And we’re back! Top Chef took a couple of weeks off there for the holidays, but, luckily, approximately nothing has changed: I’m still on a hand-me-down Crate & Barrel sofa, and the 12 remaining chefs are still at the La Quinta Resort & Club in Palm Springs, recovering from the not-so-recent loss of outspoken non-vegetarian Grayson.
Jeremy, who won the last episode’s golf-course catering challenge, kicks us off with a brief meditation on jiu-jitsu, which he practices when he is not surfing, or talking about surfing. “From afar, it looks like a bunch of sweaty dudes rolling around with each other, but there’s a lot of technique going into every single movement,” he muses. “The competition is very similar to what I do in training.” It is the martial-arts equivalent of searing halibut.
Unfortunately for Jeremy, there is little time for further philosophizing, because it is time for the chefs to head to an otherworldly date garden, where they are surrounded with all types of dates, such as Medjool and casual. “Obviously, unless you’re a moron right now, we’re going off to a date challenge,” Isaac says, holding an enormous crate of dates. But it is not just any date challenge: It is a date challenge featuring “all-around foodie and beauty” Chrissy Teigen. This is too much for Kwame. “Get it together, Kwame,” Kwame tells Kwame. “You’re a serious person.” But then, as if to taunt Kwame specifically, Chrissy purrs, “Dates are sweet, and succulent, and sticky.” She’s not done, Kwame: “I love a good date, both the edible and the romantic kind.” For this episode’s Quickfire, the chefs will have to tell the story of the best date they’ve ever had, showcasing — wait for it — dates. In a Top Chef office somewhere, someone is very pleased with themselves.
This presents an occasion for us to get to know each of our chefs just a little bit better, and also to completely lose track of the meaning of the word date. Carl reminisces about the time he got tickets to the ballet, but then had to get his tonsils removed instead: “We hung out at home and she brought me this really big milk shake. It ended up being this totally awesome night.” Always an abstract thinker, Carl will be making a date milk shake. Isaac’s best date ever was his tenth wedding anniversary in Paris, where he had a magical moment with his wife and also ate a currant-stuffed guinea hen, so he’s going with a chicken ballotine. Wesley is doing a cheese plate. “My wife, love of my life, we like cheese plates, but I’m lactose intolerant,” he explains, summing up the thrust of his lifelong struggle. Giselle recently went on a sweet-and-spicy blind date and will be cooking accordingly. “Probably one of the best dates for me is just spending time with my daughters, having daddy dates,” Chad says, revealing he does not know what a date is. (Aside: My best date involved singing the entire score of Les Misérables, so I would be serving gruel.)
Chrissy understands that one of her primary roles as judge is to say suggestive things, which delights Padma. Another one of her jobs is to be tactful about Phillip’s tuna crudo with peach and Zahidi-date sauce, inspired by the romantic 1 a.m. dinners he used to cook for his wife at his restaurant after close. “I like the peach purée. I feel like a little baby!” Chrissy generously enthuses, as though this is a feeling we all want when we eat food. Alas, for Phillip, it is not to be: He is in the bottom three, along with Chad’s daughter-inspired fish and Carl’s painfully earnest milk shake. Isaac’s tenth-anniversary sex chicken, on the other hand, earns Chrissy’s approval as “a date food,” as does Giselle’s PG-13 salad. Neither, however, can compete with the romance of Jason’s charred baby carrots with Deglet Nour dates, brown butter, and pine nuts, and he gets immunity as well as validation from Chrissy Teigen. As she departs, Kwame, a self-professed romantic-when-he-needs-to-be, allows himself one final sigh.
Padma interrupts this reverie: “I know that there’s a lot of love now in the air, but you haven’t sealed the deal yet.” Because sometimes dates lead to marriage, the chefs will be joining forces to cater a wedding. But there’s a twist, explains culinary Santa Claus and guest judge Art Smith: It is a “big, fat, gay wedding!” involving 25 couples and officiated by Padma, who has been ordained as of this morning. “Oh, my outfit is going to be insane,” she promises, focusing on what really matters.
Since everyone knows there’s no better way to celebrate the promise of enduring love than with an enormous group project, the chefs passive-aggressively map out the menu and their Whole Foods shopping list. Phillip pitches Kwame on a dish composed of potato, butter, cream, salt, and pepper, which will “taste like mashed potatoes,” topped with “really nice meat” and a “veg sauce.” Phillip will focus on the mashed-potato-tasting food item; Kwame’s on veg sauce. Jason and Angelina partner up for cabbage rolls made with chard; Marjorie and Carl will do non-cake dessert; Wesley and a multitasking Kwame have a plan for shrimp salad; and Karen and Giselle miserably resign themselves to collaborating on a sad asparagus dish that is surely doomed. “I don’t feel super great about being paired with her,” confesses Karen, understandably. “I’m like the nicest person here,” Giselle says, accurately. Collectively, the chefs have a total catering budget of $2,000. Given how much I’ve spent at Whole Foods on dinner for myself, I hope this is an intimate wedding.
For 25 couples, it is time to get ready for one of the biggest days of their lives. For the 12 chefs, it is time for Padma-mandated morning yoga by the poolside. “I’m super excited,” says Giselle. “I’m not a hippie,” Wesley confesses. While Wesley does not do yoga in a physical way, he is happy to sit in a lawn chair with his eyes closed and listen to other people doing yoga. “I’m like, doing yoga in my mind,” he explains. “That’s why I’m still fat.” I know exactly what he means. I have been doing yoga in my mind for years.
Refreshed of body and renewed of spirit, the chefs return to the kitchen and immediately begin fighting. (Wesley, for the record, is very calm). Karen is angry because Giselle keeps looking to her for guidance. Jason is angry because Angelina doesn’t understand the importance of precision. Angelina is angry because Jason doesn’t appreciate their time crunch, which he wouldn’t, because he has immunity anyway. Kwame is angry because Phillip’s “mashed potatoes” are in fact a gummy, potato-ish cream sauce. Isaac is ecstatic because he is working alone.
But weddings bring people together, and by the time the chefs arrive at the reception site, they are feeling so irrationally agreeable that they indulge Jason in his mission to label each serving station according to a different relationship milestone. For Jason, these include appetizing events such as “buying a station wagon.” As the chefs arrange their chard rolls, the couples profess their unwavering love and devotion in a monumentally efficient wedding ceremony. There is not a dry eye in the house, by which I mean my house. Padma seems fine.
At the buffet table, Gail is really trying to understand Jason’s signs. “So this is the ‘Just One Look’? The first look? The fall-in-love look? This is the appetizer course?” she asks, accepting servings of Amar and Chad’s sherry-glazed pork belly, Jeremy’s citrus-roasted carrots, and the Asian-inspired shrimp from Wesley and Kwame, all of which are deemed delicious. Over at the “For the Family” station (What does that mean? Padma wants to know), Isaac dishes out his signature dirty rice, and Angelina and Jason serve their stuffed chard. “It’s almost like a dolma,” Angelina says. No, it isn’t, Jason says. Jason tells her to stop saying dolma, because it is completely different from a dolma. Whatever it is (not a dolma), the judges are blown away, and they’re similarly impressed by Isaac’s rice, which makes Tom nervous: What if everything is just too good? Right on cue, both Phillip’s steak and “potatoes” and Giselle and Karen’s asparagus-and-mushroom adventure immediately turn out to be disasters. Even though Marjorie and Carl’s grilled apricots with mascarpone “knock it out of the park,” we can rest assured that Tom will still have plenty of exceedingly justifiable elimination options.
First, though, the winning dish: Kwame and Wesley take the cake for their shrimp salad, except that, as the old saying goes, there is no “team” in “winner” and only one chef will emerge victorious. This time, that chef will be sauce-master Kwame. Kwame, however — along with failing friends Phillip, Karen, and Giselle — is also among the losing group, thanks to his unlucky collaboration with Phillip. “You’re not going home,” Padma assures him. “We just want to find out exactly what happened with this dish.” Phillip immediately chimes in with an impassioned narrative of things that didn’t happen, like how he clearly explained his whipped-cream-of-potato vision. “I don’t think that’s how it was described to the team,” corrects Jason, corroborated by the always-damning video evidence. But Tom has already moved on to the asparagus. “The problem I had,” he begins, “was really seasoning. And cooking.” These are both Karen’s fault, Giselle gently suggests, causing the judges to wonder what exactly Giselle was doing when she wasn’t cooking or seasoning. Giselle attempts to deflect. “I think it’s shocking that Phillip doesn’t recognize his flaws. I think Karen and I stand here understanding that we could have done much better, which makes us much stronger.” Phillip looks baffled. Giselle is right, but it is not enough, not now: “How do you let Giselle skim by doing nothing?” Gail asks, and there is no good answer. Giselle is sent packing.
“I got an opportunity to show who I really am,” Giselle tells the camera, choosing her words carefully. “I’m a nice, honorable person, and I’ve been able to thrive in my life because of the love and the support that I get from my friends and family, and I felt very little of that here.” It is almost as though Giselle is a woman not made for reality television. “She was here to make friends,” they will say of her when she’s gone.
Having found this episode a real emotional roller coaster, I must now retreat to do some yoga in my mind. Next week, we’re on to San Diego!