Top Chef Seattle Recap: David Rees on Ships, Icebergs, and Scylla and Charybdis

Maritime law dictates that plates on ships must be very intricate and complicated.
Maritime law dictates that plates on ships must be very intricate and complicated. Photo: David Moir/Bravo

The gang is overjoyed at Josie’s elimination. Five chefs remain — enough to field a team in this Sunday’s Super Bowl. (I think this is true, but I can’t check because I don’t want my Internet browser history to have a record of me searching for sports.)

Padma and Tom interrupt the survivors’ reverie with more good news: They’re all going on a cruise to Alaska! Before you say, “Who’d want to go on a cruise to Alaska, it’s nothing but piles of garbage and oil derricks?” remember that even though Alaska is a latecomer to these United States, we must endeavor to love it like any other state, which means: NO INSULTS.

Speaking of cruises, I might as well tell you that I won’t be able to recap the February 13 episode of Top Chef because I myself will be on a cruise in the Caribbean with a bunch of weirdos, including that guy who got ripped off by Glee. Rest assured Grub Street will find a suitable replacement for me, and some of you will miss me more than you realize.

In a cutaway, we learn that Stefan is excited to get on the Alaska-bound boat because he used to be in the army of whatever country he’s from. Brooke, meanwhile, is anxious about shipping out because of something her kid said once(?) before getting on a boat(?). I didn’t follow this particular psychodrama owing to its seeming somewhat manufactured and gratuitous. Who doesn’t like getting on a boat, after all? “Water provides the ultimate ride,” is what I say. I love water so much, I wish I had a waterbed. Do waterbeds use real water? There’s something to chew on.

So. Our gang boards the boat. The deck looks freshly swabbed; the mainsail has plenty of hoist; the crow’s nest is filled with guano, per Blackbeard’s curse. The vessel is stuffed like a jalapeño with senior citizens and jet-setters. (Can a jet-setter ride on a boat? That’s yet another question I’d like to know the answer to.)

Okay, anyway, they walk into the ship’s kitchen (called “the galley”) where they see … CURTIS STONE! Curtis Stone is one of my favorite people to look at and think about in the context of cooking shows. Needless to say, he looks like an Adonis, although I’m not crazy about his new short haircut — I miss the wind-swept chaos that used to define his personal grooming. Maybe the producers asked him to cut it because of its resemblance to deadly crashing waves? (Lizzie has no complaints and gushes over Curtis’s appearance.)

Padma and Curtis drop a tough Quickfire on our crew: They must cook for the ship’s 200 passengers … and they must use iceberg lettuce, which is a sick joke if you ask me, because icebergs are the No. 1 murderer of ships, as Curtis later acknowledges. The gang is dismayed because iceberg lettuce is boring … or is it? What if its subtle flavors, properly highlighted, literally cause an explosion and sink the ship? That would probably be one of history’s most ironic lettuce-related maritime disasters.

Lizzie is having trouble dealing with all the weird locks and bolts on the ship’s refrigerators and cabinets. (They prevent foodstuffs from sloshing around when the ship is flipped over by a typhoon.) Stefan, on the other hand, is in hog heaven: This guy loves iceberg lettuce! Maybe he can cuddle with a clammy head of lettuce now that Kristen is gone. I happen to know that a fresh head of lettuce offers pleasure not dissimilar to those of a lovely maiden.

Up on deck, Padma and Curtis talk about lettuce’s charms while exotic music plays in the background. It’s a genuinely weird, funny moment, and the producers know it. I wish Bravo would stop airing garbage like Wives of New Jersey and Arabs Can Be Trashy, Too — or whatever those shows are that clog the commercials during Top Chef — and replace them with Curtis and Padma Get High and Talk About Lettuce, because that show would be a hit, and it would CELEBRATE LETTUCE rather than DEMEAN HUMANITY.

Speaking of lettuce, Josh professes his hatred for iceberg lettuce, which is funny, because we all know in a couple of years iceberg lettuce will be the “must-eat” cool-person food, like bacon is these days, and Josh will be the first one wearing a shirt that says, “Things go better with iceberg lettuce,” or whatever, and Urban Outfitters will make a fortune.

Speaking of bacon, Lizzie is adding bacon to her iceberg lettuce. She’s also adding anchovies, which are a type of sea creature. According to my calculations, this means her dish will be salty.

Padma and Curtis stand at a table on deck, just the two of them, gorgeous and isolated and ready to crush — like Scylla and Charybdis — as the chefs bring up their lettuce dishes from the ship’s bowels. Sheldon is talking about his lettuce dish, but I’m trying to analyze Curtis Stone’s sweater. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like it. It looks Amish. Does anyone in the fashion industry care to indulge my curiosity and tell me if such a sweater can be bought for less than twenty dollars? As Josh waddles away, Curtis notes, “He walks like a chef,” and Padma agrees with a certain erotic familiarity. Has she let Josh walk all over her? Please, please tell me Padma doesn’t have a crush on Josh. That would be a little too much for my fragile heart to bear.

Our power couple then goes on to praise each dish; perhaps the salt of the sea has eroded their wicked tongues? Or is Curtis Stone just less critical than Padma? Of course there can only be one winner. “Incredible flavor,” “brilliant use of ingredients” — these are the phrases applied to Sheldon’s winning Vietnamese-style iceberg-lettuce wrap! I love Sheldon. I love him even more when he decides to get a manicure after his victory, saying “chefs have to take care of their hands.”

Stefan, Brooke, and Josh decide to forgo the manicure — they drink and reminisce about Stefan’s “first time getting laid,” which was on a ship. (This conversation is mercifully brief, as was the encounter, one imagines.) Josh reveals that it’s the due date for his baby, and he hasn’t been able to talk to his wife. I suffer a flash of sympathy for him, until he says, vis à vis Sheldon, “Where I come from, men don’t get manicures,” and then winks at the camera while wearing one of his dumb bacon shirts, which prompts me to groan like one of H.P. Lovecraft’s creatures on the commode.

Night falls at sea like it does on land — such are the wonders of God’s creation — and our finalists sup together in the ship’s restaurant, which is uniquely preposterous, even for a fancy restaurant on a boat. Basically, this restaurant spells its name in the most counterintuitive manner possible (I can’t even bring myself to say the name, let alone type it) — and, get this, the menus are touchscreen iPads, or DroidTablets, or Nooks, or whatever goddamn computer-gizmo everyone is constantly jamming into my back when I’m trying to read my triple-folded newspaper on the subway. America, when did we lose our way? I swear to God if a restaurant ever deigns to hand me an interactive menu, I will very loudly ask: “Can I use this thing to look at artificial lesbians having a pillow fight?” and if the answer is no, I will ask for “a proper paper menu, as befits a man of my stature — or didn’t you know I used to recap Top Chef?!” (Speaking of menus, someone on Twitter alerted me to these hand-penciled menus for a restaurant in D.C. Now, this is a menu I can get behind! Did you know the hexagonal shaft of a No. 2 pencil is mirrored on an atomic level by the hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms within its graphite core? They should make a restaurant about that.)

Brooke and Josh are sort of flirting through the drinks portion of the meal, but in that way where they’re really cruel to each other. (The fact that we’re privy to so much small talk means they’re all going to drown, right?) Sheldon calls the plating at the onboard restaurant “quirky and fun,” but to my eyes it all looks like dollhouse furniture made out of food. One of the bowls of shrimp is literally flashing like a distress signal. (Maybe that’s a good thing?) The chefs have barely wrapped their heads around all the whimsy and engineering and infrastructure surrounding their meal when Padma and Curtis crash the dinner party. Sure enough, they’ll have to run dinner service at this crazy restaurant. They must take a classic dish — surf and turf — and “turn it on its head,” so that it “works as one single dish.” Curtis tells them to “think outside the box,” which is a cool phrase.

Sheldon gets to pick his proteins first, and the others must make the most of the leftovers. He chooses lobster tail and beef tenderloin. Stefan picks a — Jesus! There’s a shot of a whole entire dead pig in a bag! Why did they show that? Nobody would eat a suffocated pig, would they? What kind of horror-boat is this? Lizzie starts tearing into the dead pig and carving chunks out of it. (I think she’s a sadist.) Meanwhile, Josh throws scallops and gelatin in a blender to turn it into pasta. My host is visibly disturbed by this image — and she didn’t even flinch during the pig stuff, so I know it’s bad.

Stefan is braysting(?) a pork belly in beer, which sounds good! I like it when people use beer instead of olive oil. Brooke asks Sheldon how he’s going to play with his dish, and he murmurs, “I’m not.” He realizes he’s not thinking far enough outside the box with his fried lobster, Asian style. (It’s called “tempura,” for those of you who don’t know anything about food.)

All these shots of meat and lobsters and pig’s tummies and scallop-sludge in the ship’s galley are making me very hungry for my upcoming cruise — did you know that on a cruise, they have free salad bars every day at lunch? Believe me, cruise ships lose money on salad bars when I’m onboard. The only thing that bothers me about eating salad bars on cruise ships is that I worry the spinach is covered in sea-gonorrhea, but usually I just take a deep breath and go back for thirds.

Back to our sea-faring chefs: Josh’s egg whites and scallops didn’t magically turn into edible pasta, so he scrambles them like eggs, which sounds only slightly less like the epitome of “five-alarm mouth disaster.”

Curtis and Padma sit down to eat, and are magically joined by Tom and Hugh Acheson (who I guess were helicoptered in?) and some folks from Celebrity Cruises, which I bet is the cruise line they’re on, because it just makes sense. (Can I say something a bit gauche? When I saw the cut of Padma’s dress, I almost yelled, “Men overboard!” because of the suicidal enthusiasm with which her breasts were leaping out of their vessel.)

Sorry. Here’s what everyone cooked:

Brooke: Mussels and frog legs with celery root and fennel puree, papadums and shallot chutney. (Brooke has raised an interesting question with her dish: Do frogs, as amphibians, qualify as “turf?”) Curtis Stone loves the inventiveness — he’s much nicer to the chefs than the regular judges.

Stefan: Braysted pork belly with beer sauce, parsnip, and eel ravioli. Tom: “That is the greasiest looking sauce I’ve ever seen.” There follows a shot of Tom and Hugh breaking their teeth on the pork, while Curtis — God bless him — reminisces about Australian crunchy pork in Stefan’s defense. Curtis seems determined to provide a sunny counterargument to Hugh’s pinched snarkiticisms.

Tom asks the head chef of Celebrity Cruises about the difference between cooking on land and cooking at sea, and the poor guy says something so daft my host tells me “don’t make fun of that guy — he’s not a PR person, and Tom’s question was dumb anyway,” which I agree with, so I let it pass without comment, which I’m sure is a great comfort to the head chef, because I have ended more than twenty chefs’ careers just via my biting wit on these recaps, according to my spreadsheet. Actually, he does say something interesting: If you’re on a big cruise ship that goes around the world to all different countries, you can steal chefs from each country to make ethnic cuisine on the boat. He makes it sound like freewheelin’ festival of spontaneity spanning continents — “Hey, man, wanna jump onboard and cook for a few days? We’ll drop you off in Morocco!” — but is it really like that? I’m not sure.

Josh: Scrambled scallops with bruised pork belly and bacon. (I should note that this dish is served in a metallic tree.) The scrambled scallops aren’t the disaster I anticipated, and the judges are impressed that conservative Josh is, indeed, thinking outside the box. I’m worried that he will win the challenge.

Sheldon: Korean barbecue filet mignon, temporary lobster, sesame cabbage, kimchee, and teriyaki sauce. He fears this is too safe. He promised “dynamite sauce,” but his sauce isn’t dynamite. They also think the lobster is cold, and not crispy. I’m nervous for Sheldon!

Lizzie: Cabbage stuffed with suckling pig and scallops with mustard sour cream. The cabbage is undercooked because her steamer wasn’t on, so it collapses upon impact with the judges’ forks. But Tom enjoys the dish overall. The scallops end up saving the lettuce; it’s like an Aesop’s Fable!

The judges proceed to analyze the heck out of everyone’s meals, but in that reality-show way that’s designed to obscure their actual opinions about who’s going to win and who’s going to lose. (But I know enough about food to know Sheldon’s going to lose, I just know it.)

Curtis and Padma praise Brooke for “pushing the boundaries of surf and turf”; sure enough, Curtis said she “thought outside the box.” When Sheldon admits the ingredients weren’t inspiring to him, Tom reminds him that he picked the ingredients — and he had first choice! Curtis piles on vis à vis Sheldon’s temporary lobster, which wasn’t crispy or hot. Hugh thinks Josh’s scallop scramble was “a little strange,” but the pork was “spot-on.” Curtis asks Stefan if he tasted his parsnip with eel? Because he couldn’t taste the eel. And Tom comes down hard on the greasy sauce and the tombstone-dense pork. (Even Curtis joins in! I thought he was on Stefan’s side?) Lizzie is also given feedback, but everyone’s talking so quickly I can’t keep up. Let’s assume her dish was fine.

Brooke wins the challenge thanks to her frogs legs and mussels — which, the more I think about it, shouldn’t qualify as surf and turf. Because isn’t surf and turf usually a steak and a lobster? I don’t mind people thinking outside the box, but who would want to eat one puny frog’s leg and a tiny mussel when they could be eating a juicy steak and a big ol’ lobster? Financially this makes no sense. But Brooke can’t hear me, and she’s awarded a seven-night Caribbean vacation from Celebrity Cruises, even though she hates boats! Or does she? Because she’s certainly having fun on this particular boat! Josh and Lizzie are safe, too.

That leaves Sheldon and Stefan. (Now is when I mention that Sheldon has been dressed like the Life Aquatic man for the entire season, as if waiting for a dramatic, heartbreaking end on a deep-sea mission. He’s smart.)

But guess what? Sheldon dodges a bullet — or should I say TORPEDO — as Stefan is sent home! It was the pork what done it. Tom and Hugh simply could not wrap their teeth around it. So we’re down to four chefs, but Stefan is going to Last Chance Kitchen to face off against Kristen, and meanwhile we’re invited to vote on another chef to bring back, so basically we still have 3,000 episodes to go.

Top Chef Seattle Recap: David Rees on Ships, Icebergs, and Scylla and