My breakdown of yesterday’s three-team deal involving Michael Morse and John Jaso is up for Insiders.
Usually I don’t discuss a Top Chef episode’s elimination until the end of the post, sticking to the chronological order of the notes I took while watching the show in real-time (well, DVR real-time). This time, however, a few reader tweets spoiled the ending for me before I’d even started watching, and so I had a pretty skeptical eye going from the start. Nothing happened in the episode to change my mind, not even Tom’s after-the-fact post explaining how they had “no choice” but to send Kristen home. Not only do I disagree with him, which I’ll discuss below when I get to judges’ table, but, for the first time, I think viewers who are questioning whether the judges’ decision was truly independent of the producers’ input have valid reasons for their doubts, not just the kind of tin-foil-hat thinking that I may joke about but haven’t really taken seriously.
* Stefan says Restaurant Wars is always a shitshow. He’s not wrong, although it turns out that this year’s edition was a shitshow for entirely different reasons than previous years’ versions. He ends up handling front of house duties for Team Sheldon, which seems like a good fit since he’s kind of a schmoozer by nature.
* The biggest twist: there are no kitchens. The chefs must build them from scratch, outside in the open courtyard area between the two dining rooms.
* Josie really not getting along with anyone. I may have just copied and pasted this from every previous recap.
* Stefan is shopping for flowers. Who cares? I don’t think it’s “gay” as Stefan said; I just think it’s a waste of time, especially when you’re a man down compared to the other team. Also, a lot of idiots would say cooking for a living or for pleasure is “gay” too, so, you know, maybe not using that word would be good.
* Stefan and Josh are at least saying the right things about working with a cuisine they are completely unfamiliar with, even though Josie would already be preparing her excuses for why her version of someone else’s menu didn’t work.
* Kristen says her menu is “ambitious,” and is inspired by when she watched French cooking shows when she was five and would try to mimic whatever the chefs were doing on screen. When I was five I was still watching Write On and Read All About It!. Then again, I’m a writer, so maybe this all makes sense now.
* Josie talks about roasting her bones on the day before, then never does it, even though Kristen asks her to do so more than once. This is known in the business as “foreshadowing.” Roasting bones isn’t exactly hard, you know; you oil them and stick them in the oven for an hour, more or less. Failing to do that is just laziness.
* Josie wants to preplate at least some of the items, including the fish for her bouillabaisse. Kristen wants to prepare everything to order. Josie thinks that can’t work for so many people. Josh predicts cooking fish to order will sink them, but I think cooking fish before the fact is pretty much the worst idea ever. Some things can be prepared the day before. Fish ain’t one of them, unless you like chewing on old tires.
* Other than Josie being Josie, Kristen’s team looks quite organized, and the other three chefs are getting along fairly well. Kristen might be micromanaging a little bit, saying she wants to “touch” every plate that goes out, but she views this as taking responsibility – and the judges wouldn’t hesitate to slam a team leader if a restaurant is sending out sloppy or unfinished plates.
* Are you sick of reading about Josie yet? Because I’m sick of writing about her, and I’m far from finished.
* Sheldon’s team is doing six dishes, two per chef, which seems incredibly ambitious given their disadvantage. That said, Sheldon’s laid-back temperament – I would call it a Hawai’ian stereotype, but we were just there in November and just about everyone we met acted pretty much like that – is a perfect fit under what could be a soul-crushing degree of stress. He even recruits the dishwashers to help with prep.
* This is really the all-Josie episode; if the producers wanted to craft a new villain with John gone, they got their material here, as Josie is all excuses, all the time, when she’s not flat-out lying to Kristen about what’s been done. She did the broth the day of service, not the day before, so it’s so late that she can’t use the gelatin Kristen wanted to add before charging the broth in the iSi canisters. When Kristen hears this, she says virtually nothing but drops a serious WTF face before telling Josie to switch to cream and soy (milk, I think?) and forget the gelatin.
* During the first seating, Stefan seems to be ideal in front of house, all schmoozing, keeping guests liquored up, saying the right stuff … which makes it so much more surprising when his service falls apart in the second seating.
* Here come the judges. Good grief is Padma’s skirt short. And her heels high. There are interstate highways that don’t go on as long as her legs.
* The judges start at Kristen’s restaurant. The first dish is Lizzie’s twist on charcuterie: rabbit rillette, pickled turnips, and beets, in a roasted chicken and rabbit broth. Total acclaim here.
* Then we get what turns out to be the pivotal moment in the show: No one even tested the mounted bouillabaisse broth in the iSi canisters, so the foam doesn’t work; Brooke, who was handling front of house duties, is standing there working the broth with an immersion blender while in a dress and heels. Kristen says she’d prefer a dishwasher to Josie, which is a clear insult to the dishwashers on Sheldon’s side who are doing actual work without making excuses.
* The result of all of this is that it takes way too long to plate and serve Josie’s course, a bouillabaisse with halibut, Dungeness crab, and scallops. The dishes don’t have anywhere near enough broth, and the fish is unevenly cooked. It’s a disaster dish, with Tom saying later (but before judges’ table) that Josie should go home for it.
* The other result is that we see service breaking down in Kristen’s kitchen, with tables getting the wrong dishes and tickets coming in incorrectly. Given the editing, it’s hard to see this as unrelated to the stinkbomb Josie dropped in the kitchen by being in it.
* Kristen’s main dish is a take on beef bourguignon, a Burgundy-braised short rib with garlic purée, glazed carrots, pearl onions, and mushrooms. The dish has nowhere near enough sauce or acidity; what’s on the plate is good, but the consensus is that she didn’t reinterpret the dish far enough, so it feels like an incomplete version of the original.
* Brooke’s cheese course has fresh baked gougeres (made from choux paste and usually deep fried), cheese, roasted radish, and an espresso truffle … plus something else that isn’t included in the online recipe but that the judges said was impossible to chew.
* Kristen’s dessert is her take on the two types of macarons, the French version with almonds and the American version with coconuts (called macaroons). She does an almond cake macaroon with coconut custard and salted buttercream, and no one particularly likes it, saying it’s not reminiscent of either of the original pastries and was too heavy to recall the French version (although to be fair, French macarons are light, but are usually filled with buttercream or ganache, which isn’t). Overall, Kristen’s restaurant was generally disappointing, but not a flop other than Josie’s dish; Lizzie is the one team member who’s very clearly going to be safe.
* Back to Sheldon’s restaurant, we see Stefan dropping the hammer to get the first seating out and clear the big backup at the entrance, which continues to grow regardless.
* The first dish is Stefan’s kilawen, yellowtail crudo with three sauces: cilantro, spicy chili, white soy. He seems to have a knack for raw fish, and the judges love it.
* Josh’s take on balut has a poached egg, duck confit, and a foie gras mousse. Stefan didn’t explain the dish enough, although if he’d said what balut really is – a fertilized duck egg, poached and eaten in the shell, looking a bit like a grey chicken fetus – that might not have helped. Padma says it was executed beautifully, while Tom says it doesn’t read filipino at all.
* Sheldon’s miki has prawns with tapioca roll/pasta and achiote. Stefan wasn’t there to explain it and then comes and “scolds” the judges after it – a bizarre misstep for a guy who usually is willing to suck up to the judges for his own benefit. It’s like no one told him he’d have to work a doubleheader today.
* Sheldon’s adobo pork belly with mung bean purée and pea shoots salad gets praise from Tom as the best dish all day, with Danny Meyer largely agreeing. I don’t think this was mentioned on the show, but that braised pork belly was deep-fried first. That might have helped its flavor a little.
* Josh’s dessert, a take on halu-halu, has coconut sorbet, avocado mousse, bananas, and shredded coconut. It’s another hit, and it’s clear by this point that Team Sheldon is going to win.
* Stefan’s dessert has ginger tea and a dark chocolate confection with macadamia nuts, ginger, and peppermint oil. Those are some seriously strong flavors fighting each other, and I’ve never liked the chocolate/ginger combination even though I’m a big fan of both.
* Now we see Padma saying Stefan should go home for service, while Tom says Josie should go home for bouillabaisse. If only.
* Judges’ table: Brooke gets praise for her front-of-house performance, while Lizzie gets praise for starter. Josie gets killed for her bouillabaisse and immediately begins blaming Kristen for her dish. Kristen has the chance to explain the gelatin being scrapped because of Josie’s screwup, but declines, which was a fatal mistake.
* Stefan gets crushed for service but owns up to it quickly, largely because that’s what he does with the judges. Tom says Sheldon’s adobo pork was the best dish all night; Team Sheldon wins and he gets a new Toyota Avalon. Padma tells Stefan he’s very lucky, since he would have been sent home had Kristen’s team won.
* Lizzie and Brooke are told they’re safe, while we hear Kristen saying “bite my tongue” under her breath as Josie makes excuse after excuse. Kristen falls on her sword and takes all of the responsibility, which I suppose I should respect greatly, but I don’t think it’s abdicating responsibility if you stick to the truth about an employee (figuratively) who didn’t do her job.
* Josie: “I’m an easy target.” Yes, because your food sucks.
* So Kristen is sent home over Josie, in what Gail revealed afterwards was a split decision. This entire discussion felt extremely contrived, with Padma’s sudden anti-Kristen sentiment looking horribly forced. The judges missed two extremely obvious points when conducting this fake debate over who to send home. First of all, Josie’s dish was the only one on either side that was served late, and with Josie doing that twice previously this season, some basic deductive reasoning would tell you that she was the cause, not Kristen. Second, their behavior and body language at judges’ table spoke volumes: Josie was all excuses and emotions, while Kristen was calm and took responsibility while deflecting attempts by the judges to get her to pin the blame on Josie. I’m not buying Tom’s claims afterwards that they had no choice or didn’t have all of the available information; their own expressions on the show implied that they knew just what was going on, and were trying to get Kristen on the record. I also don’t think the judges needed to send Josie home on the basis of her season-long incompetence. The only excuse I can make for the judges is that neither Brooke nor Lizzie chimed in to support Kristen, perhaps for competitive reasons. Overall, this was a new low for the show, an embarrassing episode that has, unfortunately, given the show a lot of the wrong kind of attention. It is very hard for me to accept that the show is all about the food when the chef who dominated the entire season is sent home for someone else’s cooking failure, and while Kristen comes off way, way better on TV, it undermines the entire show to see this. I’m usually just acting fake-angry about stuff on the show – it’s a reality show with no impact on my life other than entertainment – but now I feel like I’ve been had. We get more drama, but the best chef is gone. That’s like trading Rafael Soriano for Horacio Ramirez.
* Having Josie in the final six is like having Willie Bloomquist on the WBC Team USA roster. She’s far and away the worst chef left, and with Kristen winning Last Chance Kitchen (I can’t even be bothered with an LCK recap), she’s still the best chef sort-of standing. Of the six in the main competition, Brooke is the new #1, followed by Sheldon, Stefan, Lizzie, Josh, the Mariana Trench, and then Josie.