Tonight’s Top Chef is all action! Two eliminations! Tons of plates! Lots of people describing seasonings! I am starting to understand why this show is so popular, and I am starting to resent the fact that they don’t air it before I eat dinner, rather than three hours after, because now all I want to do is fly through my kitchen and munch, Pac-Man style.
We begin in the Top Chef mansion, where the gang’s going through some very forced morning rituals. Bret in particular shadowboxes with some weights, and I know I only know him through some brief and selectively edited soundbites, but I can say with authority that that’s a very Bret thing to do. Louis makes a call home to his family, whom he seems to blame for his career disappointments: “I thought I’d have my own restaurant by the time I turned 30, but instead I decided to have a family.” His young son asks him whether he’s ever coming home, and he answers “Yeah, someday,” and it’s very Tennessee Williams if Tennessee Williams were a story editor on a reality show, which he absolutely would be if he were alive now.
Oh but there is no time for story and character because we have to watch seventeen people sprint around a kitchen. For the Quickfire Challenge, we are joined by Food & Wine editor-in-chief Dana Cowin. It seems that wherever Dana goes, she is faced with food trends that she cannot bear, and tonight, the challenge is to reinvent the four food trends that she hates the most. (The way she lays into “the most” indicates that there is much hate in her heart. One is left with the impression that her job is mostly eating tiny forkfuls of things and exhaling through her nose disdainfully.)
And indeed, Dana is a tough customer: The top four on her shit parade are kale, eggs on top of things, things that are smoked, and bacon. Ouch. Now, listen: I will be the first to admit that we got a little precious with bacon; once a food inspires a line of novelty Band-Aids, we have reached saturation point. But it’s still bacon, it still improves the taste of everything, and if you disagree, you live in a fantasy world and I don’t want to be there when it all comes crashing down. Kale is still delicious if it’s done right, and nutritious even if it isn’t. Fried eggs on top of things lend an element that I wish I could express more poetically, but it’s late, so let’s go with tasty goo. Smoked things, however, can mostly suck it.
That might be the world’s largest knife block.Photo: David Moir/Bravo
(They’re still doing this Toyota promo on the bottom third of the screen, where they poll you on something show related and give you the instant results, and according to it, kale is the most played out of these food trends. Oh, really? The food trend that is least popular among people who are curled up on their couch cradling a laptop is a dense, leafy green vegetable? No fucking way!)
And it’s an Elimination Quickfire tonight! Someone will be sent packing straight away, and will be forgotten immediately afterward because there will still be so much more show left. It is ice-cold, with an egg on top.
Everyone sprints to the refrigerator at the same time, and everyone talks about what they’re going to cook, and nothing breaks through the din except Nina’s plan to make a Scotch egg. Have you ever had a Scotch egg? A Scotch egg is a hard-boiled egg that is breaded and deep-fried and served with a mayonnaise-based dipping sauce (or at least it is when I order one and specify that I’d like a mayonnaise-based dipping sauce, because if I am ordering a Scotch egg, I am in a nutritional tailspin). They are delicious, though each one probably takes two months off your life.
One fun little editing trick they do a couple of times tonight is cutting from Travis (about whom we know nothing except that he exclusively dates Asian men) and surfery, brah-ish Brian (who is an Asian man). Are they foreshadowing a romance? Brian appears to be heterosexual — I base this assumption solely on the fact that I’m kind of attracted to him — but anything can happen in New Orleans. The reason for that is alcohol.
The egg people are up first. Carrie does a soft-boiled egg over green beans, Nina mitigates the caloric damage of the Scotch egg by making it a Scotch quail egg and pairing it with a leek-and-potato puree, Shirley makes a rice congee with a seared egg on top and I’m not going to pretend I know what any of that means. Nicholas puts a quail egg atop a scallop, with truffle juice and duck egg vinaigrette, raising the question: Why weren’t truffles on the list of tired food trends? Truffles taste like dirt and wasted money. Truffles are Foodschlager.
I really have it in for truffles, you guys.
If smoked things are things Dana dislikes, the clear path to victory would seem to be to go light on the smoky taste, right? Wrong, turns out. Sara turns out a smoked tuna tataki, Michael does smoked oysters, Louis smokes trout with a lime and olive oil vinaigrette, and I know I’m not the editrix of Food & Wine, but don’t most vinaigrettes involve olive oil? Janine’s pork loin with caramelized smoked apples looks the most appealing of the bunch, but all of the dishes get the gas face for tasting too smoky.
The bacon people would seem to have the easiest job. If I had this assignment, I would just grill a single piece of bacon, hold it in front of Dana with a look on my face like “Come on” and win the entire show right then and there. But instead everyone cooks a fancy meal and then puts bacon near it: Bene does a seared tuna with bacon, Brian puts bacon on scallops and snap peas, Travis makes a scallop pho featuring bacon, and Stephanie makes fresh pasta with a lot of things in it, including bacon. Not a bad way to go, but way too much effort. Stephanie keeps telling us how scared she is and how much she wants to barf, but then also keeps doing reasonably well and not barfing.
And finally, kale. Patty serves hers up with toasted garlic, Justin steams his with garlic and andouille sausage, Bret defies Dana and makes a simple kale salad, which he puts over a kale gazpacho, and Aaron does fried kale with shallots and worries that he’s oversalted it. And he’s right; he is sent a-packin’. “It sucks ass,” he tells us, and I bet it does, but hearing someone say “sucks ass” on a show with so much food photography is infinitely worse.
Padma dressed for a salmon challenge.Photo: David Moir/Bravo
Aaron’s company in the bottom three are Louis and Bret, with Nina and Stephanie getting honorable mention and Shirley taking home the victory. Bret looks like the stuck-up boyfriend of the female lead in a romantic comedy. Look for Jason Sudeikis to woo Malin Akerman away from Bret very soon.
And away we go to our official Elimination Challenge! The remaining sixteen must replicate a classic menu item from legendary New Orleans restaurant Commander’s Palace, where they will be judged by former head chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, a.k.a. two guys who used to be fucking enormous until they stepped the hell away from Commander’s Palace. Could somebody maybe put, like, one salad on the menu?
The four artery-thickening classics are: shrimp and tasso, veal chop Tchoupitoulas, black-skillet seared speckled trout, and a strawberry dessert thing that combines miniature versions of a shortcake, a beignet, and a Blood and Sand cocktail. Challenge-wise, this is actually pretty smart; to succeed, the cheftestants must use their palates.
"To reality shows!"Photo: David Moir/Bravo
Louis might not succeed. He openly admits that everything he knows about Cajun cooking he read on the Internet.Well, at least he’s not in charge of seasoning all of the trouts oh wait he totally is. He promises to pull something out of his ass, and I am ready for all of these chefs to stop talking about asses.
In the restaurant, everyone is dressed like they’re at a dinner party where someone is going to get murdered. The proprietress drawls a story about how old-timey local politicians used to dine there with their mistresses and go in and out a secret door, and how Commander’s Palace is still a discreet place, which is why she’s outing dead philanderers into a boom mic.
Stephanie doesn’t know how to make a biscuit from scratch and she’s worried and she wants to barf, so you know she’s about to make a perfect biscuit. I’m on to your game, Stephanie. Nina puts her okra on Michael’s plates by mistake, and Michael just dumps the plates out on the countertop like an animal. I have not yet determined whether Michael is being played by Fred Armisen.
Bene, Michael, Travis, and Nina all cook the shrimp-and-tasso dish, and they each get one element wrong: Bene whiffs on the tasso, Michael overcooks the shrimp, Travis’s sauce is weak, and Nina’s presentation is off. Nina wishes she could combine all four and make a superdish, but wishing won’t make it so.
The trout dish inspires the line of the night, uttered by Hugh Acheson in high dudgeon: “Is anyone else having vast differences in salt content?” Hugh is rocking a menacing Frida Kahlo unibrow. I’m into Hugh. Each of the dishes are deemed too bland, with only Janine’s getting a passing grade.
Emeril offers these words of wisdom about his trademark Veal Chop Tchoupitoulas, or anything cooked anywhere at any time, even a Pop-Tart: “It has to be cooked just right.” Great! Brian’s veal is tight but his brussels sprouts are raw, Patty’s presentation is good, Shirley’s chop is overcooked, and as for Bret the romantic-comedy boyfriend, Emeril dismisses him thusly: “There’s no sear. There’s no love.” Indeed, Sudeikis would have known how to treat that chop right.
Last and somehow most successful, even though none of these people are pastry chefs: the Strawberry Gang. Sara’s is a little messy, but Justin, Carrie, and Stephanie all get high marks.
Everyone in the waiting room has taken Stephanie lessons; they’re all grim faced and hanging their heads in chef-shame, while Justin just openly chugs red wine. But he needn’t, as he’s in the top three with Nina and Stephanie. Stephanie’s biscuit gets honorable mention — of course it does — but Justin takes home the win.
The bottom three could literally be anyone else, but it’s Louis, Carlos, and Bret. Louis cops to mis-seasoning everything. Bret sputters that there wasn’t enough room on the grill for his veal chop, and admits that though his plating was sloppy, it’s because he got smoked on the time. But as we all know, smoking is played-out, and Bret must pack his knives and go. “I’m between jobs, and I don’t know what’s going to happen to me,” he says, with real pathos, and this was taped months ago, long before the threat of a downgrade to our country’s credit rating. I worry about the guy. Even the heel in a rom-com deserves a good professional life.
And then my faith and love and food returns. In a promo for Watch What Happens Live, Andy Cohen says, “Rachael Ray brought us all paniniiiiiis!!!” and it’s the happiest I’ve ever heard anyone sound about anything. God bless you, Cohen. You are the anti-Dana, and I would like to cook you up some bacon if you know what I mean.