Time to review another product placement-packed edition of Top Chef!
* Quickfire: Season four winner Stephanie Izard of Chicago’s Girl and the Goat is here as a guest judge. Every ingredient in the pantry is covered in Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil. I hope they recycled all of that metal, because otherwise this whole challenge is just a big environmental disaster. Once you unwrap an item, you must use it. There are also no cooking vessels available – you must cook in the foil itself, and that stuff can’t be recycled. Immunity’s at stake. Ecological concerns aside, is this challenge really that different from giving each chef a sealed box of ingredients and telling them they must use everything in it?
* Kristen decides to make a sponge cake and we see her whisking eggs in a bowl she made of foil. Danyele says making a cake in this challenge is “the ballsiest shit” she’s ever heard of. That’s also a pretty good indication that Kristen will win the challenge, isn’t it? Ballsy tends to win on this show.
* Bart shapes a bowl on his head, which seems a bit unsanitary, and also made a strainer, which makes him MacGyver in this crowd.
* Chefs can’t sear anything because foil doesn’t conduct heat well enough, and we get a shot of one foil “pot” leaking off the edge of the flat-top. This can’t be the advert that Reynolds was hoping it would be. As an aside, I don’t go through that much foil in the kitchen, but I do use a lot of another Reynolds product – parchment paper, especially to keep pizza dough from sticking to my wooden pizza peel.
* Sheldon smokes scallops. I can’t even think of a time I saw smoked scallops on a menu, and I’ve certainly never eaten them. Wouldn’t a protein that lean fare somewhat poorly in a smoker?
* The bottom three: Brooke, whose dish was under seasoned and who got a nasty reaction from Padma during tasting for her use of raw onions; Micah, whose lamb was still wandering around looking for Mary; and Josh, whose dish was “uninspired.” Is it just me, or is Josh looking pretty overmatched the last 3-4 episodes? You can’t talk that tough and not bring the goods.
* We get a top six first, with Sheldon, Kristen, Josie, Stefan, Danyele, and Bart, of which the actual top three are Danyele, Kristen, and Sheldon. Winner is Kristen, of course, since she took the biggest risks, had a number of different elements, and seems to cook with tremendous precision. She needs to stop acting so surprised when she wins – she’s practically the Paul Qui of this group. And I can’t imagine that Bravo would be upset to have a former model win the season.
* Elimination challenge: Stephanie’s sticking around as guest judge, which seems like a great idea the show should use more often. The challenge involves cooking with fresh berries in head-to-head battles, other than Kristen, who cooks alone because she has immunity. The other top chefs from the quickfire pick their opponents. Sheldon picks Micah, Danyele picks Josh, Stefan picks John T, Josie picks Lizzie, and Bart gets Brooke. No one seems to really be picking for competitive reasons except maybe Josie, and even then, neither Lizzie nor Brooks seems like a pushover.
* Of the berries, the one I’d least want would be gooseberries, which Stefan and John draw. Gooseberries are powerfully tart and a real pain in the ass to clean and trim. Kristen gets tayberries, the one berry here I haven’t tried; it’s a sweet cross between a raspberry and a blackberry, but, per Wikipedia, can’t be machine harvested so it’s rarely grown commercially. I bet it makes an unbelievable pie, though. The whole episode reminds me of the time my wife and I went to Alaska and spotted salmonberries growing wild on the side of a road – but we didn’t touch them because I didn’t know what they were or if they were safe to eat. (They are.)
* Stefan buys flash-frozen tuna, saying it’s the “highest-quality fish in the store.” That might be true at some markets, but Whole Foods typically sells high-end sushi-grade tuna at the fish counter. Also, fish really suffers in the defrosting process, losing texture as the ice crystals melt. I almost never use frozen fish at home; if I can’t get it fresh, I don’t get it at all. John razzes Stefan for it, but then tattles to Tom about Stefan using frozen fish, which is just bush-league. There’s no un-hearing that – Tom had to taste that food with the notion that the fish was previously frozen already in his brain. John’s lame excuse is that he was mad that the tuna wasn’t sustainable. Hey, I’m all about sustainable product, but just admit you threw the guy under the bus already.
* The “kitchen” is an outdoor setup on the farm where the party (with 150 guests) will be held, and it’s chaos, with too little room for eleven chefs to set up. Danyele, not the most assertive chef in the group, has to get loud and pushy just to get counter space. Of course, I don’t know if there wasn’t enough space or if one or two chefs were taking up too much room, but I’d rather not see chefs suffer because they couldn’t find flour or get enough room to work. Bart is struggling to find a blender, and ends up cursing out John, who’s hanging on to a blender but might not have used it yet … again, why not have 11 blenders available?
* Up pulls a tractor with freshly picked berries. How do I get one of those to stop by my house?
* Kristen tells her backstory – she was born in Seoul but abandoned by her mom, and at four months moved to Michigan to be adopted by an American family. That means three chefs of these eleven were adopted. I can’t imagine growing up and dealing with that feeling of abandonment, rightly or wrongly. Kristen talks about taking the $10K prize for this challenge, should she win it, and going to Korea for the first time to see where she’s from.
* Micah’s daughters are named Sage and Saffron. I want to mock this but those names really aren’t that odd.
* Tasting time. Danyele: chicken ping nut terrine with blueberry mostarda on a crostada. No bueno. The bread slices are too thick and crunchy, the terrine is rubbery, and it’s all underseasoned. She looks totally lost in her own head at this point. Josh: savory goat cheese mousse with blueberry compote, plus a little Serrano ham and cracker crust. Judges say this one doesn’t have enough crunch, but that’s the only real comment, so it seems like Josh will win this one by default.
* Josie: A “rock’n raspberry roll” that she’s rolling to order while she babbles like a leaky faucet to distract guests from the fact that she’s woefully unprepared. The roll has sockeye salmon, Dungeness crab, and a raspberry aioli. Gail says there’s not enough raspberry. Tom says there’s too much style, not enough substance. If he’d added “too much blather” he would have nailed it. Lizzie: steamed cabbage roll with heritage pig and bacon stuffing, fresh raspberry, and raspberry liqueur. Padma loves it right off the bat. Tom says it’s just a little under seasoned. We’re not getting much of Stephanie’s commentary, unfortunately. I’d value her contributions over Gail’s, certainly.
* Sheldon: ahi poke, strawberries, sweet chili sauce, and strawberry purée, all in a summer roll. There’s also a radish in there that sells Stephanie. Micah: strawberry-marinated fried chicken with a strawberry and pepper bacon buttermilk biscuit. The fried chicken seems fine, but everyone hates the biscuit, which looks dry on camera and apparently was also dense and mealy.
* John: white gazpacho with chorizo and gooseberry jelly. The whole dish is overpowered by the chorizo, and one guest says it reminds him of “cheeseburger soup.” That’s probably not a compliment. Stefan: tuna crudo with Asian vinaigrette with gooseberries and more gooseberries on the dish itself. Gail doesn’t taste the berries enough, but as with Josh, this looks like a win for Stefan by default.
* Brooke: spicy smoked chocolate pudding with blackberry tapioca and salty graham cracker crumble and earl grey marshmallows. At this point in the show it seems like this is the top-rated dish, with everyone loving the concept, the execution, the use of the berries, and the nod to s’mores. Bart: blackberry soup with salmon and rhubarb yogurt. Tom loves soup, hates the salmon. Stephanie says the salmon is superfluous.
* Kristen: Matcha goat milk custard with tayberry jam, cornmeal sable, and olive-oil macerated tayberries. There are a ton of flavors going on in this dish. She just seems to be conceptually way ahead of anyone else in the competition, and she executes more consistently than anyone else.
* Stefan telling John to “suck it hard” in the stew room. All class, that guy.
* Judges table: John, Josie, Bart, Micah, Danyele lost their matchups in the eyes of the guests and the judges. Micah acknowledged that Sheldon’s food “popped.” His biscuit was dense and chewy, and for a guy with evident skills he is failing to execute at an alarming rate here. Josie gets ripped for “doing a demo” and makes more excuses, which seems to be her core competence. Gail says her flavors were muddled. Tom says it was too heavy with aioli. It didn’t look or sound appealing, and she made guests wait way too long for it. Bart’s salmon had terrible texture. Danyele said she heard people eating the crostada. Tom says she gets her halfway through a great concept but can’t finish it. John saw gooseberries, thought grapes, went gazpacho, then makes excuses about crazy kitchen and says he’s not making excuses. I’ve defended John to this point but he came off horribly in this episode. Perhaps he behaves when things are going well, but when adversity strikes he reverts to juvenile responses.
* Tom says the winners all worked better with the product than the losers. The winner is girl-on-fire Kristen, who can now go to Korea and perhaps eliminate “Gangnam Style” at the source. Stefan plants one on her cheek. Subtle.
* The judges joke about Josie’s dish looking like Pepto Bismol, but end up sending Danyele packing. She’s been on the bottom most of the competition, but Josie’s act is way more tired to me as a viewer, and I’ll miss Danyele’s hair.
* Then we get some drama as Josie goes all over Stefan in the stew room with what appears to be no provocation other than him starting a separation conversation that was too loud for her liking (but wasn’t about her). That’s pressure getting to someone, and that someone handling it poorly. Stefan isn’t the reason Josie’s been on the bottom. Own your mistakes.
* LCK: Make a sandwich in twenty minutes. Danyele goes way too simple, CJ goes over the top, and CJ wins. People do not learn: Simple almost never wins on Top Chef, because the judges nearly always favor a great concept done reasonably well over a fair concept done perfectly. And that’s how they should judge the dishes. That said, I’d rather eat Danyele’s sandwich – and she even takes one of the sandwiches she made to go. I agree with her that avocado just makes any sandwich better; I put guacamole on burgers all the time, and I like her method of making it into a simple spread by mashing it with a little acid and salt. But again, that doesn’t win on TC.
* Revised top three: Kristen, then a big gap, then John and Brooke, with Lizzie and Sheldon rounding out the top five. Micah’s falling fast. Josie seems like she’s clearly the worst competitor left, followed by Josh.