Sorry my recap is a little late, but I had trouble finding a flat keyboard on which to type this.
* Stefan is moisturizing and cursing about his wrinkles. This isn’t creepy, I think. I may have also lost my appetite.
* Sheldon sharpens his knives every day, saying, “it’s what separates a good chef from a great chef in my opinion.” He may have been subtly threatening to slit the throats of his competitors, which is an alternative path to victory assuming you use the blood for black pudding.
* Quickfire: Testing knife skills, coincidentally. “Master bladesman” (that is, artisan knife-maker) Bob Kramer is the judge. His carbon-steel blades sell for $500 per inch, so John Holmes would have been worth a fortune.
* The challenge is a relay race involving three teams of three chefs each: turn dull knives razor sharp, then tourne 50 potatoes, then work against your ex-teammates to French racks of two rabbits, with immunity and a Bob Kramer blade at stake.
* Stefan says “I always wanted a $4000 knife. Who doesn’t?” I’m not sure I’d turn down a $4000 anything you offered me, even if I only intended to sell it on eBay the moment you turned around.
* If you cut yourself, you’re DQ’d. I’m going to laugh at this while pretending I didn’t put a 1/4” gash in my index finger two weeks ago while slicing ribbons of kale.
* As much as I love the show and recognize the importance of good knife skills and handling, watching chefs sharpen knives is not good television.
* Kristen gets mad that her teammate John called “check” before she was ready, but then HIS knife was the one to fail the test – making a clean slice through a sheet of paper. That’s about the closest we’ve come to seeing Kristen get mad or even irked about anything.
* Using a chef’s knife strikes me as dangerous, since it’s not a knife designed for precise cuts. There is such a thing as a tourne knife, also known as a bird’s beak knife, but a paring knife would also do the job. No one severs a finger here, although Josie does nick herself and is disqualified, which leads to her team losing by just two potatoes to another team that still has all three chefs.
* Am I the only one weirded out by a race involving knives? I’m fine with grading knife skills, but encouraging chefs to work faster with extremely sharp objects seems a little dicey, pun intended.
* The final challenge is to French two rabbits, which isn’t as deviant as it sounds and can even produce some serious flayrah. Frenching means trimming the meat and fat off the ends of rib bones or chops, typically with racks of pork or lamb, so that the bones are exposed like handles. The meat can then be cooked as a whole rack or broken down into ‘lollipop’ chops. If you’ve seen meat with little paper hats on the ends of the bones, you’ve seen a Frenched rack. Doing this on tiny rabbits with giant knives is like asking the infield coach to hit grounders to the shortstop by using a cricket bat. (I’ve never done this, but I’d reach for a boning knife for the job.) Josh ends up making a hash of his rabbit racks. Micah says Frenching the racks is a “very Zen moment” for him, and he wins pretty handily.
* Elimination challenge: Each chef is assigned a memorable moment from the previous seasons and has to cook a dish based on that moment while making it healthier than the original dish was. The winning dish will inspire future product placements and earn the winner a cool $15K. The guests at the dinner will be Top Chef “Superfans” who live in their mothers’ basements and dissect Top Chef using spreadsheets.
* The first moment they show has to be the most famous – Fabio’s comment that ‘it’s Top Chef, it’s not Top Scallops.’ We also Carla’s chicken pot pie screaming moment on Jimmy Fallon, which might have been the main reason she ended up on that daytime food/talk show she’s on.
* Another, er, classic moment: “I’m not your bitch, bitch.” Two offensive connotations in one five-word sentence!
* The chefs are then shown eating the product placement entrees from the microwave, which I’m sure thrilled them to no end. They also discuss the pea puree moment.
* John claims Anthony Bourdain based a character in the absolutely essential book Kitchen Confidential, Jimmy Sears, on him. It sounds like it’s true, but given John’s reputation and his showing these last two episodes, would it surprise anyone if Bourdain came out and said John was full of shit?
* Micah has Beverly and Heather’s duck breast from season 9, a moment memorable primarily for Heather throwing Beverly totally under the bus in front of judges, reducing Beverly to tears.
* Lizzie’s scallops don’t smell fresh, which is seriously bad news. What I missed was whether she smelled them when she bought them – a good fishmonger will allow you to sniff the fish you’re buying, since that’s an immediate clue if it’s not fresh. (Fresh fish or shellfish should smell of the sea, not “fishy,” which is actually the odor of fish that has already started to degrade.)
* We’ve got a murderer’s row of judges, including Wolfgang Puck, Wiley Dufresne, Jonathan Waxman, and Chris Cosentino. Wiley needs a haircut in the worst freaking way. Long hair on men is fine – not on me, since I think I’d look absolutely absurd like that – but straight, shoulder-length hair while it’s thinning on the top is like a deliberate attempt to look bad.
* John says risotto isn’t hard to cook, but has a bad track record on Top Chef, so he’s making it anyway. This is known in the business as “foreshadowing.” It also shows a delusional degree of self-confidence. No one else has been able to do this right, but I can.
* Service: Josie (whose moment came from S1) serves roast chicken with parsnip puree and steamed root vegetables. Stefan (S2) has a roasted red pepper soup with bacon and grilled cheese, which is about as healthful as a cup of trans fats. John (S3) does an umami risotto with dark meat chicken, salmon roe, burdock root, and a carrot puree emulsion to simulate the color of sea urchin. Josie’s chicken skin isn’t crispy, and the dish isn’t exciting. Stefan’s grilled cheese is greasy but tasty. John’s risotto is not cooked consistently, with some grains overcooked, some undercooked. Of this group, I expected both Josie and John to end up on the bottom, more so Josie because her dish wasn’t that good and it was boring as heck.
* Sheldon (S4) serves beef carpaccio with poi aioli, mizuna (Japanese mustard green) and mushroom salad, and a silken tofu foam. Lizzie (S5) has seared scallops with a roasted fennel and orange salad. Josh (S6) does a soy-glazed pork tenderloin, cashew puree, heirloom peaches, and thai basil. Josh cooked the pork really well, grasped the “healthier” portion of the challenge, and his smoked cashews and peaches get praise from Wiley. Sheldon’s beef is not eye appealing, and his tofu had no flavor. Lizzie’s scallop quality is “dubious,” per Wolfgang Puck, and there’s no discussion of anything else. My immediate reaction was that she was toast. You can’t serve ‘off’ seafood and survive. In a restaurant, you’d send that stuff to the compost bin.
* Brooke (S7) serves hot-smoked salmon with forbidden black rice, pea and parsnip puree. Kristen (S8, Carla’s chicken pot pie) does a poached chicken breast with carrot puree and a garlic/tofu/soy milk emulsion, emphasizing that it’s dairy- and gluten-free. Micah (S9) does duck breast with miso polenta, sriracha jelly, and pickled cherries. Micah’s duck is cooked well; Waxman hates miso with polenta, but Tom likes the cherries. Kristen’s dish is light with a lot of flavor and earns praise for her rethinking (almost a deconstruction) of pot pie, although Chris’ dish doesn’t have enough sauce. Brooke’s was nicely cooked throughout with a good smoky flavor and that’s about all anyone says about it.
* The judges bring out five of the nine chefs. Josh, Brooke, and Kristen are on top, with John and Lizzie on bottom. Brooke’s salmon was perfectly cooked and lightly smoked. Kristen’s was homey without homey presentation. Josh finally nailed a pork dish and the judges say his flavors were really well done. Unanimous winner – the chef who took Top Chef history into account and elevated the moment to a healthy dish – is girl-on-fire Kristen, who has won three of the seven elimination challenges where the judges named at least one winner, plus one Quickfire. This seemed to be a clear win for concept, as all three chefs executed but Kristen was the one who was by far the most creative in her reimagining of the original dish and who did the most to reduce its fat and caloric content.
* John’s risotto was improperly cooked, after which he makes an excuse about the pots in the kitchen not being “flat” enough while saying it’s not an excuse or a copout. It absolutely is an excuse, and a copout, and a failure to take responsibility: If he’d tasted the risotto as he went, he would have known it wasn’t cooking evenly and he would have adapted. Josh then throws him under the bus, which would bother me if John hadn’t thrown Stefan under the bus in an earlier episode for using frozen fish. John’s money quote here (it gets better) was “Equipment was an issue.” Even weasels cringed at that wording.
* Lizzie admits “the scallops must have been old,” at which Tom appears ready to pounce on her only to have Wolfgang interrupt. I think in most episodes, this would have been Lizzie’s death warrant, but this week the bottom two chefs will cook against each other in a challenge based on this season’s memorable moment: the spicy dill pickles where CJ and Tyler made a burger that got them both eliminated. Josh is mocking John in the back room, asking if he can find a pan flat enough to cook a burger in?
* John makes a harissa lamb burger, which sounds to me like we’re moving in the other direction, making something unhealthy because it’ll taste better and win the challenge. Lizzie, relieved that she gets to cook again, gets ground chicken, saying it’s tricky to make it juicy.
* John used all of Lizzie’s fresh dill after she said he could use some, but then says he’s a good guy because he shared the pickles. Lizzie wants to “beat his bum,” which also isn’t as deviant as it sounds.
* John serves a lamb burger with fried egg and a spicy pickle, tomato, and pomegranate salad. Aioli of dill and cream cheese. Wolfgang’s burger isn’t moist enough, and Chris questions how adding an egg makes sense on a dish intended to be healthier. Lizzie makes a chicken burger with a goat cheese ricotta cream and a dill pickle roasted red pepper salad. The white meat is moist and flavorful, and the only criticism is Chris saying he “just wanted a whiff of salt.” Chris, Wolfgang, and Tom all pick Lizzie to stay, so John goes. He’s “not bitter, but this is bullshit.”
* John, in the confessional, is still talking about having all the pickles. All your pickles are belong to John. You have no chance to survive, make your time. Had he hoarded the pickles, isn’t it more likely that the chefs would have axed him on principle?
* LCK: This wasn’t much of a fight, with the chefs allowed to do whatever they want but forced to cook in cheap vessels found at nearby yard sales. John rushes for pans, while CJ focuses on ingredients. John goes heavy in his dish, CJ went lighter, and CJ was the pretty clear winner, only issue was using too much chili oil but his flavor profile was more unusual. John’s choice of lobster and foie gras seemed a little cliché, like the lamb burger with a fried egg – he was pandering a little to the judges. John’s comments during and after LCK are a 180 from his comments during the main show. When adversity strikes, his personality flaws really show through. He hates taking responsibility for mistakes, and is quick to blame others, or even inanimate objects, when he’s ultimately at fault. You can win Top Chef with that attitude as long as you never screw up, but John ran out of steam three episodes ago and never bounced back.
* Top three: Kristen remains the clear leader, with Brooke in a somewhat distant second. I had John making it to the finals, but he’s out, so I’ll restore Micah to the top three in his stead. Josie remains the bottom chef, and I think the format saved her from another bottom-three performance this week.