Top Chef Seattle Recap: David Rees on Vegan Sushi and Artisanally Candied Salmon

Don't get any ideas, Photoshoppers of the world.
Don’t get any ideas, Photoshoppers of the world. Photo: Bravo

According to Padma, there are fourteen “cheftestants” remaining. (My count was closer to 15,619, but what do I know?) Josh broods over his inconsistent performance thus far — is his cartoon-undertaker’s mustache sapping his power? Meanwhile, Tyler, ever doleful, steels himself for future disappointment. He vows to “continue to do the best I can.” I’ve seen a fair amount of reality TV and am pretty familiar with the standard “types” of characters — Tyler’s self-hating, hangdog persona feels unusually sincere and fragile. He’s my favorite cheftestant.

The gang arrives at a true Seattle foodie landmark: the world-famous Pike Square Grocery Exchange, where you can buy just about any kind of food. They’re introduced to Daisley Gordon (a chef, not a type of LSD), who announces the Quickfire Challenge: The chefs will pair up to cook “breakfast-to-go on a stick” for the market’s vendors. “A sausage on a stick is not gonna cut it,” says Daisley Gordon. That may be true for this challenge, but there are other times when a sausage on a stick is just what the doctor ordered. Why deny this fundamental truth about sausages and sticks? What dark conspiracy have we stumbled into?

The chefs will shop for equipment at Surly Todd (?), a famous kitchen-equipment store. (It’s kinda like Home Depot, but for chefs.) Everything goes pretty much as you’d expect: People scramble for ingredients and equipment. Panini presses are grabbed off the shelves like it’s Black Friday in Crummy Sandwich Town.

And then, out of the blue, Eliza says something amazing: “One summer I got into a van and followed Widespread Panic around the United States and made vegan sushi and sold it out of the back of a van.” (For those who don’t know, Widespread Panic was a famous jam band. I don’t know what vegan sushi is.) This sounds like my dream life: traveling the country, living in a van, making food, and rocking out every night to the hottest jams. I wonder if Eliza has ever smoked marijuana? I bet she has.

The chefs cut all their ingredients with knives and cook their food and then put them on sticks. I’m agog — I can’t believe what these people are putting on sticks! They’re putting pancakes on sticks! Salad on sticks! Eggs on sticks! Fruit on sticks! It turns out that putting food on a stick improves its portability, which is good news for the market employees, as they don’t have time to sit down for a traditional twelve-course breakfast like the rest of us.

The market workers start eating the food on sticks. Josh and John, the most hated chef in Dallas, serve soft-shell-tacos-with-simmering-interpersonal-tension on a stick. Have these two enemies actually succeeded in working together?

Truth be told, I can’t keep track of everyone’s sticks, and you shouldn’t care, because they all look horrible, and adults shouldn’t eat food on sticks unless they are drunk and at a state fair.

Daisley announces the winning team: Sheldon and Bart, for their green forest sandwich on a stick.

Lizzie sighs when Padma announces the teams will stay together for the Elimination Challenge — she feels like Danyele, with whom she made fruit on a stick, is a mystery. In fact, a number of teams are having interpersonal issues: Eliza and Josie are pretty open about their disdain for each other, a disdain whose roots are unknown to me. Maybe Josie is jealous of Eliza’s Widespread Panic dream quest?

This week’s Elimination Challenge is shark-jumpingly awesome: The chefs proceed to draw knives with the craziest ingredients I’ve ever heard of: Truffle popcorn. Rose-petal jam. Fancy pickles. These ingredients, you see, are “artisanal,” per Padma. And the artisans responsible for these monstrosities of taste and common sense will join the chefs for lunch and taste their creations! It’s about to get artisanal up in here.

After picking up their ingredients, the chefs only have one hour to cook. If I was told I had to make a meal featuring “rose-petal jelly,” it would take me more than an hour just to stop crying. I have respect for these chefs.

The judges and artisans arrive for dinner, and Padma greets them with a toast: “Long live the artisan!” I get a little thrill up and down my leg — it’s about time Padma started sending me secret love-messages via the TV. (In case you didn’t know, I’m an artisan; in fact, earlier this week, I literally made $1,000 sharpening pencils in a single day.)

Josh and John are making grits with truffle popcorn. They separately admit that they’re not going to second-guess each other’s dumb decisions, lest they explode. This is a winning communication strategy! It’s probably how Padma and I will deal with each other once we’re married.

Padma introduces us to some of the Seattle artisans: Dale Nelson makes spicy pickles and the rose petal jelly. He looks a little old and square to be an artisan — I can’t imagine him hanging out in Capitol Hill, a hip Seattle neighborhood I just learned the name of by Googling “hip Seattle neighborhood.” Likewise, Kurt Beecher Dammeier, who made the cheese curds, looks like a high-school gym teacher. I thought Seattle artisans would be young and skinny-jeaned. Am I guilty of artisan-profiling?

Unfortunately, Hugh Acheson, the horrible whiny man from last week, is back and continuing to dole out his famous small-batch, hand-crafted annoyingness.

Here’s what everyone made with their artisan ingredients:

John and Josh: pan-seared pork tenderloin with truffle-popcorn grits. (Personal note: My hosts for the evening, who literally own a store called Artisan Wine Shop, recently borrowed my Orville Redenbacher popcorn maker — i.e. the most important item in my kitchen — to make popcorn with truffle oil! My life is colliding into a truffle-artisan-singularity.) Cara Davis-Jensen, the artisan responsible for truffle popcorn, doesn’t like the dish. And Hugh Acheson says the grits “suck.” Josh and John are in trouble.

Micah and Kristen: cheese curds three ways — béchamel, raw, and fried. It looks good, if a little fattening.

Stefan and Brooke: rose-petal glazed mucovy duck with braised cabbage. It looks like somebody dropped a fruit salad on a steak.

Sheldon and Bart: Candied salmon with sweet-and-sour salad. This gets my vote for “least appealing description of something you’d put in your mouth.” The creator of the candied salmon, Anders Miller, likes the dish. (When I ask my hosts what in the hell candied salmon is, they explain it’s like beef jerky, but sweet and with no beef, which reinforces my pledge to never come within 100 feet of it.) Other judges wonder why there wasn’t more candied salmon in the dish — why Sheldon and Bart didn’t “honor the ingredient.” May I suggest it’s because Sheldon and Bart are not sadists?

Josie and Eliza: curry cardamom broth with manila clams and seared white king salmon. Miles Thomas, who made the cardamom bitters and looks exactly like you think he does, is disappointed that the fishy, salty broth overpowers his bitters. You could even say he’s bitter about it. (JOKE OF THE CENTURY.)

Lizzie and Danyele: coconut curry chocolate mousse tart. Of all the dishes, this looks the least artisanal, which is to say: normal. (You could almost imagine it being served at last week’s fifties restaurant reincarnation challenge.) Debra Music, the coconut-curry chocolate lady, takes offense that other chocolate was incorporated into the dish. Was her chocolate not amazing enough to carry the dish on its own?

CJ and Tyler: pork crumpet burger with spicy dill pickles. This was a risky move, just plopping pickles on a burger. But I can sympathize — at some point, ingredients become so weird and specific, there’s probably only one application for them. The burger, sure enough, is met with contempt. Tom rages against the small-mindedness of pairing pickles with a burger.

After dinner, the judges agree: These dishes sucked major donkey butt-knuckles. The artisans are disappointed that their amazing products didn’t get a better showcase. But come on, guys: What are you supposed to make with artichoke-pesto-ice-shaving-soy-bitters? Especially in one hour? I feel like the chefs are getting blamed for the strangeness of what they had to work with.

(My notes: “Here’s what you do with rose-petal jelly and all these other weird things: You put a little on a Saltine in order to taste it and then throw the rest away. Some stuff shouldn’t be ingredients.”)

Tom bursts into the chefs’ holding cell and announces in disgust that all the chefs screwed up and there will be no $10,000 winner this week! Furthermore, an entire team will be sent home. This is bad. The chefs are sad. Bart says he feels “bombarded.” Some serious moping commences as the sun flies over the space needle.

Three teams are called in to see the judges: John and Josh, Stefan and Brooke, and CJ and Tyler. They fared the worst at the artisan esoterica challenge. All the chefs are basically like, “What the hell was I supposed to make with this weird ingredient?” But Gail says it’s worse than that: They needed to cook something that actually tasted good. For instance, CJ and Tyler’s burger failed on its own terms. Forget about the pickle: The bun was soggy, and the meat fell apart. CJ defends his choice: He thought Tom would want something simple like a burger so the pickle could “shine.” And then, on his way out, CJ turns to ask why the chocolate dessert wasn’t in the bottom. He calls it an abomination, an abhorrence, and some other words I didn’t catch. The judges laugh at his impropriety — and perhaps his desperation.

Tom criticizes the chefs for “issues with execution, with concept, with seasoning. These are just basic cooking skills and they all failed miserably.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Gail says Josh and John compromised on their pork dish in order to tolerate each other. Boom, that’s a heavy analysis! Gail is smart.

In the end, CJ and Tyler are sent home for their pickle-spangled burger. I’m really bummed because Tyler seemed like a good guy in a hard place. CJ, on the other hand, I don’t really care about — he says he “wasn’t judged fairly” and will be “pretty pissed off” about it for a while. Whatever, dude. In any event, the other chefs are convinced he’ll be back; perhaps through the grace of “Top Chef Last Chance Kitchen,” whatever the hell that is.

Tyler ends the show with some real talk: He says his main goals on the show were to be himself and remain sober. He did both those things, so as far as I’m concerned, he kicked ass.

David Rees is an artisanal pencil sharpener.

Top Chef Seattle Recap: David Rees on Vegan Sushi and Artisanally Candied