When last we left our chefs a mere 24 hours ago, we were saying good-bye to gustatory philosopher Garret, who is now but a distant memory, except on the internet, where you can watch him duke it out with other losers on the Last Chance Kitchen webisodes. On real TV, though, we are down to the top 16 chefs, including super-sassy Kansan Renee, hay-smoking Phillip, someone named Marjorie, and a bunch of dudes who look the same. (Jason is the one with the glasses.)
To take full advantage of having such an evenly divisible number, Padma explains that the chefs will be broken up into four teams, each of which will have to conceive and execute a pop-up restaurant designed to showcase the cuisine of one of L.A.’s diverse neighborhoods. But the plot thickens! They won’t know what kind of food that means until they arrive at the pop-up location. The camera pans to Phillip and his man bun, beaming. He knows L.A.’s diverse neighborhoods almost as well as he knows L.A.’s diverse food bloggers. A woman I guess we’ve seen before slow-claps, like a performance seal. Is it Marjorie? My money is on Marjorie.
Unfortunately, her enthusiasm is misplaced because apparently this is going to be the worst experience of their collective lives. “It’s going to be a nightmare,” warns influential Los Angeles guest judge and pop-up aficionado Ludo Lefebvre, Frenchly. “It’s going to be a nightmare, guys. Trust me. Trust me.” Trust him. He is desperate to make them understand. “People ask me, ‘Ludo, you want to do some more pop-up?’ NO! I’m done with that!” Ludo speaks with such intensité that he will have to be subtitled for the rest of the episode. Privately, Kwame confesses he is actually “kind of a seasoned pop-up restaurateur,” but there’s no time to bask in the glory of pop-ups past, because it’s time for Padma to announce the teams. After planning and shopping, the chefs will have two hours to prep and cook the food and also open a restaurant. “Please come to me and grab the keys to your pop-up,” Padma says, imagining she were somewhere else, like Tahiti or the dentist. Phillip bounds toward her, like a knight of faith, or a Goldendoodle, seizing what is rightfully his: keys to a restaurant in Venice.
And they’re off! Phillip will be sharing the gift of himself with Orange Team teammates Frances, Grayson, and super-sassy Renee. “I’m really thrown off because we’re going to a place that has no ethnicity,” he says, casually dropping some of his trademark insider knowledge. “We’re going to White-People Town.” Renee, who is wearing braids that make her look like she is starring in a community-theater production of Anne of Green Gables, guffaws charitably. Let no one ever claim Renee is not a team player.
Meanwhile, the Gray Team — Amar, Angelina, Isaac, and Marjorie — are cruising toward destiny, bonding over their shared hatred of Phillip. Apparently, Phillip’s restaurant features a giant billboard of Phillip’s face. “Would you ever put your face on top of your restaurant?” Marjorie asks her newfound friends. But before they can even begin to consider the branding value of their own heads, they’re pulling up to Taste of Tehran, where they’re met by their culinary ambassador, chef Saghar Fanisalek. Their fate: Persian food. “Persian food!” exclaims Isaac, alarmed. “What do I know about it? It’s um, like, um, nothing. I know nothing about Persian food.” The person that I correctly surmised is Marjorie used to work at a Middle Eastern restaurant and has lots of exceedingly reasonable questions for Seghar.
Over in Koreatown, Purple Team members Giselle, Karen, Carl, and Jason learn they’ll be cooking — wait for it — Korean food. “There they just call it food,” offers Carl, cracking himself up. This is also my father’s favorite joke. Karen is pumped because, she explains with the unsettling intensity of a Nike commercial, “this is what I do.” Giselle is terrified because she volunteered to make Korean fried chicken wings but doesn’t actually know how to make Korean fried chicken wings.
Rounding out the rainbow is the all-male Blue Team: Kwame, Jeremy, Chad, and Wesley, who are going to “fuckin’ rock some Mexican.” Chad, who owns not uno but dos Mexican restaurants, is in fact so confident that he has begun wearing sunglasses full-time to protect himself from the blinding glow of his raw talent. Obviously, they have no questions for their culinary guide. In the immortal words of Chad: “Let’s fucking cook.”
But before we fucking cook, the mystery of White-People Town’s ethnic food is solved, and it’s … vegan food! This is perfect, Phillip exclaims, and it is. His actress/model wife is an on-again, off-again raw vegan, another flourish that is also perfect. “She knows all about nutrition,” Phillip says, proudly. Renee, too, is all about nutrition. Once, she was 40 pounds heavier. “Now I eat with the seasons, green, leafy vegetables and lots of fruits, and that’s really what living is to me,” she muses, blissfully. To illustrate this point, we are shown a photo of Renee wearing only a bikini and a chef’s jacket, sipping white wine. Looking down at my own bikini-and-chef’s-jacket combo, I realize that this is really what living is to me, too. This is not, however, living to meatball evangelist Grayson. “God put animals on this planet for a reason — to eat them,” she growls. “I know that I can make a vegan dish, I’m just not happy about it.” A fun drinking game would be to take a shot every time Grayson is not happy about something.
With menus planned, everyone heads out to different specialty grocery stores. At an Asian market, Giselle finally finds someone willing to talk to her about chicken wings: a random lady in the aisle, who says to bread them with panko. My autocorrect keeps changing panko to panic, which is also one of Giselle’s favorite ingredients. At Whole Foods, the ethnic market of vegans, Grayson can’t find the beans she wants for her grilled bean salad. “Are you okay, hon?” Renee asks, Midwesternly. “Holy shit, I’m so upset,” Grayson wails back, New Yorkily.
Back in the kitchens, the Persian team, formerly the Gray Team, is thriving under Marjorie’s gentle leadership. She’s a little nervous because she’s making dessert — “the kiss of death on Top Chef,” but she admits that pastry is “kind of [her] secret weapon,” so she’s pretty confident. “Whip it, girl, whip it!” either Amar or Isaac cheers as she attacks a bowl of egg yolks. It’s almost like we should all be opening restaurants two hours from now. Predictably, Grayson doesn’t think so (drink!). “I get a lot of my inspiration through the people that are closest to me, my family, my boyfriend, but it’s hard to cook when I’m not inspired,” she complains. Vegan food does not inspire Grayson. Not like her family. Not like her boyfriend. Hard at work on a dish cleverly titled “Cauliflower, Cauliflower, Cauliflower” (the main ingredient is cauliflower), Phillip ignores Grayson’s passive bloodlust and declares the inevitability of their win. “How the fuck could we not win this shit?” he muses, thus guaranteeing by the law of reality television that they will not fucking win this shit.
In the SUV on the way to the tastings, Padma and Gail spread the pop-up gospel through their various social-media platforms, while Ludo sits between them, contemplating how difficult it would be to jump out of this vehicle right now. First stop: “Persian2,” where the highlight is Marjorie’s yogurt mousse with pistachio sponge cake and saffron orange syrup, proving that perhaps there is some justice in the world and that good things can happen to good people. “I like everything about Marjorie’s dessert,” Tom says, like he’s not sure who he is anymore. But Tom will be dour again soon enough. Like, immediately: Except for Kwame’s chipotle raisin-glazed shrimp dish, everything at the Mexican place is a different kind of terrible. Such is the price of hubris. It is almost as if Chad didn’t need his sunglasses after all. The only solace is that if the judges did not like the Mexican pop-up, they despise the vegan pop-up. For example, why is Renee’s tofu-and-cashew stuffed-beet extravaganza dry and mushy at once? Why did Grayson make bean salad anyone could make at home? The collective disgust of the judges almost outshines Team Korea’s offerings, though Tom deems Giselle’s wings “tasty,” and Gail says Karen’s grilled kalbi has “the most flavor.” “Honestly, I think we’ve got this,” says Phillip, delusionally, as the judges pretend to deliberate.
“Trust me, I did some pop-up, I was not happy guys,” Ludo says again, raising further questions about what, exactly, happened during his traumatic tenure as a pop-up chef. “Trust me.”
Justice is meted out swiftly: The Gray Team wins, triumphant in flavor and in teamwork. And yet there can be only one winner, and it’s Marjorie. Well, the real winner is Padma’s red-and-black quilted beaded leather jacket, but the other winner is Marjorie. If only the vegans could have been so lucky; if only Frances had decided to showcase a real vegetable instead of organic canned chickpeas. “I feel as if your green beans died for nothing,” Ludo tells Grayson, mournfully. As the judges deliberate, ray-of-sunshine Grayson tries to pick a fight with Renee, but she’s too late: Renee is going home, home to her vegetable garden, home to her bikini. “I arrived sassy,” Renee chirps, defiantly, “and I’m leaving even sassier.” In a way, we are all sassier, each of us, for having known her.
Next week: Coastal road-tripping begins! Maybe? It’s hard to tell. We, however, won’t be going anywhere. See you Friday!