Top Chef Recap: Palm Springs and Solar Stoves

“I really hope you will hit a hole in one, guys.” Photo: Dale Berman/Bravo

“I have no idea what we’re going to do in Palm Springs!” Phillip says, kicking off the episode with childlike enthusiasm that might be endearing to someone, somewhere. I also have no idea what the 14 remaining cheftestants are going to do in Palm Springs, because I kind of forgot what was happening here, but I’m pretty sure it’s cooking? So, a quick review: last week in Santa Barbara, Wesley almost lost and had a breakdown, Frances did lose and was sent home, and now we’re in the desert splendor that is Palm Springs.

On the minivan ride to the Golf Capital of the World, Jason tries to explain Palm Springs: “Lots of gay, lots of old people.” Jason himself goes there with his friends, he tells the camera — it’s “kind of like the gay Mecca” — to sit in the sun and drink white-wine spritzers. Not to be narratively outdone, Wesley unexpectedly reveals that he used to be a buff collegiate pole vaulter, which is actually a lot like being on Top Chef — you can’t overthink it or you’ll never clear the bar at 16 feet — and Kwame reiterates that he is from New York, where there are no deserts. “I’m just hoping we’re not cooking any scorpions or tarantulas,” he says, giving voice to a hope we all share.

Lucky for everyone, the chefs are soon met not by a heap of spiders, but by guest judge José Andrés, standing amid the natural beauty that is 14 outdoor chef stations. “Beneath your feet is the San Andreas fault line,” Padma purrs, wearing a thematically appropriate Indiana Jones onesie, “because we’re about to shake things up!” Today’s Quickfire Challenge: because Palm Springs “capitalizes on clean energy,” the chefs will have to create a dish using “the cleanest energy there is — the sun.” They will do this either using a cutting-edge, solar-powered stove or a cutting-edge, solar-power oven.

José Andrés used these very stoves to feed masses of Haitian earthquake victims, which is exciting to Carl, because his wife once did volunteer work in Nicaragua. “This kind of idea of using technology to positively affect a community is really important to me and close to my heart,” beams Carl, virtuously. “I’ve never used the sun to cook anything before,” whines Grayson, characteristically. Grayson is a woman who loves new experiences almost as much as she loves vegetarians. Meanwhile, Cajun chef Isaac decides to take a risk with solar cornbread, and Giselle feels called to couscous for reasons I cannot tell you and she also cannot tell you. “I don’t really cook Mediterranean food, but like, hey, I’m here for a reason, I know how to cook,” she chirps, as though she has never read a Greek tragedy. On cue, her solar oven explodes. The first rule of solar ovens is that you cannot add water to a solar oven.

Like Giselle, I know what it is like to cook with unfamiliar appliances. Once, in a sublet, I melted an electric teakettle to the stove. Did you know the cord means the teakettle is electric? I also know that now. Similarly, this experience has taught Giselle a hard but valuable lesson about solar ovens. As Giselle regroups with a secret backup oven, Grayson complains that her skirt steak isn’t cooking, Wesley tries to up his game (“I don’t want to be called out for being Messy Wesley again,” he says with wrenching sincerity), and New Age caveman Phillip harvests rocks. “At my restaurant, I like to plate on things that are not necessarily designed to be plates,” he muses, earthily. “There’s rocks everywhere, so why not eat with your hands off of stone?” That is why, at my house, I eat all my meals off of cardboard boxes from amazon.com.

And it’s time for the first judgment of the evening! José is impressed with Isaac’s cornbread-vanilla milk combo, because “it was interesting to see the crunchiness, but then all the milkiness, in your mouth!” He also praises Carl’s bacon-wrapped date, because “bacon and dates, this was always a favorite dish of my mother.” He musters nice things to say about Grayson’s skirt steak, even though she clearly didn’t follow his solar-oven directions, and Giselle’s couscous, even though her serving station is covered in shards of glass. But if we have learned anything from the careers of collegiate pole vaulters, it is that we cannot all be winners, and Padma and José announce the verdict. On bottom: Grayson’s dried-out skirt steak, Giselle’s Mediterranean couscous salad with roasted asparagus and bacon, and Phillip’s raw oyster with Italian sausage and a side of whimsy, also known as “snot on a rock.” Jeremy’s seared halibut and Isaac’s sun-baked cornbread are among the favorites, but it’s Messy Wesley and his shrimp in coconut broth who sweeps it in the end. “Here’s to staying on par in your elimination challenge,” Padma segues. Did anyone mention Palm Springs is known for golf? Because they’re about to.

Using the classic team-picking strategy, “Did you cook with a solar oven or a solar stove?,” the chefs will divide into two teams, each of which will divide up into mini-teams to create a four-course progressive meal that will be served — surprise! — right on the golf course, without a kitchen, from a refreshment cart. “I really hope you will hit a hole in one, guys,” José Andrés offers.

Isaac, however, is worried it’s going to be more like a whole lot of disaster, because he’s noticed that a few of his compatriots on Team Solar Oven (henceforth, the Orange Team), have been consistently on the bottom, while the Blue Team is stacked with winners, and also Phillip. As the Orange Team navigates the dicey waters of Angelina and Giselle’s continued co-existence, the Blue Team contentedly plans a “vegetable-driven” menu, which looks an awful lot like the Orange Team’s Latin-inspired menu. As far as I can tell, there is in fact only one menu appropriate for course-side dining in Palm Springs, and it begins with ceviche, and ends with boozy fruit in a bowl.

Jeremy, for one, is not at all nervous about his and Karen’s entry into the ceviche race, because he understands the pulse of the ocean. Phillip, on the other hand, is just a little bit nervous about his Orange Team dessert because it’s his wife’s recipe, and marriage is complicated. In addition to being an actress, model, and sometimes-vegan, Phillip’s wife is also a fantastic pastry chef who “actually did a dish like this for Coachella this year,” Phillip explains. Every detail about Phillip is so perfect it’s hard to believe he’s real. As Phillip ponders his limes, or his image, partners Angelina and Grayson plan to cook something Latin-inflected, which isn’t really something Grayson knows how to do, but sure, probably it will be fine.

Desperately in need of a break — from cooking, from golf puns — the cheftestants retire to their hotel’s many pools, where the women splash like dolphins and the men drink in the hot tub like they’re auditioning for a low-budget Entourage. “We’ve got our own little gang, man,” says Jeremy. “It frankly reminds me of high school, and that irritates the shit out of me,” says Jason. “I kind of feel out of step.” But there is little time to dwell on this moment of humanity, because Tom, Padma, José, and an indeterminate number of other polo-shirted guest judges are waiting for their four progressive courses on the green.

Fighting for the Blue Team: Jeremy, god of the sea, and partner of Karen wow the judges with their patented bowl-within-a-bowl-of-ice ceviche cooling technique; Marjorie and Jason earn the Richard Blais stamp of approval for their grilled shrimp with summer squash, roasted eggplant, and tomato-celery salad; Wesley and Carl run into trouble with the temperature of the grapes garnishing their pork tenderloin (“we’ll chill them down for the next guests,” Wesley promises); and the notable thing about Phillip is that he serves his coconut pudding while hiding under the table.

The future seems less bright for the Orange Team. Kwame and Chad don’t know about the bowl-within-a-bowl technique and their ceviche is too warm; Giselle and Amar’s spice-rubbed New York strip steak with potato salad is deemed “not maybe something I will be enjoying” by José; and while Isaac’s grapefruit sabayon is wildly applauded, there are ambient complaints that maybe it should have in fact had more grapefruit. But these are mere trivialities compared to the problems with Grayson and Angelina’s shrimp-and-chorizo-corn hash, which include, but are not limited to: the shrimp (overcooked), the guacamole (too warm), the chorizo (not enough acid), and the corn, which is cooked but should be raw (unforgivable).

Having gathered her aproned flock before her, Padma hands down the verdict: the winner is the Blue Team, and specifically Jeremy. The next decision: Should Grayson go home for her gummy corn, or should Angelina, for her rubbery shrimp? In difficult times, Tom turns to analogies. “Golf reminds me of cooking,” he begins. “There are no mulligans. Every stroke that you take is counted, and everything that goes on a plate is counted.” This is a long way of saying that Grayson must pack her knives and go, which she does with trademark grace. “I am furious,” she tells us. “Fuck that shit,” she tells the judges. If only her corn had been so fresh.

Coming up: Chrissy Teigen makes an appearance, the chefs cater a “big fat gay wedding,” and Phillip has a fight with someone about mashed potatoes. See you in 2016!

Top Chef Recap: Palm Springs and Solar Stoves