Top Chef Charleston Recap: Steak Tartare and Astrology

Photo: Paul Cheney/Bravo

The pressure, it is on! We are down to the final ten, and there is no clear front-runner: Everyone is talented, and everyone is prone to catastrophic error. There is only one place to turn during these uncertain times: astrology.

“My head is spinning,” says a bewildered Sheldon, as the chefs shuffle into the kitchen, where there is a huge display dedicated to the four elements. “Earth, air, fire, and water,” he mumbles. “Maybe Captain Planet is coming?” Close! It’s our new friend, chef and restaurateur Michael Cimarusti! Padma, however, has no time for introductions, because she has to explain tonight’s convoluted Quickfire Challenge, which has to do with the zodiac (the stars, not the serial killer). Here we go!

“The 12 zodiac signs are associated with one of the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire,” she purrs. “How many of you normally read your daily horoscopes?” John does! For the record, John is a Scorpio; in fact, John is a triple Scorpio. “Ohh,” smirks Padma, knowingly. I am going to level with you: I have no idea what that means.

Anyway, taking their zodiac signs as inspiration and using ingredients from the elements, the chefs are to create a dish that expresses their true identities. The sinister twist is that one of them will be eliminated, because this is actually a surprise Sudden Death Quickfire! The three chefs with the lowest scores will be forced to fight to the death. Surprise!

And away they go! Sheldon, who is a Cancer — a water sign, it turns out! — is making Filipino ceviche with coconut milk, while Aquarius Casey is doing something with chicken wings. Did you know Aquarius is an air sign? Casey and I are both very surprised. “I follow my horoscope because my wife texts it to me every day,” Jamie informs Sylva, who did not ask. “It’s usually pretty spot-on.” Personally, John could not agree more. While it is true that scorpions are vindictive creatures, he has done some important reading, and learned that a self-actualized Scorpio turns into an eagle, which is now his personal goal. Across the kitchen, Katsuji burns some cauliflower.

After a quick tasting, kindly woodsman Michael Cimarusti wastes no time getting down to business. “The most original dish that we saw today came from Katsuji,” he says definitively. “Oh, shit!” beams Katsuji, stunned by the success of his fiery charred onion and cauliflower purée extravaganza. “Thank you!” Did you think this meant Katsuji won? Me too! (He didn’t.) The actual winner is Jamie, for his perfectly crusty lamb chop with pepper salad and cashew jus, so he gets immunity. His free-spirited wife will be very proud of him. “I feel like she thinks I don’t pay attention to these things when she texts me, but you know what, I was listening,” he offers, sweetly, in a sad sort of way.

Now for the bad news: Michael Cimarusti didn’t think Jim’s charred bison with chilled watermelon dashi was appropriately fiery, he found Sylva’s lamb with fire-roasted poblano and couscous under-seasoned, and while he appreciated Emily’s risky spaetzle, he found her chicken fundamentally lacking in key areas like texture and also flavor. They are left with no choice but to their fates: two of them will survive, and the third will be mauled to death by tigers.

Padma lays out the rules of the rumble: using earth as their mutual element, the three chefs will have three minutes to come together and agree on one dish, which they decide will be steak tartare. Emily’s serving hers with handmade chips, Sylva is dying his with beet juice and then just barely pan-searing the edges, and Jim, embracing simple elegance, decides to serve his steak in a tiny clump on a mostly empty plate. “Nothing more painful than going home with a Quickfire,” John observes from the sidelines, insightful as ever. “This is the last place you wanna be!” As a wise customer service representative once told me, thank you for your input.

You know who is unimpressed with the tartares? Everyone. “Was this … totally what you wanted?” Graham asks Jim, unhappily sampling his tartare lump with various purées and a festive chive sprinkle. Not to be outdone, Padma asks Emily if she made her aggressively seasoned chips taste that way on purpose, and Emily mumbles something about the nature of food. For a second, it seems like the judges might not have anything bad to say about Sylva’s dish, but then Graham pulls through and says it could have been saltier. In the end, though, it is Jim who must pack his knives. “It’s been an amazing experience,” he trembles. “I’m just proud to be part of the Top Chef family.” I can only hope that someday, I am as gracious as Jim when I am eliminated from reality television.

Let’s eliminate some more people! More than 300 years ago, Blackbeard and his crew blockaded Charleston Harbor, and maybe once he threw a party, so for tonight’s Elimination Challenge, the remaining nine chefs will be divided into teams of three to host their own pirate soirées. But there’s more! In keeping with the theme, each team will be given a special map, which will guide them toward seven treasure chests of ingredients that have been hidden around the city. The first team to reach each location gets to “pillage” for the ingredient of their choice, Padma warns them, while the last team to roll in has to make do with whatever’s left over. Just like they used to do it in the olden days!

The chefs draw swords: Brooke, Casey, and Katsuji will be joining forces as the Black Team; Sylva, Sheldon, and Shirley are our Yellow Team; and Jamie, John, and Emily will be stuck with each other on the Red Team. Ominously, it begins to rain.

Back at the old ranch, John cheerfully explains that since Jaime has immunity, they can make him use all the bad ingredients, and Jamie explains that before he owned a restaurant in Charleston, he had a heroin addiction in New York (it’s okay now). Emily glowers. For added emphasis, it rains harder.

But the show must go on, so everyone grabs a poncho and gets hustling, except Kasuji, who grabs a poncho and continues to move very, very slowly. This is the characteristic I admire most about Katsuji, the way he sticks to his principles. Meanwhile, the Yellow Team is violently seizing some filet mignon at the protein station, while the Red Team is having a quick chat about what kind of shellfish they should take from the seafood chest.“Scallops!” suggests Emily. “Lobster!” says John. Lobster it is! Unfortunately, the Red Team also ends up stuck with chicken breasts and peanut butter; like all things in life, lobster comes at a cost. “Let’s just make chicken satay,” says John, assigning immune Jamie the unfortunate task of making chicken satay. Oh, the rain!

The Yellow Team in first, with a haul of mussels, macadamia nuts, filet mignon, asparagus, fresh herbs, pineapple, roasted red peppers, and a solid game plan, involving Vietnamese-inspired filet mignon and something called “crewman’s stew,” which is Shirley’s vision of casual pirate food. In second place: the Black Team, with spoils of preserved lemons, raisins, dried herbs, cauliflower, ground pork, brazil nuts, and scallops, which Casey enthusiastically plans to brine and serve raw. And finally, the Red Team shows up, dragging lobster tails, truffles, oranges, exotic herbs, chicken breasts, canned peas, peanut butter. “I’m not super stoked I’m making chicken satay,” says Jamie, wistfully mixing his peanut sauce. It only gets worse: Due to grill troubles, Jamie is forced to bake his limp satay using a miniature toaster oven. In brighter news, John is very happy with the lightness of his gnocchi.

And on that note, let the Pirate Party commence! Just like in the olden days, the masses mill about while the judges make the rounds. They love Sylva’s asparagus soup with the egg in the middle, because it is clever, but they also love Shirley’s patented crewman stew, because it is delicious. For a change of pace, they announce that Sheldon’s filet mignon with pineapple nuoc cham is also good. If only the same could be said for the Black Team! The first problem is Casey’s raw brined scallops, which, in Tom’s professional opinion, taste like they have been buried in a treasure chest for several hours. The second problem is Brooke’s fried cauliflower, because it is drenched in acid. Katsuji’s cauliflower “soup” with spicy pork sausage and lemon hot sauce, however, is transcendent.

Speaking of total washes, let’s talk about the Red Team! Annoyingly, John’s lobster with truffle butter and canned pea gnocchi is actually very good, while Emily and Jamie are both in culinary free fall. On the one hand, Emily’s lobster chowder with fennel and crispy chicken skin was a hot mess of indistinguishable flavors; on the other hand, Jamie’s satay was an oven-baked disaster. It is almost as though giving the immune person all the bad ingredients is not a good tactical strategy for not getting eliminated. “They shot themselves in the foot!” cries Tom, with worrying passion.

The mood in the waiting room is dour. “If we are on the bottom because of my dish, I’m going to give up immunity,” Jamie announces. Katsuji is confused. “That’s the whole point of having immunity, you don’t go home!” Shirley gasps in slow motion.

And the Yellow Team takes it! The judges coo over everything, but they’re particularly smitten with Shirley’s stew, which didn’t look like much but tasted like a whole lot, so she is crowned Pirate Queen. “Ultimately, without my teammates, I wouldn’t be here,” says Shirley, accepting her Oscar.

We spend a few minutes pretending that maybe the Black Team’s going to lose on account of Casey’s fishy scallops, before getting down to what really matters: Will Jamie really give up his immunity? John opens the discussion by telling the judges that Jamie graciously volunteered to take on the chicken/peanut butter combo, but then Emily steps forward and accuses John of lying. “The discussion about throwing crappy ingredients at Jamie began with John!” The witch hunt is on! Emily says she had to rush her soup because John was so obsessed with his gnocchi. In his defense, John blinks wildly.

“I have one thing I’d like to say,” interjects Jamie. I would like to offer up my immunity and be judged with my team.” Tom says that will be discussed.

It is discussed.

“Jamie, you offered to give up your immunity. Does that offer still stand?” asks Padma, gravely. It stands. “Jamie,” Padma intones, “Please pack your knives and go.” Emily tries to protest, but the deed is done. Jamie has fallen on his sword; he is gone.

And then there were eight. Next week, the moment we have all been waiting for: Restaurant Wars!

Top Chef Charleston Recap: Steak Tartare and Astrology