Top Chef Seattle Recap: David Rees on Beautiful Berries and Shredded Jeans

Padma doesn't do pink.
Padma doesn’t do pink. Photo: Bravo

On the last Top Chef before the Feast of St. Christmas, we find Josh moaning about his shattered reputation as a pork expert. He vows to never cook pork again. Pigs across the country breathe an oink of relief, then go back to rolling around in their own fecal matter.

Padma welcomes Stephanie Izard, a former Top Chef champion and the only female winner in the show’s ten-year history. I’m surprised — aren’t women better cooks than men since they do it more often? I’m still pondering this when Padma announces the week’s Quickfire Challenge: The chefs can cook anything they want, but every ingredient is covered in Ronald’s Wrap, a leading brand of aluminum foil. They won’t know what they’re cooking until they unwrap it, like presents on Christmas morning! (This is my analogy, not the show’s — Top Chef seems determined to avoid any reference to Christmas, not to mention Jesus Christ.) Padma takes a moment to “wrap” with us about aluminum foil: “Professional chefs and home cooks use Ronald’s Wrap to help prepare meals every day!”

(I don’t use aluminum foil because I once read it causes astigmatism if you rub it on your eyes.)

Kristen whisks an egg in a bowl made out of aluminum foil. Did I mention that the only cookware the chefs are allowed to use is … aluminum foil? It’s good training for the apocalypse — which is due tomorrow, according to Maya Angelou.

Micah makes undercooked lamb with fennel. Stefan adds a glass of Champagne to his meal. John, the most hated chef in Dallas, makes egg drop soup with beef and pineapple. (Remember, the chefs must incorporate EVERY ingredient they unwrap, even if it’s one they don’t want.) Kristen makes a sponge cake, which blows everyone’s mind. Stephanie announces that Kristen has won the Quickfire Challenge! Kristen says, “Try my Ronald’s Wrap chewing tobacco,” then wads up a ball of aluminum foil and puts it in her mouth. (JOKE.)

Our pre–Christ Mass Elimination Challenge is intense: The chefs have to visit a berry festival and cook with berries. This sounds like an absolute nightmare; I’d rather visit a slaughterhouse and lick the floors clean. (Full disclosure: I don’t like berry festivals.) My town has a Strawberry Festival every summer(?) or fall(?) or whenever the strawberry trees are ready, and basically it’s a bunch of feral kids running around with strawberry shortcake smeared on their faces while Pete Seeger sings songs about how great factory farming is. Basically, this week’s episode is gonna be tough for me to watch.

The contest is a head-to-head battle royale: The top Quickfire chefs pick the person they want to cook against. Brooke, last weeks’ champion, is the last person picked, which she takes as a good sign because it means no one wants to battle her.

Most of the berries involved are famous, like strawberries and raspberries, but some of them sound fake: Have you ever heard of a “tayberry?” I haven’t. I notice that the producers don’t really show the tayberry — probably because they’re using old raisins or cicada shells and telling people they’re berries.

In a moment of inspiration that will live in infamy, Stefan decides to use frozen tuna for his dish. His opponent John is convinced he’ll win, because who uses frozen fish in Top Chef? Back at the hotel, John and Stefan try to out-douche each other and gain psychological advantage thereby. Stefan wears shredded jeans and keeps his head in Kristen’s lap. I can’t tell what Kristen thinks of the guy. Am I blinded by my love and devotion to her? No matter; I’ll cut up all my jeans just to be safe.

The chefs drive to an old property called Remlinger Farms. It looks poverty-stricken and dilapidated, like a meth lab with cows. Why would the show choose such a depressing location? And just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, a farmer drives up in a tractor with a bunch of fresh berries. The chefs pick their poisons. In the midst of the cooking, Danyele calls Josh a dickhead — and it’s not bleeped! I make another chit in my “America’s Downfall” checklist.

Tom visits the chefs and their berries. Everyone talks smack about his or her opponent. John rats on Stefan for using frozen tuna. John, reeking of disingenuous, insists he wasn’t throwing Stefan under the bus; he was making an important political statement because frozen tuna isn’t sustainable. News flash for John: Eating any animal — even a goat’s toenail — isn’t sustainable. If the world ends tomorrow, it’ll be due in part to all the cheeseburgers I ate this year.

It’s a bright, sunny afternoon. A roots music band starts playing on an outdoor stage. The judges are excited for the berry festival. Tom is looking forward to the “beautiful, beautiful berries.” Something about this phrase makes me shudder. Padma, meanwhile, sounds like she’s been enjoying some herbs along with her berries, if you know what I’m getting at. (What I’m getting at is she sounds high as hell on marijuana.)

Let the berry fights begin! Here’s what everyone made:
1. Danyele versus Josh in a BLUDGEONING BLUEBERRY BATTLE!

Danyele: Chicken pine-nut terrine with blueberry mostarda. (My hosts tell me that a “terrine” is a “ground-up meat thing that’s baked,” which sounds a bit like Padma right about now, if you know what I mean.) The verdict: too crunchy, too rubbery.

Josh: Savory goat-cheese mousse with blueberry compote. It comes across as a fancy dessert in a chic restaurant. It’s balanced and delicate. The good news is there’s no pork involved.

Here I paused the DVR to argue with my hosts about whether it’s possible to enjoy a show about food you can’t taste. One of my hosts insists she likes Top Chef because she likes to see what people come up with: “In my everyday life, I’m not going to restaurants where I’m seeing (savory goat-cheese mousse); I just find the combinations and techniques interesting.” Then she drops the hammer: She actually knows enough about food to imagine what all this made-up garbage space-food would actually taste like, whereas I have no idea — my head spins just trying to take in all of the pretty colors.

2. Josie versus Lizzie in a RAMPAGING RASPBERRY RUMBLE!

Josie: “Rock N’Raspberry Roll”: sockeye salmon, Dungeness crab, and raspberry aioli.
Josie, scrambling to finish her rolls, starts yelling about how much fun everyone’s having at the berry festival. When Josie announces that she’ll be putting on an “after-show,” Gail asks Tom: “Is she high?” Meanwhile, Padma licks berry juice off her index finger in a beguiling, 4/20-fueled manner. Gail wished the roll had more of that classic “bright raspberry flavor.” Tom’s disgusted that Josie is more interested in “putting on a show” than making good food. And why would she put mayonnaise in a spring roll? God only knows.

Lizzie: Raspberry steamed cabbage roll with heritage pork and bacon stuffing. It looks like a busboy scraped four different plates into a bowl. (I should know: I used to be a busboy.) But Padma loves it. Big surprise — in her state, she’d probably eat a Cheeto-stuffed aquarium.

3. Sheldon versus Micah in a SAVAGE STRAWBERRY SLAUGHTER-THON!

Sheldon: ahi summer roll with ahi poke, strawberries, and sweet chili sauce. (Poke is uncooked fish; it’s like a tartare if you’ve ever had that. (Tartare is like if you forgot to cook beef before putting it in your mouth.)) Sheldon did a “great job highlighting strawberry,” per Gail.

Micah: strawberry fried chicken with a strawberry-and-bacon biscuit. The biscuit is dense, but the fried chicken is good.

The festival guests continue to vote for their favorite dish, casting ballots at the chefs’ tables. This seems deliberately humiliating for those whose dishes weren’t up to par. John berates everyone who votes for Stefan’s frozen tuna, which seems a little unsportsmanlike. Meanwhile, Stefan says he “wouldn’t flush my poop” with John’s gazpacho, which also flirts with the inappropriate.

4. John versus Stefan in a GORY GOOSEBRRY GRAPPLE!
John: white gazpacho with gooseberries, sweet grapes, and chorizo. As we all know, the pork industry is a model of sustainability, so it makes perfect sense that John called out Stefan for his “unsustainable” frozen tuna. Padma’s verdict: It’s “two dishes in one cup.” (Some jokes are better left unsaid.)

Stefan: Cali crudo with radishes, gooseberries, and spiced vinaigrette. (Crudo is raw fish; remember how I described tartare? It’s probably the same thing.) Stefan’s dish is accomplished, but there’s not enough gooseberry, according to the judges. Where I come from, “not enough gooseberry” is a good thing.

5. Brooke versus Bart in a BELLIGERENT BLACKBERRY BRAWL!
Brooke: spicy, smoked chocolate pudding with blackberry tapioca. Finally! A proper dessert using berries. She even made marshmallows with Earl Grey tea! It’s a hit.

Bart: Blackberry soup with salmon and rhubarb yogurt. (Finally, my host allows herself a “Gross!”)

6. Kristen versus herself in a TAP-OUT TAYBERRY TUSSLE!
Kristen: matcha goat-milk custard with macerated tayberries in olive oil. The judges love it. Can Kristen do no wrong?

Back in the locker room, Stefan and John continue their mutual harassment. Stefan, defending his choice of frozen fish, asks everyone, “Have you ever used sack-of-blood tuna?” (I’m not sure what this is, but it sounds bad.) Everyone says yes, whereupon Stefan tells John to “Blow me, bitch” and “Suck it hard.” Wasn’t Top Chef supposed to be a classy show?

At the judges’ table, Danyele, Micah, John, Josie, and Bart are revealed to be the losers of the head-to-head berry battle. Micah is stunned — how did he lose to Sheldon? The answer lies in his dense, understrawberried biscuit. Josie’s strategy of chatting up everyone like a carnival barker was a failure, and it didn’t mask her lack of preparation. Bart’s blackberry soup was “perfect,” but the salmon “fought” with it. (I could’ve saved everyone a lot of trouble by reminding them that salmon is always a disappointment.) Tom rips Danyele: “You’re getting halfway there with your concept and then stopping!” John, defensive, says, “I thought I represented gooseberry very well.” But his chopped-up chorizo made everything grainy.

The winners make their way to Judges’ Table. (I’m annoyed that Josh is among the winners. I think he has the worst attitude, and his “THINGS GO BETTER WITH BACON” shirt is getting on my nerves. He’s the walking embodiment of Urban Outfitters.) Stephanie announces the winner, whose dish was “very unique,” “highlighted the berries,” and had “no flaw.” It’s Kristen! Like Brooke last week, she wins both of the episode’s contests. Who can stop this steamrolling supermodel? Then Stefan leans in and kisses her on the cheek, and later calls her “wifey,” so really though, she loses.

Danyele is sent home for her rubbery chicken and her crunchy crostada. In the end, her insecurity was her downfall. She never cooked with confidence, which meant her dishes couldn’t escape the gravitational field of her hesitancy and soar.

Back in the locker room, Stefan and Josie start arguing about who’s being ruder. Josie’s happy-auctioneer act is done — she’s getting angry. The bleeps come fast and furious. Finally, all the chefs stagger out of the room and prepare for a long winter’s nap.

Merry Christmas, to those who celebrate it! And to those who don’t, please let Christ into your life.

Top Chef Seattle Recap: David Rees on Beautiful Berries and Shredded