Shit, as they say, is getting real. There are six chefs remaining: five dudes, and Marjorie. “The last woman standing!” Jeremy helpfully points out. Jeremy is attuned to such things, because he has a girl-child. “I teach my daughter to win, always,” Jeremy grunts, Jeremy-like. “If you’re second, you’re the first loser.” This sounds like a healthy life philosophy. If Jeremy does not win Top Chef, he can launch a multi-platform lifestyle empire: Goop, but for surf bros.
But first, the Quickfire. Continuing their celebration of the Golden State, the chefs arrive at San Francisco’s M.Y. China, where they are met by none other than chef and vintage PBS icon Martin Yan. “Yan can, you can!” cheers Martin Yan, in lieu of a more conventional greeting. “Oh, man!” rhymes Jeremy. “Holy shit!” adds awestruck Boy Scout Carl. For tonight’s challenge, each chef will create their own perfect vision of the Americanized Chinese classic, chop suey, prepared at their own wok station. “When you fire up your stove, be careful!” warns Martin Yan. “Otherwise, you’re going to lose your head.” In similarly threatening news, Padma announces that immunity is now off the table, though the winner will be rewarded with other, yet-undisclosed advantages. “Yan can cook,” she segues. “Let’s see if you can, too.”
Wasting no time, Marjorie lunges for a pair of live lobsters and dances them in front of Jeremy’s face. Marjorie actually went to China recently, she explains, where she learned that “a lot of their sauces are actually very delicate.” Accordingly, she will be making lobster chop suey with orange-ginger glaze and assorted fresh vegetables. Jeremy, who did not go to China but loves sesame oil, is doing a version with Dungeness crab, while Carl is hacking apart still more lobsters and waxing nostalgic about his teenage summers working down at the pier. Across the kitchen, reigning champ Amar is lighting things on fire. “I have no idea what I’m doing!” he admits. “I never worked with a wok before.” Isaac isn’t totally sure what he’s doing either, but if there is one thing about Isaac, it is that he refuses to be cowed by a challenge. (That is why he is making chicken.) “I’m Cajun, it’s rice — how hard can this be?” Next to him, Kwame, who is too young to remember Martin Yan — “I know Marvin Gaye?” he offers — is working up a crispy beef with intensely authentic blanch-fried eggplant and noodles.
Can they cook? After sampling all six dishes, Yan will be the judge of that. Bad news first: Isaac’s General Tso’s is too starchy, the lobster-to-vegetable ratio in Carl’s seafood stir fry is off, and Kwame’s “authentic” eggplant ain’t nothing like the real thing, because it is overwhelmingly oily. Jeremy’s crabfest, on the other hand, wins the Yan stamp of approval, while Amar’s pork chop suey with fried rice is deemed a well-balanced success. Neither, however, is a match for Marjorie’s delicately two-stepping lobster, which wins. “Take the heat!” advises a departing Martin Yan, wisely.
Ah, yes, the heat, it is on. To honor San Francisco’s culture of pervasive, unchecked venture capitalism, each chef must create an original concept for a fast-casual restaurant and serve one representative dish to 150 “diners and potential investors.” “It’s important to pick a concept that’s broad enough for mass appeal, but also driven by your own personality and has a really clear vision,” counsels Umami Burger founder and jovial guest judge Adam Fleischman. But there is a surprise twist! “Because this is such a daunting task, we’ve brought in a little help for you,” offers Padma, who is dressed in a haute couture hazmat suit. It’s Karen! It’s Phillip! It’s Messy Wesley! It is a whole parade of recently eliminated chefs! “Marjorie, do you remember that advantage I mentioned you won?” wonders Padma, scriptedly. In addition to getting her pick of the rejected litter (surprise twist two: It’s Angelina!), Marjorie wins the honor of assigning sous-chefs to each of her current competitors. Sabotage: the core tenet of entrepreneurship.
Embracing her sinister power, Marjorie pairs bro Jeremy with un-bro Jason, whose rainbow-sock-and-red-clog combo is the real star of this episode. “Really, I can work with anybody (don’t give me Phillip),” smiles Carl, who gets Chad. “Hopefully she doesn’t give me Phillip,” says Amar, who pairs with Karen. “Anybody but Phillip,” prays Isaac, who is assigned Wesley. The moment of truth has arrived: Someone has to get Phillip; that someone is Kwame. Luckily, Kwame would like you to know, he has no problem at all with Phillip; Phillip is efficient and also a great connoisseur of gummy potatoes.
On the way to our old haunt Whole Foods, the chefs map out their concepts, quickly and casually. Carl has an idea for a Southern Mediterranean Chipotle. Marjorie plots to realize her lifelong pasta dreams. Amar envisions a rotisserie-chicken joint inspired by his Dominican childhood. After a rocky start, Isaac shocks everyone and settles on gumbo. Jeremy makes plans for something called “Taco Dudes,” and Kwame pitches Phillip on a restaurant that specializes in miniature chicken-and-waffles. To save time, the waffles will be frozen. “I like frozen waffles,” he maintains. “Those are my jam.” I understand; I also thought I liked frozen waffles, until I recently ate one.
Back in the kitchen, Kwame is regretting his decision; you might even say he is waffling. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have any doubt whether to use these waffles that I purchased already, but at this point, there’s nothing I can do about it.” Meanwhile, Carl is stirring lamb stew, Wesley and Isaac are enthusiastically yodeling, and Marjorie has come to the unsettling realization that she has no way of cooking her spaghetti. It is a devastating crisis. Just kidding — it’s completely fine, because, by morning, ever-resourceful Marjorie has decided she’ll just fill her fryer with water and boil it, thus converting it into a “pasta well,” also known colloquially as “a pot.” The only question is whether it is going to work. (It works.)
When the doors to the venue open, the alleged investors make a beeline for “Waffle Me,” Kwame’s all-waffle concept. “I hope it’s worth the wait,” menaces Hungry Blonde Woman. Assessing the situation, Padma, Tom, Adam Fleischman, and Richard Blais sensibly decide to start with Carl’s restaurant, “Savory Med,” which could also be the name of the pharmaceutical company he starts if this whole chef thing doesn’t work out. For his sample offering, he’s serving lamb-and-piquillo-pepper stew over couscous with feta, yogurt, and herb salad. “Five days a week, you gotta have lunch,” says Tom. “This would be in the rotation.” What Tom is trying to say is that he likes it. Sometimes we all have trouble expressing our feelings.
Richard Blais, however, has no trouble declaring his admiration for Isaac’s gumbo restaurant, “Gumbo for Y’All,” which offers gumbo in cups, bowls, and vats. They are also smitten with Marjorie’s “Pasta Mama,” which serves pasta. “That’s a good name,” approves Tom, smiling paternally at her makeshift pasta fryer. “Visually, I see this concept,” muses Richard Blais. “If I were going to invest in one,” agrees Bespectacled Man 3, “I would say it would be that.”
Speaking of investments, Padma cannot forgive Kwame for not investing in making his own damn waffles, although everyone seems to agree that they taste good. The real crime, according to Richard Blais, is size: Why mini-waffles? “If this is the actual size of it,” he opines, “it’s a disaster of a business plan.” One indication your fast-casual concept is neither fast nor casual is if you have to prepare it with tweezers. Amar’s chicken concept, “Pio Pio,” gets mixed reviews — Padma says it’s bland, Tom argues it’s authentic, Richard Blais thinks it’s not charred enough — but it hardly matters, because Jeremy’s “Taco Dudes” is a convoluted disaster. Taco Dudes, Jeremy explains, is a gourmet gastropub, but also a surfer taco shop, and additionally it is a rooftop garden. For added intrigue, all of the servers will be “hot chicks.” It doesn’t make sense, complains Tom. “The execution isn’t there,” agrees Adam Fleischman and his fedora.
As the chefs kick back in their holding cell, the judges deliberate: On the one hand, Pasta Mama Marjorie had what Tom thinks is the best branding opportunity. On the other hand, Isaac’s gumbo was much less boring than Tom expected. “Super easy to reheat!” contributes Adam Fleischman. A third hand: Carl was the best at articulating his vision, and his concept had “the most flexibility.” If only the same could be said for Kwame’s tiny waffles. “No one’s gonna order 40 little mini-sandwiches for their office,” declares Adam Fleischman. “It’s never gonna happen!” (Meanwhile, backstage: “You can take [them] to the office 40 at a time, and just pass ‘em out!” reasons Kwame. A fun fact about Kwame is that he does not work in an office.) If there is hope, it is that Jeremy’s baffling gastro taco rooftop breastaurant might be worse. “Two dudes that are surfers do fish tacos; they don’t do pork-belly tacos,” says Tom, rigidly.
And with that, the chefs are called in to meet their fates. Aspiring mogul Carl narrowly edges out Marjorie for the win. “I’m fired up!” bubbles Carl, bridesmaid no more. Unfortunately, Jeremy and Kwame are cooling down. Which is worse?, the judges wonder: a confusing concept that may or may not be Hooters with a garden, or frozen mini-waffles? And the answer is … the waffles. It is off to “Last Chance Kitchen” for Kwame, and the crazy part is that it isn’t even Phillip’s fault.
But if Kwame is defeated, he is not destroyed. Four years ago, he was a waiter at Tom’s restaurant; now he is cooking for him. “’I’ve come a long way’ is an understatement,” he says. “I think I’ve done the impossible.”
We’re down to the wire, folks. Next week: a sudden death Quickfire face-off, the appearance of French légende Hubert Keller, and a torchon in three hours. See you then.