It is not easy being Phillip. This week, we pick up much where we left off last week: arguing over whether Phillip’s not-mashed potatoes were gummy on purpose or gummy by accident. “What you may call gummy, I may enjoy,” says Phillip, trembling with the intensity of the righteous. “Does that make me wrong, or does that make me different?” Phillip believes in the genius of his gummy creamed potato sauce; if only the others could see it. “Being misunderstood definitely bums me out,” Phillip confesses, but Phillip, like Galileo before him, cannot let public opinion stand between him and the pursuit of truth, or whipped-cream potatoes. “Can we stop talking?” sighs a potato-weary Kwame, “’cause this is gonna go in circles.”
Luckily, we all must move on. The chefs pile into the minivans and head to San Diego, America’s Finest City and Navy vet Chad’s home turf. “It must be so weird to look at your city from a van,” Jeremy says, profoundly. Before Chad can let this truly sink in, however, the chefs arrive at Tuna Harbor, where they’re met by Southern California culinary superstar Javier Plascencia, and Padma, who is wearing a business-casual marching-band uniform. Tonight’s Quickfire is a sudden-death challenge: “decadent” fish tacos in 20 minutes, or else. Kwame is concerned because while tacos seem simple, it’s a trap. “There are so many technical things that can go wrong; it’s not easy.” This is the general philosophy with which I approach my life. Meanwhile, Wesley is convinced someone stole his lobster (they did not, but I agree that would have been an interesting plot twist), Phillip is again racked by existential crisis — “I have to figure out how to be true to myself while giving the judges what they want,” he says, gummily — and Carl takes this opportunity to reflect on that time he started a beachside taco stand in Nicaragua. “I want to show everyone I can win a Quickfire,” says Angelina, with desperate determination. Oh, Angelina! Don’t you know? Desperation makes fools of us all. Desperation is why I once street-canvassed for the Kerry campaign.
In Angelina’s case, desperation makes her forget to actually serve her decadent fish tacos on a plate. They look delicious on the counter. “If I were in her situation,” Chad smirks, “I would about-face and jump off the pier.” But he is not in her situation. He is, in fact, in the situation of a winner, a native son whose triumphant grilled thresher-shark taco with oyster and sea urchin and sal de gusano was just deemed “very unique,” which is about as effusive as Javier gets. Karen’s “very nice” Korean-fusion oyster taco with kimchee is a close runner-up, and Kwame’s wahoo/truffle/chipotle salsa combo rounds out the top three. Wahoo! The news is bleaker for Angelina, who is automatically up for elimination, thanks to not serving any food. But if Top Chef has taught us anything, it is that “sudden” death is more of a gradual process, and Angelina is given one last chance in the kitchen before being demoted to the online-only “Last Chance Kitchen”: now that she has lost, she gets to challenge the chef of her choice to a head-to-head battle for redemption. If she wins, they both stay; if she loses, she must pack her knives and retreat to the purgatory of webisodes. She picks Wesley.
“All hail — Caesar!” cries Padma, the chefs assembled before her, nodding knowingly. Because Caesar salad was invented in a restaurant that Javier now owns, which is in fact called Caesar’s, the chefs will use Caesar-salad ingredients to create a dish that is not necessarily Caesar salad, and, like gladiators, they will battle before an audience of their bloodthirsty peers. Angelina comes up with a crostini topped with the elements of Caesar salad in a pile; Wesley envisions a “composed egg dish.” The disadvantage of Angelina’s dish is that it is incredibly boring. The disadvantage of Wesley’s dish is that he tasted it and then double-dipped the spoon (“not the same spoon, bro!”); to be fair, that’s his signature move. Despite the fact that Angelina remembers to put her food on a plate this time, which is not nothing (literally), Wesley wins for his perfectly fried egg, and Angelina is sent packing. Programming note: This means that Karen and Marjorie are now the only female chefs still in the running — what is this, the Oscars?
There is no time to mourn the fallen, however, because Tom, Richard Blais, and Papa Emeril roll in with conveniently color-coded beers to “celebrate” the almost-halfway point of the season. “I have a feeling this is a little bit more than a celebratory drink,” Karen surmises, using context clues such as the color-coding and their presence on reality television. If Scotland Yard ever recruits from a pool exclusively of aspiring Top Chefs, my money’s on Karen. And indeed, the beer is the key to the elimination challenge: In honor of San Diego’s booming craft-beer industry, the chefs must create a dish that “captures the essence” of the beers in their hands, each of which have been custom-designed for precisely this purpose with the help of Padma and friends, in collaboration with brewers from Ballast Point.
Padma’s golden ale has notes of jalapeño, ginger, and tamarind, explains Padma. Richard’s red-label stout is all about beets, chocolate, and North African spice blend ras el hanout, explains Richard. Emeril’s beer has coffee, cayenne, and tangerine, because “I wanted my beer to represent what New Orleans is all about,” and Tom seems to have designed his lemon-coriander-banana wheat beer specifically to bully whoever has to deal with it. “Banana! I would give money for anyone else’s beer,” Isaac moans. “How do I get a banana in a savory?”
Perhaps it is a case of midseason blues, or midseason panic, but several of our chefs spend this Whole Foods shopping trip making a series of exceedingly baffling choices. I understand this. Last time I went to Whole Foods, I bought a box of shriveled yucca fries from the hot bar and also $10-worth of basil. It happens. For example, Jason is inspired to purchase an enormous heap of squid for some tasty squid-and-pork meatballs, to be served over yet more squid. “It’s a little bit weird,” he acknowledges. As the gang heads back to the van, the camera lingers one second too long on a shot of a poodle outside Whole Foods, as it should.
Back at the ranch, Uncle Emeril drops by for wine and a chat. “The mental aspect for me has been really hard,” Karen confesses. “Big time,” Emeril agrees. “Big time” Big time is how Emeril does most things. “I feel like a deity just left the room,” Jason says upon Emeril’s jovial departure. In the morning, Wesley is facing some deity issues of his own: He’s just become executive chef of Richard Blais’s old restaurant, and not only is Richard Blais a judge, but Wesley picked Richard Blais’s beer. Also, he is not that into beets, or ras el hanout: “I’m really uncomfortable with these ingredients. It almost seems like it was designed for me to fail at,” Wesley says, accurately. Next to him, Marjorie is making her first forays into pressure cooking, Phillip is still trying to reconcile his unfettered whimsy with the judges’ insistence that food tastes good, and Isaac is inventing a banana-mayonnaise hybrid called “banannaise.” (Slogan: “Am I high, or is this good?”)
And it’s tasting time! First up: Padma’s beer. Chad’s carrot herb-roasted opah with ginger hominy, jalapeño purée, and tamarind glazed carrots gets the Ballast Point stamp of approval, but is outdone by Amar’s sous-vide chicken breast, crispy chicken thigh, jalapeño poppers, and tamarind-ginger chutney. Richard’s come next, with a brigade of beet purées and roasted-meat dishes. Karen’s duck breast with cocoa nib, beet purée, and ras el hanout–roasted carrots is the clear winner of the group, though Jeremy’s duck with chocolate granola (?) is intriguing, at least to me. Wesley’s lamb with more roasted beet purée, on the other hand, is a disaster, because Wesley is nothing if not a man of his word: The lamb is too dry, the beets too beety. It is almost as if Wesley has some self-defeating tendencies. The trio working with Emeril’s New Orleans beer — Carl, Phillip, and Marjorie — are all solid enough, though Marjorie’s potato gnocchi with chicken ragout has little relation to the beer that supposedly inspired it. As a finale: the Banana Toms. Isaac presents his corn-and-crab velouté with crispy potato, king crab salad, and sriracha banannaise, a swampy medley of yellowish glops, which is received accordingly. Kwame’s chicken mojo with banana sofrito purée, garlic purée, and charred green onions is so good it’s stupid — everything Kwame does is transcendent, tell us something we don’t know — and Jason’s slime meatballs with carrot wheat beer sauce is … special.
Our top three: Amar’s “assertive” chicken and poppers, Karen’s duck, and Kwame’s banana sofrito, because some things never change. But the coup here is that Kwame only almost wins: Tonight, the true winner is Karen.
The judges do not have similar praise for Isaac’s #banannaise, Messy Wesley’s dry lamb, and Jason’s as-weird-as-they-sound squid-balls. “It’s like you were abducted by an alien last night, and they took you to another planet, and you asked them, ‘What do you eat on this planet?’ And they said, ‘We eat squid meatballs and banana porridge,’” Richard muses, spinning the beginnings of his new YA series. But sometimes spectacular failure is better than dull failure, and the long-teetering ax over Wesley finally falls: He has arrived at the end of his Top Chef road. “I didn’t dream of it being this hard,” he says. “But you know what? I’ve gotten this far. To me, I feel accomplished. Especially who the competition is? I feel proud of that.” All we can hope is that someday, we, too, will be rejected after a sustained public humiliation with such class.
And then there were ten*. Next week: A conspiracy is (maybe) uncovered, painful secrets are revealed, Phillip slices a tomato, and the crew returns to Los Angeles for reasons that are not at all clear.
*This post has been updated to reflect the correct number of remaining chefs.