Top Chef, S11E09.

If you’re here, allow me to plug my updated guide to gifts for cooks. Also, I held an hourlong Klawchat today.

We get a glimpse of the inside of the chefs’ house’s fridge, which is full of Philly cream cheese, probably because no one with any kind of taste wants to eat that crap.

* Padma is wearing … a kimono? I’m not even sure what that is. I approve, though.

* No Quickfire this episode because it’s Restaurant Wars (woot). The guest judge is David Chang, who says chefs should “plan on everything that can go wrong,” making it clear that he at least has watched the show before. There will also be a table of Chase Sapphire cardmembers, whom they’re calling VIPs even though it’s likely these people are just as excited that Olive Garden is going to start serving hamburgers. They’ll be sitting with Danny Meyer, though, who knows a thing or two about opening restaurants – and about good hamburgers.

* Nicholas says his team, which includes Travis, Carrie, Stephanie, and Brian, is like “the Bad News Bears,” compared to the Green team, which has more challenge wins under its belt with Nina, Shirley, Justin, Sara, and Carlos. We’ll see about that.

* The Green team has an eclectic bunch of styles, which would be fine if any of them was willing to listen to anyone else on the team. Sara is making financiers and is handed front-of-house duties by acclamation. Justin volunteers to be executive chef, then congratulates himself on his courage for doing so. The team seems far more focused on things like flatware and decor than on its menu, though.

* The Purple team (the Bad News Bears) actually discusses its menu, unlike the Green team, with a seafood focus. Nicholas takes executive duties. Travis offers to do front-of-house duties, saying “gays belong in the front of the house. Duh!” Okay then.

* The Green team is still discussing décor. If the food sucks, decor won’t save you. Has anyone ever survived just on look and feel? Or lost Restaurant Wars because of it? The car can be beautiful but if the brakes fail, you’re still gonna die.

* Meanwhile, Carlos points out that, you know, this being Top Chef and not Top Design (which was an actual show, and not a good one), they should maybe talk about the food, at which point Justin shuts him down in front of everyone. If Carlos had stood up in front of Justin and called him out on it, he would have been right – and Justin probably would have backed down. That was bully-like behavior and it was chickenshit. Carlos made an actual point, that you can’t pick your dishes if you don’t know what you’re cooking – this is known as “foreshadowing,” kids – but Justin pulled non-existent rank on him.

* The teams split up to go to Restaurant Depot and Whole Foods. Sara wanted ring molds from Restaurant Depot but her teammates say there weren’t any. I’ve been in a Restaurant Depot once and I am pretty sure I know where ring molds and things like that were. Sara’s wondering if her team didn’t look hard enough … and she’s probably right.

* Justin pulls the same stunt again when Sara questions whether a 12-cup coffeemaker will be enough for 120 diners, saying that she should just “be positive.” Hard to say this might just be editing – his tone and body language are both terrible here.

* Brian got xanthan gum instead of agar agar. I may have missed when he picked that up, but I know Bob’s Red Mill makes xanthan gum and it’s sold at Whole Foods – and the bag says “XANTHAN GUM” in hard-to-miss lettering. The right move here would be to make something different, no?

* We see Travis and Sara training the wait staff, and it was interesting to see the contrast between this and the results. Sara seemed to command attention more, to be specific in what she wanted, to keep her posture up and project her voice, and so on. Travis was kind of goofy, swinging his arms, joking about how the restaurant wasn’t set up yet … but he ended up with a much more disciplined and organized service than Sara did. He did lead by example on the floor far more than Sara did, which could have been a major factor.

* Shocker: Justin doesn’t have the bowls he wanted and is yelling at Shirley about it. Carlos is wearing his best “I told you so” face in the background.

* Danny Meyer is sitting with the Sapphire people. I wonder if they realize what a big deal this is. This is the man who brought the world Shake Shack; he’s an icon.

* David Chang on order in the kitchen: “You can’t run it like a democracy. It needs to be a totalitarian state back there.” What’s the kitchen equivalent to a prison labor camp? Chopping onions?

* The food starts to come out to the judges on the Purple side … Brian made a scallop crudo with purple corn gel and a corn and squash relish. Chang says the gel is “too snotty.” Well that was an evocative description.

* Steph, in the confessional, offers maybe the highest praise I’ve ever seen a contestant offer a competitor: “Nick has such a handle on expediting. However he’s doing it should never ever change for the rest of his life.”

* Meanwhile, on the Green team’s side, it’s a hot mess, first figuratively then literally. The Sapphire table (with Meyer) didn’t get menus. The waitstaff is turning in tickets that look nothing like the format Justin described. Food is going to the wrong tables. They’re not just going down in flames. This is Krakatau.

* More food – Stephanie made a linguini with oyster cream, caviar, and fennel. Everyone loves how she cooked the pasta and Gail loves the salty/briny kick from the caviar.

* Carrie does a sauteed gulf shrimp with chickpea puree, lemon, oregano, and shrimp butter. Her shrimp were overcooked and the butter sauce may have separted, leaving an oil slick on the plate.

* Nick’s dish was a roasted black drum (a large, bottom-feeding fish found along the east/southeast coast) with king trumpet mushrooms, oxtail ragu, and a kale and hibiscus reduction. Chang loves the flavors. Gail praises him for using a local fish and pairing a meaty fish with a bold sauce. I’m just wondering what a kale and hibiscus reduction would taste like.

* Travis’ dessert is an olive oil cake with greek yogurt, pistachios, and cherry coulis. His gel turns out way better than Brian’s, but I don’t think they told us what he used to create the gel. Other than the cake perhaps not being moist enough, this gets high marks too.

* Meanwhile, the Green team’s runners are confused, Sara is busing tables, and when she greets the judges she looks like she just went a few rounds with Laila Ali. The Sapphire table is actually still eating there, having just gotten their entrees at the time they were supposed to be leaving to go to the Purple team’s restaurant.

* Padma asks Sara for their first courses, never a good sign. Sara never wrote out their tickets, calling them out to Justin et al instead. This would be more foreshadowing.

* Sara serves the starters without explaining the dishes! Has she never seen the show before?

* Carlos’s starter is a red snapper crudo with avocado mousse, pickled baby carrots, and fried platanos. The fish is cut poorly, which kind of ruins the whole thing.

* Justin’s agnolotti with roasted parsnip, mississippi rabbit, and collard green broth is awful (per Tom) and was served on a flat plate when it should have been a narrow bowl (who saw that coming?).

* Shirley made an olive oil-poached cobia (a firm-textured, warm-water fish also called black salmon), blanched ong choy (water spinach) fried in shrimp paste, and salsa verde. David says it’s delicious and that the star of the show is the shrimp paste. Tom agrees. So she ain’t going home.

* Nina made a pork tenderloin with sunchokes and trumpet royale mushrooms. Really nice, nicely cooked, crispy pancetta on the outside, yata yata, we knew she wasn’t going home either.

* The literal hot mess occurs when Sara’s mascarpone emulsion broke in the heat of the kitchen. I don’t get this: One, don’t you keep any dairy emulsion cool, such as by sitting it in a larger bowl of cool water or a towel soaked in cold water? And two, can’t you restart the emulsion by whisking it bit by bit into a bit of cool water?

* Sara’s dessert is, predictably, a disaster: a nectarine brown butter cake with moscato nectarine salsa. Gail calls it a “weird greasy cookie.” The five-spice mascarpone was on the menu, so Padma asks for it, and Sara has to admit she botched it.

* The stew room fakeout was just cruel. Padma says, “Both teams got psyched out by restaurant wars.” Come on. If the Purple team screwed up anything major, we didn’t see it.

* So the Purple team was the winning restaurant, of course. Tom praises Travis, and Padma says his was the best front-of-house ever on Top Chef. You’d think chefs considering going on this show in the future would save this episode and rewatch it a few hundred times. He didn’t do anything (on camera, at least) that couldn’t be replicated. Yet someone next season will pull a Sara and forget to describe the dishes (except her own!) to the judges.

* Pretty much all praise here except on Brian’s purple corn gel, where he had a chance to admit the ingredient error and instead clams up. I’m not a big fan of that – it was a simple mistake, and a potential learning experience, so just own up to it. He clearly wasn’t going home anyway since the team won.

* Nick wins the overall challenge as the executive chef and author of a dish the judges loved; it was clearly him or Travis, whose dish the judges also liked. I would imagine the judges, especially Tom, were impressed by how tightly the team worked with each other. Nick’s leadership ruled the day. And I don’t think he ever yelled at or bullied anyone.

* Then the Green team comes in and Sara is just floundering in front of the judges, denying that anything went that wrong and apologizing as her pat, disinterested answer to every criticism. She and Justin start sparring over the systemic breakdown in the tickets; her verbal fire of the judges’ orders seems to be what sinks her here. Justin is going to skate on all of his own errors here, clearly, even though his dish was also a mess. He and Sara agree that one of them has to be the eliminated chef.

* Padma says “that was pretty illuminating” after the Green team leaves, to which Gail adds, accurately, that it was “depressing, actually.” Did bad service cause the kitchen breakdown? Gail says the food was bad either way. I don’t know how you could sort any of this out if you were at that judges’ table.

* Sara is eliminated, of course. She says she focused too much on everything but the “culinary side” … but she didn’t do any of that non-culinary stuff well either.

* LCK: Louis against Sara in an amusing if very silly challenge: They had to use mascarpone in a savory preparation, but for the middle third of their thirty-minute cooking time, they had to turn over the cooking to a sous chef from the peanut gallery and give orders while blindfolded. Louis seemed to win handily by using the mascarpone in an unusual way – he poached fish in it and used it to bind a vegetable side – while Sara just put it in polenta, which can be delicious but isn’t creative at all.

* The rankings, one through nine: Nick, Shirley, Nina, Carrie, Justin, Brian, Stephanie, Carlos, Travis. Nick moves up to the top spot on a strong week and a general upward trend over the last few weeks. Carlos takes the biggest tumble; his execution is a consistent issue, and the fact that he has no formal culinary training may be hurting him in a competition that so frequently asks chefs to show breadth of ability as well as depth.


  1. I couldn’t believe the judges said that the front of house experience from Travis was the best in the history of the show, after Fabio’s two turns at Restaurant Wars. That would be a major upset…

  2. Nigel from Cameroon

    Seems like we are now seeing separation of the top 4 from the bottom 4.

    And can’t believe Nina’s “suck my…” comment(s) is now part of the “Previously on…” segment that opens the show.

  3. That was a disaster at Found and it sure seemed like Justin was done. He didn’t seem to have any control over that kitchen and his dish seemed like it was the worst (his excuse that the verbal ticket messed them up… IT’S THE JUDGES TABLE, just do it… write it yourself if you have to have a written ticket, that was weak sauce). But Sara then seemed to snatch defeat from the jaws of safety at the Judge’s Table with her flippant answers and terrible body language. Can’t blame the judges for sending her home after that.

    Agree that your top three is Nick, Shirley and Nina. I’d still have Carlos over Justin and Brian but I’m nitpicking. And Carlos and Justin seem to be the only chefs who might sneak into the top three, but Justin seems to be falling apart. Carrie strikes me as contently good, but never great like the other three. And Stephanie shows flashes, but they appear to be few and somewhat far between.

  4. He still did poorly overall, but I was impressed by how quickly Justin was finding problems with the tickets and figuring out what they meant. How many times did he call a server back because they had the wrong dishes? He acquitted himself well for that part.

  5. WOW Padma…so many subtle shots of were restaurant wars or something this episode..? lost focus..

  6. Sriracha Demon

    I have a hard time believing Travis’ FOH was better than either of Fabio’s. Fabio only didn’t win because Stefan (in season 5) and Richard (in season 8) had 2 of the best RW performances we’ve seen.