Top Chef S11E14.

Today’s Klawchat was a bit short, but I’ll do a big one on the 30th when my top 100 prospects package is up.

Right after last episode’s elimination, the remaining chefs are in the kitchen, Shirley crying on Nina’s shoulder, Nick looking hollow. Nina says to the two of them that they “should be proud” because their chef-leader, Dominique Crenn, planned an ambitious menu. Nick’s response was telling: “Cause I sent Stephanie home, I should be proud of that?” We would have been far better served seeing that scene in the previous episode – and Nick especially would have benefited, as there would have been a lot less speculation about him tanking the challenge on purpose.

* Quickfire: Roy Choi, the “king of the food truck,” is back. He’s the genius behind the Korean taco craze. Also, emphasis on “craze,” as Choi is a little nuts. The challenge is for the chefs to create their own takes on a po’ boy sandwich, as Choi did with tacos, and they have just 20 minutes to do it. For reasons no one can quite understand, the winner gets immunity again. I’m glad we’ve learned from last week’s mistakes.

* Is it just me or are there more obvious product placements in this episode than before? Dunkin Donuts, Morton Salt, and Reynolds parchment paper all get loving close-ups in the first ten minutes. I guess it beats subliminal placements.

* So each chef is doing something related to where s/he grew up. Nick’s is a New England version, with fried shrimp, mayo, sriracha, fennel, and pancetta. This sounds a lot like a New Orleans fried shrimp po’boy, just with different toppings. Not that that’s a bad thing; I just don’t see it winning a challenge.

* Shirley does a Chinese po’boy, with sauteed catfish and what I think is a mirin-ginger-garlic-black vinegar-soy glaze and a cabbage slaw. (I wasn’t clear if all of those ingredients were in the glaze.)

* Nina goes Caribbean, with a deep-fried mahi po’boy with a mojo aioli and pickled onions. I have no idea why you’d deep-fry mahi mahi. That is a gorgeous fish just grilled with salt, pepper, and some citrus juice. Frying just hides it.

* Brian goes Korean, with an Asian lobster po’ boy with gojuchang aioli, yuzu, and pickled napa. Can you really pickle something in under 20 minutes? At that point, isn’t it just marinated?

* Carlos goes Mexican with an al pastor (pork) po’boy with chile guajillo, pineapple, onion, and garlic.

* Choi hammers them. I didn’t see this coming at all, but he says “y’all fucked this shit up,” that they cooked without soul and didn’t take advantage of the giant blank canvas. Carlos’ al pastor lacked flavor. Nick’s was too salty and wasn’t balanced. Brian’s didn’t taste of gojuchiang. Nina’s didn’t pop for him. Choi liked Shirley’s, praising the pickled veg, the catfish, and the hints of black vinegar, but says it “didn’t represent her as a Chinese chef.” I don’t know what that means. Anyway, she wins Least Prize and gets immunity.

* Elimination challenge: Who’s the big winner her tonight in the kitchen? Oh, it’s Jon Favreau. He’s working on a film called “Chef” about a chef who has lost his culinary “voice,” so he opens up a food truck and goes cross-country with his son. The challenge is to reate a dish representing a turning point in the chef’s career that led him/her to discover his/her own culinary voice.

* Brian reveals that before turning his life around, he had a problem with alcohol and eventually had a DUI and spent 24 hours in jail. Twenty-four hours for putting the lives of everyone else on the roads with him at risk, as well as anyone else who might have been in his car. That seems fair.

* Why are they hiding Gail’s pregnancy? Are they concerned about messing up the storyline? Also, Gail had her baby last week and named her … Dahlia. That’s a lovely name, except it immediately evokes the nickname for one of the most notorious unsolved murders in U.S. history, so maybe she could have picked another flower?

* And why are they captioning Shirley when she’s talking? If you can’t understand her, you’re not trying. Eric Ripert was harder to grasp and I don’t remember him getting the dang-furriner treatment.

* Nina says Nick overthinks everything and has a short fuse. Hard to argue with either point there.

* Nick’s being dickish in the kitchen, yelling at Carlos (but really at everyone, even the imaginary chefs in his head), “do not move my pots, do not fucking move my pots, do you understand me?” They’re not your children, Nick. They can tell you to fuck off. I kind of wish Carlos would, at this point; he shouldn’t have to take that from Nick.

* Nina was planning to make agnolotti, a delicate filled pasta, but as she rolls her pasta out it’s breaking and sticking in the rollers because the kitchen is so hot. She switches to fettuccine, which is fine, but why not try to chill the dough as you work? I have flexible ice packs that I can unroll and lay under a half-sheet pan to create a quick-cooling surface for doughs that are getting too soft on the counter. Roll, chill on the pan, roll again. It’s a little unwieldy but it works, since the gap between “too warm” and “just right” is very small.

* Brian, the drunk-driving genius, is shown spraying the open grill with what I assume is cooking spray, causing flare-ups. This is also incredibly stupid, as spraying a combustible aerosolized product over an open flame creates a temporary flamethrower. It can’t directly make the can explode, as the pressure in the can prevents the flame from getting into its contents, but it can also melt any plastic parts, and if you get too close to the flame or drop the can, then it can and probably will burst. So, you know, try an oiled paper towel instead, Lavoisier.

* Carlos is making pork belly, searing it first and then braising it. I don’t quite know the dish he’s making, but I would think you’d want to sear it afterwards, no? (EDIT: See the comments for more on this; I understand the point of the initial sear, but that presumes you’re using the same vessel, which I don’t think Carlos did.)

* Nick wants to toast some quinoa, so he puts it on a sheet pan in what he thinks is a 275 degree oven. However, you can see that the oven’s dial is all the way at the maximum mark on the right-hand side, and a subsequent close-up confirms that it’s at 500 degrees. Needless to say, people like white quinoa and red quinoa but blackened quinoa is not yet a thing.

* Shirley can’t believe Brian used boneless skinless chicken breasts. Neither can I. They have so little flavor of their own that you have to marinate them for hours to get any flavor at all in there – preferably cut up into cubes – or slice them into cutlets for breading and frying. Otherwise, they’re like plain tofu with better texture.

* They’re cooking and serving at Cafe Reconcile, opened in 2000 as a program to teach at-risk kids the basics of cooking and food service. Emeril’s foundation is involved, so he’s one of the judges. Almost 2000 students have graduated from there. A few work for Emeril now. The kids are the servers for the challenge, and they’ll also get to taste the dishes.

* Shirley is up first – she does seared snapper in a crustacean broth with silken tofu and napa cabbage. Everyone loves it. The fish is cooked perfectly with a perfectly crispy skin. She used leek and fennel, which is also the filling in the bacon-wrapped stuffed trout recipe in Hugh Acheson’s A New Turn in the South. I made that recipe the other day, using bronzino instead of trout, and other than using bacon that was sliced too thickly to cook fully (my error) the results were amazing.

* Nina’s dish is fettuccine with charred calamari, pine nut gremolata, and crab meat. Again, raves all around. The woman can clearly make pasta. And this isn’t her usual tropical/Caribbean flavor palette.

* Brian makes a chicken anticucho, a Peruvian dish of grilled, skewered meat (usually beef), that he serves with twice-cooked potatoes, feta, and a walnut pesto. Emeril’s twice-cooked potato is still raw inside, and Tom loses his mind over Brian using boneless, skinless, flavorless chicken breasts. Seriously – if you know how to break down a chicken, buy the whole bird. You’ll pay marginally more than you would for the breasts alone, and you get the remaining parts, the skin, the bones (for stock), the liver, and, if you’re into that kind of thing, the heart and kidneys too.

* Carlos makes his braised pork belly with a sweet potato puree and a chipotle tamarind glaze. It was one of the first dishes he put on the menu when he opened his own restaurant, and this might be the most praise he’s gotten for a dish all season. Emeril says you can taste every element, and Tom says they all have a purpose. I need a report from one of you who’s been to his restaurant.

* Nick’s concept was to showcase carrots in a slew of different ways, something he did at his previous job when they switched to a tasting-menu format. He builds it around a seared hunk of yellow-fin tuna, serving it with several preparations of carrot and some fennel pollen dust. He told them about the missing quinoa, which may have been a tactical error (don’t tell them what’s missing, let them figure it out themselves). The sauces and oils are good, but the whole plate is underseasoned, especially the fish, and of course there’s no texture contrast on the plate. The kids liked the other four dishes, but they don’t like Nick’s at all, one calling it “not nasty … but too gooey.”

* Judges’ table: All five chefs go in, to see five judges all crammed behind the judges’ table. If they all roll over, will one fall out? Also, Gail looks very good when pregnant. Not that you’d know she was from watching the show.

* They don’t specifically say who’s up and down, but the top three were Nina, Shirley, and Carlos, and all three got universal praise. Nick’s lack of texture and lack of cohesion on the dish put him in the bottom two, while Brian’s protein choice, raw potato, and overall heaviness put him there.

* Winner: Shirley, aka Girl On Fire. Carlos was very slightly behind, and Nina was also safe. That’s Shirley’s third elimination win, matching Nina, and her fourth Quickfire win, one more than Brian (who also won one as part of a team of six).

* Tom, right before one of the two remaining chefs gets the axe, says, “one of you will have to reconcile with…” something I couldn’t hear because I was groaning at the awful pun. For shame, Colicchio.

* Brian is eliminated. I would guess Nick survived because his dish was more ambitious, although the judges don’t explain their reasoning. On the other hand, I’m a little surprised there was no holdover from last week, where the judges might have used Nick’s dish, the worst of that episode, and his refusal to surrender immunity as deciding variables.

* LCK: This should have been the tater tot challenge, but instead it’s the skin-and-bones battle, with chicken, duck, and pork available (no meat, just the skin and bones). Neither uses duck skin, which shocked me, as that would be my first choice to cook or to eat. Louis roasts his vegetables under pork skin, serves it with crispy chicken skin and a warm poached egg yolk, and nabs what Tom calls the best thing he’s eaten all season, so Brian loses despite cooking a pretty good dish himself.

* Rankings: Shirley, Louis, Nina, Nick, Carlos. Louis’ comeback has been impressive, but what’s clear now is, befitting a former Thomas Keller protegé, the man can really cook him some vegetables.


  1. it’s always good to see when a chef “gets it” on top chef and understands what the judges are looking for, and cook to that end.

    it’s clear Shirley is in that zone. carlos just makes his food, which, luckily for him, is awesome. seems like Louis has figured that out.

  2. Yinka Double Dare

    I get the producers and decisionmakers obviously like Roy Choi, but if you’re doing an “own take on a po boy” in New Orleans I don’t know how you don’t have one of the people from Killer PoBoys on there. Yeah, they don’t have a real restaurant of their own (it’s in the Erin Rose bar just off Bourbon St) but they’re damn good at what they do. I guess they just wanted to have Roy swearing at people though.

  3. My girlfriend and I went to Carlos’ restaurant in November. I got the seared duck breast and duck leg confit with red quinoa. I forgot what exactly my girlfriend ordered but the bite I had of her was just like mine — fantastic. Carlos was there and made a point of stopping by each table after main dishes had been served. I asked him for some top chef spoilers but he wouldn’t budge.

  4. Am I the only one who thought the editing was trying to get people to think that Carlos turned up the temp on Nick’s oven? Seemed pretty overt manipulation.

  5. Nick is one of the least likable chefs in TC history in probably the least likable cast in 11 seasons of TC. In addition to being a straight up asshole, he has a glorious combination of false modesty, complete lack of character or integrity, overwrought emotion (“I gave up so much to be here” as if almost all the chefs in TC history hadn’t also left young families at home), excuse-making, and on and on…When he was bullying the chefs, and particularly Carlos, about the pans, I wanted to punch the freaking screen.

    • Nigel from Cameroon

      Agreed! He has become so unlikable to me that I would not go to his restaurant.

      I occasionally go to Philly and made a point to one day got to his new place, but no thanks now.

  6. A) I agree they should have had a NO po’boy expert there not someone from LA
    B) generally I dislike po’boys, and I’ve tried them at all the places in NO that are supposed to be the best, because there’s just too much bread. It’s hard to get any other flavor out of them.
    C) Keith, I think you’re critique that Nina should have just used something to cool the pasta is good if she was in her own kitchen. But she was in a kitchen she’d never seen before and working on a time limit so she had to make a quick decision. Also, since this is a kitchen helping underprivileged youths, I would guess it was lacking many accessories that may be common in professional kitchens but may be considered luxuries in a charity kitchen. I could be wrong.
    D) Nick has been a jerk, but I also think Carlos has been inconsiderate of his kitchen mates.

  7. I enjoyed Roy Choi. He was pretty brutal, but he explained each critique in detail so it didn’t come off as just being mean to be mean. You can tell that he take food very seriously.

    On another note…Padma has looked amazing this year…it is like she is aging backwards.

    Finally, the fact that Stephanie did not win in cutthroat kitchen is all the evidence you need that Nick made the right choice in keeping immunity. This is a tv competition. You do what you can to win.

  8. In defense of Gail, she’s Jewish and Dalia is a fairly common Hebrew girls name (at least in Israel). But yeah, if she was trying to go with the Hebrew origin, she shouldn’t have spelled it like the flower.

  9. You sear before you braise to create flavor for the braising liquid when you deglaze the pan and to color the meat. You can always put the meat under the grill after you’ve braised it to get that seared/crunchy texture.

  10. I liked Nick for the first half of the season, and while he’s certainly lost his luster for me, if you think he’s the worst you must have skipped seasons 1 (Stephen), 2 (Ilan and Marcel), 3 (Hung) 5 (Stefan’s first run)…need I go on? Carlos is annoying me almost as much these last few episodes. And I think Shirley and Stephanie and Jeanine (and now Louis, he’s really starting to shine in LCK) make this a perfectly likable cast. Not like Texas where Paul Qui was the only redeeming aspect of the whole season.

    I haven’t found any redeeming value in any if Roy Choi’s appearances on the show. I thought his critiques here were empty, and to tell a Mexican chef that he has high standards for Mexican food because he’s from LA…was that supposed to be a joke?

  11. Also, yeah, what Will said. Keith, refer back to Ruhlman’s Twenty; the advance sear is an essential part of a braise.

    • @Will/Daphne: Except that it didn’t appear that Carlos was doing any of that. He used a separate pan.

  12. I have to agree that Gail looked pretty good. I thought her side-boob contribution was the most she has contributed to the show in years.

    And as for Brian’s DUI, I agree that he should have received more punishment. But I also thought he showed true remorse. I would be happy that he didn’t hurt anyone else, but give him some props that he learned his lesson without injuring anyone.

    Nick has really rubbed me the wrong way lately. I thought he showed some creativity earlier in the season, but he just seems to be making excuses lately.

    But I think Shirley has really stepped up her game lately. I would think she’s the favorite right now and I would be pretty happy if she won.

  13. “Needless to say, people like white quinoa and red quinoa but black quinoa is not yet a thing.”

    Except it is. The three main types of quinoa are red, white and black.

  14. I’m a Los Angeles native, and I’ve eaten at the Kogi truck two or three times. I was, to put it mildly, underwhelmed. I also gave A-Frame a shot, and had the same experience–it was ok, but nothing I would make a point of going back for (even the “famous” beer can chicken).

  15. Nigel from Cameroon

    Nick would have benefited? IDK, he continues to come off as shallow, sniveling, and whiny.

    re: Choi“”didn’t represent her as a Chinese chef.” I don’t know what that means– he didn’t either. Just tough love words. All of that was completely telegraphed to me.

  16. Nigel from Cameroon

    re: “He told them about the missing quinoa…”

    Nick didn’t just tell them…he griped about it and implied sabotage. Which, of course, was not the case.

    Nick has a victim mentality. He needs to just go, please.

  17. I think they only used the captions for Shirley at one point because she was tearing up and not on camera – it can be a little harder to understand people in that situation (where you can’t benefit from watching their lips move).

  18. RE: immunity. I seem to remember in previous seasons, there was not immunity on every quickfire. Instead, there were gifts, money, or an advantage during the elimination round (like getting to claim a protein or getting to pick your team). I wonder why they went away from this for this season. Imagine how cool it would have been if last week’s quickfire winner would have gotten a cameo in the Chef movie.

  19. I think Roy was specifically told by the producers to tear the chefs apart.

    This was made even more clear later on when Jon Favreau came out and they started talking about finding their voice.

    It’s like the producers wanted someone to come in and tell them all how terrible they were and then have them build back up into the challenge.

    I thought this tactic was a little too transparent and yet out of nowhere to be anything but weird.

  20. I’ve noticed that almost every chef will discuss if they had to deviate from their original plan one way or another. Even Nina discussed the pasta she had intended to do and why she went another route. This leads me to believe that the judges have a far better idea of what the chefs are preparing than they let on. I think they either have access to video from the kitchen OR they talk more extensively with the chefs about their plan before they go to work. I can’t imagine that nearly every competitor on the show who missed a component or had to audible independently decided to discuss this with the judges. I long wondered why they do that as it seems to be shooting themselves in the foot, so I have to assume there is something else compelling them to do so.

  21. As TE said, it seems like in previous seasons there were more interesting wrinkles to go along with the possibility of immunity (choice of proteins, or team members, advantages like that). A related question I have (maybe this has been covered in previous posts and/or comments) has to do with the lack of prizes for winning a given competition–are those gone? I don’t necessarily think the winner should always get five to ten thousand dollars (especially if it means sitting through even more repetitive advertising), but to me it feels strange that the chefs never win a fancy knife or a signed book or whatever. I know there’s a lot of pride in a win, and it probably helps in terms of building a chef’s brand, but if the contest really doesn’t value consecutive/cumulative wins, then don’t chefs have a pretty strong incentive to play it safe, especially through the early rounds? I think the show would benefit from stronger incentives for victories. Does anybody know why those prizes aren’t around this season?

  22. I was at Mexique a few weeks ago, and actually had that dish. Was a very good pork belly dish, with my only criticism being that the cut was visibly overly fatty on one side, even for pork belly. In that instance, I think searing off some of it would have been beneficial, however, I was actually looking for the same thing in what was provided to the judges, and none seemed to be as fatty as mine. Everything we had was good, that dish was very good, and they also have a mussels dish in white wine, saffron, and house made chorizo that was amazing.