Top Chef, S11E06.

The offseason buyer’s guides are rolling along now, with middle infielders going up this morning and starting pitchers going up yesterday. Outfielders go up on Friday. Also, the new Behind the Dish podcast is up, with interviews with Scott Boras and Buster Olney, talking free agency. The show is going on hiatus until early December, but we’ll do at least one show a month over the winter.

To New Orleans…

The waterworks are really picking up now, so you know the sleep deprivation is starting to kick in, even though we’re not even halfway home.

* Right after last episode’s elimination, we see Nina calling Michael a “dick” and a “douche.” She seems really broken up that he’s gone. I’m surprised she didn’t take his chair by the fire, too.

* John Besh comes in and the ladies swoon. Padma introduces him as the “lovely” John Besh. Steph: “Good hair, great restaurants, James Beard awards … I’m intimidated.” Huh? Great hair? He’s got that dead floppy thing over his forehead. It looks like his barber forgot to finish the job.

* The quickfire involves an overnight trip so the show can plug the Toyota RAV4. I have owned three Toyotas in the past and don’t plan to buy one again. The alternators died on all three, all earlier than they should have, and the cars are too expensive for that to be acceptable.

* They end up on this gorgeous farm that Besh says services 50 top restaurants in New Orleans, including his eight. The key ingredient here is Creole tomatoes, which only grow in that part of the country. They have a thin skin and high acidity, but are also meatier with less of the mucilaginous goop in the center that chefs often scoop or mill out. For the Quickfire, the chefs have 20 minutes to make a dish that highlights it, with the winner getting immunity.

* Brian says he has the “great beginning of a conceptualized idea.” Heavy stuff, man.

* Travis is wilting in the heat, and says he knows he’s not making the tomato the star of the dish. How does that happen? Was he thinking that in real time and went ahead with the dish anyway? Have these people never watched the show before?

* Steph says she draws a blank when trying to come up with a dish, and eventually decides to do a basic tomato/watermelon salad with feta and avocado. That’s so generic she has no shot to win, and her constant psychouts are such a huge contrast to Kristen’s Zen approach from last season. I can’t see Steph getting much farther at this rate even though she seems to be a pretty talented cook.

* Bene supremes his tomato, which I’ve never seen before. Also seems like a great way to sever your thumb, if you were looking for a more efficient method.

* Nina knows how to properly chill something: In a larger bowl full of ice. Not by dumping ice into your soup or broth. I learned that from Good Eats about ten years ago. It’s not. That. Hard.

* The bottom three: Patty’s roasted and marinated tomatoes are just a mess, which she blamed on the heat; Steph’s was too simple; and Travis’ steak dish didn’t elevate the tomato and the steak was a little underdone.

* Top three: Nina’s chilled soup had deep flavor and was actually chilled; Carlos’ poached tomato was elevated by the salad on top of red onions, cilantro, basil, jalapeño, and flowers marinated in tomato water; Louis’ tomato-seed bouillon with marinated tomato had big flavors without killing the tomato. Nina wins again, earning immunity, for what seemed like a well-executed but not very imaginative dish.

* Elimination challenge: Cook in the La Provence kitchen for the executive chefs from Besh’ eight restaurants. Each dish must incorporate … Philadelphia cream cheese? I don’t like American cream cheese to begin with, but a generic mass-market brand? How about some local farmer’s cheese? Chefs aren’t allowed any dairy but that gunk, milk, or cream, so no butter, but they will get local produce in the kitchen. They’re divided into appetizers, entrees, and desserts, with the winner getting $10 grand.

* Also, cream cheese is gross. Keep it away from my brownies and my carrot cake or I will cut you with a santoku.

* Nicholas talks about opening his own place – it opened last night here in Philly. The menu is small but looks promising, although I’m not sure if I could bring my daughter there on one of our date nights because the menu is so narrow.

* The pantry is limited to seasonal ingredients, but then we’re treated to the chefs mauling each other to try to grab the ones they want, which doesn’t have a lot to do with cooking ability.

* Nicholas wanted to do New Orleans-style beignets but can’t find yeast in the kitchen, so he has to do a “Jersey shore” funnel cake instead. I don’t think those two doughs have much in common; funnel cake is best made with choux paste.

* Sara is trying to stuff lamb loin, but can’t get the puree out of the piping bag. I have no comment on this.

* Gail says she’s excited to see what the chefs do with the local “PRAH-duss,” rhyming it with “epiglottis.” Nothing like making up your accent as you go along.

* Travis hacks up the lamb while trying to remove the fat cap, saying the knife is “too sharp” when dullness is the typical problem when the knife goes where it shouldn’t. He’s kind of got an excuse for everything, doesn’t he? He may have been right about the central Vietnamese tomato dishes, but since then it’s been a steady stream of “it’s not my fault” lines, like he’s seven.

* To the appetizers: Patty serves a snapper crudo with cream cheese vinaigrette; Brian serves a summer squash tagiatelle over poached oysters and a sauce of emulsified cream cheese; Carlos presents poached beets, pickled carrots, and a peach habanero (no “ñ,” thank you) cream cheese sauce; Nina offers crispy zucchini blossoms stuffed with eggplant-cream cheese purée. Besh loves Carlos’ depth of flavor and complexity. Patty’s is too simple and didn’t have enough sauce. Brian’s oyster was too salty. Sara’s was their least favorite, undercooked to the point of rawness. Nina’s stayed really crispy … but is that anything more than a typical Italian dish, fried squash blossoms stuffed with a flavored soft cheese like ricotta?

* The entrees: Bene serves a roasted chicken breast filled with caramelized onions and a tarragon cream cheese dressing; Carrie does a vinegar-braised chicken with cream cheese sauce and chilled cucumbers; Justin has a roasted duck breast with eggplant vinaigrette, corn cream (with the cream cheese), and chanterelles; Travis does a seared lamb with Moroccan succotash and a roasted tomato-cream cheese aioli. Travis’ looks so undercooked on camera; I know lamb should be rare to medium rare, but I’m pretty sure that same sheep will be on “Homelamb” next week. Carrie’s braise gets some praise but her cukes lost their crunch in sauce. Bene’s getting killed on the eggplant having no flavor or texture. Besh loves Travis’ dish, but the lamb was not evenly cooked plate to plate, and Tom didn’t like it. Justin’s hid the cream cheese too much but it was the best overall dish. Any dish that hides its cream cheese is going to get more points from me.

* And desserts: Louis serves a graham cracker and cream cheese bar cookie with poached berries and white peach; Nicholas’ funnel cake comes with a carrot cake-spiced cream cheese mousse; Shirley serves a steamed egg custard with olive oil- and black pepper-macerated blueberries; Steph, whose cream cheese separated when she tried to beat it into her whipped cream, serves it as a cream cheese, peach, and cherry mousse with a cream cheese short dough (I assume a shortbread cookie). Steph’s is a disaster, a broken custard, prompting Tom to say “there’s a story behind this, has to be.” Nicholas showed off the cream cheese the best. Shirley’s custard is a little overdone, needed a touch of sweetness. Louis’ bar was very soggy and chewy. I couldn’t make out what he called it – a sous brique? A soggy brick? Whatever it was, the diners did not approve.

* Judges’ table: The judges are all surprised the chefs didn’t do better with the fresh produce. Nicholas’ really stood out, far and beyond the others. Nina had immunity but hers was also awesome. Again, hers may have been the best executed, but the history of this show has been one of rewarding ambition and creativity. Gail liked Justin’s duck, and Tom agrees that it was by far the best entree. Travis didn’t cook the vegetables properly and made “raggedy cuts,” to which he says that he “wanted it that way.” Sure you did, Trav. Tom says Travis’ and Bene’s were bad family meal dishes. Sara’s lacked a balance of flavors, but more importantly, the lamb was raw. Steph’s seemed like something went wrong and she had to throw something together at last second, which is exactly what happened. I thought at this point she was gone like a broken custard.

* Top three: Nina, Nicholas, and Justin, which could easily be a final top-three preview. Nina’s eggplant cream cheese filling was “so silky smooth.” Nicholas says he saw peaches and carrots first, and had done desserts at his last restaurant because they didn’t have a dedicated pastry chef. Gail says Justin’s dish was “so composed and thoughtful.”

* And the winner is … Nina? What? Did they whack us with editing? Everything pointed to Nicholas winning, and his dish was more out of the box than Nina’s – as was Justin’s, for that matter. She keeps winning, but isn’t it always for immaculate execution rather than for her concept or vision?

* Bottom: Bene, Sara, and Travis. Steph and Louis have to be relieved at this point. Sara said she thought her concept was good, but concedes her execution was lousy start to finish, especially around time management. Bene admits he put a lid on the steaming vegetables and ended up discoloring them while also robbing them of flavor. Is that about the lid, or about steaming them too long? Serious question there as I usually lid anything I’m steaming but keep the process short and move fast when my timer goes off. Maybe I’m doing it wrong. Travis’ plate was sloppy and the judges are all over him for the vegetables. He doesn’t want to hear it. There’s a “talk to the hand, Tom” moment coming soon.

* So, Sara’s lamb was blue. Travis’ vegetables were “miserable.” Padma can’t even remember what he did and says it was a Travis-ty. I probably can’t criticize after my Renteria joke yesterday. Bene served “cafeteria” food. His chicken was kind of dried out. Tom says to Sara, “I don’t know what’s going on in your head.” I don’t know what’s going on on her head.

* Bene is eliminated. They could have sent any of these three or Steph home from what we saw after editing.

* Top three: Carrie, Nina, Nicholas, followed by Shirley and Justin. Steph can’t get out of her own way. Nicholas comes down with strep in the next episode, though, so we’ll see what that means for him. I’d had Bene at the bottom for a while now; with him finally gone, my new bottom three is Patty, Louis, and Travis.

* LCK: Frozen/canned vegetables. Janine’s scallop with corn/pea puree and crispy pancetta beats Bene’s swordfish two ways with asparagus/pea puree and browned artichoke. Tom admits he uses frozen vegetables at home, and Janine picks the two vegetables I nearly always have in my freezer. Corn freezes beautifully and fresh peas are in season such a short time that using frozen peas is nearly always the better option. (When you do get fresh English peas in their pods, though, grab them. You’ll be amazed how sweet and vibrant they taste.) The sear on Janine’s scallops looked incredible. High heat, lots of fat, wide pan, move fast. It sounds easy, but apparently it’s not.


  1. I see I was about an hour early haha. Thank Keith love reading these!

  2. What’s Nicholas’ new restaurant called? Also he says he’s unemployed in the show… Now he’s opening his own restaurant? Sounds like he went pretty dang far this season.

  3. Tim,

    Nicholas’s new restaurant is called Laurel. It’s located on the 1600 block of Passyunk Avenue.

  4. Tim-

    My understanding was that he left his last job in order to do TC and open his own restaurant. FWIW, his work at both Rittenhouse Tavern and in the dying days of Le Bec Fin was definitely worth paying for. Really bright, intense flavors. Interesting that he made his reputation largely in locations known for their stuffiness. I, for one, am curious how his place in the decidedly more casual Passyunk Ave will be.

  5. Nice hair? She said that and I thought she might have been hitting the sherry too hard.

  6. This John Besh as attractive thing really mystifies me.

    Bene clearly had to go, but I wish it was Sara. Her personality is the most annoying remaining.

    Michael is still around to bray like a donkey and otherwise be awful on LCK. Ugh.

  7. Keith, I’m curious why you don’t have Justin ranked higher. He seems to be getting the most love, behind Nina.

  8. @Evan: I don’t know if I have a great answer for that. Is it because he’s so quiet that he’s getting less praise on camera? I agree with you that he hasn’t slipped yet and the judges tend to like his stuff.

    BTW, this week’s recap will probably be a day late as I’ll be at the GM meetings for a few days.

  9. It’s true, his quiet demeanor seems to be getting him less camera time. Every time he speaks he seems to say something thoughtful and/or modest, while we were forced to sit through countless idiotic ramblings from Michael.

  10. Has Keith mentioned the terrible polls that run at the bottom of the screen? I love that the fans have Nina winning as 80% – those are quite the odds!

  11. Aaron: I said the exact same thing to my wife. If I can have the field, paying 4-to-1, I’ll be delighted to take that bet.