Top Chef Seattle Recap: David Rees on Unclean Sweetbreads and Kristen’s Baroque Euro-Esoterica

You know it's the finale because the lighting is dramatic.
You know it’s the finale because the lighting is dramatic. Photo: Bravo

I’m back from my cruise. No, not that cruise; this cruise. I know you guys are interested in food, so I tried to eat lots of it at every meal. After a few nights of heavy American meats and sauces, somebody told me the ship’s cooks were Indian and the smart thing to do was order Indian food off-menu. Friends, let me say: It was some of the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten! The curries were spicy, but the spices were deep down in the dish, not floating on top, if that makes sense. It was amazing. I also ate bananas for breakfast and salad bars for lunch.

So what did I miss? I didn’t watch last week’s episode, of course, as I was preparing for my Caribbean D.J. battle. It seems there are two chefs left: Brooke and Sheldon. Where’s the guy with the funny mustache? I think his name was Josh. He was waiting to hear about a baby; did his wife have her baby? I hope so.

Brooke and Sheldon are giddy, goofing off in their big empty house together in Alaska. Wait — now Sheldon is working in a restaurant in Hawaii. Did he get kicked off last week? I’m confused. Sheldon is cooking for friends and family on the beach. I guess he lost. But the poor guy is still talking about how he hopes he’ll win. He’s in denial.

Over in Los Angeles, Brooke brushes her son’s teeth, then enjoys a candlelit dinner with her husband. Did she lose, too?! Is Top Chef steaming ahead with no contestants, like a ghost ship? (Brooke is making a “pig ear” salad in her restaurant, so she’s obviously lost her mind, like Sheldon.)

In summary: Sheldon is out. Brooke is out. That means Josh won! Congratulations to Mr. Bacon Moustache.

Thanks for reading these recaps! See you around.

Okay, sorry, now I get it: Sheldon and Brooke are still contestants; it’s just that the show took a hiatus for a few months. Everyone returned to their normal lives, except for those competing on “Last Chance Kitchen,” who have been locked in a perpetual death struggle like on that one episode of Star Trek.

Sheldon and Brooke reunite and are driven to craft (no capital letters), which looks like a restaurant. Tom Colicchio announces that it’s his restaurant! I guess Top Chef has treated him well. He brings in the winner of “Last Chance Kitchen”: It’s Kristen. The camera lingers on what seems to be a new tattoo on her forearm. I can’t make it out, but I assume it lists the names of all the chefs she vanquished in the last few months.

Our finalists must do all the cooking for the evening’s dinner service. They only have three hours to get everything done. Fortunately Emeril and Hugh are on hand to pester and annoy the chefs while they cook.

Brooke, Sheldon, and Kristen run into craft’s kitchen and gawk at their options. Sheldon picks prawns (water-born insects); Kristen chooses tuna, one of the most famous fishes in the ocean. Brooke wants to do something with beets, but she’s not sure what. (Story of my life.)

Sheldon also decides to cook quail (tiny, greasy bird), which is “outside his comfort zone” — he’s taking risks, which is commendable, though I worry it’s late in the season to redefine your cuisine. Nevertheless, Sheldon’s cutaway interviews show a more confident guy than I remember. He seems to have made the most of his six months off. (Brooke and Kristen seem a little skittish in contrast.) Emeril bonds with Sheldon over their shared heritage as former dishwashers.

Hugh enters the kitchen doing his best Michael Ian Black imitation. He assesses Brooke’s sweetbreads, which look like animal organs to me. He reminds her to wash them well.

Kristen is making a “rich creamy soup,” followed by tuna and “a chocolate thing.” She’s focusing on simplicity, dialing back the baroque Euro-esoterica that has defined her cooking. (You can’t get much simpler than “a chocolate thing.”)

The three chefs marvel that they’re cooking in craft’s kitchen, but it looks like every other kitchen to me: I see ovens, sinks, and shiny counters. Interestingly, I don’t see any Canada Dry Ginger Ale, Healthy Choice Meals, or Reynolds Wrap. Are we sure this place is legit?

Sheldon and Kristen are both treating dessert as an afterthought — as they should. Can we just ban desserts from cooking shows once and for all? And then ban it from our restaurants and homes? When I was on my cruise, I felt accosted by desserts, and it was only grudgingly that I agreed to eat sherbet. Another interesting fact about my cruise is that my cabin-mate and I had a pillow fight that was so intense he woke up covered in blood.

Craft opens for dinner. Padma looks better than ever, with a tight red dress, high heels, eyelash extensions(?), and six golden footballs hanging from her neck. She’s joined by Hugh, Emeril, and two other chefs nobody’s ever heard of. Emeril, showing his empathetic side, wonders how nervous the chefs are cooking for Tom. (Tom, you see, is running the back of the house, calling out orders and expediting the dinner.)

Here’s what everyone made:

First Course:

Sheldon: Sashimi spot prawns, court bouillon, radish, and Asian herbs. It looks like a soup. Emeril’s prawn was “absolutely perfectly cooked.” Emeril is rooting for Sheldon, I can tell. Why else would you consent to eat a prawn?

Kristen: Chestnut veloute, duck rillette (I think this is imitation felafel) and Brussels sprouts. One of the diners wants to lick the bowl, it’s so good!

Brooke: Crispy veal sweetbread salad with kumquat, beets, and mustard. Hugh wishes she had cleaned the sweetbreads a little more. My mind reels at what an unclean sweetbread must taste like.

I should mention that Brooke is falling apart with her dishes, getting further and further behind. She is definitely off her game — whatever vitamins Sheldon took during the hiatus, she took the opposite.

Second Course:

Kristen: Seared ahi tuna with veal mustard jus and Meyer lemon puree (homage to Danny Meyer, famous guest judge from earlier this season?). My notes: “Is this thing supposed to be an entrée?” Maybe if you stacked five of them on top of each other. Padma says the lemon curd was too harsh.

Brooke: Braised short ribs, parmesan sauce, nettle puree, and squash dumplings. The short rib is praised to high heaven, out-flavorfulling every other dish. Can a flustered Brooke keep up with demand?

Sheldon: Roasted quail, pine nut puree, garam masala, and tangerine. (My host: “That does not look good to me. That does not look good.”) It is somewhat monochromatic, and the list of ingredients seems designed to make one sew one’s mouth shut. Hugh misses the old Sheldon; why did he do this? Emeril is crestfallen, too. Sheldon, I told you not to take any chances!

Back in the kitchen, Tom is stressing everyone out; Kristen admits to peeing in her pants. Department of Health, take note: Urine is flowing freely in craft’s kitchen.


Brooke: Brown butter cake, whipped goat cheese, and blackberry sauce. The texture is delicious and she balanced the flavors. I would never eat a brown butter cake — butter is one of my least favorite condiments. When people mention “butter” in a dessert, I get a funny feeling in my stomach. That’s why I will only eat sherbet: It’s rarely made with butter.

Kristen: Curry chocolate with cashews. It looks like a ball of mozzerella (famous cheese) dropped in a salad. Can you really serve vegetables with dessert? If so, I might start ordering desserts. Hugh says it’s too basic, but to me it sounds very advanced! I didn’t know you could mix curry and chocolate.

Sheldon: White chocolate mousse with apple and fennel. It doesn’t look all that different from his quail entrée, to tell you the truth. Everyone agrees: The raw fennel is distracting. On the other hand, one diner says it’s “genius,” and he has a French accent, so he might know what he’s talking about, since France invented the art of confusing food.

Tom joins his fellow celebrity chefs in the dining room. He says of the finalists: “They all struggled at times.” Sure enough, our friends commiserate about the stress of the evening. None of them feel good.

At judges’ table, Emeril praises Sheldon’s prawn one last time. Hugh says it “sung.” But Sheldon’s attempt to redefine the old Sheldon as the new Sheldon by taking chances doesn’t go over well with the judges, who are now falling over themselves in praise of the old Sheldon. Sheldon is having a Top Chef–induced identity crisis. It reminds me of Bernard Williams’s famous thought experiment about switching bodies and memories before being tortured. Top Chef is gaslighting Sheldon.

Tom uses the word nice three times to describe Kristen’s soup, which I take as a bad sign. Padma asks Kristen why she chose tuna. She returns to her theme of simplicity. What’s simpler than opening a can of tuna and plopping it on the plate? Swirl in some mayo and boom, there’s dinner. Kristen admits her dessert was a mess.

Tom lays into Brooke about her time-management failures: “You really have to be prepped up and ready to go … a lot of stuff was incomplete.” Fortunately her short ribs — and her sauces — were the best of the night. Padma, showing a flash of her divisiveness, gets harsh and announces that she wanted to sweep up Brooke’s (amazing) sauces with Kristen’s (lame) tuna.

Basically, Sheldon was too risky; Kristen was too safe; Brooke was too disorganized. But the judges agree: Each of these chefs had a great season, and it’s a tragedy to send one of them home. I jump up and say: “Then send me home! I will fall on my sword for these three chefs.”

But my entreaty falls on deaf ears, as people on TV can’t hear people on sofas.

And the loser is: Sheldon! Padma looks like she’s about to cry. Emeril, whose love of Sheldon has made me love him in turn, says: “It’s been great watching you.” Poor Sheldon. He’s extremely gracious in his closing remarks, both to the judges and to the cameras afterwards. He represented Hawaii really well. I think Brooke should’ve gone home instead.

Next week is the finale. I think Kristen will win. Do you know why? Because a friend of mine sent me a photo of him posing with Kristen at her Boston restaurant and she’s smiling like she won Top Chef.

Top Chef Seattle Recap: David Rees on Unclean Sweetbreads and