Top Chef NOLA Recap: What’s So Spooky About Arancini?

You can tell Lea Michele was not feeling the costume thing.
You can tell Lea Michele was not feeling the costume thing. Photo: David Moir/Bravo

Halloween is here, you guys! Think about it: In just over 24 hours, it’ll all be over. You’ll be cleaning egg off your front door and stealing fun-size Snickers from your children, while the friends you’re most concerned about will take the spooky puns out of their Twitter names. I can hardly wait! And the lion’s share of this week’s Top Chef is devoted to America’s Most Irritating Holiday. They’ve even enlisted the help of one of our most terrifying celebrities! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Tonight’s episode begins just after Janine’s unwarranted ouster from Cheftestants’ Row. Sara starts the show weeping theatrically for her fallen comrade and blaming herself, even though we all know the responsibility rests squarely on Travis’s shoulders. Dumb old Travis, who thinks he knows everything about all Asian cuisines, just because he dates Asian guys. Please! That’s like me saying I’m a licensed psychotherapist just because I’m exclusively attracted to men with severe emotional problems.

Okay, Travis may have a point.

Anyway. He makes a phone call home, and his mother asks him about his Top Chef experience in the most reality-TV way possible: “Are you enjoying the journey?” The journey. Jeez Louise. Is this the way even laypeople are talking now? Are we taking our conversational cues from television these days, rather than from each other?

Yes. Yes, in fact, that’s exactly what’s happening in Travis’s family. Seems Travis’s father doesn’t quite know Travis is gay yet. Trav says he plans to tell him sometime before the show airs, but we can all agree that it hasn’t happened, yes? Come on, guy, you can do it. Your dad already named you Travis, he must at least have had an inkling.

Quickfire time! Everything in the Top Chef kitchen is wrapped in Reynolds Wrap, and just like a similar challenge from last season, the chefs will have to cook with all of the random items they grab. But this year, the items will be chosen by Gail and Padma’s mothers, both of whom are somehow being played by Rita Moreno. It is, of course, mostly chaos. The utensils, pots and pans are obviously what they are; a spatula wrapped in silver paper is still pretty clearly a spatula. But the food items are true mysteries, just big silver rectangles that could be anything, so the two competing teams are going to have to cook some Whatever Stews.

Moms!Photo: David Moir/Bravo

Team Simmons settles on lamb chop with sharp Cheddar, mushrooms, and corn, red snapper en papillote with rice pilaf, and compressed buratta with pickled apples and balsamic sabayon. I don’t know what a sabayon is, but it evidently needs to be whisked, and Mama Simmons wasn’t able to grab one, so poor Carrie has to use a regular spoon, and I actually say to myself, aloud: “I don’t know how she’s going to make that sabayon work, I really don’t.” Team Lakshmi does poached clams with coconut cream, snapper and branzino en papilotte with mustard vinaigrette, and soup with beans, carrots, chiles, and okra, topped with a cherry chutney. That’s how much of a reach that last dish is: seven chefs can’t come up with any other word for it than “soup.” It’s one small step up from naming it “stuff.”

Justin feels like Team Simmons has it in the bag, so obviously Gail crowns Team Lakshmi the winner. They receive $10,000, and everyone receives a lifelong aversion to tinfoil and parchment paper.

This week’s guest celebrity is none other than Glee’s Lea Michele, so of course they cut right to gay contestants Travis and Bene, who are having big nelly strokes over it. Okay, listen: I am very sorry for her recent loss, but I think enough time has passed for me to tell you that I bet Lea Michele is a huge pain in the ass to eat with in a restaurant, and I know deep down you agree with me.

What’s she holding behind her back?Photo: David Moir/Bravo

Lea’s rules are pretty simple: She’s vegan except for cheese and she doesn’t like beets or most vegetables or starches but she wants something hearty but with no meat and also it has to be spooky because it’s Halloween. So just have fun and feed her something big but also small, and give her variety except she doesn’t like most things, and make the food frighten her.

Speaking of terror, Michael tells us that once, he “dressed up as a pregnant nun. Got laid.” It is absolutely bone-chilling. Play it on a constant loop on your front door tonight and the evil spirits will pass right over your home. The fourteen cheftestants will be paired up for this challenge. He and Nina are partnered for the Lea Spooky Food Challenge, which he’s excited about and she is decidedly not.

Bene and Brian decide to do spooky spa cuisine. In fact, they tell us: “We’ve come up with a jingle: come indulge your palate with our spooky spa cuisine.” But they just say that last part rather than sing it, so it’s more of a slogan, but also, no it isn’t because nobody will ever speak those words in that order ever again.

The party is at some mansion and it’s all very done up for Halloween, even though you know this is all actually happening in, like, June. I’m not at this party, so I can’t get a feel for how terrifying anything is, but to get into the spirit I try to imagine myself as Lea’s assistant, taking her coffee order.

Carrie and Stephanie are exactly the kind of people who get into this kind of shit. They do “Doomed Shrooms,” or mushrooms with black garlic and radicchio, and “Freaky Leeky,” which is a leek medley with fontina, covered in kale ash. Lea loves it and also finds it holiday-appropriate. They are relieved. We all are relieved.

But Patty and Nicholas have no time for this spooky bullshit and I admire their moxie. Their dish is simply titled “Fall Theme,” and it’s a butternut-squash cannoli with ricotta, and a lemon arancini with smoked mozzarella. Hugh asks what’s Halloween-y about it, and Patty replies, “I guess … the colors, like the greenish?”

Brian and Bene’s Spooky Spa menu consists of a crispy quinoa salad with mushroom espuma, and an heirloom tomato salad with wilted kale. I guess the spooky element is the wiltedness? Because it reminds us of our mortality?

Focus. Intensity.Photo: David Moir/Bravo

Nina is one savvy customer, I will give her that. Her gnocchi is not a particularly frightening one, but she tells Lea that it’s “inspired by candy corn.” Michael unveils a “Bloody Eye,” or lemon arancini with saffron and tomato jam. Tom and Lea love the gnocchi, but don’t think much of the arancini.

Carlos and Travis pay tribute to Día de los Muertos with their offerings: a vegetable ceviche, and a goat-cheese fondue with fried zucchini. If you’re wondering how exactly these items relate to Día de los Muertos, they pretty much tell you: Look over there! A bat! Anyway, let’s move on! Louis and Shirley seem to have the gimmicky part of this challenge in the bag with their “Severed Thumb,” a log of braised quinoa and onions wrapped in phyllo dough with a potato purée, and a “Worm Salad,” hand-cut noodles and fresh daikon radish. Taste-wise, though, nobody’s impressed.

Justin & Sara serve up an “Evil Eye” or — you guessed it — arancini, this time with tomato chutney, and “Blood Pasta,” or noodles made out of beets, even though Lea specifically said no beets! They are spared a tantrum, though, because she likes it. But she’s not feeling the arancini, and Tom, like us, is over the eyeball theme.

And that’s it for the party! Nicholas and Patti, Justin and Sara, and Carlos and Travis all get good grades from the judges, Nina and Michael get mixed reviews, Bene and Brian straight up get the middle finger. Ultimately, the top two teams are Nicholas and Patty, who might be there just because the looks of terror they constantly wear on their faces are seasonally-appropriate, and Carlos and Travis, who take home the victory. Travis celebrates by being in the closet to his own father in the year 2013.

Our bottom two teams are Michael and Nina, who are chosen over worse teams because the judges think Nina should have tasted Michael’s dish and helped him out, and Bene and Brian, whose food on second glance looks a lot like throw-up. Lea really lets B&B; have it: “You made light dishes when I specifically told you not to.” It’s true, but she also specifically told everyone not to do pretty much everything.

The bottom four are sent back to the Pantry of Tears while the judges decide whom to cut. None of the contestants — and none of the viewers and most of the producers — know whether the whole pairs will be going home or just single people. I get the feeling they make up a lot of this show as they go along.

Ultimately, though, they only let one person go, and it’s Michael, and it’s for the best, because he was starting to work my nerves. Nina gives him a very “here’s your hat, what’s your hurry” kind of a hug, and sprints back to safety. At least he will still annoy us in “Last Chance Kitchen.”

I am off to the kitchen to whip up my seasonal specialty: miniature Reese’s Cup, lightly refrigerated. Have a safe and happy Halloween, and we’ll do this again next week.

Top Chef NOLA Recap: What’s So Spooky About Arancini?