Top Chef Masters is nothing if not a series of contradictions. The cheftestants compete for the title of Top Chef Master despite the title's suggestion that they're already masters. Host Kelly Choi calls the judges “critics” when really only Gael Greene could be considered one, and even that’s a bit of a stretch these days. We could go on, but suffice to say that this week, contradiction seeped into the challenges as well. In the Quickfire, the chefs made fancy grilled-cheese sandwiches, a favorite of Kelly’s. For the elimination challenge, the crew was tasked with serving up gourmet soul food at Mekhi Phifer’s birthday party, who may well have been on the episode simply because he was in Soul Food. But let’s move on to the highlights, shall we?
This Week’s Competitors: David Burke, Carmen Gonzalez, Monica Pope, Thierry Rautureau, and Marcus Samuelsson
Hero: Everyone loves an underdog, and the diminutive Carmen played that role like a pro. After disastrously leaving her prepped dish in the TCM kitchen, she was forced to drive through sixteen miles of L.A. traffic to fetch it for the birthday party. In the meantime, some of the other chefs tried to help Carmen out by peeling and boiling her yucca, though they ultimately burned it so much that she couldn’t use it at all (see the video below). In the end, however, she earned the highest score of the night (fifteen stars) for her hearty stew of sausage and oysters.
Villain: If only for a lack of camaraderie, Marcus came off the worst. While the others sacrificed cooking time to help Carmen, he focused solely on his “extremely thought out” dish of barbecue chicken with collard greens and macaroni and cheese. “Carmen’s stuff, I didn’t have a second for that,” he sneered. But being selfish worked out for him, as he was anointed the other winner. Only time will tell if Marcus gets karmic retribution in the championship round.
Biggest Screwup: A note to all cheftestants: If you’re allowed your choice of protein, make sure it’s one you know how to cook. After winning the Quickfire, Monica selected shrimp so she could serve it up alongside some cheesy grits. Apparently she didn’t taste her food, though, as every judge ate undercooked shrimp. An easy mistake to make in the rush of competition, but a crucial one that likely cost her a win.
Most Appetizing Dish: Though it earned the lowest marks of the night, David’s sweet-potato custard with crab, bacon, and a hush puppy to boot was the dish that looked intriguing and appealed to our palate.
Worst Ingredient: Even though she won the Quickfire with her sandwich, we were bewildered by Monica’s use of feta. Rule No. 1 of grilled cheese is that it should be oozing with runny goodness. To use a non-melting cheese doesn’t look creative — it just looks amateurish. To be fair, she did also use a more melt-friendly farmer’s cheese, but come on, that was just to compensate for the feta.
One-Note Chef: Thierry, you’re French, we get it. You like to wear hats in the kitchen and you’ve got a soft spot for Morocco. That’s fine and well, but there’s no need to make every dish about Morocco, which is just what he did when he incorporated harissa into both of his challenges.
Moment of Hubris: Describing her past, Carmen explained, “I became known for reinventing street food in Puerto Rico.” It would be nice if someone had said that about her, but coming from her mouth it reeked of self-importance.
Poorly Executed Shill: It’s a tie! First up we’ve got our host Kelly alluding to her other show (that’d be Eat Out NY) but never actually naming it. For shame! As anyone who’s ever appeared on any Top Chef will tell you, it’s a great platform for selling yourself. Don’t be shy, Kells. And then, of course, there’s Marcus, who was shown standing outside his restaurant Red Rooster even though it’s not scheduled to open until Labor Day. Unless there’s a reservations line we don’t know about, this is a missed PR opportunity.
Snarky Judge Commentary: Courtesy of Jay Rayner, “Monica’s grits are an acquired taste that I haven’t acquired.”
Awkward Moment: Maybe it’s just us, but it doesn’t seem quite right that Marcus is a successful New York chef while, according to him, his brother and sister are in Ethiopia struggling to get clean drinking water on a daily basis.
Unnecessarily Emotional Moment: Monica made a blubbery exit, but why? “I don’t have any regrets at all,” she said with tears streaming down her face. “My daughter’s gonna tell me that I’m the best chef in the world. She’s gonna be — she’s gonna be proud.” Why so serious? She’d already won $5,000 for her charity, and it’s not like her career was on the line here. Lighten up a bit, lady.
Lessons Learned: Winners are the ones who focus only on themselves, and helping out your comrades is for suckers. And of course, when there’s a soul-food challenge, you must serve actual soul food if you expect to win.
Winners: Carmen Gonzalez and Marcus Samuelsson
Eliminated: David Burke, Monica Pope, Thierry Rautureau