As the sixth episode of Top Chef's tenth season unfolded last night, a dozen or so chefs scrambled around to cook food and be interesting, the two main goals of any contestant on this show, and as they looked for ingredients and chopped stuff and theatrically asked each other what they were working on, I was surprised to find myself charmed. I'm intrigued by what's going on! That should not be unusual, as I have signed up to write about this show for fifteen years in a row, but it's unusual this early in the season. Generally I'm still running around trying to figure out who everybody is, and giving them weird nicknames like Prawnmouth and the Fudge, but this season's addition of old friends like Stefan and CJ has provided me some grounding. They are my constants. So, thank you Bravo, for making my life easier. Amen. May Stefan be with you.
Last week's disastrous win-free elimination tore CJ from the competition all too soon and Tyler from the competition at about the right time. The chefs, humiliated by how bad they cooked food which is their jobs, are sad. Stefan says, "This is the hardest thing I've ever done," and he married the same woman twice so that is saying something. They all realize they could lose their chance at any point to win 125,000 Healthy Choice Steamer lunches furnished by Healthy Choice. A life without Cafe Steamers is no life at all.
This week's Quickfire guest judge is Internet-famous and Real Life-old food columnist Marilyn Hagerty. Though she's been writing for the Grand Forks Herald for over half a century, no one paid any attention to her until she wrote a review last year of a new local Olive Garden. She liked it, and that made assholes who read blogs in big cities go bananas. Far more interesting to me is how she keeps pronouncing "restaurants" as "restrints." Tony Bourdain should give her a book deal for that fact alone. She seems like a "Grandma" character in a community theater production of something boring, saying things like, "It's been a hoot!" Nonetheless I am very charmed by everything about her except how having her on my HDTV made me think about my and my family's mortality in a jarring way.
The holidays are "coming up" even though this was filmed a long time ago, and for Marilyn the holidays are all about "a variety of festive foods." The chefs must make a holiday dish based on their own holiday traditions, Ms. Hagerty likes both sweet and savory things, like everyone on the planet, but all that is to introduce the sad, promoted ingredient of the Quickfire: Truvia Baking Blend natural sweetener. Padma says, in voice-over, "the great thing is that it has 75% fewer calories than sugar." God, yes, Padma. That IS the great thing.
The chefs draw knives, and Lizzie's comes up blank, meaning that it's the only knife the chefs are allowed to use in their 30 minutes battling for immunity. Cooking without a knife is hard. I would make my family's famous turkey and sweet potato smoothies. We all chug them standing over the sink straight from the blender on Christmas morning and then pop the P-90x workout DVD Yuletide-X into the player and get cut up together. Eliza, still burned out from tour, puts a piece of spaghetti up her nose and then is surprised when she has to sneeze. There's much knife-free improvisation. Here are some things the chefs use to cut stuff: meat slicers, a box grater, a dough blade, a pizza cutter, mustache scissors, a spatula, a movie clapper board, dental floss, a well-timed barb about someone's weight, and baby laxatives.
The chefs cook things from their family's background, and it seems like the less white the food is, the less Marilyn likes it. She calls the dishes "an amazing display of creativity" in a way that your mean aunt makes you feel bad about your outfit by insisting how creative you've always been despite struggling with math and English. Bart made waffles with celery three ways and that was two too many ways for Marilyn, and she found Micah's taco dry, maybe because it was a tamale. She liked how Josh's johnnycake with bacon and egg was a common dessert "made very appealing", and Stefan's latkes from his double-wife's grandma were attractive and tasty, but her favorite, predictably, was Brooke's homey apple pie-esque crostata with cheddar cheese. Brooke had been embarrassed by how homey her dish was and expected a loss. It seems like Homey DOES play that, right Marilyn? What's that, Marilyn? You never watched In Living Color? Don't worry, I hear it's coming back. Brooke wins immunity. Padma thanks Marilyn and says, "I'm looking forward to reading your next column," which is lie on account of how Padma will never read it.
For their Elimination Challenge, the chefs must cater a local family's welcome home party. Normally, a civilian family's party would not warrant even one second on national television, unless they lost something or someone tragically, and that is still the case here. Thank God for everyone this local family belongs to Chris Pratt and Anna Faris, who are movie stars and better than regular people. I have never actually seen an Anna Faris movie, but I very much enjoy Chris Pratt everything, and I like that they are a couple, even though at one point he makes a charming Dad joke and she gives him a condescending "ba-dum chime" rimshot. If she were my wife or friend or even acquaintance I'd have a one-strike policy for that and I'd cut off contact immediately. Aren't you a comedic actress? Let your husband crack cheesy jokes and be charming, because you seem skittish and you're making me anxious. Danyele says she loves Chris Pratt from Parks & Recreation and of course she does. I also love him from that show, but she definitely seems like she has a Tumblr and reblogs drawings of the cast of Parks & Recreation imagined as the characters from Downton Abbey and horrible web garbage like that.
Each chef will cook one dish for the party, and Chris and a pregnant Anna want to eat a lot of everything. Chris asks them to pack in as many calories as possible into each bite, so all the chefs will just be serving open peanut butter jars and spoons. Chris is Norwegian and Anna's German, and they are adventurous eaters. They love game, local salmon, Dungeness crab, and not hummus. Some chefs begin to plan cooking Pacific Northwest specialties, and some plan to make Norwegian and German food. Danyele plans to make a backpack that has googly eyes and stuffed animal arms and then fill it with scrunchies, and Eliza stares at the camera while slowly eating and finishing an entire jar of paste.
At stake this Elimination, in addition to the titular Elimination, is the keys to a brand new Prius. New Priuses are so nice and I'd want one too. Last time I was in LA I borrowed a friend's new Prius for the week, and I'd never driven such a nice car, because I don't normally drive any cars. The only new cars I ever get to drive are rental cars, and they are usually models that seem to only exist for rentals, like white Toyota Sheboygans. The Prius had all sorts of Bluetooth and it smelled nice and when people called my phone the car started ringing and I almost drove it off the road fifteen times. All that being said, it is still not interesting to watch the three minute scene they have of the chefs looking at the car in the driveway and saying how handy it would be. "The great thing about the Prius is that it uses 75% fewer calories than regular cars."
During some downtime at the apartment, Brooke shows everyone the good luck lizard her son gave her. It's not a real lizard, just a plastic one, as it's not legal for children to give away animals I think. Josh twiddles his mustache and smiles at Stefan. He coos at the camera and talks about how having watched Stefan on his earlier season, he never would have guessed they'd end up being friends. "He's one of my top friends in the house," Josh says heartbreakingly. Cool list you maintain, Josh. You should compare it with John's list of top moments all-time in his house, and then compare it with how Stefan definitely doesn't keep any lists except his binder that has Polaroids of women sleeping.
Everybody cooks. That's what they do on this show, they cook. If you enjoy watching that, please tune into the show. After the disaster last week, all the chefs turn up their intensity. John slips and falls as he runs first into the kitchen. Maybe it's because he wears his glasses two inches above his eyes. Is your forehead near-sighted, John? Are your glasses the most hated chef in Eye-Town? Stefan yells, "12 minutes!" even though there's hours left. Kristen continues to build a strong case for why she should be my wife, as she's now gotten super into cooking pasta. Kristen, you do not have to try so hard! "I do," okay? I do. Micah says, "Everybody wants that car," and Josie replies, "It's not who wants it, it's who's gonna get it." Uh, good point, Josie. That thing that made sense really put stuff into perspective.
The party is at Chihuly Garden & Glass, which is some weird museum/gallery/event space that looks like a stoner's paradise. It brings Eliza back to her Widespread Panic days. Chihuly Garden & Glass seems like a crazy name, but it's of course named for Jeff Chihuly, who was hired by Tonya Harding to bash in Nancy Kerrigan's knee four hundred years ago. The gathering of the Faris and Pratt clan is extremely cute. As staged as it all is, everybody seems both so excited to see their children and to be on television. Kathy Pratt is a super lady. Strangely, Top Chef keeps bothering to give title card to people at the party. Though she says nine words, I now know that Margo Hass Klein is a family friend and what she looks like, and I'm so thankful for that. Anna Faris's mom says, "I have the best son-in-law in the whole world!" and Gail weirdly mutters, "That's great" under her breath.
Our judges this week are Gail, Tom, Padma, and famed seafood chef Rick Moonen. John is blown away to see Rick. "People would think it's nice to have a judge you worked for, but it's not!" No one thinks that. I'd hate to be judged by an old boss. Dramatically, we also learn that Molly Klein is a family friend. Stay tuned.
Dinner is served. Bart makes a loin of elk with a cherry beer sauce. Brooke, cooking with immunity, serves lamb-stuffed squid on black rice. Sheldon decides to cook what feels like home to him and makes a braised pork belly with a seared scallop and rice congee. In a nod to Anna's German heritage, Stefan makes a goulash. That first round of food blows away Chris and Anna, and they prove they know lots of smart words like "umami" and "seasoning." Chris Pratty's mom had to put him on a diet as a kid because he was too heavy, but he turned out fine.
Kristen made a stuffed pasta with a funky triple-cream cheese and dried apricots, and Rick Moonen can't get enough of it. Lizzie's salmon was underseared and underflavored, and it just tasted like a filet of fish. Micah's braised pork ribs over a celery root puree looked great, but the puree was grainy and too creamy. Eliza made an elk ribeye with undercooked carrots. Danyele vomits with nervousness as she serves a pan-roasted boar and bacon marmalade. She mumbles, "I hope I don't disappoint you." Josh, fresh off his previous pork failure, hopes to redeem himself with a roasted pork shoulder, but he serves giant portions without salt. Everybody is pretty blah on Josie's braised short ribs and polenta. John impresses his former boss, though, by serving a take on his seafood chowder, which has individually cooked pieces of cockles, clams, crab, mussels, and sockeye salmon. Rick Mooney says it feels like a "hug from the ocean," which sounds like what people think to themselves right before they stop kicking and drown.
Though some dishes did not quite work, the judges seemed relieved to have a meal so much better than the last episode's. John, Kristen, Brooke, and Sheldon are called in as their favorites. Brooke admits immunity freed her up, and that she's felt nervous to stretch her wings and risk getting yelled at. Tom says, "If this is the food you cook, nobody is gonna yell at you," in a very nice way that makes me pump my first in celebration at the screen. Brooke wins for the second time this episode and takes home a brand new Prius. She owes her son a real lizard.
Eliza, Danyele, Josh, and Micah are on the bottom this week. Poor Josh just can't seem to get it together with the pork. Padma says, "You keep saying you're known for pork!" and he sheepishly replies, "I'm gonna stop cooking it." She deadpans, "Just stop saying it," which is an awesome burn. Eliza is criticized for how bland everything was on the plate. She robotically replies, "I want to thank you for the feedback." It creeps me out a bit, and I bet if the judges had panic buttons under their tables they'd be furiously pressing them. Padma tells her to pack her knives and go. She walks toward them and say, "I'm not gonna shake your hands because I'm fighting a cold, so I'm just going to give you all a nod." Uhhh. Kudos to Bravo on the creative editing, removing the inevitable moment when security tackled her to the ground for being unhinged. She heads home to the Widespread Panic tour.