It’s only been a week since its L.A. premiere, and Top Chef is already packing up and traveling to the chefs’ next destination, Santa Barbara.

Quickfire Challenge

Top Chef returns to the familiar ‘let’s see what you make in an outdoors kitchen given the freshest ingredient’ format by sending the chefs to the harbor to pick up a cooler full of lovely, big and juicy sea urchin before arriving at the vineyard where their benches are set up, ready for some cooking.

It’s also the return of the Sudden Death Quickfire, which means the chef who makes the worst dish automatically faces elimination. We also get a pointless clip of Grayson explaining that there were no sudden death quickfires in Texas, so this is new territory for her, just like the rest of the chefs. Like having gone through Top Chef before has proven to be such an advantage for her so far? 

The contestants must create a dish highlighting uni, but that’s not all: they also have to pair their dish perfectly with one of the Sanford Estate wines on offer at the vineyard.

None of the chefs seem to be struggling during preparation of their dish aside from Giselle, who can’t find any eggs and immediately gets flustered, to the point where even sweet Marjorie had to comment on it.

Dana Cowin of Food & Wine is – quite appropriately – the guest judge, whose favorites dishes were Wesley’s creamed corn with uni, fennel, roe and scallop, Carl’s sea urchin omelet with herbs and green chili and Grayson’s crab salad with cucumber, grapefruit and uni (again with the salads!), who seems to be doing a lot better this week – and who’s somelier boyfriend seems to have taught her a thing or two about wine pairings, but apparently not the correct way to promounce somelier – and even picked up the win!

grayson's uni

Angenlina’s Cacio e pepe with uni butter was salty and didn’t pair well with the wine; Karen couldn’t find deep bowls to plate her uni and had to use shallow baking dishes and wasn’t surprised when her seafood hot and sour soup with whipped uni landed her on the bottom, although I’m still trying to understand the significance of the plating when it’s plainly obvious that the delicate whipped uni didn’t stand a chance to stand up (or not dissolve) against the hot soup.

Giselle’s potato and onion jam with uni dish was overwhelmed by the onion flavor, her potato was undercooked, and the uni was ‘puzzling’, earning her the bottom spot.

giselle's uni

For the Sudden Death Quickfire, Giselle had to pick an opponent she would then compete with in a head-to-head cook-off; if she wins, she gets to stay, if not, it’s bye-bye Giselle. She explains that she tried to be ‘fair’ and pick someone who’s already on the bottom so she chooses Angelina, which comes as no surprise to anyone. Angelina is piqued, and rightly so, warning Giselle that she’d better kick ass.

The challenge is to cook with an ostrich egg, which I’m excited about because who wouldn’t want to cook with a ginormous egg?

giselle's eggIn the end, Giselle’s soft scrambled egg with avocado chipotle salsa was simple yet tasty, and even though there were too many pepitas added to it for texture, the judges preferred her dish to Angelina’s scramble with tomato jam, who says she didn’t want to do too much to the egg but ended up throwing way too many ingredients in there. Giselle stays, and Angelina is pissed.

Elimination Challenge

For their elimination challenge, Top Chef brings back another classic: the surf & turf. The chefs must pair up and pick their proteins from a beautiful array of ingredients, so off they go to choose their meat and seafood. They all choose the chef they’re most comfortable cooking with… well, except for Angelina and Giselle, who pretty much get stuck with each other.

Out of all the combinations, Chad and Kwame’s crab and lamb dish seems to be the most disjointed, so it looks like they might be in trouble. Also in trouble? Frances and Jason, and their completely different style of cooking: Jason does Italian, Frances does Asian; not an easy combination to bring together. The one chef who has it easy this challenge is Grayson, who not only has immunity, but also gets to cook all by herself.

Next, it’s the requisite shopping montage at Whole Foods, and Angelina and Giselle already seem to be having issues picking out their ingredients as the rest of the chefs are looking on:

looking on

Back in the kitchen, everyone’s excited to cook, until Tom shows up to throw a spanner in the works: the dishes they’ve been planning are basically scrapped, as this is now is a head to head competition among the pairs: it’s no longer a surf & turf, but a surf vs turf challenge.

This works out great for Chad and Kwame, whose ingredients weren’t exactly compatible in the first place. It should also work got the other two pairs, but neither of them shopped for this contingency, so now Jason has to work with mostly Asian ingredients while Angelina is once again pissed for allowing herself to be ‘bullied’ by Giselle into not getting the ingredients she wanted. Meanwhile, Jeremy and Phillip are trying to divvy up their few potatoes, so that Jeremy can make gnocchi and Phillip can serve mash along with his steak. Thankfully, this doesn’t lead to a spat between the two. Both want to show the other one that they have competition, and they do it in a mature way for a change.

Grayson now has to pick which team she’ll be cooking against, and she picks Wesley and Amar, because she wants to challenge herself. Nice to see her back in the game! (Now if only she could speed up her speech pattern). She already seems to have a leg up on the other two, as she can not only pick between surf or turf, but also doesn’t have to share her ingredients.

Aside from the regular judges, there’s a number of acclaimed chefs and critics at the table, making this challenge quite daunting – particularly for Wesley, who just took over Richard Blais’ old restaurant and wants to make a good impression. Unfortunately for him, his rib-eye didn’t have much marbling, which prompted him to make the (very ill-advised) decision to sous-vide his protein. I don’t even have to wait until the judges taste his food to know that this won’t go down well: I’ve watched enough Top Chef to know that there’s no greater sin than disrespecting a lovely piece of meat that way.

Wesley, Grayson and Amar are first up.  Amar’s olive oil poached halibut with eggless bearnaise, asparagus and morels wasn’t a huge success with the judges, but definitely better received than Wesley’s dish, who spent more time using a stensil to add some flair to his presentation than he did tasting his sous-vide rib-eye with asparagus puree and morels. Poor Wesley. Grayson’s lacquered pork belly with spiced carrot puree, on the other hand, was a roaring success.

Winner: Grayson, hands down.

Next up, we have Jeremy’s pan-roasted Santa Barbara spot prawns with potato gnocchi and english peas, versus Phillip’s center cut rib-eye with rutabag puree and nori beurre-blanc.

Jeremy’s dish was all about finesse, says Tom, and he pulled it off beautifully. Phillip’s dish was tasty as well, although he does get called out on calling his sauce a beurre blanc, seeing as the strange addition of the nori turned the sauce anything but blanc. The fact that he makes a point of mentioning he made his own butter seems to go unnoticed by the judges, which makes sense: anyone with a jug of heavy cream and a mixer can pretty much make butter – all it takes is overwhipping the cream!

Regardless of Jeremy’s pronunciation of gnocchi as ‘nokis’, which drives me nuts, his dish is the favorite among the judges.

Winner: Jeremy.

Next we have Angelina’s marinated mussels with escabeche sauce, fennel leek puree and potatoes against Giselle’s quail with cucumber radish salad and tamarindo sauce dish.

Angelina was obviously trying to show off some technique, but as the judges point out, sometimes you just need to let the ingredients speak for themselves. She did too much to her mussels, ultimately completely masking her protein and leaving it flavorless – or, as Tom put it, she pretty much tortured her ingredients. Ouch. Giselle seems to really enjoy the harsh critique, which makes her a bit of a brat. She was also very condescending earlier, when she talked about the ‘younger chefs’, and even when she was ‘actually impressed’ at Angelina’s foam and presentation – what kind of a backhanded compliment is that? Boo, Giselle.

Ah well. Nastiness aside, Giselle clearly had the better dish, impressing the chefs with her sauce work and the balance of sweet, sour and spicy flavors.

Winner: Giselle.

It’s now Chad and Kwame’s turn to present their dishes. Kwame’s crab salad with turmeric, asparagus and radish tastes as whimsical and playful as it looks. Chad made a spicy bean, honey and orange-lacquered roasted lamb with asparagus mint puree (are lacquered proteins a thing now? What’s the difference between a lacquered piece of meat and a glazed one?) which was luscious and beautiful, and the two dishes end up dividing the judges.

Winner: Kwame, by the tiniest of margins.

Next up, it’s Isaac’s fennel crusted halibut with english peas and brown butter hollandaise against Carl’s roasted chicken thigh with prosciutto and english peas. This one was also split down the middle, with most of the judges agreeing that Isaac’s dish was better, even though the tasting-montage painted a completely different picture, as the judges loved Carl’s sauce and home-cooking-reminiscent chicken and commented on Isaac’s overdone halibut and somewhat lackluster sauce. In the end though, chicken wins over halibut.

Winner: Carl

Next we have Marjorie vs Karen. Poor time management seemed to be Karen’s downfall, as she waited until the last possible minute to cook the fish for her seared rock cod with orange carrot puree, blood orange vinaigrette and roasted carrot dish, and ended up leaving one piece of fish off the plate, thus serving Padma a plate of orange vegetables. Despite the omission, however, everyone absolutely loved her dish. Marjorie’s roasted pork loin with olive oil crushed potatoes, glazed vegetables and citrus gremolata on the other hand, didn’t fare so well, with Dana Cowin describing it as ’60’s nursery food’ (ouch!).

Winner: Karen.

Finally, the unlikely pairing of Jason and Frances.

Jason’s dish of marinated pork loin with steamed crudités, thai style egg and green bean salad clearly was outside his comfort zone, and it showed on the plate (also, crudités? really?). Frances should have the advantage here, but her ginger glazed black cod with cucumber jicama relish and roasted squash committed the same sin as Angelina’s effort by just adding whatever ingredients available to her onto the plate. The chefs are cranky by now, tearing into her hodge-podge of a dish, and Jason’s misstep doesn’t seem too much of a loser at this point.

Winner: Jason, by the skin of France’s black cod.

After the challenge, Wesley’s really beating himself up for his failed dish, and Kwame is trying to boost his confidence. Such a pleasant change from the bickering and backstabbing of previous seasons!

Judges’ Table

It looks like this season all the chefs are facing the judges together, instead of trying to build up the suspense by having Padma call over the different groups of each week’s top and bottom picks. Can’t say I’m loving the change, but it’s definitely more efficient. It also looks like Richard is going to be a regular at judges’ table, and I’m not particularly excited at the prospect; he might be a favorite amond Top Chef fans but I was never really fond of his constant wavering between ill-concealed conceit and second-guessing his every dish. He is right about one thing though: in the world of Top Chef, the two hours the chefs had to prepare their dishes were a lifetime; poor time management should be no excuse.

Tom is not happy – something about the challenge clearly threw a lot of the chefs off their game. These twists are designed to do just that: as much as this competition is about cooking skill, it’s also about thinking on your feet. The chefs who can adapt quickly are usually the ones who land on top. In this case, it’s Jeremy, Kwame and Karen, who served the judges’ favorite dishes. On the flip side we have Frances, Angelina and Wesley.

Everyone loved Karen’s dish, but Padma got no fish, which immediate disqualifies her as a winner. Kwame hadn’t even worked with rock crab before, which makes his dish even more of a success. Jeremy hadn’t used West Coast spot prawns before either, and his dish was elegant and beautifully balanced, but not as much as Kwame’s, which ultimately lands the young chef his first win (along with a Sanford barrel (!) of wine).

Wesley’s demeanor just makes him absolutely lovely, and I hope he gets his act together after this week’s debacle and avoids elimination for as long as possible. Angelina doesn’t seem to realize that sometimes not messing around with your food is all it takes to stand out: the judges would have been happy with a nice bowl of steamed mussels, but she tweaked her dish way too much. Frances was guilty of the same inability for self-restraint, and it ultimately led to her being told to pack her knives and go. We all saw it coming, especially after the short personal interview that was heavily featured in this episode, but I still think the judges are coddling Angelina too much because she’s the youngest. It was sad to see Frances go – I really liked her, and her exit interview endeared to me even more.


 

What’s interesting to me is that these challenges, where a variety of other judges play into the final decision just goes to show how subjective this competition can be; maybe with a different set of judges, the winners/losers list might look completely different, as no two palates are ever alike, especially when dealing with equally flavorsome, high-quality dishes.

In any case, the chefs don’t have too much time to linger on this challenge (or rest, for that matter), as they’ll be traveling again bright and early the next morning. Next destination: Palm Springs!

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