Top Chef Seattle Recap: David Rees on a Handsy Padma and Old-Timey Hawaiian Obsessions

Photo: Bravo

This week’s episode kicks off with the gang still arguing over Kuniko’s exile. John, the most hated chef in Dallas, continues his role of loudmouth jerk. He yells at Josh: “How many restaurants have you opened and failed?” CJ looks like he wants to knock John upside the head with How to Cook Everything. Amidst the din, someone lets slip this immortal diagnosis: “You pretend to have balls and you don’t have balls!”

Back in the apartment building, John says Top Chef is just like Dallas, where he’s the “most hated chef.” (He’s the most hated chef in Dallas, in case you didn’t know.) Meanwhile, Stefan and Kristen start flirting over foot rubs and cigarettes while everyone else sits around trying not to throw up.

Our guest judge is Naomi Pomeroy of “Beast.” Padma doesn’t explain what Beast is: Maybe it’s a haunted house franchise or a vegan hardcore band? I’m not sure. However, Naomi is an alumna of the slaughterhouse that is Top Chef, so she knows what the contestants are going through.

The reveal for this week’s Quickfire Challenge is quite dramatic: Curtains are pulled back to reveal huge corpses hung from space-age hooks. If it was a Damien Hirst sculpture it’d be worth millions of dollars. These are sides of beef, which Padma tells the chefs to “think of … as a blank canvas.” They have one hour to cut up the meat and make a meal of it. (Padma announces that only two chefs may approach the beef at a time, for safety’s sake. This makes sense: Remember a couple weeks ago when Carla cut her hand?) Our gang starts sawing and chopping the beef. Sheldon busts out a total lumberjack saw like you’d see in a Norman Rockwell painting! (I also notice that Sheldon never takes off his Where’s Waldo hat, which is smart because it helps him stand out in the swirling mass of contestants; I swear the producers are still adding chefs each week.)

Tyler’s in a funk because his Thanksgiving gumbo was sub-par. Can his beef redeem him? I hope so; I have a lot of sympathy for the guy. He seems to be holding on by his fingernails.

It’s kind of amazing how many ways you can prepare beef. For instance, Stefan makes little slimy globules of meat that look like they’d be right at home in my shower drain, while John, the most hated chef in Dallas, makes oxtail with gnocchi. (For those of you who don’t know, each beef has multiple parts to it, and you can make different things with the different parts: If you cut off an ankle, you can make beef-ankle stew. If you get the flank, you can make flank-beef parts with drizzled mushrooms.)

Meanwhile, Lizzie is having problems with the pressure cooker — no, not the pressure cooker of the Top Chef competition, but the actual literal pressure cooker in the kitchen. (She’s making pressure-cooker-cooked beef.)

I don’t usually recap commercials, but the night’s first ad from Top Chef sponsor Healthy Choice Yogurt really gets my dander up. It makes fun of kale enthusiasts! There’s a flashback to the bad old days, when people drank kale juice to stay healthy, whereas now you can just stuff yourself with Healthy Choice Yogurt and sneer at hippies. Healthy Choice Yogurt can take a long walk off a short dick as far as I’m concerned.

Back in the kitchen, everyone finishes their beef dishes. By my count, there are 50,000 of them. Let’s start with the least successful ones: Lizzie’s shank was too tough; Eliza’s flank was marred by her combination of asparagus and cherries; and Tyler, who’s stressed about being in the bottom, is criticized for his crudo. In a cutaway, he says “I can’t do anything right” and looks down with such sincerity and shame that I want to adopt him, just so he can see what a real loser looks like.

The best beef dishes were made by CJ, John, and Josh. Now the producers’ decision to begin the episode with more yelling about Kuniko makes sense: The three enemies are united in the winner’s circle! John wins the Quickfire, much to CJ and Josh’s chagrin.

For this week’s Elimination Challenge, we meet two guys named Mark and Brian who run a restaurant called Canlis. They speak of its legacy with crazed enthusiasm. Apparently it was the first fancy restaurant in Seattle, and the birthplace of “Northwest cuisine,” whatever the hell that is. Our chefs will recreate dishes from Canlis’s original 1950 menu. Now we’re talking! They are reincarnating old dishes! This is going to be a GHOST DINNER FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE. The kitchen is charged. Padma gets a little handsy with one of the brothers, the lucky bastard, although I’m not feeling her bell-bottoms.

There’s a big scrum as all the chefs examine the menu and figure out who will make what. John will expedite everything because he has immunity; he calls it “expo.” Josh says John is “full of shit.”

The haunted menu is very simple; each dish uses just a handful of ingredients, the way things were back in the old days. Everything must be cooked perfectly — the food can’t hide behind a billion weird spices and futuristic garnishes and whatnot, the way contemporary food can. And guess what? There’s no kale on the menu, which proves my point about people not eating kale until about ten years ago.

Josh makes the French onion soup (one of the worst soups, in my opinion), even though he’s from Oklahoma, which is not known for the dish. Carla is karate-chopping squab, which I thought was fish, but my friends insist is pigeon. (I wonder if I thought squab was a fish because of it sounds like “swab,” as in “swab the deck me hearties,” which is something a pirate would say, and pirates live on boats.) John is in full “expo” mode, looking for tape to demarcate his “expo line.”

(My notes: “Stefan is cooking liver in a copper room that looks like a prison cell on Mars.”)

After three hours, the diners start to arrive. Hugh Acheson joins our regular judges. The Canlis brothers are eager to try the old-timey dishes; they are fairly bouncing in their seats, and I wonder if they’re sitting on phonebooks so they can reach the table.

Here’s what everyone makes:
Tyler: Crab-leg cocktail
Lizzie: Marinated herring with Saltines
Josh: French onion soup
John: Steamed clams bordelaise
Chrissy: Canlis’ special salad
Brooke: Seafood salad à la Louis (if it was “à la Louis CK” you’d download it for $5)

Even though the recipes are old, the plating style looks contemporary to me. Did food really look this askew and geometrical back in the fifties?

The VIPs dig in. (My notes: “Emeril always looks skittish and nervous while he eats.”) They agree the food is perfectly shitty, just the way it was back in the fifties.

Time for entrees:

Sheldon: Mahi Mahi (looks like a bar of soap wearing an argyle sweater)
Carla: Whole-milk-fed Squab (the pigeon’s diet is its epitaph)
Micah: Mixed vegetables (looks like a TV dinner)
Stefan and Kristen: Liver and French-fried onions (I’d eat this)
Bart: Double-cut New York steak (My friend: “I’ve never seen Bart. Who is he?”)
Josie: Gargantuan baked Idaho potato (this is the only editorializing on the menu so far, and it’s appropriate, because this potato is truly gargantuan, probably the biggest potato I’ve ever seen)
CJ: Shish kebab with pilaf (I didn’t know they ate foreign food in the fifties; pretty cool)
Kristen: French mushrooms (this, to me, is the ultimate fifties dish)

Carla’s squab is controversial, both its inaccessibility and its cook-style. Stefan’s liver is better: He “respected the product,” in Emeril’s words. Hugh Acheson whines and complains about everything.

Tom is blown away by Kristen’s mushrooms. But really, the gargantuan potato steals the show. You could fit a family of four inside this motherfucker, I’m not kidding.

Finally, it’s time for dessert.

Danyelle: Vanilla ice cream and Royal Hawaiian Supreme, which the most fifties lookin’ thing I’ve ever seen.
Eliza: Mint sherbet and fresh frozen Hawaiian pineapple parfait (old-timey obsession with Hawaii in full effect)

Padma makes a good point: The desserts are the most obviously fifties dishes. They certainly charm the judges — maybe because they’re the most nostalgic, and would never be found at a contemporary restaurant? They remind me of the lurid old cookbooks I cut up to make Christmas cards, with gelatin cakes and gravy-drowned pineapple loafs.

Lizzie, Kristen, Tyler, and Stefan are called to the judges’ table. When Padma says they made the best dishes, Tyler just about faints with relief. Tom drops some science on Kristen: “The fact of the matter is, you know how to cook a mushroom.” She wins the challenge, along with ten grand! I’m amazed. She’s amazed. She can’t believe she won $10,000 for making mushrooms and onions. I can relate, because I got $10,000 worth of orders for my pencil-sharpening business last weekend. (NOT A JOKE.)

CJ, Carla, Josh, and Chrissy are in the bottom four. Josh’s soup was too salty and too cold. Too cold?! Josh takes this time to criticize John’s expediting, comparing his ability to that of a monkey. Chrissy’s horrible salad that everyone hated is raked across the coals one last time. If she’s sent home for that stupid salad, she may never stop screaming. When Carla is asked if she liked her squab, she admits to not tasting it as often as she should have. (Chefs are expected to taste the food they cook.) CJ says some inscrutable shit about his marinade of lemon-juice whatnot. I can’t follow the conversation. (My friend explains that CJ is in trouble for using a “sous-vide,” which is when you cook something in a bag — a technique that wasn’t popular in the fifties.)

Chrissy and Carla are both sent home. I can’t believe they booted Carla! This show has so much integrity, they’ll send home the screeching foreign lady, the guaranteed drama-creator. Most shows would hang on to her until the bitter end. I’m impressed. But I shouldn’t be surprised, because everything in Seattle is authentic and people don’t sell out in the Pacific Northwest. Top Chef is basically the Bikini Kill of reality cooking shows.

David Rees is an artisanal pencil sharpener.

Top Chef Seattle Recap: David Rees on a Handsy Padma and Old-Timey