This turned out to be one of the most interesting Top Chef episodes I’ve ever seen because of the controversy in the elimination. I’ll spend more time on that than I usually do on judging or elimination, especially since it seemed like many of you wanted my thoughts on Twitter.
* Jacques Pépin is in the house for the Quickfire. Padma says he “wrote the book on technique, literally.” (The original 1976 book to which Padma refers, La Technique, is out of print and appears to be a collector’s item.) The challenge is to prepare his favorite dish: Dover sole with artichoke and asparagus. It’s a skills challenge, so they’re all making the same dish, which he shows them all how to make first. That’s really his favorite dish? I love a good fish dish, but when it comes to favorites, bury me in duck confit, please.
* I wish we’d seen more of him cooking – the man just made everything look effortless, like when he ripped the skin right off the sole like it was only attached with Velcro. He also carves a rosette from butter with a few turns of his knife and says, “Now you can charge 30 bucks for it.” And people say the French are all socialists…
* “Your tahm start … now.” Pixar blew it. They should have had Pépin voice a character in Ratatouille.
* Three of the chefs struggle here – Stephanie, mostly with the fish, and Carlos and Brian with several elements of prep. Nick and Shirley, both of whom have training in classical French cuisine (which is really the foundation of Western cuisine in general), don’t have any trouble, and neither does the Queen of Execution, Nina.
* Carlos’ dish is missing tomatoes and the sauce is not what he wanted. Brian’s plate is a mess, with no sauce and cold fish. Nina’s presentation is poor. Stephanie’s plate looks just a little sparse, and her fish was also undercooked. Nick’s plate is “neat and tidy.” Shirley’s looks the most authentic. She says Pépin is like a grandpa, and you wouldn’t want to let your grandpa down, would you? I suppose that depends on what kind of grandpa he was.
* Nick wins, gaining immunity, which turns out to really matter this week. Pépin said his and Shirley’s were neck and neck, but implies that the elements came together a little more thoroughly in Nick’s dish.
* Elimination challenge: Spanish cuisine vs. French cuisine. I’ll confess to limited familiarity with both, having been to Spain (Barcelona) once for just 48 hours, and tending to eat Italian when I’ve been in France because I don’t care what anyone says, Italian cuisine is the best in the world. But what I know of Spanish food, which varies widely within regions of Spain (much as the language does), I love. American tapas restaurants often use it as a springboard but layer more elements on top of the basics of Spanish cuisine, so you lose what makes it special. I’ve already exhausted my knowledge on this topic so I’ll stop talking now.
* The chefs are divided into two teams of three. It did not occur to me at the time, but in hindsight this is clearly a failure of process. With six chefs remaining, a team challenge in and of itself is somewhat unfair, but combining it with immunity makes an outcome like the one we saw more probable than it should be. If the goal is to identify the best chef, or something along those lines, immunity/team challenge/six chefs remaining is a bad combination of variables.
* The teams are led by Julian Serrano (Spain) and Dominique Crenn (France), who will serve as coaches. The meals will have five courses, built around five “quintessential” ingredients of both cultures: olives, almonds, mussels, chicken, and chocolate. Chicken? Really? Is that “quintessential” in any cuisine, or just something we eat a lot? How about wine, or vinegar? Any fish from the Mediterranean? Cheese? There were so many better choices for the fifth ingredient.
* Team Spain: Nina, Carlos, Brian. Team France: Shirley, Nick, Stephanie.
* Crenn is the dream coach, fostering conversation, taking feedback but pushing the chefs to be bold. Serrano seems to think these are his indentured servants and is bossing them around and even micromanaging things like vegetable cuts. I have to think that, post-shooting, the producers were doubting their choice on that one.
* Crenn has her team using corn silk, which I thought was inedible (or indigestible) to make a “nest” for the game hen. The silks in my house go right into the compost.
* Nina, making a potato salad for the Spanish team, says, “If I go home for this I’m going to kill myself.” I hate when they say stuff like that. That’s not the least bit funny, and if there’s even a smidgen of seriousness in it, then the speaker should be seeing a psychiatrist, not joking about suicide in a room full of knives.
* Shirley, playing with liquid nitrogen, would prefer not to be the first Top Chef contestant to lose part of an ear on the show. If she does, though, she’d better stay in that kitchen or the other chefs will say she’s not tough.
* The food … First courses: Shirley’s snapper ceviche with dehydrated olives and olive ice cream against Carlos’ ensaladilla rusa with green olives, gulf shrimp, and potatoes. Both pretty good. I think Nina had a hand in the salad too.
* Second course: Stephanie’s pickled and poached mussels with gelée of tomato against Nina’s ajo blanco with almonds, crab, and cherries. According to Teresa Barrenechea’s wonderful The Cuisines of Spain: Exploring Regional Home Cooking:
Also known as white gazpacho, ajo blanco is a perfect cold summer soup: easy to make, healthful, and distinctive. The Arabs who ruled Andalusia for almost eight hundred years introduced almonds to the Iberian Peninsula, and this dish probably originated with their reign. Though highly popular in Andalusia, it is little known in the rest of Spain and virtually unknown in the United States. I serve it garnished with grapes, but thin apple slices are also common.
Barrenechea’s recipe includes garlic, almonds, day-old bread soaked in water, sherry vinegar, and olive oil. Whatever Nina’s was like, the judges, especially Emeril, loved it.
* Third course: Stephanie’s chicken liver mousse along with Shirley’s consomme with roasted maitake mushrooms against Carlos’ mejillones (mussels) a la romesco with crispy leeks. Romesco sauce is Catalonian, made from dried red peppers, EVOO, and almonds and/or hazelnuts.
* Fourth course: Nick leaves the nest on the plate over the objections of Stephanie and Shirley, dismissing them pretty rudely in another bit of foreshadowing. His Cornish game hen with spiced chocolate and corn silk nest with eggs and duck fat goes up against Carlos’ “pollo con arroz.” Nick’s dish loses this battle as the judges hate the silk nest and the chocolate sauce overpowers the chicken.
* Julian Serrano is kind of an ass at the table, though – or perhaps just very childish. He won’t even touch the silk nest and complains that he doesn’t like “the new cooking.” Tom kills the corn silk, says it’s like what you pulled out of the drain in the shower.
* Fifth course: Brian’s flan de chocolate with strawberries against Nick’s almond flan with plums, cocoa nibs, and fresh licorice. Neither of these was well-received; Nick’s flan’s texture wasn’t good while Brian’s was too sweet.
* I can’t be the only one who started singing “Scenario” every time the judges referred to Nick’s “chocolate chicken,” right?
* The Spanish team wins, and Nina gets the top prize, again just for execution (here for executing someone else’s idea). What matters, however, is the French team: Of their five dishes, the two worst were both Nick’s responsibility, but he has immunity and can’t be sent home. That means that one of Shirley or Stephanie, neither of whom did anything remotely elimination-worthy, has to go … unless Nick takes Jacques Pépin’s suggestion and resigns.
That’s a hell of a moral quandary. Nick won immunity and has no obligation to resign; such are the rules of Top Chef, and he might argue that he was willing to take on riskier dishes because he had that immunity. Any question of resignation is a moral one – that it would be proper, or just, or fair to take the fall for his mistakes rather than allow one of his teammates to go home for something he did.
There is, however, a significant practical angle here that no one mentioned. Nick had a chance to be a hero, and chose instead to be the zero. Falling on his sword (in Tom’s words) would have earned Nick an enormous amount of praise, on the show, from competitors and judges, and among the audience. It wouldn’t have eliminated him entirely; he could have won two battles in Last Chance Kitchen and returned to the finale. But it would have granted him the kind of positive publicity that can’t be purchased. I think Nick made a split-second economic decision that overweighted his chances of winning the whole thing (probably between 25% and 30% at that point) and underweighted the financial benefits of resigning with honor. Many chefs who didn’t win Top Chef have managed to capitalize on their appearances on the show because they showed great skill and/or personality. I’m glad the judges didn’t force the issue further, but I think they were correct in broaching the idea to Nick.
* Stephanie says in confessional that she would have resigned in Nick’s situation. Shirley says the same, that she would have taken the fall and fought back in LCK. Of course, it’s easy to say those things when you are the victim rather than the perpetrator, but it sounds like Shirley at least understood the costs and benefits a little better than Nick did.
* The judges hammer Nicholas one more time, in an attempt to get him to fall on that sword, telling him, “you’re the reason why the team is here.” He doesn’t budge, and Stephanie is eliminated, reducing Shirley to tears. In the confessional, Stephanie breaks down too, saying, “I went home making a dish I was really proud of.” That has to be a bitter pill to swallow.
* LCK: Battle Beignets. I thought Stephanie’s looked far better on the screen, both her savory and sweet applications, as Louis’ savory one was too dark (and likely greasy) and looked like an expired beetle with dark fried legs coming off its torso. I also liked Stephanie’s flavor combinations more, but Louis’ appeared to have better texture and he took the win. Stephanie’s decision to try to create a yeast-raised beignet in a half an hour may have been what sank her. Would adding baking powder to the yeast dough have saved her, ensuring at least modest CO2 production?
* Rankings: Shirley, Louis, Nick, Nina, Brian, Carlos. As much as Nina keeps winning, it is still always on execution, not creativity or vision. Nick may end up sabotaging himself in the finale, as at least one of you suggested in a previous week. Louis has cooked like a different chef since he was eliminated; that could be about the format, but I’m inclined to think he’ll fare much better if he wins next week’s LCK battle and gets to re-enter the main house. Carlos is the clear bottom guy at this point, struggling with execution and showing a lack of range.