Last Night’s Top Chef Featured Bull Balls and Family Reunions

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It is very scenic. Photo: Paul Trantow/Bravo

We begin this week with a little self-reflection on the topic of winning. The chefs are all so close to winning, and yet they have not yet won. Most of them will probably not win, as is the nature of winning. “I feel like I’ve gotten my shit together,” muses Adrienne. “I’ve started getting better and better — but so has Sasto.” Also, Joe Flamm! Also, Carrie! It is anyone’s game at this point, which is to say, I am very bad at predicting outcomes, both on reality television, and in life. It is why I do not gamble, and frequently carry an umbrella. You just never know!

Then everyone heads out to the middle of a scenic field. What do you think tonight’s Quickfire Challenge is? “There’s a clear hint here, if you take a look around at all these Rocky Mountains,” mumbles guest judge Bryan Voltaggio. “This challenge is really going to take some balls,” agrees other guest judge Michael Voltaggio. Get it? For the challenge, everyone gets 30 minutes to create a “mouth-watering” dish with Rocky Mountain oysters, known anatomically as “bull testicles.” But “good things always come in pairs” (get it?), so they have to prepare them two different but equally delicious ways.

Do you know how hard it is to cook a Rocky Mountain oyster so it tastes good? The answer is, very hard, on account of their lack of redeeming characteristics. Accordingly, Joe Flamm’s plan is to fry them over beans and then douse the whole mess in Amatriciana sauce, in the hopes that maybe they will taste like something else. Since the oysters remind Adrienne of “cod sperm sacs, when they are in season” — let’s all take her word for it! — she’s making a “ball drop soup” with fried Rocky Mountain oysters and Rocky Mountain oyster dashi. Carrie’s idea is to disguise the Rocky Mountain texture by tempura-frying one and turning the other into a savory pâté. Joe Sasto doesn’t know anything about Rocky Mountain oysters, so he is going to bread them in cornflakes.

After a stoic tasting, the Voltaggio brothers announce their verdict: everything was fine, mostly! “I think the overall chefs did a pretty good job,” shrugs Bryan. Someday, I hope someone will shrug at me with such profound indifference!

Yum? Photo: Paul Trantow/Bravo

No one liked Joe Flamm’s fried ball because of the way he “hammered that protein,” and if we’re being honest, Carrie’s pâté was a little liver-y, so they’re the losers. On the other hand, Adrienne’s ball drop soup had so many layers of flavor Michael Voltaggio didn’t even mind that one of those layers was balls, and Bryan deems Joe Sasto’s cornflake-encrusted surprise “visually stunning.” After no deliberation at all, Padma announces the winner: Joe Sasto, for the deep respect he showed the testicles.

To commemorate his victory, we will never speak of it again. “Being here in beautiful Telluride, we thought you’d find inspiration up here in the mountains for your next challenge,” announces Padma, dressed in what appears to be a leftover wardrobe piece from Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman. “So buckle up, because it’s going to be quite the ride.” What she means is that everybody is about to be consensually kidnapped and taken to an undisclosed location via BMW X5.

And who should be waiting for them at this scenic mountain cabin but … their families! Joe Flamm’s grandma is here, and Adrienne’s mom, and Carrie’s mom, and Joe Sasto’s dad, and everyone weeps, but especially me. It is all very cathartic, like Titanic, but with cooking. Anyway, it turns out the relatives all made dinner, with each one contributing an emotional family dish.

Joe Flamm learned to cook with his grandma, after his grandpa had a stroke. (She made rigatoni and meatballs.) Adrienne’s mom spent her career working in restaurants, and so hoped Adrienne wouldn’t. (She did gumbo.) Joe Sasto’s dad made the classic Sasto holiday meal — pigs’ feet and lasagna — because that’s what Joe used to make with his mother, before she died of lung cancer. “We’re surrounded by moms, and we don’t have ours anymore,” Joe says. “It kind of brings back all those emotions of loss.” (We don’t really get a heart-to-heart with Carrie’s mom, but she made beef stroganoff.)

Cute! Photo: Paul Trantow/Bravo

“As you guys may have guessed, your loved ones didn’t come here to slave away in the kitchen,” purrs Padma, ominously. “This is the start of your elimination challenge!” That is also what I think every time I see my mother.

To make it to the finals, each chef has to create an innovative and elevated take on their family dish. Everyone gets 90 minutes, except Joe Sasto, who gets two hours, because he is a winner.

I can barely breathe, between the tension and the weeping. After some familial pep talks, everyone piles into the product-placement-mobiles to hit the market and plan their dishes. Carrie used to make stroganoff all the time with her dad, and now he’s in assisted living, and it’s up to her to make life better for him through elevated stroganoff. “I want this to be the story of me and my family in one perfect bite,” she announces, inspecting a row of buffalo steaks. No big deal or anything! Meanwhile, Joe Sasto is struggling with the prospect of reinventing his mother’s legacy, and Adrienne is dealing with the more logistical challenges of trying to revolutionize gumbo in 90 minutes. Joe Flamm, on the other hand, knows exactly what he’s going to do: a simple stuffed agnolotti with meatball filling in pomodoro sauce, because, “I don’t want to make a dish that my grandmother doesn’t get.”

“Cheers! To never having to eat bull testicles again!” Photo: Paul Trantow/Bravo

After a rough night back at the ranch, Joe Sasto bounds into the kitchen alone and raring to go. Inspired by his dad’s pig skin roulade, he’s doing a rolled pasta called rotolo with lasagna flavors, and so far, it’s going great. You know what is also great? Cooking alone.

Here come the troops! Adrienne is doing all the elements of gumbo, but the twist is she’s going to do them all separately. Joe Flamm immediately gets to work graphically strangling tomatoes. A crisis! The dough for Carrie’s buffalo stroganoff raviolo is too dry. “Why?” she wails. “Why? Why? Whyyyyyyy?”

Calmly, Joe Sasto takes a blowtorch to his rotolos.

“I don’t want to go home on a dish this personal,” Joe says. Luckily, he won’t have to, because Graham Elliott feels the pigs’ feet rotolo with braised chicken, mushrooms, and Swiss chard “completely captured the spirit of the challenge,” and Bryan Voltaggio says it “had every component of lasagna,” which is really the ultimate achievement for any type of food.

Graham Elliott also loves Carrie’s “beef stroganoff” raviolo with buffalo sausage, mushroom duxelle, herbed crème fraîche, and caramelized onions, and that’s saying something, because we all know how passionate Graham Elliott is about beef stroganoff (very passionate, it turns out), but then Tom is overwhelmed by Adrienne’s deconstructed gumbo. “I thought it was so well seasoned,” he gushes. “Making it more fanciful didn’t take away from the flavor.” Graham Elliott is so proud of her evolution, and he wasn’t even here most of the time!

Finally, it is time for Joe Flamm’s grandma-inspired meatball-stuffed, tomato-infused agnolotti, and it is also exquisite. “There were layers and layers of steps that he had to take to accomplish this, but it doesn’t appear that way,” gushes Tom. I, too, love labor-intensive simplicity! It is the reason I spend hours on the internet comparison-shopping black turtlenecks. “He really captured the essence of that meatball yesterday,” offers a Voltaggio.

Back in the kitchen, Carrie and Joe Flamm funnel wine into their mouths.

Oh, it’s a tough one! Tom says it was all fantastic. Padma says it was the best food of the season. In unison, the Voltaggios say the winner is Adrienne, for her impeccable seasonings. It is a beautiful moment for everyone. Tom’s eyes water, that’s how moving it all is. “I just want to be clear there are no bottoms here today,” Padma assures all the non-tops. It is a beautiful sentiment that is also not true. The bottom is Carrie. If only she’d mixed the braising liquid with the crème fraîche to make a real stroganoff sauce!

“I’m bummed,” smiles Carrie, glowing with inner goodness and toast. “I really am.” But what she has gained here, Graham Elliott can never take away. “I am so much stronger than I thought. I am not going out sad.” Luckily, I suspect I am exactly as strong as I think I am, so I can be sad for her. See you next week!

Top Chef Recap: Bull Balls and Family Reunions