Welcome back to this season of Top Chef Some-Stars! Let’s see if any of the rookies can survive another challenge.
* Quickfire: Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is there, talking about getting people to eat more healthful foods. The challenge is to make a more healthful version of fatty, carb-heavy comfort foods – chicken pot pie, meatloaf, beef stroganoff, and more. All dishes must be made vegetarian, which is good, and chefs can only grab tools and ingredients one at a time, which is stupid, and yet another way the show consistently discriminates against chefs who are older or heavier or just less athletic.
* Sheldon has no clue what tuna casserole is, which is to his credit, I think. (I’ve never eaten it, and couldn’t tell you how to make it.) Also, he’s coming off an injury in the previous episode, so running back and forth seems like a great idea!
* Neck-Tat is making his dish “almost vegan,” with crumbled tofu as the protein. He says his son has been vegetarian since age 3, but I’d love to know why – did his son ask where meat comes from and then ask to stop eating it?
* Jim is using eggplant for its meatiness in his vegetarian version of chicken-fried steak, and that’s why I don’t love eggplant – it does have a meaty texture, but not the good kind. Unless it’s really handled well, like salting it ahead of time to draw out moisture, eggplant slices develop a texture like wet meat.
* Tesar says he’s never seen seitan before. Is that possible? He’s correct that vegetarian protein substitutes often aren’t very flavorful; you have to infuse them with flavor through marinades, seasoning, cooking methods, and so on. He calls them all “tofu derivatives,” but seitan is actually wheat gluten.
* The food: Amanda made a vegetable stroganoff with charred eggplant, tomato, and yogurt … Katsuji made spaghetti (zucchini noodles) and zucchini meatballs, cut with a melon baller, so he really made a big plate of zucchini … Brooke made vegetarian lasagna with grilled zucchini, bechamel, and tomato sauce, using tofu in the base to add creaminess … Tesar made a veggie burger with mushrooms, curry powder, and cranberries … Sylva made seitan and masa dumplings (a riff on chicken and dumplings) … Casey made a vegetable pot pie with silken tofu and crumbled farro crust … Neck-Tat made a crumbled tofu sloppy joe with bell peppers, onion, and tomato paste, along with a side salad … Jim made his baked eggplant steak with a pistachio, mint, lemon zest, and parsley topping plus a mushroom gravy … Emily made a vegetarian “meatloaf” with almonds and charred tomato.
* Dr. Murthy is kind of a big nerd, right? That’s not an insult, not when I say it at least. He didn’t like Sylva’s (hard to chew), Casey’s (topping was grainy), or Katsuji (noodles were soggy and oversauced – look at the doctor dropping some cooking knowledge). Favorites: Emily’s was tasty and looked right; Neck-Tat’s; and Brooke’s lasagna, which looked great and had a creamy texture. Winner is … Neck-Tat. Thought Brooke should have had this one, based on comments and Dr. Murthy’s emphasis on visual appeal.
* Elimination challenge: Honoring southern chef Edna Lewis, the first African-American celebrity chef and a pioneer in spreading the gospel of southern cooking as a cuisine. Toni Tipton Martin and Alexander Smalls are there, with Smalls, a restaurateur and a Grammy and Tony-Award winning opera singer, serving as guest judge. Padma compares Lewis’ influence to Julia Child’s influence on French cooking in the US. The challenge is to create a dish that pays homage to her legacy, and the chefs will be cooking at the same restaurant kitchen Lewis used to cook in. Her cookbooks made her a celebrity, especially The Taste of Country Cooking, first published in 1976 (when Lewis was 60 years old) and still in print.
* This is the kind of challenge I would love if this entire season hadn’t been only southern cuisine challenges. Now it’s just more of the same kind of food.
* Katsuji is doing fried chicken and watermelon. Sylva implies that’ll be an insult to the table of southern chefs. Lewis’ frying medium for her fried chicken was oil flavored with bacon or ham and then butter. I get that that sounds awful, but it probably made for very crispy skin, and I assume some of this was the old ethic of saving and reusing everything you could. If you cook and eat bacon, save that fat. It’s good for a lot of things, including greasing the pancake griddle and making flour tortillas.
* Sylva’s father blocked him from going to the Culinary Institute of America because he said “no son of mine is going to be a domestic.” Oof. Also now I have that awful Genesis song in my head.
* Jim is making a dish with a consomme and discusses the need to thoroughly clarify it. Michael Ruhlman wrote in The Making of a Chef about how at the CIA the instructor wanted to be able to see the lettering on a dime sitting at the bottom of the pot. That’s a fantastic read, by the way, even if you don’t cook.
* The food: Jim made seared shrimp with a smoked turkey wing and smoked pork consomme, plus spring peas and squash; Hugh (Hugh!) says it was very clean & seasonal, says it’s really working, but Tom says the peas were undercooked … Katsuji made fried chicken with pickled rind watermelon salad, and it turns out everyone likes the use of the watermelon, especially that he pickled the rind to pair with the fried chicken; he seems to have been aware of the stereotype and wanted to make it “go away” … Brooke made a warm salad with braised chicken and bread crumbs, grilled Swiss chard, sunchokes, blackberry vinaigrette, and lemon curd; Hugh says it’s either a dessert that wants to be savory or savory course that wants to be sweet. I’ll say this is a big pet peeve of mine at fine restaurants – I don’t like much if any sugar in savory courses. It’s such an overpowering flavor that it can ruin the complexity and texture of a lot of dishes. And there is a special level of hell for people who put sugar in their tomato sauce.
* OK, back to the food … Emily made deep-fried semolina-crusted chicken livers (she wanted to pan-fry but ran out of time) with corn puree, dandelion green salad, blackberry sauce; Gail says the livers were totally underseasoned and no one seems to approve of the deep-frying … Shirley made chicken and rice, confit chicken wings with collard greens and rice, and a watercress salad; Smalls loves the collard greens and rice, but come on, watercress salad is so 1996 … Tesar made “pan-broiled” chicken thigh (which is what Lewis called frying it in butter until the skin crisped) with roasted sunchokes and watercress; Art Smith says he “channeled” Lewis in that dish … Sylva made a flour- and cornmeal-crusted skillet-fried snapper that looked absolutely gorgeous with garden vegetables and vegetable broth; clearly hit the mark, Art loves how crispy the fish is, so does Biggie Smalls, and did I mention it looked amazing? … Sheldon made pork belly and cabbage with cabbage jus and potato; Tom loves the idea, but I’m not sure he liked the dish … Amanda did a roast duck breast with sweet potatoes, spiced pecans, balsamic onions, dandelion greens; Padma dislikes the chunky nature of the dish, Hugh says duck is chewy, and the dish isn’t southern enough … Casey made chicken and dumplings stuffed with chicken, and ham (maybe tasso?) … Neck-Tat fails to plate one of his dishes, which of course goes to Padma; he made roasted strip steak with sunchokes, spring onions, corn soubise; the meat is a little rare – I saw one of the steaks moo and head for a Chik-Fil-A billboard – while the corn soubise is the best part for Tom.
* Brooke’s dish was “a mess,” per Hugh. Emily’s chicken livers lacked complexity and were overwhelmed by the sweetness. Hugh says Amanda’s “pulled at no heartstrings.” And the components weren’t done so well either. Really, I was happy to get Hugh’s opinions on everything since he wasn’t at Judges’ Table.
* Favorites: Jim, Sylva, and Sheldon. Gail loved Jim’s flavors and the simplicity of the dish. Biggie Smalls praises Sylva’s, says “it’s an Edna Lewis piece,” that Sylva handled the fish brilliantly and paid respect to the vegetables; Gail can’t get over how the breading was thick and still crunchy. Biggie says Sheldon “brought the ancestors with you today.” Smalls is like Morgan Freeman here with that heavy, slow delivery; I would pay to hear him narrate an audiobook. The winner is Sylva. That fish looked stunning – I love fried fish, but it’s so often disappointing, and his looked as good as any fried fish I’ve ever eaten myself. He says afterwards it’s his favorite dish that he’s ever cooked. I can see why.
* Least favorites: Amanda, Emily, and Brooke. Amanda’s dish had no “soul,” the duck was dry and a little boring. Emily’s bad mix of sweet and savory didn’t work; she’s teary in front of the judges, but she’s had a bad run on the show and there’s no sign of progress here. Smalls says to Brooke that with her clash of tastes, he “didn’t get the blackberry, didn’t get the lemon;” Tom thinks she tried to get too modern. Brooke says she got inspired by too many things in the book, and regrets introducing the sauce to the dish. Without that, she’s probably not on the bottom, since no one is questioning her execution of any element.
* Amanda is eliminated, and she knew it as soon as Tom said “we didn’t get that feeling” from the losing dish. That leaves us with six veterans, four rookies. Did Emily survive so we didn’t end up at seven to three?
* Quick rankings: Brooke, Jim, Sylva, Sheldon, Shirley, Tesar, Casey, Katsuji, Neck-Tat, Emily. I truly can’t see any of the last four winning, and even Tesar seems to lack the kind of ingenuity that usually wins (but not last season). This is still Brooke’s to lose, even with the slight stumble this week.