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.