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Top Chef NOLA Ep. 6: The Cream (Cheese) of the Crop

To thoroughly enjoy the glory that is Top Chef New Orleans, we welcome Alison Leiby, who will be here every week to take us through the season.


Last week we bid adieu to Michael Sichel, and no one is happier about that than Nina Compton, who moments after Michael leaves says of him, "I'm sorry boo boo, you're a douche." That's so weird because I have used that same line to end 80% of my sexual relationships.

Padma Lakshmi arrives at the mansion the next day to greet the chefs and brings with her the guest judge for the week. Wait, did she say John Tesh is the guest judge? Is he going to do a live rendition of the NBA on NBC theme with a 23-piece orchestra while dressed like a cruise ship waiter and play for the audience a message he left on his own answering machine? Ohhh, no, she said John Besh. That makes so much more sense, him being a chef and everything.


While Padma explains the challenge, Bravo flashes a texting poll across the screen, asking the real question on everyone's mind: On a 1-10 scale, How great is Besh's hair? Wow, I can't believe I live in a world where men and women are finally being treated the same way, and we can all just be judged on our appearances. Equality really is a magical thing.

Padma tells the chefs to pack an overnight bag for this challenge and brings everyone outside to the parade of Toyota Rav 4s. Sara Johannes says that it's fun that Padma and John are riding in the cars with them as they drive out through the Louisiana countryside, like a cheffy field trip. Honestly, I don't think that sounds fun at all. Being in a car with Padma must be hour after hour of her pointing at every animal and saying, "What's that?" with one hand, and simultaneously changing the radio station to what she likes to listen to with the other.


The Quickfire Challenge focuses on the Creole tomato, which only grows in Louisiana. The chefs must create a dish that showcases it, and they must do so outside in the heat and humidity. Between Brian Huskey's shaggy hair and the bandana around his neck, he looks less like a chef cooking at a farm and more like a dog who is excited to run around at one.


Bene Bartolotta feels prepared for this challenge because the last two dishes he did on the show were tomato-based. But Bene, you were almost sent home for both of them, so maybe don't count that as a positive. The other chefs do call him "Tomato Bene" though, so at least he got a nickname out of it.


Between the seemingly oppressive heat and the need to highlight such a delicate vegetable (or fruit, if you're an asshole), most of the chefs stick with simple preparations. Padma, or as I prefer to call her for this challenge, Ranch-hand Barbie, and John visit each of the chefs to taste whatever they put together in their twenty sweaty minutes. Chef Besh is so handsome, he's like your friend's hot dad when you were growing up. You know, he comes down to "check on you girls" during a sleepover and your friend is all, "Daaaad, you're being SO embarrassing," but you're like, "No, he can stay, we were just talking about how stupid all of the sixth grade boys are, and I'm totally mature for my age. My parents let me try wine once."

Favorites of the Quickfire are Nina, Carlos Gaytan, and Louis Maldonado, though Nina wins (again) for her chilled watermelon and tomato soup with fried zucchini blossoms. Padma and John's least favorites are Travis Masar, Patty Vega, and Stephanie Cmar, who basically just put tomatoes on a plate. Not that there's anything wrong with serving some tomatoes, I mean, that's what I love about Summer is being able to slice them up, put them on a plate with some herbs and be like, "Look, I made something for your dinner party!" Obviously it's delicious, but even I can do it, and I still consider going to Duane Reade to buy cereal and beer "grocery shopping."


For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs will cook at Besh's Lacombe restaurant, La Provence, and prepare a farm-to-table, family style meal for some of the chefs in Besh's restaurant group. They will be using all local ingredients from the farm where they are staying for their dishes. And there's one more wrinkle: all of the dishes must also incorporate Philadelphia Cream Cheese. That makes sense, Bravo, I know that when I think "farm to table" and "local ingredients" my first thought is usually brand name dairy spread. It was hard as a Jew not to yell at my television, "Just get bagels and lox and be done with the whole thing!" Oh, who am I kidding, I definitely yelled that.

Since Nina won the Quickfire, she can pick which course she wants to prepare. She chooses appetizer and the rest of the chefs draw to find out their responsibilities. The winner of the challenge will also get $10,000 furnished by Philadelphia Cream Cheese. Nick Elmi says he wants the money to use for his kids' school. What a snooze. If I had ten grand I'd spend it on something like a luxury vacation to the Maldives or as hush money for my doorman to not be so judgmental when I come home aggressively drunk with a guy and announce to the empty lobby, "This dude works in finance! You hear that, Mom? WHO'S SETTLING NOW?"


The kitchen at La Provence is a chaotic scene. Since the ingredients are limited to what is locally grown and in season, the chefs don't have the variety in choices they are used to. Many of them are struggling with their dishes. Sara worries about her stuffed lamb loin and having the lamb cooked enough by the time she needs to plate, citing poor time management.


Chef Besh makes his rounds in the steamy kitchen to see what everyone is working on. Watching it, I can't stop sweating. I don't know if it's seeing everyone on television sweating or the anxiety of the challenge or John Besh's warm smile and sun-kissed skin or the fact that I do not have control over my own radiator in my apartment and my landlord has it set to "hell," but that's what's going on with me. Besh gets to Justin Devillier who says that when most people think of "farm to table" they think of vegetable dishes, but he wants to make sure to remind them of the protein, too. Thanks, Justin, great idea. When I'm at a restaurant I want to say, "Mmm, this duck is delicious, and to think just hours ago it was outside swimming in a pond with its family."


The judges arrive at La Provence and mingle before service as if they're at the world's most uncomfortable mixer. Padma's dress looks like it's more suited for a casual Quinceanera than a nice dinner. Gail Simmon's dress, on the other hand, has radishes on it and looks just terrific. She stumbles over the pronunciation of the word "produce," possibly thanks to the glass of champagne in her hand. Gail, if you are reading this, can we please hang out sometime? I think we could be great friends.


The appetizer course starts strong, all of the judges commenting on the bright colors and flavors. They love Nina's crispy zucchini blossoms with eggplant and cream cheese puree. John Besh is a fan of Carlos's poached beets with pickled carrots and peach habanero cream cheese sauce. Honestly, though, John Besh could tell me that a plate of old sponges doused in gasoline was good, as long as he flashed that charming smile I'd probably at least taste it. While a lot of the appetizers are hits with the judges, they all agree that Sara's lamb is extremely undercooked and bordering on raw.


Next is the entree course, and each chef presents theirs while uncontrollably sweating, which is always a nice touch. Bene prepared roasted chicken breast with caramelized onions and tarragon cream cheese. Gail calls Carrie Mashaney's vinegar braised chicken "loopy and soupy" which sounds less like a food description and more like a children's cartoon, but not one that I would want to watch. The desserts, which should have been the easiest course for the cream cheese challenge, mostly disappointed, the exception being Nick's funnel cake and carrot cake mousse.

Back at Judges' Table, Tom Colicchio, Padma, Gail, and John are overall unimpressed with the dishes most of the chefs put out. They had all of these wonderful ingredients to use and that's what they did with them? To be fair, that's probably how my parents feel about paying for my Ivy League education only to watch me decide to become a comedian. The best dishes of the night are Nina, Nick, and Justin, with Nina winning yet again. This is her fourth win, making her basically untouchable.


The worst of the night are Travis, Bene, and Sara. Both Travis and Bene's dishes were uninspired and did nothing for the farm-fresh vegetables featured in the challenge, and Sara's lamb was so raw that if it were a hotel room movie it would be listed under the "adult" section. As the judges discuss their disappointment, Padma says, "I can't even remember what Travis did, and that's a travesty." Tom replies, "Oh, a Travis-ty?" Hey, Top Chef writers, you're doing great. Got any other name puns coming up in future episodes? You know what, never mind, I want to be surprised.

After much deliberation about who was the worst (which could also be how I'd describe every "girls brunch" I've ever been to), Bene must pack his knives and go. He does have a chance to come back though in Last Chance Kitchen. Bravo is trying to make us watch that even harder than a J.Crew salesperson tries to get your email address at checkout.

Perhaps he will be back, but for now it is goodbye for Tomato Bene.

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