Top Chef Charleston Recap: Trash Fish for the Holidays

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Padma and chef Mike Lata have some concerns. Photo: Paul Cheney/Bravo

Ho, ho, ho! It is time for a very special holiday episode of Top Chef, and in the spirit of the season, everyone is in a terrible mood on account of how Sam went home last week, and BJ, bearded meat carver of Portland, is still here, glowering Portlandishly. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s nothing against you” Katsuji informs BJ, with the diplomacy for which he is known, “but Sam helped everybody. You didn’t put in as much effort as Sam.”

“Fuck you,” offers BJ.

Everyone loves the holidays! Especially Padma, who sloshes out a cheery greeting and is joined on this night by her new pal Nilou Motamed, editor-in-chief of Food and Wine. And in celebration of the aforementioned holidays, there are mystery presents for everyone! The present is: a Quickfire Challenge! “We want you to create a dish using everything in your gift box,” purrs Padma with ominous glee. “And I do mean evvvvverything.” You know what this challenge is a lot like? All of Chopped. Padma can barely contain her excitement. She loves Chopped!

Anyway, the ingredients are: a pressure cooker, Patrón tequila, pomegranate, chocolate pretzels, cloves, wasabi, squab, and a melon baller. “I really don’t remember the last time I’ve touched a melon baller,” drawls Alabama Jim. BJ mutters incorrectly that pretzels are gross. This is a pretty good present, I think?

And they’re off! Sheldon is momentarily confused, because he accidentally started setting up at the wrong station and has to course-correct. Emily is more permanently confused, because she has never used a pressure cooker before. “Have you ever watched Top Chef?” John smirks. “If you don’t know how to use a pressure cooker, you might as well just go home now.” File that one away, my friends! Brooke, who basically has a PhD in pressure cookers, is “creating a stew situation,” Casey plans to do a soup using compressed and melon-balled pineapple, because it is her own personal holiday tradition, John is doing a mole because wasabi is spicy and his in-laws are from Texas, and Katsuji swigs tequila.

Careful… Photo: Paul Cheney/Bravo

Speaking of tequila, Shirley cannot find hers, because Sheldon accidentally took it. Also, Shirley’s squab has gone up in neon purple flames. “It’s Christmas,” Shirley says. “It’s so sad.” Emily, meanwhile, is also sad, because she still doesn’t know how to use a pressure cooker. Her plan was to use it like a regular pot and make rice, but now the rice is burning, and she is left with no choice but to blend it with cabbage and call it soubise. “This is the most disgusting dish I have ever made in my life,” mumbles Emily, staring bleakly into her glop. And to think it’s Christmas!

At the tasting, the chefs show off variations on the theme pan-seared squab cooked weirdly, and nobody really likes them. “And texture of this deep-fried squab, is that what you were … going for?” Nilou asks BJ pointedly. “Well … the squab is cooked nicely,” Padma winces, forcing down a single bite of Emily’s experimental cabbage soubise. Shirley explains the saga of her melon baller, and Nilou tells Jim there is whipped cream in his hair. Katsuji is left with no choice but to take another drink.

“You want to start with the nice?” Padma asks Nilou, with hope in her eyes. But no, Nilou would prefer to start with naughty. Looks like Shirley, Emily, and BJ are all getting coal in their stockings this year! Shirley’s squab was a charred mess and she lost her melon baller, Emily’s “soubise” was a gummy disaster, and honestly I thought BJ’s pretzel squab looked pretty good but Nilou assures us it wasn’t. Faring marginally better: Brooke, for her competent use of a pressure cooker; Casey, for her brilliantly compressed pineapple; and John, because Nilou might even eat his dish again. And the winner is Casey, who gets the ultimate Christmas gift: immunity! (I would prefer a pressure cooker.)

Ever generous, Padma has yet another present in store: Guest judge and Charleston culinary hero Mike Lata, who also happens to be Emily’s old boss who fired her. “Hello, Emily,” he says to Emily, with the cadence of a serial killer. “I’m 100 percent terrified,” says Emily to no one.

“The holidays are a time for family, fun, and feasting!” chirps Padma, laying out the extra-festive Elimination Challenge: In teams of two, the chefs must put their own spin on the Italian-American Christmas Eve tradition of the Feast of Seven Fishes. “Every year in my home we’d do Feast of the Seven Fishes,” says John, naming fishes. “But I’m waiting for the twist.” He does not have to wait long. The twist is that all seven fishes are “trash fish” — incidental catches that are usually thrown away, either because they are unfamiliar to consumers or because they taste bad. Already, Jim is enraged at the injustice. “Calling them trash fish is not the way to go,” Jim says, giving voice the voiceless.

“Fish is my life,” John tells his partner and archnemesis Katsuji. “I don’t really mind working with people who are loud and animated,” Jim assures himself. (Guess who Jim’s partner is?) (Correct!) (It’s Amanda.) Shirley, who is now totally over the great melon-baller incident of ten minutes ago, is pumped to join forces with Sheldon, and Jamie is very excited about working with Sylva, but not at all excited about his blood-flavored fish. Brooke, who is paired with Emily, has mixed feelings about the union. “Emily’s been on the bottom several times,” Brooke explains. “But she’s agreeing with all of my ideas.” I have some concerns about Brooke’s ideas, which are fennel and tamarind, but then, what do I know?

In his plodding, bearlike fashion, BJ slowly explains that he and Silvia are going to elevate their trash fish by poaching it. Casey gets to work alone, because she has immunity and also because 13 is not evenly divisible by two.

With the teams settled, everyone heads to Whole Foods to pick up supplies. “Shopping with Sheldon feels like shopping with a brother!” bubbles Shirley. “I’M SO LUCKY I HAVE AN AWESOME TEAMMATE!” bellows Amanda. Across the store, Katsuji and John have reached a terminal impasse, because John wants to use canned tomatoes, and Katsuji wants to use fresh tomatoes, and there are some differences that cannot be reconciled.

Back at the ranch, Emily tries to offer the chefs intel on the personal preferences of Mike Lata, who fired her after three years for being bossy and having a bad attitude. But there’s a problem: She doesn’t have any actual intel. “He’s definitely a fish guy, big on perfectly cooked vegetables,” says Emily. Katsuji suggests, given his passion for well-cooked vegetables, that he might also enjoy holding hands, or perhaps a nice glass of Pinot Grigio, and Emily tries not to cry.

But there’s no time for that now. Let’s cook! Probably a bunch of things happen in the kitchen, but we don’t see them, because everyone is too busy sharing their holiday traditions. Everyone works holidays, but also likes to spend time with family, it turns out! (They also like well-cooked vegetables.) Katsuji and John are still unable to compromise on their tomatoes, and Emily has ceded all power to Brooke, so that Mike Lata can’t yell at her. Silvia is making a cracker.

Jingle, jingle, jingle! Padma and Tom have gathered the whole gang together for trash dinner, because, you know. (It’s the holidays.)

It’s feeling festive. Photo: Paul Cheney/Bravo

First up: Shirley and Sheldon, with Sichuan-peppercorn-braised mullet with tofu, celery, and buttered radish. “I never would have thought of doing the fish with tofu,” enthuses Richard Blais, “but I kind of enjoy the mimicking of the texture of the fish with the tofu.” Tom likes that they used Sichuan peppercorns, but, like, in a subtle way. You know what is not subtle? The taste of tunny, which has the iron-y flavor of blood. But when Jamie and Sylva bring out their ras el hanout–dusted interpretation, the crowd goes wild, or at least, as wild as a crowd has ever gone for tunny. “We were all guessing that you’d fail miserably!” cheers Hugh Acheson, with trademark support. A Christmas miracle!

Then things take a dark turn. Emily and Brooke’s dish — roasted blackbelly rosefish with marble potatoes, leeks, corn, fiddleheads, coconut, and tamarind sauce — is universally panned. Mike Lata specifically hates the preparation of the fish itself, which is the only thing Emily did. BJ and Silvia’s barrel fish brodo is an equal and opposite disaster, in that it is flavorless and also the texture of tennis shoes (the cracker was good, though). Amanda and Jim, mutually shell-shocked, offer their “rustic” take on gray tilefish, cooked in tomato and fennel broth and served with undercooked white beans and mussels. “One of my biggest pet peeves is undercooked beans. It’s hard to get around that,” threatens Mike Lata, who is surely a fun guy at a party.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when people complain about how busy they are and then it turns out their oppressive obligation is having brunch. What I am trying to say is that I get it.

For good measure, Casey’s solo amberjack with kimchi and rice porridge is also terrible. But here’s the real surprise of the night: Katsuji and John’s war-torn triggerfish with Katsuji’s chile sauce and someone’s stewed tomatoes is a veritable triumph. It is almost like the value of sportsmanship has been a myth all this time. “There’s a soulfulness to this dish that appeals to me personally,” muses Mike Lata. Hugh Acheson is stunned. I am also stunned. Katsuji and John seem similarly stunned.

On that note, the moment of judgement arrives! I would like to say it’s a close one, but it is not. Sheldon and Shirley’s mullet stew was good, and Jamie and Sylva’s ras el hanout tunny was inspired, but the winning team is obviously John and Katsuji, which makes the winner of the challenge … Katsuji.

As for the loser, it’s a tough one, much like BJ’s barrel fish. But while Amanda’s undercooked beans violated the cardinal rule of Mike Lata’s kitchen (the rule is: Never serve a single undercooked bean), it is ultimately BJ who is sent packing. If only he hadn’t over-reduced the sauce! “It sucks, for sure” BJ philosophizes, slowly. But he will lumber ever onwards. That is the thing about BJ. He always does.

And then there were 12! Next week: a barbecue showdown! Until then, happy holidays. Truly, it is what Padma would want.

Top Chef Charleston Recap: Trash Fish for the Holidays