Top Chef, S11E12.

So we start by hearing how Stephanie met her boyfriend when she hired him at one of the restaurants where she works, then scheduled herself to work the line on Saturday nights so she’d always be working with him. She’s kind of a dork and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

* Nick is still pissed off at Carlos for telling the judges that Nick stole his oven, saying it’s “bush league, dude.” That, kids, is known as foreshadowing.

* Quickfire: The kitchen is overrun with giant cockroaches, but no one seems to notice because they’re all hypnotized by John Besh’s hair.

* The challenge is to make a version of crawfish (not cockroach, but close) étouffée, which is a thick stew served over rice. I’ve never had it, as my wife is allergic to all shellfish, and I don’t eat insects (yet).

* Stephanie is allergic to shellfish (crustaceans only, as it turns out), so while she’ll cook them she won’t even touch them, donning plastic gloves and using tongs to hold the critters in place. Carrie agreed to stab her in the thigh with an epi-pen if needed. Nick volunteers to taste for seasoning. I wish we’d seen more of Stephanie at work here just because it’s fascinating – how do you cook something you can’t touch or taste? She’s said before that she’s cooked crustaceans in her restaurants, but seeing how would have been instructive. And doesn’t the smell of them cooking bother her? I don’t even bring shellfish in the house any more for that very reason.

* Carlos doesn’t know what étouffée is. That’s a pretty specific bit of knowledge, though – you’d have to know or have studied Cajun/Creole cuisine. The word means “smothered,” but the Spanish equivalent, ahogado, isn’t a perfect cognate, and he doesn’t even seem to recognize the English term. I’m not defending the guy necessarily, but imagine being asked to cook something like bibimbap (a Korean dish, also with rice, served in a hot stone bowl) if you hadn’t heard of it.

* Nick appears to be using a lot of alcohol to deglaze his pan, and that’s all good with me. I may have used some Appleton Estate 4-year-aged rum to deglaze a pan of mushrooms last night.

* Brian is the only one we see talking about making stock from the crawfish shells, which seems a little obvious – crustacean shells are full of flavor, while their meat (at least the ones I’ve had) is mild and delicate. I was surprised he didn’t use a pressure cooker, though. In 45 minutes you’re not going to get all the flavor out of the shells.

* Shirley is the only person who actually cooked rice in a challenge involving a dish traditionally served over rice. She makes étouffée for her husband, often, and has tweaked her recipe often to suit his palate.

* Padma, believing she doesn’t look tall or leggy enough, is wearing vertical striped pants.

* Besh says the people who coaxed flavors from the shells did best, which we know will include Brian. Poor Stephanie’s dish was more like a bisque or soup. In addition to Brian’s dish, Besh liked Nina’s (she made fresh pasta again) and Shirley’s, a Singapore chili crab étouffée; with cucumber, egg, and scallions; she coated the rice with a “velvety” broth that had strong crawfish flavor. Shirley wins again – her third win in four quickfires.

* Elimination: Louisiana Seafood is having a party at Mardi Gras World, so chefs must create a dish highlighting at least two different types of seafood. Padma says it’s for one thousand guests … oh, she’s just kidding, it’s only two hundred. That was evil. Funny, but evil.

* Besh takes the seven chefs to his home to feed them. His home is on a bayou. I would have been walking around with a mosquito net over my entire body. He seems super nice but I still think he needs a haircut.

* Besh and his wife met in kindergarten! Is her name Topanga?

* The chefs go “shopping” in a seafood truck with tons of kinds. Nina grabs wahoo; everyone else goes to tuna and amberjack. Tuna is so overused in cuisine for me. I’m kinda over being told that seared tuna is something special. It’s too lean and dries out way too quickly at the slightest exposure of heat. Sushi, ceviche, confit all work, but even searing it just puts a dry coating on the fish.

* Carlos decides to do crudo again, even though he clearly doesn’t have the right knife (or knife skills) for it. You’re not good at that one preparation, so try something else. He asks Nick for Nick’s knife, then gets miffed when Nick doesn’t want to hand it over, completely oblivious to the part where he sandbagged Nick last challenge. Eventually, Nick caves, for what reason I have no idea. He doesn’t owe Carlos anything.

* Carrie has the only preparation that doesn’t require fresh fish, salt-curing her flounder and forming fritters by hand, which takes forever (and would be much faster with a basic disher, not to mention more even).

* Stephanie is making fried oysters (so she can eat mollusks), cooking them to order because she was afraid batch-frying would make them soggy as they sat waiting for diners to grab them. Sounds like someone actually watched Top Chef before coming on the show.

* To the dishes … Brian offers grilled swordfish marinated in yuzu koshu, shrimp and sweet onion puree, and some daikon on top. Nick does oysters three ways – oyster leek soup, an oyster/champagne emulsion, and oyster and green apple yogurt with cubed amberjack. Early returns are not favorable. Carrie does her flounder croquettes with an oyster emulsion and pickled cucumbers. Tom says she would have done great if this had been a cucumber challenge.

* Shirley makes a rather delicious-looking amberjack and tuna ceviche with aged soy, lime dressing, toasted pecans, crispy fried shallots, and cilantro. Hugh says “good food is cooked by happy people.” It makes you wonder how Anthony Bourdain ever cooked anything. Also, I want Shirley to come to my house and teach me how to cook like her.

* Nina does a marinated seared wahoo with salsa verde, tonnato (tuna) sauce, pickled veg. It’s great, yata yata yata, it’s the same food every week – Caribbean with an Italian twist. Yes, wahoo is different, but there is nothing on that plate you haven’t had a dozen times. She has a narrow niche and executes the shit out of it. I feel like she’s a lock to make the final three, but that I’d be very disappointed if she won.

* Carlos makes an amberjack ceviche with rustic peach and shrimp relish. Hugh says it needs fleur de sel on top – not salt, not kosher salt, not Himalayan pink salt, but fleur de sel. Also, Carlos massacred the fish again, this time cutting it too thinly. Stephanie made very crispy fried oysters with raw tuna and pickled beech (shimeji) mushrooms and fresnos.

* Nick finds the knife he loaned to Carlos tossed aside, still covered with (now dried) bits of raw fish. He’s pissed. Nina agrees. Carlos semi-apologizes but doesn’t seem to think it’s a huge deal. He seems like he has no concept of how other people perceive his actions.

* Stephanie with the quote of the week, telling Shirley that she’d love to walk up to Padma and say, “I love your shorts, great shoes, you have a hair out of place, please pack your brush and go.” We need her back as a guest judge in season 12. Or maybe as a color commentator. She’s on the short list of Top Chef contestants I’d most like to go drinking with.

* Judges’ table: Thank you, John Besh, for pointing out that the raw fish/ceviche thing is totally overplayed on Top Chef. I just thought it was too common, but he says it’s also safe because you didn’t run the risk of ruining the fish by cooking it. Either way, amen – and I say that as someone who loves a good crudo. The judges praise Nina, Shirley, Brian, and Stephanie, and they stomp all over Carlos (couldn’t taste the fish), Nick (just flat, lacked acidity), and Carrie (totally lost the fish in the fritter).

* Top three: Stephanie, Nina, and Brian. Everyone loved Stephanie’s salad, which made the dish lighter. It’s so funny – I could hear the judges killing her for making fried oysters in “the land of fried oysters,” except that she fried them so well that they ended up praising the dish. It’s a fine line. Brian’s sauce seems to be hte reason he’s here. Nina’s spice & cure really good, and she gets points for using wahoo and for “big flavors.”

* Stephanie wins, and says, “I’m gonna puke!” Just maybe not in front of John Besh, okay?

* Bottom three: Nick, Carrie, and Carlos. Carrie’s croquette was perfectly executed, but hid the fish. Tom is clearly mad she didn’t highlight it. It also feels like a waste – few people ever get access to fish that fresh, and she treated it like a Basque sailor preserving cod for the six-month voyage home. Carlos’ ratio of peach/shrimp salsa to fish was way too high. Nick’s dish was too complex; Hugh disliked its texture (too soft) and lack of acidity, while the amberjack appeared to be just thrown in (per Besh). I think Nick’s also suffering a little from the dwindling number of chefs, where earlier in the competition a dish that involved would have landed him in the middle.

* Carrie goes home. Tom seemed completely convinced she had to go, and I don’t think the other judges ever overrule him when he’s like that. Padma says, “I’m gonna miss her in the kitchen.” The show did get a lot less cute with her departure, but Carrie peaked early and couldn’t hold it.

* LCK: Louis versus Carrie in battle broccoli, a nod to Carrie’s flop from the previous episode’s elimination challenge. She does a roasted broccoli-filled ravioli that sounds amazing, but Louis does broccoli three ways and nails all three of them. He was even kind enough to tell me on Twitter what he did with the stalks. I’ve only roasted them in the oven till slightly soft and caramelized, then pureed them with a little vegetable stock to make a soup, finishing it with a little (I mean a little, maybe 1 Tbsp per batch) cream, some lime juice, a drizzle of EVOO and maybe some fresh herbs like dill. That’s good – it’s essence of broccoli – but a little one-note if you start making it often.

* The rankings: Shirley, Nick, Louis (LCK), Nina, Stephanie, Brian, Carlos. Stephanie’s making a late run and I love it – she has the creativity but needs the confidence to execute. I’m much more interested in what she’ll make next than I am in what Nina will make next.


  1. Hey Keith,

    Great review as always. Just asked you about this on twitter. I read Hugh’s blog and he seems really down on Nick on a personal level–I don’t quite get it. Obviously we’re not interacting with these people but it seems to me that I’d be pissed if someone threw me under the bus with an oven and then asked me for my knife and didn’t return it clean. I don’t see how this makes Nick overly serious, but maybe I’m missing something?

  2. I thought Nick went out of his way to make Carlos look bad with the whole knife sequence. The editing makes it hard to really say when Nick “found” the knife, but it’s not like they were packing up to go home and Carlos left the knife there as they were leaving. It could just be that Carlos hadn’t gotten to cleaning the knife yet. Really odd sequence either way.

    That said, Nick’s dish looked totally uninspiring while trying way too hard. Seems like either his talent has yet to catch up to his ideas or if he has trouble executing his conception. Wouldn’t be shocked to see him go home before the final despite probably being the more innovative chef when it comes to the concept of a dish.

    It does seem like this season is becoming Shirley’s to lose, as I agree with you Keith that Nina doesn’t show the range usually needed to win. However, it’s also fairly wide open as everyone left, but Brian, has won two elimination challenges. Shirley has three quickfire victories, Brian has two and Nina with one.

  3. Ben: I haven’t read Hugh’s blog, but if he really did say the quote that Keith attributed to him above (“good food is cooked by happy people”), then I understand why he wouldn’t care for Nick. Nick’s cooking–and really his entire experience on the show–seems utterly joyless. It’s great that he’s passionate, but he seems to be pressing a little too hard.

  4. I hear what you guys are saying, and I agree Nick appears anxious and pressing and like he’s not having nearly as much fun as he should have (he reminds me a lot of Richard Blaise), but if you look at the reaction of the other chefs, they all seem to think Carlos is acting improperly as well. I can also tell you myself from my quick look at that knife that it was a handmade Japanese knife that probably cost a small mortgage, and I’d definitely be pissed if someone mistreated it. I could be over-analyzing though, for sure.

  5. Nigel from Cameroon

    Nick has crossed over into whiner territory.

    The whole knife thing was just silly. If it’s a big deal, then don’t give it to him. And the cleaning thing…please…I thought it obvious that Carlos had not yet time to clean it. He didn’t somehow mishandle the thing.

  6. Stephanie gives pretty interesting insightful/behind the scenes interviews on the Eater Boston site after each episode…worth checking out. After her mussles dish a couple episodes ago she said “This is kind of the episode where everything changed. They’re still making me seem like the nervous nellie, but my confidence was actually beginning to build right there.”, which may be foreshadowing that she makes it pretty deep.

  7. I disagree on Stephanie’s appeal. She seems nice and genuine, but I would quickly grow weary of her constant self-doubt. It was interesting that she spoke at Besh’s dinner about her growing confidence in her food… yet she is self-deprecating to the point of frustration. This is surely a matter of different strokes for different folks but sometimes I just want to grab her and shout, “Holy shit, lady! You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you!”

    Regarding broccoli stalks, there is a local chain of quasi-Asian/fusion restaurants in the NJ/NY area that makes an amazing broccoli salad using the stalks. It is called Baumgart’s and has locations in Bergen County, NJ and Rockland County, NY. I’ve tried to learn the recipe but never get a straight answer. The stalks are peeled and sliced thin (1/8″ maybe?) and there is ginger and some kind of rice vinegar. I don’t know where the line is between marinated and pickled but this falls somewhere in there. It is fantastic. I’ve never tried to replicate it but I imagine if you had it, you’d be better able to reconstruct it. I doubt you’ll ever find yourself up this way but, should you, be sure to check the spot out.

  8. **I’m really surprised to see anyone defending Carlos. The guy seems completely clueless on basic courtesy and tone deaf to the feelings of other people. I know these things are edited in a way to create controversy, but Carlos has some odd expectations from other people – all while demonstrating a complete lack of reciprocation. Not cleaning the knife is a faux pas for sure. But it’s magnified when you hear him bitch and moan about how other people need to give him things – I need an oven, give. I need a knife, give. He’s a one note cook, and though etouffee isn’t exactly a common dish, it is common enough for an experienced chef to have at least a passing knowledge of it (much like any contestant on TC should know roughly what bibimbap is).

    **Im equally surprised that Nina gets called out for being repetitive and sticking to her niche cuisine (a very fair point, mind you), without extending the same criticism to Shirley and Carlos.

    **Im baffled by the John Besh fascination from the female contestants. Seems like a great guy, but reeeeeeeeeeelax ladies.

  9. I think everyone has ignored Carlos’ one-note cuisine because he hasn’t fared well in challenges, but that’s another reason why I don’t think he can win. I disagree that Shirley has been repetitive or narrow in her cooking – she puts Chinese (Szechuan, I think) flavors into her dishes, but she’s had no trouble jumping cuisines or continents. She made the most authentic etouffee of anyone, but did it with Asian (Singapore) flavors.

  10. Agreed about Shirley. She’s shown some good range, and she rises to the occasion (pizza oven). I’ve got it between her and Nick–I think Nick wins if he can get out of his own way sort of like Blaise. Louis is the definite wild card though–I think we never really got to see him show his goods and there’s no way a thomas keller trained chef can’t cook.

  11. You’re right about Shirley. After I thought about it it was unfair to lump her in as having a narrow focus. I recant that criticism

  12. The reason no one points to Carlos as a one-trick pony is because no one expects him to go far. I also think Carlos in on the wrong end of some unfriendly editing. Every show needs a villain and Bravo has done its best to make Carlos one. We don’t know what they’ve chosen not to show us.

    While I have had Brian ranked near the bottom all season, he has come on strong recently.

    One note left out of the great write-up: During the quickfire, Carlos asked what “smother” means and Padma responded by saying that “etouffee in French literally means ‘to smother.'” Padma deserves points for using the word as the definition. She may have well just said “To smother means etouffee.”