Top Chef Seattle Recap: David Rees on Cheese Ball Sophistication and Undercooked Kale

Emeril is not nearly so excited about that turkey.
Emeril is not nearly so excited about that turkey. Photo: Bravo

Can we talk about cheese balls? When I was a kid, cheese balls were a gooey talisman of sophistication, a sure sign that I was at a grown-up party featuring classical music and debates about Rite I Eucharist versus Rite II Eucharist. So naturally, this Thanksgiving, I brought a cheese ball to the table in order to class up the proceedings. It had been years since I’d partaken of a cheese ball’s pleasures; I was excited!

Guess what? My Thanksgiving cheese ball went over like a lead balloon — which is appropriate, since it turns out cheese balls basically are lead balloons. I was so frustrated with my friends’ disdain for my cheese ball, I ate half of it on my own, just to spite them. Now, I’m thinking about suing ShopRite, because they are selling repurposed chemical weapons — hand grenades of sodium and slime — as cheese balls. Free advice: Never eat any food you remember fondly from childhood. It’s probably garbage.

Suffice to say, last week’s Thanksgiving edition of Top Chef featured zero cheese balls (except for Carla and John, the most hated chef in Dallas).

In the test kitchen, Padma introduces our twelve chefs to this week’s guest judge: Dana Cowin from Food & Wine, the Guns & Ammo of the culinary world. The chefs are told to make dumplings from various cultures. I love dumplings. If you’re ever in Wappinger Falls, New York, check out Palace Dumplings in the strip mall by the discount cigarette shop and the dollar store. Those guys make good dumplings.

To help with their international dumpling research, the pantry is stocked with Kindle Fires from Amazon, the famous horrible website. (I kept waiting for someone to make a Kindle Fire roux; it didn’t happen. The world is ready for molecular gastronomy, but not electronics gastronomy. But give it time: We’ll all be eating mustard-infused VCRs before too long.)

Micah gets the Kazakhstan dumpling and admits he didn’t realize Kazakhstan was a real country. Fortunately, Micah has an Amazon Kindle Fire, which allows him to learn all about Kazakhstan and its dumplings. Brooke is making Indonesian dumplings. Carla is making African dumplings; she’s worried because her hand is still screwed up from when she sliced it open last week (let me risk impropriety and say that by all appearances Carla is no stranger to having her body sliced up, at least in the service of cosmetics).

Stefan ate German dumplings growing up, so he’s happy with his lot. Brooke is lost; her Indonesian dumpling wrappers don’t have flour. And for once, it’s not Indonesia’s fault: She simply couldn’t find any flour. (Why did I just make fun of Indonesia? I have no idea: Maybe because they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving?) Anyway, Kuniko fares even worse: She didn’t finish her dumplings! When it comes time for the judges to taste, her bowls are empty. (My notes: “Self-sabotage?”) She managed to make the “one hand clapping” of dumplings. Somehow Kuniko isn’t immediately kicked off; she’s just “not eligible for the win.” If I was on Top Chef, that would be my strategy for sure: Just serve up empty plate after empty plate, remaining “not eligible for the win” until the final episode, when I pull out my 42-ton cheese ball and simply roll it over the judges.

“Fantastic flavor, authentic, made us want to eat more”: These are the reactions to Josie’s dumplings. She wins the Quick(Kindle)fire Challenge! She’s “overwhelmed with joy.”

Elimination Challenge: Thanksgiving dinner! What’s not to like? Red Team will make Tom’s Thanksgiving menu and Grey Team will make Emeril’s Thanksgiving menu. Tom wants an Italian Thanksgiving and Emeril wants a New Orleans Thanksgiving. I don’t care what the fuck kind of Thanksgiving it is, as long as no cheese balls are involved.

(At this point, a bunch of chefs I don’t remember seeing made their way onto my screen. These are literally my notes: “Tyler — where did he come from? Was he in the Quickfire challenge? Chrissy — who’s she? I’ve never seen her before.”)

Tom and Emeril stroll in to see how their teams are doing. They tease each other while the chefs giggle. And fuck me, but I’m charmed. I’d like to be friends with Tom and Emeril. They could tease me about my diet of chickpeas and undercooked spinach, and I could tease them about literally being Tom and Emeril.

Over on Grey Team, Josie’s turkeys don’t look so good. In fact, they look blacker than Abraham Lincoln’s hat. She takes the oven’s temperature down. She’s jealous of the Red Team’s big majestic glistening turkey, which looks entirely edible and not in the least like a lump of coal.

Carla is going bonkers; she doesn’t know how to make her soup, and she’s mad that the male chefs call her “sweetie” and “honey.” She says it’s hard to be a female chef. I’m starting to believe her. Sometimes I think male chefs act like badass chauvinist pigs to compensate for the fact that they’re essentially doing women’s work.

The teams will serve their meals at Fare Start, a place that brings people from homeless shelters into the kitchen to teach them employable skills. This is badass. Megan Karch (executive director of Fare Start) and Thierry Somebody (executive director of Me Not Knowing Who He Is) will be our guest judges for this festive meal.

Grey Team serves first: It’s time for Emeril’s Creole Thanksgiving! Alas, there is little to be thankful for in this crazed amalgam of failure. Josie’s triple spice turkey is pink on the inside, a big no-no in food circles. (My notes: “Emeril looks pisssssed.”) But Josie is “happy with the turkey.” John, the most hated chef in Dallas, serves Emeril’s mom’s cornbread stuffing with turkey and bacon. Kristen’s root vegetables are under-seasoned. Tyler made gumbo that’s too bitter. Kuniko’s potato pave is totally raw, rather like the turkey. (My notes: “Kuniko is hating life right about now.”) Sheldon makes greens with ham hocks. A rare bright spot: Brooke’s sweet potato biscuits are a hit. John’s pumpkin tort is too grainy for some of the judges, which means I’d probably find it too grainy as well.

Say, did you know there’s going to be a Top Chef cruise?! I want to go on this cruise. There’s going to be eating and drinking and cooking classes. Where do I sign up?

Red Team serves Tom’s Italian-American Thanksgiving. During the presentation CJ says Tom’s foie-gras-and-kale stuffing has been passed down from generation to generation. Thierry cries bullshit on that, and I have to agree: Kale didn’t even exist ten years ago. (I mean, it existed, but nobody thought about eating it. It was mostly used to patch up broken car windows.)

Red Team’s turkey is braised with a ton of butter under the skin and stuffed with vintage cheese balls (I wish!). Speaking of balls, Carla’s carrot soup with turkey meatballs is a five-alarm banger of success. Bart makes a fennel gorgonzola salad; Padma wanted more “refinement” from it. I thought fennel was like an automatic refinement-generator? Guess not. Josh’s ravioli with pecans doesn’t work. (I like it when people say a dish “doesn’t work,” because it makes food sound like a scientific theory that has outgrown its predictive utility: “We can no longer predict the movement of protons using your mom’s lasagna recipe.”) Micah’s Brussels sprouts aren’t seasoned well and are too greasy. (This was the moment I realized seasoning and greasiness were two separate things.) Lizzie’s potato puree, meanwhile, is spellbinding. Desserts are Stefan’s panna cotta, which has too much cardamom according to Padma, and Eliza’s chocolate thingie, which has too much chocolate. Tom admits the desserts are a letdown — “But then again,” he adds, “so was my childhood, so in a sick way this all makes sense. Let us give thanks for the death of innocence.” (JOKE.)

The judges are unanimous: Red Team did better than Grey Team. At the judge’s table, Carla, CJ, and Lizzie are congratulated for their amazing work. Carla and Lizzie were smart to choose simple dishes with tons of butter, rather than high-falutin’ fancy stuff. You can’t go wrong with tons of butter. And Carla wins the week! She squeals and goes misty.

Tyler, Kuniko, Sheldon, and Josie are now about to get hammered. Emeril looks bereft; these guys were terrible ambassadors for his Thanksgiving menu. Tom tells Josie the turkey was undercooked, which she can’t believe; I mean, look at how freaking burnt the skin is! Why was the outside so burnt? Her answer: “The ovens were hot.” Boom, not much you can say to that. It’s science. Emeril wants to know why his gumbo wasn’t perfect; Tyler should’ve added Tabasco. Kuniko says her potato dish was bad because she was crunched for time. (She had five hours.) Josie defends Kuniko, saying she was helping everybody in the kitchen — but all they can judge her on is her potatoes. Meanwhile, Sheldon didn’t realize southern-style greens should be mushy. His kale was undercooked. I have no problem with that. (At my restaurant, Kale City, the kale will be so undercooked it won’t have been planted yet.)

The judges make their decision, and it’s shocking: They send Kuniko home! That’s bullshit! She was my favorite chef. She murmurs some heartfelt things before packing up her knives. There’s a good debate back in the store room about Kuniko’s ejection. John, the most hated chef in Dallas, criticizes her for not being able to make potatoes in five hours. CJ tells John to shut up, and then John’s like “you shut up” and before you know it, everyone wants everyone to shut up. And then the episode ends.

I wish they had talked more about the nonprofit homeless cooking thing.

David Rees is an artisanal pencil sharpener.

Top Chef Seattle Recap: David Rees on Cheese Ball Sophistication and