Happy New Year! In the spirit of seasonal contemplation, everyone is feeling just a little bit pensive this week. “I realize what a dumb-ass I’ve been,” reflects Bruce. “I gotta do what I do.” That is also my 2018 resolution, to do what I do.
“I like to wake up and look in the mirror and be like, ‘YOU HAVE PRIDE! YOU HAVE POWER!’” bellows Brother Luck, and everyone laughs uproariously, in a way that suggests affection. It is so chummy, this season of Top Chef! It is exactly what I imagined college was like, but before I went there.
Then something very surprising happens! (This is not sarcasm. I was very surprised.) The chefs all parade into Alpine Kitchen Stadium, only to discover Kwame (season ten), Lee Anne (season one), and our own Claudette hacking up the inner organs of beast and fowl. Everyone is very confused. “I’m so confused!” says Brother Luck, to demonstrate. “I’m ready to cook, but they’re cooking already?!”
Luckily, Tom is here to welcome everyone to his personal paradise, “Last Chance Kitchen.” Normally, this is only on the internet, but who’s on real TV now?!?! Whichever competitor from LCK — that’s what we’re calling it now — wins this already-in-progress offal challenge will get back on the show immediately. “It’s absolutely nuts. I’m pooping my pants,” gasps Fatima. “I’m so scared a veteran is going to come into this competition and wipe us all out.” Just to really stoke the flames of terror, Tom announces that some of the best food this season has actually been on LCK, which might be true, but what else is Tom going to say?
The challenge is about “cooking with your guts,” so they are cooking assorted guts. (Top Chef challenges are nothing if not a bit on the nose.) Lee Anne is doing beef-liver dumplings with liver sauce; Kwame is on chicken hearts; and Claudette is stuffing chicken-liver tetelas with a Oaxacan mole sauce. Speaking of organs, some personal news: Lee Anne is pregnant! Fatima can only surmise that that is why she is so good at making dumplings. “Oh my god, pregnant women are the worst,” she whispers. “She’s got so much crazy pregnant focus right now. Mommies are no joke.”
Then everyone finishes cooking whatever guts they were cooking, and it’s Tom’s Tasting Time, during which he offers insights such as “good,” “thanks,” and “wow.” Tom determines that Lee Anne’s dumplings had lots of flavors and textures (good). Kwame’s chicken-heart sofrito also had many textures and flavors, but the bowl was too small. “You have a tendency of putting things in small bowls,” Tom sighs. How many times do they have to have this discussion? He has no such complaints about Claudette’s picadillo tetela, though, which was “really great” and featured exactly the right size of bowl.
It can be hard to make decisions alone. I, for instance, have been trying and failing to decide on a dry shampoo brand for months. So Tom brings in Padma and then says what he was going to say anyway: Kwame is out. “I’ve been doing this for 15 seasons now, and this is probably one of the tougher decisions,” says Tom, so he’s going to go with his gut and pick both of the remaining chefs. Surprise! There’s only one chef’s jacket, but Padma promises that she will go scrounge up another somewhere. Papa Tom beams, and Claudette promises that everyone is “going to get their ass handed to them.”
There’s no Quickfire because that was the Quickfire, so it’s time for tonight’s Elimination Challenge, which is … camping! “I hate camping,” mutters Tanya. “I was a Girl Scout, but I’ve already been sleeping in a bunk bed for weeks, and now I’ve got to go sleep on the ground? This is not how I roll.” It’s true. One place I personally find very comfortable is inside. The plan is to whip up a five-star meal with fire, camping equipment, and a stock of limited ingredients from a pantry of foods native to Colorado, like elk-stew meat and elk steak and a handful of other things that aren’t elk. “You’ll be exposed to the elements, so please be prepared for anything,” Padma warns, unreasonably. It’s like she hasn’t even read that article about people who go missing in national parks.
Let’s camp! Carrie knows all about the great outdoors, because she is from Idaho, so she’s going to make a cake in a large Dutch oven, using the logic that who else would possibly make that decision? The first problem with this plan is that the camping store they stop at for cooking equipment doesn’t have any Dutch ovens. Cupcakes it is!
On the way to the campsite, everyone has lots of time to second-guess their plans. For example, Tu was going to smoke a rabbit over rosemary, but maybe he should do something much more complicated instead? Chris looks skeptical. Life in the great outdoors can play tricks on your mind. To illustrate this point further, the camera zooms in on what I think is an elk.
“This has to be a joke,” says Carrie as she surveys the scene. The scene is snow. The first step is to dig out spots to pitch tents. The second step is to pitch tents. You know who does not know how to pitch a tent? Pretty much everyone. That is because we live in houses now.
Having secured shelter (sort of), the chefs start prepping. Chris makes buffalo chili with a side of smoked buffalo, which he has never made before. Lee Anne renders goose fat, but also cannot breathe. “You having fun?” Tom asks Tanya, who is marinating lamb-rib chops. Tanya: “No.” Then Tom talks about how much he loves camping, and then everyone eats s’mores and is nice to each other, and the moon waxes in the Colorado sky.
In the morning, it is 25 degrees, or as I like to call it, “perfect cooking weather,” and everyone gets to overcome adversity in their own way. Carrie discovers that the camping oven is too hot for her cakes, so she makes one out of snow, like in a fairy tale, and Bruce comes up with a life hack where you use a mandoline to put ridges in your cavatelli. Chris, meanwhile, is forced to wrestle with the question of whether his chili is special chili or just regular chili; and Tu’s rabbit à trois isn’t working in at least deux different ways.
As Tu suffers in silence, the judges approach the site looking very ski-fabulous and bearing their own place settings. Never travel without a fork, I say!
Because we are back to having an unwieldy number of chefs, even the judges apparently can’t keep track of everyone, so the chefs will serve in groups of four, beginning with Joseph (squab with farro, mushrooms, and asparagus), Fatima (cacao-spiced duck breast, sunchoke–pine nut mash, and blackberry-chili jam, with what look like potato chips), Bruce (egg-yolk cavatelli with wild-boar sugo and roast ramps), and Carrie, with her maple–pine nut snow-baked personal upside-down cakes.
It is time for the moment of truth: Can you bake a cake in a snow-oven? Yes.
Everyone is crazy about Carrie’s cakes, but also Fatima’s duck, and, on the other hand, Bruce’s triumphant cavatelli. “It’s sauced so beautifully,” raves Gail, ski-fabulously. “And the fact that he cooked it here? In the middle of the wilderness?” It is hard for us all to contemplate.
Round two! The judges devour Lee Anne’s goose confit with goose cracklings cooked in goose fat. “They were scraping Lee Anne’s plate to get seconds,” notes Joe, who himself contributed roasted trout with a trout fumet that changed Gail’s life. “I’m actually freaking out about the fumet. Like, I want to drink fish fumet now at all my campsites.” (How many campsites does Gail have, do you think?) Complicating matters further: Claudette’s guajillo-spiced elk was good, and Adrienne’s stuffed quail was also good.
Just when it seems like maybe everything will be good, Tanya comes through with a confusing lamb-loin chop, and then Chris unveils his also-confusing buffalo/buffalo combo, and Tu produces his dry rabbit-three-ways. “I think Tu should have stuck to one,” Tom zings. For a change of pace, Brother’s lemon-herb pheasant was an overcooked mess.
Dressed in black hoodies, the chefs are called before the tribunal for reckoning. The top three are Lee Anne, Carrie, and Bruce, who wins for his expertly ridged cavatelli. Gail simply couldn’t imagine it any other way.
That leaves Tanya, Chris, and Tu on the bottom for being overly complicated in different ways. Why did Tanya make so many sauces? Why did Chris make so many buffalo? Why was Tu compelled to make his rabbit three different ways? After pondering these questions, the verdict is clear: Tu must pack his knives and hit the trail. “I’m going to do everything I can from this point to better my craft,” he says, gallantly committing to cooking rabbit only one way at a time from now on. “I’m still young.”
Coming next week: indoor heating and plumbing, probably!