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Top Chef Ep. 15: I Can See Torchon From My House

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To thoroughly enjoy the glory that is Top Chef Seattle, we welcome comedian Max Silvestri, who will be here every week to take us through the season.

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Last night our three remaining chefs said goodbye to Sarah Palin's Alaska. What a state; there are mountains, there's snow, oil, sight lines to Asia, and also especially lots of fish. As they say in Alaska, "the fish flows like bread!" They love combining bread and fish up there. Considering their passion for it, it's strange Lizzie's fish-wich did not buy her both a berth to the finals and the honorary key to the city of Juneau. (It would only be an honorary key; the real key to the city, which can open all its locks, is very valuable and kept on the collar of the Mayor's dog, Chum.) Instead, Lizzie headed back to District 9 and leaves Sheldon, Brooke, and Josh as the final three contestants. They have "lots of emotions" which mostly means they look intensely tired. Sheldon at least has his hat. All the hats in the world can't help Josh, who's so racked with anxiety over the impending birth of his child that he can barely only cook breakfast, pork, and nothing else. The chefs are told to dress warm and head to Eagle Crest over a continental breakfast. Josh thinks to himself, "I wonder if this is a breakfast and bacon challenge," and then soils his hat.

As the chefs drive their Toyota Mukluk up the road to Eagle Crest their path is blocked by a helicopter in the middle of the pavement. I am sort of expecting Jeremy Irons to hop out with a smile on his face and an overcoat full of armed dynamite, but instead it's just some lady. Is the lady friends with Jeremy Irons? My hope is that she relays Jeremy Irons' first riddle to the contestants and the countdown to the first detonation begins. Instead, she tells them to get in the helicopter. Brooke begins weeping. She says a helicopter represents the sum total of all her fears added together, because she famously is so afraid of spinning blades and vertical lift and seat belts and woman pilots. Helicopters are, of course, the cruise ships of the sky, so it is is natural that this is yet another one of her phobias. Does she just not like vehicles? She should not live in LA. Maybe she travels around Los Angeles lying face down in the open flat bed of a truck not allowed to go over five miles per hour. It's like Reverse Speed, for Frightened People.

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The chefs take a breathtaking helicopter ride up the mountain, and after a few minutes the beauty forces even Brooke to unclench her hand from Josh's meaty arm and let herself be astonished. The Xanax she took help. Does she have a prescription? Someone hack the database and sort that out. Helicopters are now Brooke's favorite things in the world, and she thanks God in Heaven that she will not pass on this debilitating rotorcraft fear to her child. Sheldon is mostly impressed by how much snow there is. "I've never seen this much snow in one place," he says, so presumably he's seen this much spread among a bunch of different places. He wishes he had "reefer," and so do I.

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The chefs disembark from the helicopter and are surrounded by so many dogs. Oh my God I love pups. Are they cooking for the dogs? I would very much like to see a Quickfire judged by 100 barking dogs. I think Josh would have a good chance of winning. Or do the chefs have to use the dogs as a main ingredient? I do not support kennel-to-table cooking, no matter how local it may be in Alaska. It turns out the sled dogs are the chefs' transporation to their final destination, and I fully expect Brooke to lose her mind over a different way of getting around. Instead, she is thrilled by sled dogs, as she should be. I don't know a lot about the Iditarod but I can't imagine the dogs love it. Like, I bet they'd really like it if they weren't dragging the sort of people I imagine do the Iditarod. "Can we just do this race ourselves? We know where we're going," they say, in dog.

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The chefs find Padma and Tom standing in the snow. Padma is dressed in one of the dogs they just rode in on. "Dear Chefs, for this week's Quickfire, you think you own whatever land you land on, that the Earth is just a dead thing you can claim. But thanks to our friends at Healthy Choice, I know every rock and tree and creature has a life, has a spirit, has a name." The chefs have 30 minutes to cook a meal, with whatever they can find, to serve to the hungry Iditarod drivers training up at this camp. I bet those sled pilots are not as hungry as the dogs. The dogs do the running. How hard is it to say, "Mush"? Tom jokes to the chefs about how they can imagine the sort of food they normally get at a training camp on the top of a mountain. Josh thinks to himself that it might be interesting to not mess with that format; hopefully Josh can find himself some frozen ham and cheese croissants and then serve them chopped up in waffle cones.

There is much hustling back and forth between the kitchen tent and the ingredient tent, and the movement and altitude are especially hard on "Team Husky," as Sheldon and Josh have named themselves. They are so winded they lay down in the snow and die of exposure twice while looking for eggs. And boy is Josh looking for eggs. He's gonna make breakfast, again. He's makes a cornmeal cake and other stuff you put on a breakfast thing, like eggs. Except all his waddling has left him with little time, and he foregoes over-easy eggs for scrambled. This breakfast is really turning into something you or I would be disappointed to make on a weekday. Brooke and Sheldon both cook halibut. They both "pan-roast" it by roasting it in a pan. It's wild stuff. Brooke can't keep her pan hot but maybe it's because she's nearly outdoors in a mountain on the top of Alaska, who knows? Life's crazy and one of Brooke's fears is understanding how weather works.

All the Iditarod racers are total surf-snowbros, and their reviews of the food are all "Pow!", "Tubed!" and "Gnar-gnar!" Josh's eggs are not fully scrambled but the racers are into it. Tom is not. Sheldon's fish has a tomato sauce with sesame bok choy and pickled radish, and a dude with very white teeth likes it, but the winner is Brooke's halibut and bread salad with a red currant & beet vinaigrette. It only looks okay, but Brooke sure is good at winning challenges. She wins so many. Remember that Matthew McConaughey gambling movie called Two for the Money? In the trailer Al Pacino says, "He's a machine, all he does is work out and pick winners." Brooke is like that except with winning challenges and slightly less working out.

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Padma gets in the driver's seat to take the chefs back to their house, and I don't think I'm alone in being more afraid for their lives here than when they were in that tiny glass bubble with a fan on top that flies them through the mountains on a pillow of air. Sheldon can't believe Padma is driving. He rightly assumes she gets chaffeured around everywhere. Magical Elves gamely edits out fourteen instances of Padma yelling, "Go to House!" at the cruise control and careening the car into a ditch.

Back at the house, the chefs find a set dinner table and two scrubs working in their kitchen: some nobody named Emeril Lagasse and also food truck innovator Roy Choi, of the famed Kogi BBQ. Emeril and Roy are making the chefs lunch. This meal will be all about origin stories. Emeril got his cooking superpowers when he was hit by a truck filled with radioactive waste in Fall River, Massachusetts and he found himself transformed into someone whose background was Portuguese, French, Italian, Bostonian, and New Orleanian all at once.

Roy Choi, as he washes rice for his short rib stew, explains how every time he washes rice, he tries to imbue it with spirituality of all the other ancestors that came before it, or something. I totally understand how personal and spiritual food preparation could be. At the beginning of last night's episode, I ate a buffalo chicken sandwich with leftovers, because my favorite flavors are hot sauce and blue cheese, and while I was watching my girlfriend came home a little drunk and dumped out Veggie Stix into a bowl of Trader Joe's tomato soup. As you can see, our bodies are temples and each bite we take is a tiny parishioner worshipping at the idol of our palates, or something.

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As the chefs sit down to a lunch of stew and cornbread, Roy and Emeril speak about their culinary pasts. Emeril got his start working at a bakery as a ten-year old, and the Portuguese bakers liked him and taught him how to bake. Roy gets emotional and talks about his rough life on the street, and how at rock bottom seeing Emeril's face turned his whole future around. He cleaned up and got into cooking. The story is intense and Emeril was not prepared to hear it. He tries to nod and pay the right amount of attention, but I think I can see his brain wondering if he could pay Roy to knock off an ex-wife or something. Padma does not share her own culinary origin story, because it probably involves a brand consultant telling her agents how the intersection of fashion and cooking is an untapped niche.

These stories segue to this week's Elimination Challenge: they'll cook the dish that inspired their culinary careers. And they'll also be cooking it for the Governor of Alaska and his wife. I hope they ride "snow machines" to dinner! Man, it's crazy how much Sarah Palin was a thing. I miss Todd Palin. That guy "got it." What a face and everything. Speaking of births of things, Josh's situation comes to a head, or a crown if you will, and boy will I, when he gets word from his wife that her water has just broken. I bust this guy's balls a lot, but it is genuinely heart-wrenching to watch him have to talk to his wife on a cell phone while she's thousands of miles away birthing their child. Poor guy. It's for the good of the family, and she says to him, "If you're still competing I hope you're winning!" And he's silent. His wife is nearly in labor and he's not allowed to break his Top Chef NDA. Magical Elves is brutal. Luckily, all goes well, and after a sleepless night for Josh, and presumably his wife, she presents him over Skype with a beautiful baby girl named Georgia, named after his father, Bistro George.

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Josh's love of cooking stems from his love of cutting weight for high school wrestling. He remembers being on an exercise bike in a sauna, presumably wearing a trash bag suit and spitting into a cup, and flipping through a Food & Wine magazine. I bet that went over super-well on the wrestling team. "Don't give Josh a hard time. It makes perfect sense. He can't eat his mom's cooking on account of weigh-ins, so he's reading a gourmet publication with multiple wine columns." He read about foie gras and could not believe he'd ever be near such a thing. He tells Tom he later learned about making a torchon from a chef that used to work under Tom. Tom says, "You're probably making my recipe." Oh. Sheldon is making a fish dish inspired by Sam Choi, the Julia Child of Hawaiian television. Brooke struggles to conceptualize what she's doing, because apparently she "always" wanted to be a chef. No you didn't, you liar. She loosely connects her mom's chicken braises to when she decided she liked food. It's a stretch.

Sheldon falls under the curse of "listening to Tom." When Sheldon explains his pan-roasted rockfish dish during one of Tom's visits to the kitchen, Tom warns him not to make it too early, a common mistake for competitors on the show. So instead Sheldon makes it at the last second, and he over-reduces his dashi with no time left to correct it. The fish, according to the judges, is spectacularly well-cooked, but they can't get over him making a mistake like ruined dashi. Josh puts down foie gras three ways: a torchon, seared, and in a pastry. It's a lot on the plate, and Tom is baffled he'd try to pull off a torchon in a few hours, something that normally takes days. "It has nothing to do with how good a chef you are; it's impossible!" Brooke serves a braised chicken and, connecting it to her culinary evolution, grilled quail, alongside barley and pickled vegetables and a bunch of stuff. It seems simple, but it's not. Everyone's impressed. Roy knows her from LA, and he explains that she's always been a prodigy out there. She slam dunks another challenge and heads back to the kitchen a winner. She wastes no time cracking open a bottle of wine. 

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Sheldon made the mistake of serving an overseasoned dish, and Josh made the mistake of preparing a dish too out of his reach with an ingredient that, as Tom put it, he really didn't understand. The latter is a graver mistake, and the judges send Josh home. A sad end for this guy, but at least he gets to go home to his new baby. Everyone else is excited to go home too. Josh can't wait to make Georgia her first pork belly breakfast sandwich, and Brooke and Sheldon can't wait to see who won this week's Last Chance Kitchen. Next week begins what I imagine is a 16-part finale.

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