Top Chef Seattle Recap: David Rees on Sourdough Starters and Tom’s Mean Girl Tendencies

Slightly less intense than <i>Deadliest Catch</i>.
Slightly less intense than Deadliest Catch. Photo: David Moir/Bravo

According to my calculations, there are only four chefs left: Josh, Sheldon, Brooke, and Lizzie. And they all miss Stephan. That means he’s captured the hearts of 100 percent of the chefs on the Alaskan cruise ship as it pushes deeper into American’s last frontier, and his smiling face will be the last image in their minds before being torn apart by wolves.

The final four disembark and meet Padma and Sean Brock, who’s a chef and one of Josh’s “culinary idols.” They’re holding court at Tracy’s King Crab Shack, which specializes in crab, which is a kind of fish with legs that can only walk sideways because it’s dumb. Our friends have 30 minutes to cook Alaskan crab with passion and creativity. Can they do it? My money says yes, even though just once I’d like to see a chef throw up his hands and scream, “It can’t be done!”

Lizzie makes a king crab frittata. If, like me, you stopped eating brunch when you turned 30, you should know a frittata is like an omelette leached of its charms. Basically if you were wearing snow boots and stepped in a moist omelette and then scraped it off your soles, that’d be a frittata.

Sheldon is smoking pine needles to flavor his asparagus. What kind of example is Sheldon setting? He’s essentially using a forest fire as an ingredient. This is the moment when Smokey the Bear throws a brick at his TV. Sheldon makes a miso out of the crab innards. Brooke goes crab-crazy, turning out crab butter with crab, and topping it off with crab salad and more crab. Josh decides to poach crab legs and make soucatosh(?), which pleases Sean Brock, a southern gentleman and suocautash(?) enthusiast who apparently hopped the wrong boxcar and wound up in Alaska.

The winner of the Quickfire Challenge is Sheldon! He takes home $5,000 courtesy of Healthy Choice, your source for low-fat food-related products in colorful boxes.

This week’s Elimination Challenge revolves around fish and bread, two staples of the Alaskan diet. Our chefs will have to serve salmon and sourdough bread to natives; they get to use a “decades old” sourdough starter, which is probably pretty stale by now, but what do I know? (In an effort to slim down, I’ve limited my bread intake to croutons, pizza crusts, French toast, bread pudding, and unsliced bread.)

Josh explains what a “starter” is: “It’s like a child,” but a child made out of yeast, water, and flour. So I guess it’s bread?

Brooke rolls her eyes at Sheldon’s decision to incorporate Asian ingredients into his bread. (This is the unappealing dark side to her Waspy charm.) Lizzie wants to stuff salmon inside her bread, which is how you smuggle fish into prison. After rolling out their dough, the chefs lounge in their tiny rental house and wait for their breads to rise. Sheldon plays a ukulele, which is like a “starter” for people who can’t get their act together and learn guitar.

Suddenly it’s the next day. Boom! We’re treated to a nice shot of Green Mountain Coffee Auto-Blaster Micro-Cups as they are injected into a futuristic machine. After drinking their coffee, the crew travels to the docks to unload a fishing boat. The boat is filled with ice-covered fish, fresh from the ocean or river or wherever Alaskans steal their fish from. The chefs start gutting the fish — turns out they’re filled with real blood! Lizzie reminisces about her late father, who came from a British fishing family and taught her how to gut a fish.

Josh is amazed with the freshness of the fish he’s working with — it’s his first encounter with fish that’s superly-duperly fresh. Tom walks into the kitchen and asks the chefs what they’re making. “Food, motherfucker,” replies Sheldon. (JOKE.) Tom asks Josh for an update on his (Josh’s) wife’s baby-delivery process. Apparently she’s dilated in her private parts, which means the baby is due any moment! Can Josh maintain his focus on the fish and the bread he’s making? Only God knows, and He in His benevolence isn’t telling, because that would ruin the fun.

Tom asks Brooke if she thought she’d make it this far, and then, pointedly: “What was the goal?” I assume Brooke’s goal was to win Top Chef? He gently undermines her decision to poach the salmon. The mean girl has been out-mean-girled! Tom is growing on me and I can’t wait to be done with these recaps so I can become friends with him without risking my objectivity. And I know he’s excited, too, because I talk to him in my dreams and we have a lot of fun.

The action moves to a picnic area that is being monitored by bears. (This is appropriate, as bears treat humans the way we treat salmon, which is to say: With no thought to their innate spiritual value.)

Here’s what everyone made before being mauled to death by bears:

Brooke: Saki(?) salmon and seafood broth with mustard seed caviar and grilled dill sourdough bread. Tom says the broth has a good amount of acid to it, and Sean thinks it’s “beautifully seasoned.” Emeril likes the bread. (Later, Emeril will tell a cool story about saving his restaurant’s starter from Hurricane Katrina.)

Sheldon: Green tea and chive sourdough with smoked salmon and pea soup. Padma loves green tea and chives, but she doesn’t like them commingling within Sheldon’s bread. Sean thinks Sheldon wasn’t respectful to the fish while tearing it apart. Sheldon further underscored his fish-ignorance by using “chum,” which is a kind of salmon that only dogs eat even though it sounds like the kind of salmon that could be your pal and go on wacky adventures with you.

Josh: Roasted garlic sourdough soup with socky salmon and black olive croutons. (Apparently Josh used littleneck clams in his ragu, because my host rages against the choice: “You’re in Alaska! Why use littleneck clams?” God bless people who know where clams come from, is what I say.) The garlic in the soup is so strong Tom can’t taste the salmon. Emeril, on the other hand, loves how crunchy the croutons are. Emeril is really focusing on the carbs in this challenge.

Lizzie: Citrus- and beet-glazed salmon slider with poppy seed butter and pickles. (Based on the photo, it’s hard to imagine biting into the slider roll without shooting salmon all over your dinner companion.) Gail likes the pickle — Lizzie makes pickles every week, right? — and Hugh thinks she’s the only chef to get a nice crust on the bread.

The judges ask locals who made the best bread. One guy, whose family’s bread recipe dates back to the 1800s, thinks Brooke’s bread was best. A fellow with a red beard swims upstream against the current of popular opinion and says he admired Sheldon’s use of the infamous chum-fish. Why not use it? It’s a fish, right?

At an appropriately rustic outdoor Judges’ Table, the chefs shiver in the mist as their superiors dispense feedback: Lizzie’s roll was amazing, but it obscured the salmon. Sean liked the simplicity of her slider, but adds: “Simple food is the most difficult to pull off,” which sounds like nonsense to me, since “simple” literally means “easy,” which is the opposite of “difficult.” Padma reveals that the locals thought Sheldon’s chum was delicious! (Total coup by Sheldon, I gotta say. Sometimes ignorance leads to innovation. Dogs of Alaska: You are about to lose your access to chum. The humans have developed a taste for it.) Sean says he didn’t want Brooke’s dish to end. Hugh calls Josh’s salmon “stunning,” but the flavor balance was wrong. Tom asks Josh if poached salmon is the best follow-up to overwhelming garlic, and the answer he’s looking for is no, which is the answer Josh sheepishly provides. (His soup was too garlicky, which means Emeril would probably be happy injecting it straight into his veins.)

Brooke wins the sourdough and salmon challenge; first prize is a trip to Costa Rica courtesy of Green Mountain coffee. (My prediction remains: Brooke vs. Kristen in the finale, with Kristen coming out on top.) Josh, Sheldon, or Lizzie is going home. Tom scolds the chefs for wasting ocean-fresh salmon and old-timey bread babies on “good” dishes instead of “truly great” dishes.

Padma asks Lizzie to pack her knives and go! I’m surprised. My hosts are, too; one grumbles, “Now I have to root for someone else — I’ve been rooting for her since day one.” God bless people who know who to root for since day one, is what I say.

Please remember, I will be in the Caribbean with no Top Chef access next Wednesday, so you’ll have a substitute recapper for the week. Please treat him or her with all the kindness and unconditional support I’ve come to expect from you maniacs.

Bon voyage (to me), and I’ll see you when I get back!

Top Chef Seattle Recap: David Rees on Sourdough Starters and Tom’s