Top Chef Masters Recap: The Art of Losing

Curtis: “Wanna hit this?” Dita: “Not for all the uni in the world.” Photo: Isabella Vosmikova/Bravo

While you were busy watching the Republican National Convention and appreciating the nuances of Paul Ryan’s musical preferences last night, I was dutifully watching this week’s installment of Top Chef Masters. One of these viewing experiences featured a lot of lies, the other a poorly braised chicken thigh. I’ll leave it to you to decide which is more offensive, but I’ll bet money that what I saw was a lot more entertaining, as it offered a quality hour of sexy talk, kitchen brawls, and atrocious-looking food. Admittedly, it’s been nice watching the chefs get along and generally cook well this season, but it was time for some conflict, and it was cathartic as a viewer to watch the sunny façade fall away from this group like so many dropped blenders.

Gathering in the kitchen, the chefs have no time to share their fond memories of Thierry because they’re eyeing a table of oysters, Champagne, asparagus, and chocolate. Everyone knows it’s going to be an aphrodisiac Quickfire and, disappointingly, it’s exactly that, as opposed to, say, a Hamburger Helper challenge. (Side note: since when are eggs and ginger considered aphrodisiacs? I’ve been known to get hot and bothered about a perfect omelette, but this is silly.) On hand to serve as judge is world-famous burlesque star Dita von Teese, a huge improvement over Holly Madison, but neither one has anything to do with food and both have appeared in the pages of Playboy. Patricia, however, thinks it will be refreshing to see DVT “after seeing all these girls in their hoochie mama outfits.”

They get 30 minutes to whip up something sexy, and immediately it looks like they all went on a bender the previous night because two blenders are broken in 30 seconds. Then there’s so much gross talk about what the chefs find titillating. Art likes his meringues like he likes his breasts, which is to say big, but also why? Lorena thinks an herb salad is sexy, which is categorically false, but she’s aroused by avocado, lime, and cilantro, so she should have just made guacamole and called it a day. Kerry describes his tuna as having layers, slowly revealing itself, not showing it all at once, and he’s really just talking about lady parts. Takashi says “sweet and slimy texture is sexy for me” and I’m ready to change the channel because life is too short for this, friends.

Dita appears, looking flawless as always, and proceeds to make Curtis look like a horny schoolboy. She likes the texture of Art’s île flottante so much that she wants to “dive into a giant vat of it naked.” “That’s a nice visual,” Curtis grins, proving he really does have as much game as the Ken dolls he resembles. There’s a lot more of this back and forth: Dita eloquently describing the sensual nature of the dishes, Curtis guffawing and trying my patience. Chris makes a phenomenal-looking seared foie gras in a sauce of rose, figs, and Champagne, but her favorites are Kerry’s seared tuna with uni (“I’m borderline sexually excited by the uni.”) and Takashi’s chilled oysters with sea urchin and yuzu-truffle vinaigrette (“It felt really good sliding down my throat.”). Takashi wins because Kerry’s not allowed to win.

The Elimination Challenge is a doozy: They have to work together to open a Thai “restaurant” (studio set) in a day, as a tribute to the venerable Lotus of Siam. “It’s the best of the best when it comes to Thai,” Chris helpfully explains for the uninitiated. All of the chefs look a little scared, especially Lorena, but Patricia lived in Thailand for a couple of years so maybe there’s hope for her. Fortunately they take a field trip to the restaurant, which looks like a strip-mall joint from the outside, to get a taste of real Thai food. This marks the last time I’ll see something I want to eat in this episode.

They split into teams to buy ingredients, and once again we learn that Kerry is bad at communicating via cell phone. Back in the kitchen, Patricia immediately starts calling the shots, and Lorena is indignant that she has to work front of house rather than as a line cook. You’d think she would be relieved since she isn’t an expert in Thai cooking, but instead she’s defensive and before long she is screaming at Patricia to “cheeel out” after being chastised for taking half of the burners on a stove to make soup. It only gets worse after this. Kerry’s bad at being the expediter, Art and Lorena don’t change out of their chef jackets to greet the guests, and wait times between courses are interminable. Worst of all, no one makes Thai food. No one used fish sauce, and I’m embarrassed for all of them.

The judges, who are all too kind this week, are James, Francis, and Grub Street’s own Alan Sytsma, who dine with Lotus of Siam chef Saipin Chutima and her daughter/interpreter for authentic feedback. Lorena’s soup apparently has nice flavors but the garnish of unchopped cilantro and an entire chile looks amateurish. Chris makes a tartare version of beef larb, which Saipin calls “too American” but Francis finds praiseworthy. The low point of the meal is Art’s cashew-crusted chicken breast, which would only look and taste authentic if you were at Applebee’s. Kerry serves a braised pork belly with taro-root puree, which is basically meat and potatoes, but Saipin likes it the most. Takashi plays it safe with noodles in yellow curry, while Patricia serves a too-rare duck over underseasoned massaman curry. She’s livid when James sends his duck back because Kerry supposedly messed up her timing but she just seems so tired of it all in general and I start to hope she’s sent home to get some rest and look at all the Dita Von Teese pictures she wants in peace.

Chris and Kerry have the top dishes this week, despite both being very fusion-y. Since Saipin liked Kerry’s dish and ridiculed Chris’s, it would seem the former should win, but we’re talking about Kerry, and the rules of this show are written in Kelly Choi’s blood. Chris is happy to win after being up for elimination last week, but his BFF Patricia is in danger, along with Lorena and Art. “It was juuuuuuust toooooo raaaare,” intones James as he attempts to deliver a dismissal to Patricia. But it’s Art (finally!) who doesn’t make the cut, even though Francis is strangely defensive of the chef’s embrace of the “softer side of Thai cooking” a.k.a. not trying to be Thai food at all. At least Art goes out knowing his dish “just wasn’t Thai enough.” He leaves with a promise to open a restaurant with Lorena (please don’t), which will likely be called South of the Border or Girl and the Gay or something similarly catchy.

Next time: Sugar Ray Leonard! A silly-looking boxing ring!

Odds of Winning

Chris - 
4/5. The rest of the season is going to feel like a game of waiting for him to be crowned.
Takashi - 
3/4. His dishes are just as good as Chris’s if not better, but he sometimes lacks the boldness the judges seem to favor.
Patricia - 1/5. Her flameout feels imminent.
Kerry - 1/20. It’s starting to seem like this guy might sneak his way into the finale, but he won’t win then, either.
Lorena - 1/50. Like her dearly departed Art, she doesn’t know how to cook outside her trademark cuisine.

Thai One On