Tom, along with his smoked trout.
* Top three: Still Kristen and John clearly ahead of the pack, but it’s hard for me to keep arguing in Micah’s favor when he’s ending up on the bottom more than he’s on the top. Sheldon and Brooke were both really impressive this week, and I could see Stefan hanging around until the final five or so. I’d probably put Sheldon third at this point, since his success spans more than just this most recent episode.