Do you know the legend of the Top Chef birthday curse? It’s that if it’s your birthday, you get eliminated. Today, it is Silvia’s birthday. “Happy birthday!” says Silvia’s mother, in Italian. “I feel nervous!” says Silvia, in English. Ultimately, though, she decides she is probably fine because one of her birthday wishes was in fact to celebrate her birthday while competing on Top Chef. A counter-superstition!
Speaking of impending mortality, Sheldon is also facing a personal crisis: He is in excruciating pain, on account of an old back injury caused by a catastrophic incident involving noodles. (You had to be there.) His plan is to ignore his rapidly escalating agony, because “this is Top Chef and you do what you gotta do.”
And on that note, it’s Quickfire time! Or is it? Hobbling Sheldon, aged Silvia, and the rest of the gang wander into the kitchen to find it dark and empty. The judges are gone. Padma has been kidnapped. The clock says 40 minutes. “It kind of reminds me of a scene from a horror movie,” muses Jim. “There’s literally, like, no one around,” agrees John, who has also seen horror movies. Then there is silence: the buzzer doth buzz. “What the hell is going on?” demands Brooke, as a door opens, revealing a spread of mystery ingredients that are all different types of flour. In the refrigerator, there is buttermilk. In the freezer, there is butter. “Oh no,” gasps Sylva, as if in slow motion. “Biscuit challenge!”
Back in the control room, Padma is having the time of her life. It is reassuring, in a way, to see her capable of such joy.
“We can’t just decide our own challenge!” cries traditionalist Brooke. “I’m kind of mad at myself for saying biscuits,” grins Sylva. “What if it’s not biscuits? But if it’s not, I’m still making biscuits.” Meanwhile, Amanda struggles to unwrap a stick of butter. She does this with great enthusiasm, much like she does everything.
It’s a real roller coaster, this challenge. “It’s not something we eat in Hawaii,” Sheldon says. Luckily, he is positioned right next to Brooke, anxious queen of the biscuits, so his plan is to just do everything she does, while pretending that his back is just fine. “You know what’s funny? I feel no pain right now! I’m running!” pants Sheldon, staggering across the kitchen to put his version of Brooke’s biscuits in the oven. Oh, I worry!
Jamie, apparently, also worries. “I’m dreadfully confused right now,” says Jamie. “I have never made biscuits in my life, so I’m winging it!” In other news, he is very confused. Shirley, too, is nervous, because she doesn’t bake, so she’s doing an “Italian biscuit,” inspired by Silvia. “You’re my inspiration!” chirps Shirley to Silvia. “I’ve never seen an Italian make a biscuit,” mutters Silvia to no one. Casey, however, is all about biscuits. “I really just want to showcase the biscuit,” she philosophizes, Zenly. “Let the biscuit be the biscuit.” John is going similarly simple, because “simplicity is an art form,” and John is an artist, Silvia is doing something concerning with mushrooms and avocados, Brooke is doing a biscuit-y take on bagels and lox, Jim is aggressively searing a scallop, and Katsuji is doing a sweet corn-bread biscuit. “I still don’t even know if we’re supposed to be making biscuits!” repeats Sylva, for emphasis. (He is doing biscuit vol-au-vent.)
Well, look whom the cat dragged in, it’s Padma! “Miss me?” purrs Padma, explaining that the free-form biscuit challenge was in fact a test of their ingenuity under the extreme pressure of not knowing whether or not they are supposed to be making biscuits. Tonight, she is joined by master biscuiteer John Currence, chef and owner of Big Bad Breakfast, and sage biscuit enthusiast. He likes Sylva’s biscuits and Brooke’s biscuits and also John’s biscuits. He praises Silvia’s biscuits, too, even though she has never before made biscuits, and deems Jamie’s decision to deglaze his asparagus with cream sauce a “good call.” Honestly, John Currence likes pretty much everyone’s biscuits, which confirms my general theory about biscuits, which is that they are always good. Have you ever had a bad biscuit? I will give you a moment to think.
Still, not all biscuits are created equal. John Currence was least impressed with Shirley’s oppressively seasoned black-pepper mascarpone biscuits, Jim’s fatally overseared scallop biscuits, and Sheldon’s undercooked half-biscuits, which would have been whole biscuits if he’d remembered to serve both halves. I would eat all of these biscuits. As for the best biscuits: While Katsuji’s corn-bread biscuits “could not have been better,” and Jamie’s breakfast-biscuit bonanza was “incredible stuff,” neither is a match for Brooke’s “immaculate” black-pepper-and-poppy-seed biscuit, which takes the win. (I would also eat all of these biscuits.)
But there is no time to revel in buttery glory, because Padma is on to the next. “For your Elimination Challenge,” she intones, “we’re going from making dough to low and slow!” And to oversee this transformation, she has brought in none other than Rodney Scott, whole-hog pit master and owner of Scott’s Barbecue. Based on this information, Jamie has sussed out that the challenge is almost definitely about barbecuing. Correct! The chefs will divide up into three teams of four to prepare a whole hog with one of Charleston’s two classic sauce options — mustard-based sauce, or vinegar-based sauce — plus three sides, to be served to 150 hungry locals, as well as current country singer and former Blowfish Darius Rucker. In a surprise twist, they will get to pick their own teams, like a kindergarten nightmare.
The teams are: Sheldon, Brook, John, and Emily (Yellow Team); Katsuji, Amanda, Silvia, and Sylva (Green Team); and Shirley, Casey, Jamie, and Jim (Red Team). Katsuji is relieved, because he doesn’t have to work with Emily. I am relieved, because it is over.
Rodney Scott has arranged a quick two-stop back-country barbecue tour, so everyone piles into their BMW X5 Plug-In Hybrids and heads off into the middle distance, except Sheldon, who piles into a different BMW X5 Plug-In Hybrid to go get an MRI alone. “I might not be able to even continue in this competition,” Sheldon says stoically. John seems pretty pumped about the Plug-In Hybrid.
After establishing first-hand that pork with mustard sauce is good, while pork with vinegar pepper sauce is also good, the teams huddle up to plan their menus. On the Green Team, birthday girl Silvia is angling for an Italian potato salad, which uses salsa verde and onions but has no mayo in it at all. “No mayo?” asks Katsuji, in shock. (No mayo.) Sylva believes this to be a terrible idea, a sentiment he shares only with the camera. Sheldon, now medicated by spinal injection, has rejoined his comrades on the Yellow Team, which has already laid out a game plan, and the Red Team unanimously and politely settles on a vinegar sauce.
As night falls, the chefs pile back into their BMWs (X5 Plug-In Hybrids) and head to the site of the hogfest, where they will stay up all night together barbecuing their hogs at very low temperatures for the rest of time. John uses this opportunity to lecture Brooke on the theory and practice of comparative barbecue. Brooke uses this opportunity to contemplate the logistics of faking her own death. “It’s one thing to stay up for two straight days cooking a 150-pound hog,” she sighs. “It’s another thing to stay up all night with John.”
Exhausted from his night of vigorous explaining, John launches into his morning prep only to find himself in a bit of a pickle. On the one hand, he needs flour for the roux for his signature mac and cheese. On the other hand, there is no flour. Katsuji, however, has xanthan gum, which he is willing to trade if only John will peel his garlic for him. I can only imagine that this is also how the U.N. works. Obviously, John is thrilled. “I think I like this better than roux!” he beams. It is hard not to admire John for his glass-half-full spirit.
Katsuji, too, is facing a morning crisis, which is that his baked beans have an unidentifiable sour funk, even though he owns a kosher Mexican restaurant and makes beans every day of his life. If there is comfort, it is that Emily’s beans are also a disaster, because they are completely raw. “Holy shit!” offers Katsuji, loudly noting their exquisite rawness. It is hard not to admire Katsuji for his consistency.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing to be done about anyone’s beans, because it’s time to feed 150 of Charleston’s premier eaters, just as soon as Darius Rucker gives a quick performance. Shirley sways. Tom bops. “Allllllll righhhhhhhhht” croons Darius Rucker. Is it, though?
For the Yellow Team, it’s more than all right. Padma is smitten with their chile-citrus vinegar sauce; Gail is impressed by the moistness of the pork. “I think the mac and cheese was probably the best thing on the plate,” drawls an unidentified gentleman in seersucker. The clear highlight from the Red Team, on the other hand, was their trotter-and-pig-head hash. “Your hash was to die for” swoons Darius Rucker. (That is also what the pig said.) Padma, for her part, is rather taken with the crunch of the braised cabbage, while a nameless woman is excited about the old-town creek pickles, which remind her of church.
If only the same could be said for the Green Team! Alas, their meal is a patchwork of individual messes: rather than go with a vinegar sauce or a mustard sauce — the two options presented — Sylva decided to concoct a cloying hoisin-ketchup glop-sauce, which is universally panned. Rodney Scott finds Silvia’s Italian potato salad baffling (Gail only finds it weighty, overcooked, slimy). As for Katsuji’s funky beans: Tom figures out the issue is a wayward gland from the pig’s head, which Katsuji should have known to remove. The best of the lot was Amanda’s slaw, mostly because nobody can remember that it happened.
There are no surprises left; the winner is clear. The Yellow Team takes it, with John emerging as champion of the day for his smokey xanthan-gum mac and cheese. Hurrah! Everyone is too tired to care. As we knew they would, the Green Team comes out on bottom; Katsuji might cry. Sylva tries to explain his sauce; Silvia tries to justify her nontraditional potatoes, but it cannot be done. Arrivederci, Silvia! And happy birthday!
Coming in 2017: the gang interprets “one of the most interesting chefs in the history of food,” Sheldon takes a tumble, and Jamie loses a plate! In the meantime, happy New Year! May it bring BMW X5 Plug-In Hybrids to us all.