Top Chef, S11E16.

Almost all of the the 2014 top 100 prospects package is now posted for Insiders – the post on the ten guys who just missed the 100 goes up on Monday – so here’s the full set of links in case you missed any of it:

Back to the Top Chef finale…

* Louis was the Last Chance Kitchen winner, taking eight straight challenges to re-enter the competition.

* Sam Choy, who made the infamous clam flan on Iron Chef America, is in the house. We have a quickfire … involving spam. That’s disgusting. I don’t care if it’s popular in Hawai’i; it’s anti-food. I can’t believe Colicchio would tolerate this. It contradicts everything he seems to stand for.

* Padma is wearing her 1970s royal blue jumpsuit. I assume Charley is on the speakerphone.

* Louis: “spam and eggs is awesome, nothing better than that.” Are you insane? That’s better than eggs and BACON?

* Seriously, look at that stuff. Cylindrical meat? What part of the animal does that come from? Do you think it was organic? Grass-fed? How much of the contents are fillers, chemicals, things you’d really rather not ask your liver to break down for you? I’m done now.

* The chefs all seem to be using santokus for their mise en place. I do own one and probably should use it even more – it is tremendous for vegetable prep, at least for “gross” cuts. Mincing with one feels trickier because of the straight blade.

* Shirley makes spam fried rice at home. What the fuck is wrong with these people. I guess I’m not done after all.

* Louis is quick-chilling his mousse in a bowl of ice. I thought you were supposed to just dump the ice into the mousse…

* Shirley makes a spam musubi (like nigiri but with grilled spam in lieu of raw fish), but deconstructed, with spam oil-infused rice, nori, cuke slaw, crispy spam, and basil.

* Louis wraps his spam mousse into a torchon, with garlic, chives, scallions, snap peas, beech mushrooms, and togarashi. Padma says, “It’s very silky in my mouth.” I swear she says these things on purpose.

* Nick makes a spam broth with pancetta, seaweed, dried shrimp, fish stock, clam juice, and quail egg. I’d love to be a judge on Top Chef someday, but I am glad it didn’t happen for this episode. I’d be running over to the ocean to purge after each dish.

* Nina makes a breadfruit and teriyaki Spam croquette with a sour orange and mango slaw on top.

* Nick wins, the quail egg smoothing out the somewhat oversalty dish. Sam says it was “Spam like I’ve never seen it before.” And like I’d never want to see it again? Anyway, Nick wins $10K, but not immunity, of course.

* Elimination challenge: Cooking with canoe crops, plants brought to Hawai’i by Polynesian explorers about 1700 years ago. The chefs are limited to those ingredients, pork shoulder, a few kinds of native fish, and some basics like onions and garlic. It’s a double elimination challenge, so only two chefs will go on to the finals. The winner also gets an advantage going into the finale, although we don’t find out what that is even after the winner is named.

* Tom is wearing seahorse shorts, which I guess is the new business casual. The guys rowing in the giant boat with the canoe crops are only wearing loincloths, which Nina calls “thongs” – not without reason.

* Shirley points out all may taste very similar because of same pantry. Sweet potato/turmeric puree. She and Nick doing pork shoulder

* We finally get to see Gail’s baby bump. I approve of this. Hiding her behind furniture would have been kind of insulting.

* To the food … Louis serves grilled opah with sweet potato and a coconut, turmeric, and onion sauce. The judges credit Sam with promoting opah as a food item. Tom’s is a little undercooked, but others’ dishes are perfect. Gail hadn’t had purple sweet potato before – neither had I before going to Hawai’i in 2012, and it’s a revelation, the best sweet potatoes I’ve ever eaten. I imagine they either don’t travel well or farms there don’t produce enough to ship them to the lower 48.

* Nina’s dish is also grilled opah, here with a taro root and coconut puree along with a turmeric, sugar cane, and habanero sauce, and a breadfruit chip somewhere on the plate as well. It’s perfectly cooked, of course, but the sauce was spicy and Tom feels like it threatened to overpower the fish.

* The rhizome in question here is pronounced TUR-meric. Not TOO-meric. A TOO-meric is what Arnold claimed he didn’t have in Kindergarten Cop.

* Nick serves opakapaka (also called Hawai’ian pink snapper) with jalapeño and crispy chicken skin, along with a pork jus sauce. He gets praise for incorporating texture contrast between the skin and the fish. The regular judges are joking that Hawai’i relaxed Nick. Maybe a month away from you guys relaxed him too…

* Shirley made a Maui honey-glazed pork with sweet potato-turmeric puree. Everyone loves the pork – braised, browned, and glazed perfectly. But the whole dish is sweet other than some pickled onions. I’m assuming that was meant to be her acidic component, but no one is talking about that. It reads as sweet (honey) with sweet (sweet potatoes).

* No one hit it out of the park, based on what we heard from the judges. At this point Nina feels like the only lock to advance.

* Sam sharing some Hawai’ian wisdom: breadfruit makes you “really gassy” with “blue flame action.” All righty then.

* We’re back to the chefs watching the judges’ discussion on the big screen. Tom says there were “little mistakes here and there” in all chefs’ food. Louis’ fish wasn’t cooked evenly from dish to dish. Nick’s fish was nicely cooked, but the jalapeño may have been too strong. (Give him a break, you’ve been killing him for underseasoning all season!) Nina did a great job layering flavors, but had a similar issue with too much capsaicin. Shirley’s pork was really flavorful; Emeril loved how it was cooked, but Tom says the plate was a little too sweet and needed a sour/acid note. The judges didn’t telegraph anything here that I could tell.

* When they bring the judges in, we mostly hear more of the same. One thing that stuck out was the praise for Louis in having the confidence to do a simple dish – I just finished The Supper of the Lamb, and the author, Robert Farrar Capon, has a passage about just that point: It’s harder to do simple well than it is to to complicated well.
* Padma looks like she’s going to be sick and they haven’t even sent anyone home yet.

* Winner: Nicholas. He gets the advantage in the finals, but we don’t know what it is. I will say he was like a different person in this episode – less touchy, not whiny, more upbeat. I’m sure he saw or heard feedback during the time off (based on previous seasons, at least) and realized he had to take it down a notch.

* Louis is eliminated first. He tears up, saying he wanted to win for his son. I get that, but your son will love you no less for coming in 4th.

* Shirley is eliminated too. Damn. I thought she had the best season to date, although I can see, based on the judges’ comments, why she went home. She says it’ll be “hard to face (her) family.” I sincerely hope that’s all in her head and that she won’t be berated by her husband or mom for finishing third.

* So we have Nick vs. Nina in the finals. Nina makes fewer mistakes. Nick cooks more ambitious dishes. I’m picking Nick, which is like going for upside rather than probability. He’s more likely to screw it up, but the history of the show favors chefs who are creative and bold.

* All I remember of the preview of next week’s episode is Padma in a tiny string bikini. Not that I’m complaining, but I really was just here for the food.

Thanks to everyone who’s subscribed and powered through the top 100 prospects stuff this week. It was a grind to write it – over 38,000 words, all written in the last 15 days – but I’m happy with the results, and I hope all of you are too.


  1. Congrats on finishing the top 100 prospect list. TL; DR. (Kidding.)

    “Shirley makes spam fried rice at home. What the fuck is wrong with these people”

    My cousin was a sous chef for a very famous restaurant. His favorite food was ramen. He ate it 3x a week. Nurses smoke more on average, etc. People are weird.

    “We finally get to see Gail’s baby bump.”

    Her other 2 “bumps” bring all the boys to the yard, Keith. Good Lord.

  2. I heard Padma say the silky line and I thought the same thing you did.

  3. Just a small note re time between last episode and this one- according to Gail, it was three months, not one. Padma, bikini- why do they do that to us? Very sorry to see Shirley leave- she had the best attitude all year- but I guess on this show, you are only as good as your last dish (unless you are Nick).

  4. Keith, not sure why you hate Spam so much, as processed foods go, its not loaded with chemicals:

    From Wikipedia (The labeled ingredients in the classic variety of Spam are chopped pork shoulder meat, with ham meat added, salt, water, modified potato starch as a binder, sugar, and sodium nitrite as a preservative. Spam’s gelatinous glaze, or aspic, forms from the cooling of meat stock).

    It’s really more of a meat mousse or a sausage sans casing, in fact minus the potato starch, the ingredient list for spam reads like most bacons out there.

    Otherwise great recap as always—-it really helps get through the dark days of no sports on TV (Baseball and the World Cup being the only ones I watch).


  5. I’m still confused by the “underseasoning.” Isn’t seasoning kind of subjective?

  6. Never seen a purple sweet potato on the mainland? Do you not hit up big Japanese/Korean/Asian supermarkets at all Klaw? I find them down here in Lee Lee’s (Chandler) in stock regularly, albeit not in the greatest shape (assuming they get shipped here from LA).

  7. I didn’t like this particular challenge, as you had one contestant (Nina) who is from the islands, and yet geared both the quickfire and elimination challenges to heavily feature island cuisine. It just felt like a bye week for her, although by no means am I implying she was undeserving.

  8. Seems pretty likely the “advantage” will be the first pick in the sous chef draft…

  9. @Bruce: Thanks, I said “a month” as sort of “an ambiguous length of time long enough for Gail’s belly to pop” but actually had no idea how long the gap was.

    @Myk: Agreed. Good call there.

    @chris: The labelled ingredients, perhaps, although that doesn’t tell us anything about the pigs. But processors can slip a lot of off-label stuff into products, even those labelled as “natural.” Look at the orange juice flavor-pack scandal. Spam is vile, and I think it speaks to our cultural devaluing of meat as something that should be cheap and produced to specifications, not a natural product. We’re pickier about our granite countertops than we are about the meat we eat.

  10. Damn, now I wish i hadn’t stopped watching before next week’s preview!
    I agree that Nick was less of a dick, but he didn’t start the episode well by referring to 2 professional, grown-up female chefs as “the girls”.
    Finally, I agree re spam, Keith, but as we have learned increasingly over the years, TC is not afraid to push mediocre ingredients in the name of product placement.

  11. Oh, and tremendous job on the prospect items, Keith, seems like an incredible amount of work.

  12. Chris from Jersey

    Hey Keith,

    I just wanted to thank you for your excellent prospect lists. I’m sure it must have taken a tremendous amount of time and effort to put together. Your work is the reason I renew Insider every year.

    I will say as a Yankees fan I was surprised Mason Williams made the cut. I actually had really only expected to see Sanchez and maybe Austin, since I know you like his bat.

    Also, bummed to see Shirley miss the cut. I think the judges made the right call, but she was my favorite for most of the season.

  13. I generally judge Top Chef by the person whose restaurant I would want to eat in the most, and of the final four, those were Shirley and Louis. Alas.

  14. Travis (SirNope)

    Great review Keith, sorry about giving you a hard time on Twitter earlier in the week. I’m just about to dive into your prospects material. AL-Only fantasy player and love finding gems my league mates haven’t heard about yet.

  15. This feels like such a blow to the season to me. I could tell based on the comments that Shirley was getting the boot, and I suppose that based on their judging method of “current challenge only” they made the right call. But she was such a clear front runner to me that the finale is going to feel woefully anticlimactic. I’m rooting for Nina to go out of her comfort zone and give me something to get excited about, I guess.

  16. I’ve been underwhelmed by this Top Chef season. I keep thinking that I wish Brooke (from last season) had been competing this year. She lost to a clearly top notch chef in Kristin, but Brooke would easily win this season.

  17. The episode was a let down for me and I’m much less interested in the final as I believed Shirley and Louis to be the top two out of the four. I guess you’re only as good as your last dish.

    Keith – Cheap meat allows people that don’t have well paying jobs writing about baseball to have meat for dinner. The industrial food system has driven down the cost of food so you dont have to be wealthy to enjoy a big plate of meat (and keeps you and me from having to become farmers). Appreciate the fact that you don’t have to eat Spam but don’t critisize those that do have to it eat (or may even enjoy it!). Spam is one of the things that make this country great. There are children starving in North Korea that would love a can of cylindrical meat.

  18. These past two episodes have left me wholly uninterested in the finale. Nick sucks. Plain and simple. He spent 80% of the season under seasoning his food, which tells me it’s going to taste boring and bland, no matter how “creative”, “inventive”, or “ambitious” it is. Then when he tried to add more flavor, he used jalapeños? Incorrectly? Ugh. He should have been gone last week and his place in the final over Shirley is infuriating. I can’t help but think hat his “pedigree”… namely that as a white, male, classically-trained chef… and the perception that it affords him is the primary reason he remains over Louis and Shirley.

  19. “(Nick) was like a different person in this episode – less touchy, not whiny, more upbeat.”

    PLUS his nose is no longer bright red as it was the entire time in New Orleans. Thank you HD-TV.

  20. Alright, I’ll do the obvious. I was really hoping for one chef to say they were making lobster thermidor aux crevettes with a mornay sauce, garnished with truffle pate, brandy and a fried egg on top of Spam, even if only to the camera.

  21. @Kazzy I agree 100% with you (and most others) about being very disappointed that the finale is Nina and Nick and that based on the season’s work, Shirley definitely is deserving of a spot (but I also understand and accept that they go based on that challenge only (or are supposed to, at least)).

    But saying that the judges picked Nick over Shirley because he’s white, male, and classically trained is a pretty large jump to conclusions. Almost half of Top Chef’s winners have been minorities and two winners have been female (not to mention that last year’s was Korean and female). Shirley is definitely classically trained, I am not sure about Louis, but regardless, I don’t think we can say with any confidence that Nick’s race, gender, and/or background provided him the “tie-breaker” or edge in having them bring him over Shirley or Louis to the finale.

    I think, if anything, the show’s producers would have pushed for either Shirley or Louis to make the finale to give it a “good guy” to root for. I doubt they were oblivious to seeing that Shirley and Louis were two fan favorites and Nick definitely was not by mid-season (not sure about the general public’s feelings towards Nina…she wasn’t my favorite but overall I was pretty meh to her overall (didn’t like some of her comments and did not like her attitude when she thought she might lose, like when she toasted herself goodbye to everyone before Judge’s Table and ended up not being in any trouble).

  22. Nigel from Cameroon

    So we get the (perhaps) most whiny Chef in TX history (Nick) versus the Chef who says “Suck my Dick” on camera to her competitors (Nina).


  23. @Ryan

    I don’t think it was as conscious as any of that. Rather, I think Nick “seemed” like a chef in a way that Louis might not have. And I think that perception was in part based on his race and gender and background (language also probably played a part, something Keith discussed in his prior recap). I think the extent to which it played a role was subtle and subconscious.

  24. @nigel

    Now we just need Nina to face off against Stefan, who similarly told people to “suck it”.