The thing about Top Chef is that it’s not really about food. Top Chef is about the human condition. Top Chef is about the circle of life. For example, Bruce is having a baby literally right now. “You guys got a bottle of Champagne?” asks Bruce, padding into the kitchen. Somebody’s gonna be a Papa Bear! (It’s Bruce.)
Aaaand somebody’s a Papa Bear! (Still Bruce.) “I have a Top Chef baby!” says Bruce, softly, but with conviction. “I want him to be able to watch this and be proud of me.” Better than most birth videos, I say! Then everyone goes to bed to rest up for either another day of competition or a lifetime of fatherhood. Maybe both!
Who is that ringing at the door? Why, it’s Padma and a mystery blonde in a utility suit who turns out to be Brooke Williamson, winner of last season and old friend of Bruce. “I’m a dad!” gasps Bruce. “Huh?” agrees Brooke. “Oooooooaaahhhhhhhh!” exclaims Padma. It is a real roller coaster of sounds, this show. It turns out, though, that they are not actually here at 6 a.m. to congratulate Bruce on new fatherhood. They are here because there is no time like the present for a casual, in-home surprise Quickfire Challenge! The theme is breakfast (sponsored by Nutella). Each chef will have 30 minutes to make a breakfast dish featuring Nutella, because Brooke and her son make crêpes together on Sundays. Brooke’s son loves Nutella! Top Chef producers love product placement! It’s a real win-win, this challenge. Winner gets immunity and $5,000 (from Nutella).
Off they go! Tanya is making waffles with Nutella, which is a coincidence, because Fatima is also making waffles with Nutella. For a change of pace, Adrienne is doing toast, but the twist is, it’s in a waffle-maker. “Are there any peppers of any kind?” chirps Carrie. I know. I also did not see that coming. But Carrie has a vision, which is savory eggs Benedict with hot sauce and strawberry jam and prosciutto and hollandaise and Nutella. Is this a good idea? I could not tell you.
Not to be outdone, Joseph is making a Nutella-banana stock, for oatmeal. “That makes sense to me at 6 in the morning,” he reflects. I understand. When I make decisions at 6 in the morning, I end up buying things that advertise on podcasts.
Time’s up, and Adrienne comes to the chilling realization that she has not added her Nutella syrup. “Without the Nutella syrup, it’s going to be dry,” she says, mournfully. Indeed, it is dry. “It’s a little dry,” complains Padma. Overall, though, they like pretty much everything, which is a real endorsement of Nutella (“Nutella: Generally Fine!”), but they especially like Carrie’s bizarro Nutella Benedict, so she’s the winner for innovations in Nutella technology. Joseph, Tanya, and Adrienne are on bottom, but the lucky thing is that it matters approximately not at all.
“Well, that was fun!” Padma segues, with the elegance of a bulldozer. “Are you guys ready for some games?” I was really hoping for charades — great game — but apparently Padma means the Olympic ones. And here to help explain are Team USA Olympians Meryl Davis (gold medalist, ice dancing), Gus Kenworthy (freeski slopestyle silver medalist), and John Daly (two-time skeleton competitor). “I’m totally fangirling out over Meryl!” blushes Fatima, correctly. USA!
Meryl, Gus, and John give the chefs a little talk about sports. One of the keys to figure skating, Meryl says, is precision. Gus says ski slopestyle is an obstacle course, so creativity is essential. “Skeleton is a sport where we spring 30 meters, jump on a sled headfirst, and drive down a mile of ice,” says John, helpfully explaining what skeleton is. Speed is very important. What could it mean?
Working in teams of three, the chefs will compete in a “head-to-head showdown,” which Padma explains for a long time. Each chef will be responsible for one dish, designed around a different tenet of athleticism. Round one is speed: Feed 30 diners in 45 minutes. Round two is precision: Cook a protein to the exact perfect temperature and then make a dish showcasing chiffonade, bâtonnet, and brunoise knife cuts. Round three is creativity: Be creative. The extra-creative part is that the protein is a mystery!
The bears all work together (Mustache Joe is now a bear), which makes sense, based on the rules of the animal kingdom. Fatima, Adrienne, and Carrie join forces, out of mutual respect, leaving Claudette, Chris, and Tanya to team up, because they are standing next to each other. The problem is that Tanya secretly wants to do the speed round, but Claudette not-so-secretly wants the speed round, so Tanya ends up on precision. That is what happens when you’re a team player: You end up stuck crafting zucchini into strips.
Things are verrrry tense between Tanya and Claudette, but we have to take a break from this psychological study because it’s time for Bruce’s baby shower! “Baby showers are weird,” observes Joseph, who is diapering a plastic infant. “I didn’t know this.” Then they drink cocktails from bottles. “I love you guys,” says Papa Bruce. “I was telling my wife, I love you guys.”
On that note, let’s Olympic! Tom patriotically explains a little twist in the precision round, which is that the chefs have to say the exact temperature to which they’ll cook their meat, but they can’t use thermometers, and they’ll lose a point for every three degrees they’re wrong. I love these rules! Anyway, Joseph says he’s cooking his chicken to 165, and Adrienne says she’s cooking her fillet to 125, and Tanya says she’s cooking her lamb to 145, and Tom says, “Oookaaaay,” but you can tell that it is not okay. It is not okay at all. In other news, the underwhelming mystery creative ingredient is short ribs. Surprise!
First round: Speed. For the Blue Team, Bruce whips up polenta with mushrooms and ramps. For the Red Team, Fatima zips through scallops in coconut broth with spicy papadum. On the White Team, meanwhile, Claudette and Tanya contemplate their mutual destruction. Tanya feels that Claudette needs too much help. Claudette feels that Tanya’s energy is “negative just to be negative.”
It is now time for the first ritual scoring of the night, where all the judges and all the Olympians, who are also judges now, hold up signs with numbers, and then the federation tabulates the scores, and then there is a medal ceremony and someone always feels wronged. Bruce takes the speedy gold, and Fatima comes in silver, and then Claudette gets bronze for her too rich pork belly that nobody loved, except John Daly.
Let’s get precise! Adrienne and Joseph cut vegetables in very particular shapes, while Claudette and Tanya continue to dislike one another. “Nothing on Tanya’s dish is showcasing her knife skills,” Claudette observes. “But if it’s a burning car and the person doesn’t care that it’s burning, you really can’t do anything for them.” Ah, as the old saying goes! Speaking of burning, Tanya drastically overestimated how hot good lamb is, so she loses most of her points and is doomed to lose. “Her chiffonade was chiffo–not there,” quips Gus, cementing his place as Tom’s Olympic protégé.
Joseph and Adrienne’s dishes are both excellent, and there is no time to explain why Joseph’s is marginally better, but it simply was, so he takes gold and Adrienne gets silver, and Tanya tries to hide her torment in bronze.
For the most creative round yet, Red Team Carrie invents a linguine dish featuring surprise guest appearances from pulled short rib and mushrooms and blue cheese and also corn (?). It definitely might be good, suggests Carrie. Blue Team Mustache Joe does a high-concept short rib–stuffed casoncelli with dehydrated carrot parts, and White Team Chris braises short ribs with miso and bok-choy kimchee while trying to ignore the simmering hostility between his teammates.
“This round is completely between Joe and Chris,” Gus opines, and Tom enthusiastically agrees that Carrie’s dish is among the worst he’s had all season, which is a century in Tom years. Joe wins gold by one half of a point, Chris gets the silver, and Carrie gets the bronze. That is the thing about creativity: It often leads to failure.
At the judges’ table, Padma crowns the Blue Team the winner, on account of how they won everything. The winningest winner is Mustache Joe, though. His pasta was so good, you didn’t even have to taste it, that’s how good it was.
The White Team is the numerical loser, so they are forced to face the panel, where Claudette drops that her dish would have been better, only Tanya wouldn’t help her. “No, I got a different opinion on this,” says Tanya. Her opinion is that she helped so much that she got behind. Claudette responds that she would have helped her, and Tanya says, “Yeah, but you didn’t.” Touché. Everyone else looks like they want to die, which is also how I feel.
Ultimately, it does not seem to matter: Tanya’s dish tasted better, but her knife work would never make it in the Olympics, and she doesn’t know how hot lamb is. It is over. Tanya must go. And as she walks out the door and into her future, text flashes across the screen explaining that “points depicted may not accurately reflect the points actually awarded,” even though the outcomes were not affected. I don’t know what to think anymore. Did Meryl Davis like the scallops or not?