Last Night’s Top Chef Featured a Classic Challenge and Lots of Cheese

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Focus … focus … Photo: Bravo/Paul Trantow/Bravo

It is time to return to Denver, the Paris of Mountain Time. Fourteen chefs remain, which means we are one step closer to the critical point in the season when we can actually keep track of everyone. “It’s awesome to be from small America, like Connecticut, and win the first challenge!” says Tyler, who won the first challenge. “The first impression I made is not the right one,” says Carrie, who burnt her chips.

Padma has big news: “We’re bringing back a Top Chef favorite,” she declares, giddily, and I know what you’re thinking: It’s a classic mise en place relay challenge! To which I say: yes. But this is no ordinary classic mise en place relay challenge — this is a mise en place challenge sponsored by Blue Apron. (What is this, a podcast?) Anyway, the chefs will be divided into two teams to peel and brunoise one quart of shallots, prep one quart of cremini mushrooms, and portion out 20 identical hunks of beef tenderloin. Whichever team finishes first will then go head-to-head in a beef-cremini-mushroom battle for immunity, and also win a year’s worth of Blue Apron, courtesy of Blue Apron. Our guest judge for the evening is local celebrity Troy Guard, owner of most restaurants in Denver.

Brother Luck, who is named Brother Luck, has mise en place tattooed on his forearm, which bodes well for the Blue Team. Their strategy is to put almost everyone on shallot duty, except “the Bears” — Tyler, Joseph (no mustache), and Bruce — who are on mushrooms, mushrooms, and steak, respectively, and have bonded over their mutual sleep apnea. “We’re the bears!” roar the bears.

The Green Team is I-haven’t-peeled-a-mushroom-since-I-left-France Tanya, Laura from Alaska, Joe (mustache), plus all of the other people who are not on the Blue Team.

So, here’s where their paths diverge: Papa Bear Bruce, on the Blue Team, is meticulously weighing his loins to make sure they are exactly between seven and eight ounces, while Chris (Amish-ish) and Tu (nice) are just kinda winging it for the Green Team. On the plus side, they’re done first! On the minus side, their steaks are all wrong, and before they can correct them, Bruce finishes, and that is the story of the tortoise and the hare.

There’s no time to bask in the sweet glow of victory (sponsored by Blue Apron), though, because the Blue Team now has eight minutes and 20 seconds to cook a cremini-steak-shallot extravaganza. “This is exciting!” cackles Padma. “We were just comrades!” laments Brother, but now it is every bear for himself.

You got this. Photo: Bravo/Paul Trantow/Bravo

How many different ways can you prepare seven to eight ounces of tenderloin, mushrooms, and shallots? We are going to find out. Rogelio is whipping up a speedy mushroom cream sauce; Joseph is doing a flash-marinated tenderloin-and-mushroom duet with peppers; Claudette, who is a Mexican chef cooking Mexican food, is going Mexican; Brother is using hibiscus; Tyler is doing something that involves glazing a bunch of carrots; Adrienne’s plan is a grilled fillet with mushrooms and shallots; and for a change of pace, Bruce will also be cooking a fillet with mushrooms and shallots.

It turns out that it’s pretty hard to mess up mushroom-shallot steak. “All of you guys did awesome!!!” Padma bubbles, like she is now a different person. Troy Guard agrees that it was all maximally awesome, except for Rogelio’s broken cream sauce and Tyler’s oppressively vegetal carrots, so they’re on bottom. It is a close call, but in the end, the winner of $5,000 and a free year of Blue Apron by Blue Apron is Joseph, for his punchy steak and peppers.

On that note, Denver chef Troy Guard ambles off into the middle distance, only to be replaced by other Denver chef Alex Seidel. “Chef Alex looks like a Greek god,” marvels Tyler, who is himself something of a Connecticut god. But chef Alex Seidel is more than the ideal specimen of a man. Chef Alex Seidel is a farmer, and a gentleman, and a lover (but mostly a farmer). That is why, in preparation for tonight’s Elimination Challenge, he is going to take them all on a field trip to his farm. Padma lays it out: Working in the same Quickfire teams, the chefs will create a four-course progressive menu, featuring a mysterious secret farm ingredient.

Since the farm seems very, very far away, there is lots of time for get-to-know-you bonding, and we learn many new facts about our chefs. For example, Alaska Laura is a French-trained pastry chef, and Joe (no mustache) follows Bruce on Instagram. Also, Claudette is a Leo. “I’m a little bit witchy, for sure,” she announces. “But not, like, sacrificing animals. That’s not my thing.” To illustrate what an animal is, the camera pans to a sheep, and then a hog.

Finally, we are at the farm. Chef Alex greets everyone, and introduces them to his head cheese-maker, young buck Jimmy Warren. Tyler: “This is like if Thor and Neptune got together, and they’re, like, running a cheese farm. How beautiful are these Denver people? What’s in the water here?” In response, chef Alex beatifically explains that this farm is a cheese farm.

After a quick introduction to the Cheeses of Greater Denver, everyone heads back to the greenhouse (?) for menu planning. On the Blue Team, Claudette comes up with a concept for cold-smoked trout with cheese broth, which Adrienne seconds. On the Green Team, Laura suggests a soup, and Mustache Joe tells her she is wrong. “He reminds me of how I was in my 20s,” observes Chris, sagely. “Back then, it was about me and my ego.” His plan is to ignore Mustache Joe.

The sun sets. The sun rises. The chefs decamp for the kitchen, where it becomes clear that Claudette does not know how to cold-smoke trout, even though it was her idea to cold-smoke trout in the first place. Joe, meanwhile, is having a meltdown, because the lamb is bad, or Tu is bad at cooking the lamb. “The whole thing is just embarrassing!” he yelps. “Something smells like it’s burning, is something burning?” (It’s the lamb.)

Padma instantly regretted taking part in the Wacky Glasses contest. Photo: Paul Trantow/Bravo

As Claudette and Adrienne come to terms with the reality of their smokeless smoked trout, the judges take their seats in the dining room. Padma’s wearing her reading glasses, so you know it’s serious. First up: flavorless trout with cacio pecora and skin chips from the Blue Team. The good news is that Padma didn’t hate the taste as much as she thought she would, but probably that is only because it didn’t have one. You know what does have a taste? Laura and Fatima’s Green Team cheese-and-cracker combo. “The flavor came through 100 percent,” raves Graham Elliot, who is here. (It is true every week, and it is always a surprise!)

Speaking of surprises: Carrie’s potato-ricotta dumpling is a runaway hit, with special thanks to mustache Joe’s whey butter sauce. She only sautéed the dumpling on one side, which Tom found very inspired, and Alex was moved by the dough-to-cheese ratio. “Sometimes the ricotta can just explode too much, and it’s not a great texture in your mouth,” he philosophizes, astutely.

Tu and Joe try to explain that they wanted to tell a story about their lamb, so they seared it with corn grits and cacio pecora. The story is about a lamb who used to be alive and now is dead. “It’s almost like corn pudding that someone dropped a lamb chop onto,” announces Graham Elliot (surprise!). If it is any comfort, Tyler and Rogelio’s lamb loin is also a disaster, primarily because it is raw. On the other hand, both desserts are triumphant, and Padma claims that Tanya and Chris’s Green Team fried dough with sheep’s-milk Feta ice cream, chocolate ganache, and orange cream is the best dessert she has ever had in the history of Top Chef.

In Denver, a single duck floats silently across a pond by moonlight.

It is time for the reckoning. “The decision was a tough one, guys,” drawls Padma, who has lost one shoulder of her dress somewhere during the deliberations. And the winner is … the Green Team, with Carrie bringing home the individual gold. “Whew, this is better than being on the other side!” notes Carrie. I relate to her deeply here, in that I, too, prefer winning to losing.

The real question is: Who’s going home? And we all know the answer to that. Claudette tries to explain that she loves subtly smoking trout, and that it was good, in a secret kind of way, but there is nothing to be done. While she is crushed, she cannot be broken. “I know I’m technically a better cook than a lot of these people, and I’m not just saying that because I have a big ego,” she sniffs. “I’m saying it because I have a shit ton of heart.” And no trout can ever take that away from her.

Top Chef Recap: A Classic Challenge and Lots of Cheese