With six chefs left in the running, Top Chef Masters started to feel like a real competition last night, which had the effect of drawing better dishes out of the chefs and creating a better viewing experience for us. There was a Quickfire involving leg meat, a tailgating Elimination Challenge, and heated words between a chef and two judges. All things considered, it was one of the best episodes of the season, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t find some elements to be worthy of our disdain. Keep reading to relive the best and worst moments from last night.
Cheftestants: Susan Feniger, Susur Lee, Tony Mantuano, Rick Moonen, Marcus Samuelsson, Jonathan Waxman
Worst Idea for a Quickfire: If Top Chef Masters thinks it’s okay for Olympic gold medalist swimmer Jason Lezak to judge dishes containing different kinds of leg meat (because he uses his legs and other people don’t?), then the show must host a top-tier masseuse to critique a Quickfire involving all types of animal skin. Or maybe bring in an ophthalmologist to pick his favorite dish made with eyes. Either way, how did anyone think this was a good idea? Like most any athlete, he made a terrible judge because he liked just about everything that was put in front of him, leaving Jay Rayner to do all the critical heavy lifting. Regardless of the special guest, the challenge itself was pretty weak, since all legs are not created equal. The types of cooking required to serve crab legs, frog legs, and chicken legs have nothing to do with each other. Send this Quickfire to the reject pile and never use it again.
Biggest Screw-up: It’s rather astonishing week after week to see chefs predict and even acknowledge, before they start cooking a dish, how they’re going to mess it up. This week, we heard Rick explain how 45 minutes would not be enough time to cook octopus “legs,” but he proceeded to sear and roast the tentacles even as he predicted the meat would become unpleasantly tough. Lo and behold, his octopus had nice flavor to it, “but it’s a chew” said Jay as tried to work his way through that thing and swallow. We bet Kelly Choi was never so happy to only have a glass of water in front of her.
Most Entertaining Conflict: It’s telling that what would pass as a minor disagreement on Top Chef serves as one of the season’s most dramatic moments in this series, but we’ll take what we can get. In this episode we witnessed a three-way tiff between Jonathan, Gael Greene, and James Oseland. See, James felt Jonathan’s steak was cut way too thick and was “off-putting … in the context of that taco.” “I couldn’t disagree with you more,” Jonathan shot back. “It’s a tailgating thing. We’re not talking about haute cuisine.” Gael, always a sucker for a perfectly cooked hunk of meat, came to Jonathan’s defense, pointing out the merits of his guacamole as well. While handing out stars, James punished Jonathan for the outburst, awarding the chef a measly pair. See the video below to relive the tension.
Most Fake-Seeming Conflict: Most likely engineered by the producers, the pseudo-conflict between Susur and Tony continued this week when the former once again impinged on the latter’s prep space. Things grew more tense (not really) when Susur cracked a joke about how Tony could be a Sopranos character, which is not so much a joke as it is an actual fact. “Thanks for the stereotype,” Tony huffed with faux indignation. But yeah, nothing more came of that so it really probably was an invented tension between two cheftestants.
Fun Fact: In her younger days, Susan was a high-school cheerleader. Apparently her school spirit didn’t continue much past then, because this was supposedly her first tailgating experience.
Worst Concept: We know Susur’s cooking gets weird whenever he feels culturally disadvantaged — “I did not know what the hell’s going on,” is how he put it this week — but there’s really no excuse for serving steak and dumplings on the same plate. Considering that the steak was prepared Korean-style while the dumpling was apparently an Austrian recipe, he may just want to blame this one on a case of temporary insanity.
Most Disappointing Performance: In earlier episodes, chef Obi-Wan, né Jonathan, impressed us with his well-executed, straightforward dishes that pleased a majority of diners and judges. But now, perhaps worn down by the competition, he’s starting to look like the weakest link. Jonathan seemed poised to win after learning that he’d be cooking on a grill. “I’ve been grilling as a professional for 35 years,” he crowed. But what he served up turned out to be a predictable steak taco with guacamole. He so mailed this one in that he didn’t even bother to heat the tortillas on the grill. Equally unimaginative was his Quickfire dish, which he copied from his restaurant’s menu. Not only that, but it lacked the crab-leg meat that was the key ingredient in the dish. When he heard that criticism, all he could manage was, “It’s not about the crab, it’s about the pasta,” which shows just how much he didn’t get the challenge. If he doesn’t shape up next week, our money’s on him to get cut. “Our legs weren’t as good as Kelly’s today” was still a good line, though.
Winner: With her spicy skirt-steak tacos and homemade salsas, Susan took first place this week after winning the Quickfire challenge to boot. She also moved into the top fund-raising spot, having earned $35,000 so far for her charity. There was something heartwarming about her win, which means her sunny personality is winning us over as much as her colleagues. There was more to it, though. Now the last female in this competition, there was a certain satisfaction in her claiming victory over a bunch of egocentric men with a grill, an instrument so loaded with primitive notions of masculinity. We’ve one bone to pick, however. “It’s the presentation that is, like, it just is what it is,” Susan explained, reflecting her focus on flavor. But the stage for ugly plates has really passed, and if she’s going to advance further, she’s going to have to clean up her plating.
Loser: “One of my concerns was, do I still have it?” Tony asked early on in the episode. In the end, we found out that he didn’t quite have what it takes to move forward in this competition. His final dish, grilled pizza, had all the right intentions and made enough sense for a tailgate party, but he didn’t quite pull through. At first the reception to his dish seemed strong, but apparently you can’t trust the pizza sensibilities of southern Californians, a British man, and Tony himself. James and Gael, representing the notoriously hard-to-please faction of New York pizza eaters, dismissed the crust as an overcooked, dry foundation to some decent toppings, so Tony was sent packing with just a half-star lower than Jonathan. “I think my odds of winning would be greater if this was a tailgate party in Milan at a soccer game,” he said, batting those puppy-dog eyes. I guess we’ll never know.
Best Judge Banter: “I don’t know about you guys, but I am feeling more like a manly American by the minute,” James said as he bit into another taco. Touché to Jay, then, who retorted, “James, any plate of food that can do that to you is a miracle.”
Next Week: “General panic”; Rick acts like a devil; there’s a surprise twist that pisses off Jonathan and Susur; and Gael laughs like a maniac.