Yes, yes, we will get to tonight’s action-packed Quickfire Challenge momentarily, but first, big news in the Bear Den: Bruce is having a baby! He and his wife have been trying to adopt forever, but their agency went bankrupt in February, and the details after that are a little fuzzy, but the point is, Bruce is having a baby! And there’s more, because the baby is due during Bruce’s tenure on this very show. “The fact that my son is going to be born and I’m going to be here? It’s tough. I can’t talk about this,” he snuffles. “I’ve got a whole new chapter starting in my life, and winning Top Chef would be the icing on the cake.” Of course, missing your son’s birth only to lose on a reality cooking show is a slightly less impressive story, so, you know, no pressure.
Speaking of babies, tonight’s Quickfire Challenge is guest-judged by Curtis Stone, whom you may know as the head judge of Top Chef Junior. I did not know this, but you might. Carrie, for one, is very excited because Curtis Stone is tall. “Tall gets me going,” Carrie giggles. “It’s amazing.” Unfortunately, there is no time to dwell on how amazing it is (I vote: moderately), because Padma, who has selected her favorite business-casual sailor suit for the occasion, has a segue: “Until now, it’s kinda been child’s play,” she smirks. For the challenge, the 11 remaining chefs must “update and elevate” traditional kid foods, but the twist is that they can only use miniature kid-size kitchen tools. Also, the challenge will be co-judged by a brigade of actual children. Another twist!
To figure out who’s doing what, everyone draws (full-size) knives, which is probably also how democracy should work. “I drew corn dogs,” says Carrie, mournfully. But she puts on a brave face; what choice does she have? After all, Curtis Stone, tall man, is expecting greatness.
“This is fucking hysterical!” says Papa Bear Bruce, who is reinventing fish sticks as fish croquettes. “Kids in the room, watch the F-bombs,” suggests Tanya, who is elevating mac ’n’ cheese by making mac ’n’ cheese. The guest-children — all of whom are the offspring of famous Denver chefs — make the rounds, offering their childlike wisdom, like that it is hard to mess up cheeseburgers. From the mouths of babes!
Honestly, I was prepared to be critical of the mini-judges — does the wisdom of years count for nothing? — but it turns out, they are extremely correct about everything. Though initially skeptical of Adrienne’s “focused, veg-forward” pizza with cauliflower crust (correct), they agree it is actually delicious. They also like Tu’s chicken quesadilla with cheddar fondue because “the flavor really goes well with the tortilla” — true about basically everything — and one girl says that Chris’s deconstructed chicken-rillettes taco is “one of the best deconstructed tacos” she has ever had, in all her almost-decade of having teeth. Then an even tinier girl announces that she “loves” Fatima’s elevated grilled cheese, which is a Caesar salad, because “you have the grilled cheese in it, but you also have something a little healthier.”
The first time I had a Caesar salad, I was 25.
It turns out that being a parent doesn’t help you win at all, though, because Tyler has three kids, and no one likes his spaghetti-and-meatball-inspired zucchini-noodle pho with shrimp balls. “If someone ordered this at a restaurant and you didn’t tell them what it is,” offers the boy-child, “I don’t think they would think this was spaghetti and meatballs.” The kids also don’t like Carrie’s neo-corn-dog bites (too dry), or Bruce’s latter-day fish sticks (also too dry), so they’re the bottom three, and Adrienne wins, because pizza is pizza, even when it is also cauliflower.
“It feels good to have immunity,” declares Adrienne. I understand; I got a flu shot recently.
In keeping with the general intergenerational spirit of this episode, the theme of the Elimination Challenge is: family heritage! Everyone will cook a meal inspired by their cultural background, Padma sings, and then they will serve that meal to “some of the culinary world’s most renowned influencers.” I love a good heritage challenge: It is simple, but with the potential of lasting emotional devastation. Soon enough, everyone heads to Whole Foods, just like their ancestors before them.
Tu, child of Vietnamese refugees, is making something Vietnamese. Bruce, whose grandfather was Hungarian, is going goulash. Chris was ashamed for years of his family’s soul food, but “everything became better” once he embraced it. As a kid, Brother Love explains, he was embarrassed by his Creole father’s recipe for dirty rice with gizzards and livers, and then his father died, and now that is the only recipe he has from him. “I think that’s what this challenge is about for me, telling this story,” he says, softly.
“I don’t have heritage,” moans Tyler, reaching balefully for a bunch of greens. “I’m a white boy from Southern California!” Indeed, we all suffer in our own way.
In the morning, everyone arrives at Departures, the site of the heritage cook-off, where Tyler gets to work on his SoCal-Swedish fusion dish of tri-tip and meatballs and scalloped potatoes “in the style of a Swedish pancake,” because he has some Swedish roots, in addition to the Southern California ones. “I’m figuring it out,” he offers, bleakly. Here is a true story: Just this week, I tried to make a Swedish potato pancake. It did not work.
As the chefs come to terms with their identities in the kitchen, the judges roll up just in time for a chat about the meaning of food, and how it brings us together, and Padma blinks slowly like she has just been awakened from a sleep of ten thousand years. “Food is very important for culture!” Blink.
The dishes are served two at a time, so you can really tell which cultures are the best ones. “I’m not terribly sure of my family’s heritage, but I do know I’m from Idaho!” chirps Carrie, explaining her potato-pierogi concept. (The concept is: potatoes.) She’s serving alongside Tyler’s ode to Sweden and also California in the form of multiple dishes at once. “I think Tyler’s hereditarily challenged here,” chuckles Tom, and then everyone goes around the table to say why it was bad.
Joseph (the one with no mustache) presents rustic saffron ribbon pasta with braised squid because he makes it with his Italian grandmother, but the problem is, it tastes like nothing. “It’s always good to cook like grandma,” quips Tom, “but sometimes grandma’s techniques really aren’t that good.” Tanya’s gumbo, though, is a real hit, and chef/influencer Gregory Gourdet says that you can really taste the sense of family. Is it as good as mustache Joe’s chicken tortellini with farro and cabbage, made in memory of his beloved French mother and his Italian father? “I felt the soul in the dish, and it’s so immensely technical,” raves chef/influencer Mourad Lahlou. One vote for yes! Despite his heartfelt presentation and generally delightful personality, Tu’s canh chua — a Vietnamese bouillabaisse — is a letdown. “Maybe Tu cooked with too much emotion,” suggests Gregory Gourdet. He wanted to like it, but there were just too many feelings. This is also what people say about me.
The parade marches on! Brother serves his dirty rice with stewed chicken and worries that it’s too simple, but everyone loves it. “I think the flavor is exceptional,” announces Tom. “I could eat, like, three more of these,” announces an unnamed influencer. (Fatima’s dal chawal and shami kabab were also good, though if she’s honest, and she is, Nilou Motamed has had better.)
Then everything takes a nosedive, because the lamb in Bruce’s Hungarian lamb goulash with spaetzle is catastrophically overcooked, and Padma may never recover from this experience. “Look how dry that is! It’s white in the middle.” To balance it out, though, Adrienne’s stuffed pig’s trotters are undercooked. Blink.
Finally: Chris, and his lemonade fried chicken with brown-sugar buttermilk biscuits and collards. “My grandmother’s grandmother made this exact dish,” Chris explains. “I mean, you can go eight, nine generations back in my blood, and it’s the same thing.” This is because it is the platonic ideal of food.
The top three are Chris, Tanya, and Joe (mustache), and while the judges fawn over the gumbo and the tortellini, we all know the winner is going to be Chris, for his perfect, spicy, juicy chicken. It is time for the reveal. Nilou will do the honors. “The chef that won for us was the chef who really took this challenge and embraced it,” Nilou says, is … Chris!
Bad news for the Bears: The bottom three are Joseph, Tyler, and Bruce. “How do you think today went, Joe?” taunts Padma. Not great, suggests Joe, perceptively. Tyler, too, acknowledges that his Swedish fusion menagerie was “obviously a bad idea,” while Bruce has a breakthrough and realizes that he has been going about the competition all wrong. (Also, his lamb was bad.)
You know what is coming, because it has been edited that way, but that does not numb the pain. The loser is Tyler. “Yes, I deserve to go home for this dish,” he reflects, glumly, launching into an extended metaphor about a dragon (he is the dragon), and there is nothing to do but hope that, like so many dragons before him, he can fight his way back.