This week Top Chef goes to a place renowned for its culinary refinement, to somewhere that says, "haute cuisine," that exudes sophistication and elegance of the palate. Yes, that's right, the college dining hall.
But before the chefs can rip off their shirts, shotgun a beer and yell, "COLLEGE! NO PARENTS!" there is a Quickfire Challenge. Padma Lakshmi greets them dressed as a sexy Foot Locker employee and introduces the guest judge for the Quickfire, Questlove. She must love when a musician stops in because of her role as the tone-deaf, lip-synching disco singer named Sylk in the Mariah Carey acting vehicle Glitter, a movie I have seen more times than I've cumulatively seen all of the films on the AFI 100.
Questlove has (ahem, had) a fried chicken restaurant. He tells the chefs that he will fly all over the world to try food, which is easy to do when you're a ridiculously wealthy and famous musician, not to mention a late night television staple. To introduce the challenge, Padma yells, "Hit it guys!" and a drum line bursts into the kitchen, drumming and dancing through the aisle to reveal at the end of the line a rolling table of various kinds of drumsticks. Specifically, there are eight different kinds, one for each chef left.
The chefs sprint to the table like it's the open bar at a wedding. Since some proteins are better than others in this challenge, there's a fight for the best ingredients. Shirley Chung takes a dive in the process and Nick Elmi helps her get back up, making him the last to pick and leaving him with quail. He brings this up several times during the challenge and it's like, Nick, we get it, you did something nice, you don't need to be a martyr. I mean, I went all day without screaming at a single child on the subway, but you don't see me asking for a key to the city. Though, come to think of it, I really deserve it. Or at least one to Barney's or something.
Questlove enjoys Carrie Mashaney's squab legs marinated in thyme with fig mostarda, as well as Nina Compton's jerk guinea hen. He surprisingly also likes Brian Huskey's chicken drumstick soup with skin cracklings and Thai basil. He's not a fan, though, of Nick's quail and sesame sauce or Justin Devillier's chicken drumettes with smoked aioli. The winner of the Quickfire is Carrie, who also gets immunity from elimination.
With the all too obvious drummer/drum line/drumstick Quickfire out of the way, it's time for the Elimination Challenge. The chefs are cooking for freshman orientation at Louisiana State University where they will serve 500 new students in the dining hall. Winning this challenge also means winning a brand new Toyota Rav4. I had a Rav4 in college, weirdly. It was actually a great car. And by great car I mean it was a car.
The chefs all reminisce about their times in college. Carrie studied French and German before leaving for culinary school before dropping out of that and clearly doing pretty well for herself. Brian played tennis at UCLA and regales Shirley and Stephanie Cmar with his super fun college stories. He tells one where he was really drunk and accidentally put his fist all the way through a window and ended up basically filleting his forearm. Oh man, college was the best.
Once they get to LSU the chefs meet the two orientation leaders who give them a tour of the campus. They get to see the school mascot, a tiger that lives on campus, something pretty foreign to me. I went to school in upstate New York, which was very cold, so the only things that could survive outside for that long were squirrels and underage girls in tank tops waiting to get into the after hours bars. The chefs eventually arrive at the dorms and Carrie asks Shirley to help her make the bed, since apparently she doesn't do the housework in their home, her husband does. Way to lean in, Sheryl Sandberg would be proud.
The dining hall is a standard college dining hall with stations that have different equipment. Before planning their dishes the chefs walk around together to see which station they each want to take, then start picking and hoarding ingredients. Carrie takes the cold station, and though she's not happy about it, she has immunity so knows she's safe no matter what happens. Any chef who really wants to win over at least the students should just pick the cereal station.
Shirley wanted the station with the plancha to make her pork fried rice, but gets relegated to the woodfire oven because Carlos Gaytan wants to do fish and "needs the grill." She then regroups and decides to do roast beef with a roasted tomato salsa. Justin is making shrimp with cauliflower and garlic puree because he doesn't want to cook down to college students, though he himself never went to college.
I'm pretty disgusted by a lot of the chefs' behavior leading into the challenge, though that pales in comparison to my disgust at watching Brian pour a gallon of mayonnaise into a bowl to make the chipotle aioli for his shrimp cake dish. It's basically my Vietnam.
The students start pouring in and it's hard not to remember my own college experience once I get past how terrifyingly young college freshman look. I remember making friends in the dining hall that first week, meeting all kinds of new people. While talking to one guy I found out that I was the first Jewish person he had ever met and then noticed how disappointed he seemed in the whole experience.
No one is coming to Carrie's station for her cold broccoli salad with herb yogurt and pita, but there is a line out the door for Brian's shrimp cakes. Stephanie asks Justin if she should put her pimento grilled cheese in the spicy tomato soup or on the side. He suggest putting it right in, which is obviously a huge mistake. As a rule, grilled cheese should never touch something wet until just before you're eating it. It's like when there's a pickle next to it on a plate but you don't notice they are touching because you are too busy explaining to your mother over lunch how "being single at 30 is the new normal" only to find out after your rant that one side of your sandwich now has a soggy crust. You know, that rule.
Tom Colicchio and Emeril Lagasse visit Carlos's station and have to wait almost 15 minutes before his food is ready. Carlos cites "losing his oven" to Nick as the reason his dish isn't ready, implying Nick took it when really Nick had been using it from the start of the challenge. When they do actually try his seared tilapia with chile ancho and Mexican coleslaw, they enjoy it, though they did not enjoy the wait. In full on dad joke mode, Tom says, "If you lost your oven, you better go find it" in the first of many cringe-inducing puns that make me think he'll be great at his own kids' college visits. Great in that "We cannot wait to go to college so we can get away from you" way.
The judges find most of the dishes to be under-seasoned, including Nick's rosemary pork and grits and Justin's shrimp. Tom suggests that Nina should have twice-fried her chicken and that the sweet corn puree had no flavor, either.
While Tom and Emeril are horsing around with the LSU tiger mascot trying to recapture their youth, Padma and Gail Simmons are doing the same by sitting at a table of eighteen year old boys. The judges may be cavorting with people who are basically still children, but the chefs in the kitchen are acting like children. No one is happy with their dish or their station and complaining that they didn't get what they wanted. Well, I wanted to be an English professor with an investment banker husband and a summer house in East Hampton but we don't always get what we want, guys. Sometimes you have to settle for writing jokes, getting matched with your dentist on JDate, and living in an apartment with a kitchen so small you can barely fit your head in the oven. We all have to adapt.
At Judges' Table the top chefs in the challenge are Carlos, Brian, and Shirley. Despite the long wait and blame-placing from Carlos, they did really like his fish. Brian's shrimp cake had nice chunks of shrimp, but the real stand out for the dish was the spinach salad on top.
Ultimately Shirley wins for her roast beef and wood fired tomato salsa. In the last two weeks Shirley has won $10,000 that she's spending on air conditioning, and a new car, so she basically won the Top Chef equivalent of the Showcase Showdown.
The chefs on the bottom for the challenge are Stephanie, Nina, and Justin. Stephanie and Nina both take their criticism in stride, both of which seem fairly logistical in nature: Nina ran out of corn puree, Stephanie shouldn't have put the grilled cheese in the soup. Justin, on the other hand, is super defensive. He says, "I could have done shrimp rolls and crushed it, but I wanted to make the food I make." It could not be a worse excuse. If you could have crushed it, why didn't you? You just wanted to do the food you wanted to make? So in this scenario you wanted to make bad food? Stellar work, really.
While deliberating the judges address Nina's flavorless corn puree. Tom continues on his joke streak saying, "Her corn had 49 shades of grey, one more and it was a novel." First of all, Tom, thanks for sexualizing creamed corn, that will probably never go away now. Also, you're the first and probably only person to refer to Fifty Shades of Grey as "a novel."
Ultimately, Justin is sent to pack his knives and go. Since he still has a chance to come back in Bravo's Last Chance Kitchen, he leaves saying, "I'm going to turn elimination into elimonade." I don't know if that sounds more like the sports drink you pour on the head of the losers after a game or some kind of citrus beverage laxative, but either way, good luck with that.