Top Chef Recap: Finding Your Inner Caveman

“It should be like a murder scene!”
“It should be like a murder scene!” Photo: Dale Berman/Bravo

After last week’s soul-searching elimination challenge, in which Kwame forced himself to cook through the darkest period in his personal history and Jason was sent home for his autobiographical trout, this week takes us back to what really matters: getting a lot of likes on Instagram.

“Today’s Quickfire is all about the food porn,” purrs Padma, introducing the chefs to chef Jacques La Merde, an anonymous Instagram phenom who makes futsy, deconstructed dishes out of junk food, like a parody Phillip. “What’s up, bros?,” says voice-altered La Merde from behind a screen. “I’m feeling pretty soigné today.” (Soigné is chef code for “perfection,” says Jeremy. “I never use that word,” says Phillip. “I don’t know what the fuck soigné means,” says Chad, speaking frankly.) For the challenge, the chefs will each create a “visually stunning dish” made out of all-American junk. “Farm-to-table is dead, bro,” advises La Merde. “This is the new reality.” Another rule of the new reality is challenges aren’t decided by judges but by the hashtaggers of Instagram.

For Phillip, this is the challenge of his dreams. “This is not a cooking challenge, this is a plating challenge,” he enthuses earnestly. “Plating is so important! You eat with your eyes before you eat with your mouth!” Point. Isaac, however, would like to offer a counterpoint: “People who say they eat with their eyes first should be stabbed with a pork-chop bone.”

Having staked out their positions, the chefs descend upon a mountain of Doritos, Bugles, and spray cheese (“The original foam!” raves Amar). Karen’s vision is to construct a culinary selfie made out of vanilla icing and puréed strawberries. “I want to make a big pink swoosh on my plate! I really want it to look like me,” she bubbles. Carl gets political with a “nature versus man-made” cascade of canned meat. “It’s a dish,” he nods, sagely, “but it’s also really social commentary.” Sure.

Isaac hates “froufrou, tweezified paintbrush plates,” but decides to channel the creativity of his daughters, who are toddlers, while Phillip fastidiously arranges pudding on a plate. “You wanna get nuts?” bellows Isaac, apropos of nothing. “Come on, let’s get nuts!” In the background, Carl polishes his lunch meat.

Speaking of nuts, the chefs are floored when Padma reveals that Chef Jacques La Merde is actually Toronto-based chef Christine Flynn, who is a woman. “Whoa. The he is a she!” exclaims Carl. “Now it sort of all makes sense!” With the universe newly in order, the remaining nine chefs come forward one by one, photographing their offerings before the master herself. “This is excellent use of negative space,” Christine tells Chad, who has artfully arranged his blueberry–Ho Ho–Twinkie-marshmallow extravaganza on the far side of his plate. Amar’s geometric grilled Spam and crumbled Dorito piles, displayed over black-bean purée, is “amazing,” Carl’s meat garden is “beautiful,” and Kwame’s cold-cut rosettes have the distinction of being the only dish that is plausibly edible. Much to Padma’s chagrin, Phillip’s Pop Tarts–upon-pudding with rum air is also lovely, even if he insists on photographing it very, very slowly. Like love, Phillip knows, true art cannot be rushed.

And the winner is … whoever got the most Instagram likes last May! Based on my personal experience, the best way to get a lot of Instagram likes is to post a picture of a puppy and hashtag it #TongueOutTuesday.” The problem with this strategy, though, is that you can only do it on Tuesday. In any case, we’ll have to wait until later in the episode to find out who gets immunity. Like art, voting takes time.

Tom Hanks's son gets it.
Tom Hanks’s son gets it. Photo: Dale Berman/Bravo

With the democratic power of social media newly established, it’s on to the elimination challenge. The theme? Beefsteak. What is beefsteak? Padma is glad you asked. “Over 100 years ago,” she intones, “men gathered in their finest black-tie attire to drink, be merry, and to eat meat.” Once, explains guest judge and beefsteak impresario Neal Fraser, beefsteak was a political fund-raiser where politicians could get drunk with gangsters. Now it is an event he co-runs where carnivorous Los Angelenos gather to eat tenderloin and raise money for food banks. And conveniently, he is hosting one tomorrow! In teams of three, the chefs will prepare and serve a gluttonous feast for 200, consisting of a meat, a seafood, and two sides. There are only three rules of the beefsteak: Food is to be eaten without utensils, without plates, and without napkins. It should be decadent. It should be bloody. “Please don’t disappoint,” Neal pleads joylessly.

Padma assigns the teams: Phillip, Amar, and Jeremy are Team Green; Kwame, Karen, and Carl are Team Red; and Marjorie, Isaac, and Chad are Team Blue. “I’m pretty pumped because I feel like if anyone’s going to excel at this challenge, it’s going to be Isaac.” Famous last words, Marjorie.

As the teams plan their menus, they are faced with the question that has been on all of our minds: Does a beefsteak necessarily involve beef? “They just said ‘meat,’” Isaac points out, advocating for chicken sausage. “Yeah, but if it’s called ‘beefsteak,’ don’t you think we should do beef?” wonders Marjorie, logically. Across the room, lamb enthusiast Phillip and lamb skeptic Amar are having the same conversation. In the end, only the Red Team goes for the classic. They’re planning to unite their meal around Spanish flavors, explains Carl; luckily, Carl is prepared for this because his wife also lived in Spain.

In the van to Whole Foods, Phillip takes a moment to affirm his newfound life philosophy. Last week, he reminds us, the judges told him to “do whatever the fuck” he wants, and this week, that is exactly what the fuck he is going to do. Amar, too, embraces this philosophy by buying a 25-pound halibut. Unfortunately, the gods of the sea do not similarly smile upon Chad: unable to get his planned black cod, Chad is now stuck with 25 pounds of tuna he doesn’t know what to do with. “Hopefully, when we get into the kitchen and we start cooking, I’ll figure it out,” he says. This is what I think every night before dinner.

Ingredients bought and menus planned, the chefs charge the kitchen. Chad, still baffled by the tuna, decides he’s going to go “medieval” and smother it in manly ash, while Isaac starts on his one-man crusade to prove that chicken can be decadent (if it’s 40 percent bacon). Still high off his halibut, Amar takes a minute to bond with Phillip, in whom he sees his younger self. “I used to be just like Phillip,” he reflects. “I didn’t take criticism very well. I was that guy.” Now, though, he is not that guy. Phillip, he observes, would also benefit by learning to take criticism. To illustrate this point, Amar tells Phillip that his carrots are undercooked. Another fun fact about Phillip is that he met his sometimes-vegan wife in middle school.

Are those ... tweezers?
Are those … tweezers? Photo: Dale Berman/Bravo

And it’s beefsteak day: In the venue kitchen, Marjorie is ambitiously tackling bread, even though she claims it’s not really her thing; Karen and Carl are in the middle of their new favorite conversation, How Great Is Beef?; and Phillip is feeling great about both his lamb and the general experience of being Phillip. Padma, meanwhile, seems to be feeling equally great about being drunk.

First up: the Green Team. Proving that doing whatever the fuck you want might be a pretty good life strategy, Phillip’s rack of lamb with prune jam is a hit, and Jeremy’s fried Brussels sprouts with bacon are tasty, but Padma thinks Amar’s halibut bites are “a little pansy.” The meal was technically excellent, the judges agree, but with the exception of the appropriately rugged lamb, it was too delicate for the raw appetites of men. “It should be like a murder scene!” says Simpsons executive producer and beefsteak co-founder Matt Selman. Accordingly, everyone is initially more excited about the Blue Team’s menu, but while Isaac’s heap of phallic sausage looks promising, it tastes like disappointment. Still, it is better than Chad’s tuna medallions with microgreens. “What … the … hell,” sloshes Padma, “is a microgreen doing here?” For what it’s worth, Marjorie’s bread is great. Finally: the Red Team, or, as they like to call themselves, the Only Team to Make Beef. And yet even the beef is not quite beefsteak-y enough for the judges. “You’ve got to find your inner caveman when you do something like this,” guest judge Chris Cosentino urges sadly. Looking out over the chefs, he sees not a Flintstone among them.

At the Judges’ Table, Padma opens by announcing the winner of the Quickfire — Karen and her pink swoop. “Shut up!” yelps Karen, which is so un-soigné. Now for the bad news: Basically everyone sucked at beefsteak. Chad makes a weak attempt at self-defense, but he is quickly silenced. It is almost like Chad has never seen an episode of Top Chef before. While no one quite nailed it, the Green Team is the favorite of the night, and Phillip takes home the ultimate win for his rack of lamb — the only truly beefsteak-appropriate dish of the night. To thine own self be true, or something. On the bottom: the Blue Team, thanks to Isaac’s bland sausage and Chad’s tuna. “I didn’t think that microgreens were going to be, like, shunned,” says Chad, wide-eyed. But shunned they are, and it is microgreens, along with a deep misunderstanding of the spirit of beefsteak, that will send him packing. “We thought you made some great food all season,” Tom assures him, making a plug for internet-redemption show Last Chance Kitchen. When Chad leaves, it is with honor. “I feel like Top Chef has given me something maybe I didn’t have before,” he says, meaning it.

And so the remaining eight march on without him. Next week: a two-part, four-on-four restaurant-wars event. See you then.

Top Chef Recap: Finding Your Inner Caveman