Top Chef Seattle Recap: David Rees on Personal Branding and Geopolitical Humblebrags
I’d like to apologize for last week’s disparaging comments about soup. After doing a little research, I realize that soup can be, in fact, quite complicated and delicious. I must remember to eat it someday.
The contestants arrive in Seattle and enter the Top Chef Kitchen. It’s spotless! It’s also equipped with the latest GE Monogram equipment, according to Padma Lakshmi, who floats into the room and introduces the gang to former Top Chef contestants Josie, CJ, and Stefan, who will judge the quick-fire challenge. I notice they’re arranged by height and display the grim enthusiasm of a firing squad.
Our chefs are told to divide into five groups of three. John ("the most hated chef in Dallas") wants to work with Kuniko — who’s from Tokyo, not Hong Kong as I said last week — because of her knife skills. In fact, he’s so enthusiastic he starts conversing with her during Padma’s opening statements! Padma harangues him with delicious frisson.
The teams are told to dig around in vats of mud, pull out local shellfish, and make the most of them. They only have twenty minutes to prepare their dishes!
"Can we go in the direction of a chowder?" asks one participant. This is the kind of sentence that did not exist before reality cooking shows, and I love it. Other examples:
"Let’s pivot to a telegenic lasagna."
"If we sear the antelope, we can leverage our applesauce before the commercial break."
"Your test kitchen has been outfitted with the latest GE Monogram equipment."
Lizzie, Carla, and Chrissy are the only all-female team. Carla says she wants to "look good" while cooking and hopes she wins a James Beard award while having a "nice ass." Accented words flee her mouth like it’s on fire. Her restaurant should be called PAY ATTENTION TO ME, and the only dessert should be sugar-dusted collagen that wasn’t injected into her lips.
Bart boasts about Belgian cuisine, whose variety is due to the diversity of nations that have conquered it. This is known as a geopolitical humblebrag.
Amidst all the kitchen chaos, John ("the most hated chef in Dallas") finds time to say: "Who says the most hated chef in Dallas can’t get along with people?" He’s doing a good job promoting his personal brand, even if it’s the worst brand in the history of cooking.
After twenty minutes of mania and brand promotion, it’s time to taste the flung-together dishes.
Bart, Jeffrey, and Brooke present crawfish with pickled red chile, fennel, and crawfish cream. "Too much dill," tells Stefan. My friends tell me Stefan is "a bad guy." (I’m watching this show at my friends’ house because I recycled my TV because I started to get freaked out by how ominous televisions look when they’re not turned on.) CJ calls the dish "old-school."
Lizzie, Carla, and Chrissy present oven-roasted crawfish with fennel and herb salad, which is about as straightforward a recipe as you get on this show. (Do most Top Chef viewers like being overwhelmed with ingredients and dish names? I find it anxiety-provoking, like being given a medical diagnosis you don’t understand.) CJ "would’ve liked more acid" in the dish.
Micah, Kristen, and Tyler make fried and sashimi geoduck, radish, and bok choy salad with a yuzu chile vinaigrette. (At this point I literally said, "fuck, why is this so complicated?" as my hosts once again paused the DVR and laughed at me while I transcribed all the ingredients.)
Sheldon, Kuniko, and John make something from the 30th century that I can’t transcribe because I might get carpal tunnel syndrome. CJ loves the raw apples in the dish! But Padma would’ve liked more salt. Apples and salt, I can handle. Those are ingredients I know well. I know them from my childhood, when I would go bobbing for apples and get salt poured in my wounds.
Eliza, Danyele, and Josh make razor clam and grilled corn chowder with Fresno chile and grilled lime. It looks a lot like soup. Consensus: It’s a little watered down. I’m not a huge fan of corn, and the idea of a watered-down corn soup is enough to make my blood run cold like gazpacho (a type of soup).
Sure enough, CJ announces that the razor clam soup was the weakest dish. Stefan says John and company’s futuristic dish is the winner. They are elated. John then draws the Knife of Immunity! He can commit two felonies without getting arrested — but they both must involve donkeys and nuclear waste. John’s on a hot streak. Not bad for the most hated chef in Dallas! (Can someone in Dallas please tell me who the second-most hated chef in Dallas is?)
Then something amazing happens: Josie, CJ, and Stefan join the fray as contestants! These leftovers will be reheated and served alongside the fresh entrees of season ten! This provokes disgust and chest-thumping from this season’s crop of chefs — and my hosts, one of whom complains: "It’s boring to see [previous contestants] again." As a way of explaining how much better a chef he is since his initial appearance, CJ brags about going to some restaurant in Copenhagen that’s been voted the best restaurant in the world three times. My host says, "The guy who runs that restaurant does a ton of foraging." I picture a fancy man in the woods using a weird shovel to taste dirt.
This week’s main competition is to use local ingredients in a dish that will be served to local legend Tom Douglas, a wild-haired man who rules the Seattle culinary scene with an iron fist.
The camera pans across a bunch of crazy-looking dead animals on ice; the chefs start grabbing ‘em. Danyele doesn’t even know what kind of fish she’s grabbing! All she knows is: It’s fish-grabbin’ time!
Then the gang goes to a place called Olive 8, which sounds like a sexy robot superspy but is actually a hotel. They proceed to drink and chat and get to know each other. Jeffrey talks about coming out to his family and his relationship with his fiancé Jim. The new crop of chefs ask Josie, "Why are you here again?" with unconcealed contempt. She says she wants to win as the "global soul chef." She adds, cryptically: "Ride on and rock on, rock stars."
Next stop? The Space Needle, one of the most important needles in the Pacific Northwest. The teams — two at a time — must prepare their dishes before the Needle completes a full rotation. It’s like something out of Dr. No.
John, Sheldon, and Kuniko (Blue Team) set to work with some big-ass fish. Kuniko wants to cook it in chile oil. She then burns the chile oil, which she blames on the fact that she "never stops thinking and loses focus." I don’t know much about cooking, but this seems like a really dangerous quality for a chef who works with hot oil. My understanding is that hot oil needs to be treated with a little more respect and caution then, say, tap water. It’s why we don’t wash our faces with it.
Would you like poached salmon with seasonal vegetables, which sounds like normal human food? Then you’d like Lizzie, Carla, and Chrissy (Orange Team), because that’s literally what they’re making. Carla, of course, is also making a huge spectacle of herself. She sounds like a recording of a carnival barker being played backwards.
Blue Team presents their chile-oil-poached cod with dashi and spot-prawn shabu shabu. If I only had these words to go on, I wouldn’t be able to tell you what the dish looked like. "Shabu shabu" brings exactly nothing to mind for me. So my hosts patiently explain what the hell all this stuff is using other, slightly less inscrutable cooking words. The judges are relieved that the chile isn’t too overwhelming. Shabu shabu. Redrum. Namaste.
Orange Team’s poached salmon with seasonal vegetables and beurre blanc (a.k.a. butter sauce) is well received. Tom Douglas says the salmon is "right on the money."
Tom Colicchio is stunned by how good the dishes are. This might be the best season of Top Chef we’ve ever seen!
Back in the kitchen, Carla proceeds to cut the shit out her hand. This might be the best season of Top Chef we’ve ever seen!
Brooke, Bart, and Jeffrey make halibut. That fish is huge! Brooke is afraid it’s overcooked; she’s also afraid she’ll vomit on the judges, as she can’t handle heights and the Space Needle is rather high. Padma compares her halibut to a hockey puck — and not in a good way.
The alums (Grey Team) decided to change their dish at the last minute: They’re making quail breasts with confit spot prawn, cherries, and porcini. Josie thinks the cherry element stinks. I think Stefan’s joke about touching "tiny breasts" stinks. Tom says the quail is overcooked, and Emeril thinks the prawn is overcooked. Maybe the Space Needle’s high altitude is causing things to cook faster than they would at sea level? (This is my theory, mind you — the judges are too dumb to consider it.)
As the Needle begins its third rotation, Yellow Team swings into action with their mysterious whitefish, which they finally identify as cod. They transform this floppy, wet leviathan into something called "pan-roasted cod with mushrooms, fava beans, picked green apple and garlic scape pistou." Tom Douglas wants more pistou. He pronounces it "pea stew," which, delightfully, is correct.
Green Team is searing salmon with seasonal vegetables and butter sauce. This sounds a lot like Orange Team’s dish, right? Or am I losing my mind? Tom says they’re "essentially the same dish." I’m not losing my mind! Meanwhile Gail announces "the texture of the spot prawn is lost," and just like that I’m losing my mind again.
The judges have sampled all the teams’ dishes. It’s time for an interrogation. Padma calls for the Blue Team: John, Sheldon, and Kuniko. They win with the best dish of the day. Emeril asks who suggested using chile oil? Kuniko admits it was her. Emeril loved it! Tom Douglas says the dish was the "essence of Seattle" — "It was grey, drizzly, and made me want to kill myself." (JOKE.) Kuniko, our chile-oil idiot savant, wins for the week! In a cutaway, she basically admits she’s a silent assassin.
Red Team and Grey Team are called in. There are a lot of crazy zooms and camera wipes and my tension is ratcheted towards the apocalyptic. Emeril, stone-faced, smirkless, wants to know who cooked the quail. Stefan admits he overcooked it: "I am so sorry," he says.
Meanwhile, Bart looks so surprised to be standing in front of the judges, Tom accuses him of looking pissed. Brooke admits she’s a rustic cook, whereas Bart likes to go all crazy with his cooking, as is the tradition in the oft-conquered, traumatized Belgium. Perhaps this contrast in styles led to their being judged poorly? Actually, no, the big problem was that the fish was seared on both sides but the center was dry.
"Conceptually, they were both good dishes," says Tom. Jeffrey is nevertheless sent home for overcooking the fish because this show ain’t called Top Concept, it’s called Top Chef. Theory must bow to praxis in the simmering hot oil of execution.
David Rees is an artisanal pencil sharpener.