I turned 30 yesterday, and after a night of celebrating, I'm very much feeling my age today. It's all downhill from here. I'm done. I mean, what have I accomplished so far? When I was nine and on vacation with my parents in Orlando, we happened to be staying at the same motel as Woody Harrelson not longer after the success of White Men Can't Jump. I do not know why he was staying at a ratty motel, but I think he was touring with his band, Manly Moondog and the Three Kool Kats. (That was really his band. In my memory it was "Woody and the Moon Dogs" but I just looked it up and the real name was even dumber.) Anyway, I got his autograph poolside. It said "To Matt - keep hoopin'." I am thinking I probably peaked that day. From here on out, my life is a montage of sighing as I sit down and icing my aching joints and soaking my throbbing ankles. I am like Stefan on his 40th, staring vacantly into the mirror and rubbing wrinkle creams all over my brow. There are not enough creams in the world to un-furrow this brow, and now no one knows that better than Stefan.
Stefan's absence leaves the remaining competitors gasping for charisma. They all eulogize him like he's dead. "He was very good-hearted." "Yes, he was so good-hearted." They nod and cry and Sheldon plays "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" on his ukelele like everyone from Hawaii with that instrument knows how to do. Josh seems to miss Stefan more than he misses his wife, who at this point is past her due date. Maybe Stefan will be reincarnated as Josh's child. I imagine they'll both be bald, critical of Josh's cooking, and very into nursing.
The chefs dock in Juneau, and Sheldon marvels at this paradise, which to me seems like a giant open-air prison where the prisoners get a check for $1,100 every year just for living there. But I hear the fishing is good. Sheldon never thought he'd make it to Alaska; I've never been to Alaska or Hawaii but I imagine there is a shared connection between residents of the two states, because of how they look weird on textbook maps. Prizes listed at the end of game shows are never valid for those outside the 48 continental United States; does that make Alaska and Hawaii incontintental states? I think that means they are states where sometimes they just go in their pants.
Padma introduces the chefs to James Beard-winning chef Sean Brock. Sean Brock cooks at Charleston's Husk, and that restaurant is well-known for redefining modern Southern cuisine. This intimidates Josh, who nervously starts brainstorming ways to add bacon to his hat to impress Chef Brock. The chefs are at Tracy's King Crab Shack, "Juneau's #1 culinary destination." They are also literally steps from where their cruise ship docked, which is a funny place for a city's most famous restaurant to be. It's as if people land in Juneau to grab something from Tracy's and then immediately leave to eat it, like if the Burger King in the Port Authority was New York's #1 culinary destination, which it is if you are addicted to huffing. The contestants have 30 minutes to create a dish highlighting Alaskan king crab. Brock says, "I've been on a flight for 13 hours just to eat this Alaskan crab. Don't let me down." No, you have been on a flight that long to appear on Top Chef and promote your brand.
Poor Josh. He is all over the place. His wife is due to go into labor, his hat needs dry-cleaning, and he's trying to cook crab in half an hour to impress Chef Brock, his culinary idol. It does not go well. Butter-poached king crab sounds great, but he serves succotash to a succotash snob and the snob is not impressed. His butter sauce is broken, and as if that wasn't enough, "the bacon was unnecessary." His mustache curls up and falls off. Lizzie goes full-cruise ship and makes a crab frittata, which sounds like the most expensive thing on a hotel room service menu. Brock thinks it's a little overcooked. He likes Brooke's crab toast, though; he says he didn't want to like it, because crab toasts are sort of obvious these days, but it was "flat out delicious." The winner, though, is the contestant that went bold with the crab: Sheldon made a miso out of the innards of the crab, and he used pine needles to smoke some asparagus to serve alongside the meat. He wins five grand.
Alaska's oldest culinary tradition is fish and bread, which is sort of an odd combo. Maybe it's not. I was raised being told that you weren't supposed to eat crusty bread with fish, because the crusts made it hard to tell if you were also eating bones, but maybe all the transients, ex-cons, and disgraced veterans who populate Alaska got a taste for bones in prison. There's a long history of sourdough in Alaska, and during the Gold Rush, miners kept sourdough starters in their packs. I feel like if you were really serious about finding gold, a nice sourdough should not be anywhere near the top of your priorities. It should be well behind "murdering hikers sniffing too close to your claim" and "doing your best to avoid cannibalism." Maybe that's why Alaska isn't "The Golden State"; it's motto is actually "North to the Future." I preferred "North to the Future 2," where Marty gets to skate on a hover-board.
In this week's Elimination, the chefs will highlight salmon and sourdough at the annual Gold Creek Salmon Bake, which genuinely sounds like my kind of picnic. Top Chef, why are you not sending me to all these things? Because I've shat on your show for going on five or six years? Grow up. The chefs get to work on their sourdough first, and they arrive at their Alaska lodgings — a pretty, bright house that looks like where Stepmom was filmed — to find four huge tubs of sourdough starter from a local bakery. It's a lot of starter. Sheldon says, "One meeelllion loaves!" like in Austin Powers, and if it was anyone but Sheldon I'd get really grossed out, but coming from him, I love it. I am going to bring that back. "Yeah, baby." Josh, meanwhile, is defeated. "I'm done with bacon, apparently." This season has been the slow erosion of his confidence in every one of his specialties. It's like the plot of a boring culinary revenge movie. Everybody makes bread but Sheldon makes it with Asian spices, because he is Sheldon. Then they all sit around and wait, because bread takes a while. Sheldon says, "Hurry up, bread," the way I might say, "Hurry up, season." There's nothing you can to make it go any faster, Sheldon. Trust me.
The chefs head to the docks to pick out their salmon. Note that they don't do any fishing here; they just wait for the fished fish to be dumped in front of them, and then they choose which one they want by what face it makes when they poke it or whatever. I guess they smell the fish. None of them really knows what they are doing. Josh, standing inches from the ocean, says "They don't smell like anything but the ocean." My dad always said always walk right out of a fish market that smells like fish. He also hated men who wore hats indoors or grew facial hair, so Josh should have listened to more of his advice. Josh says that standing here and picking out fish is his favorite experience so far on Top Chef. He should go back to Seattle and work at that market.
Everybody cooks at the Salmon Bake, and Josh ruins my appetite with words like "contractions" and "dilations." There is schmoozing with guests, who all seem nice and very chill. Hardly an eye patch in the bunch. Maybe I was wrong about Alaska. They have facial hair and sip craft beers and like salmon and fog. They were all probably outsiders in high school. No joke, there is a bear in the trees just feet away from the picnic. Tom jokes, "That's my fan base," referring to how stocky, bearded gay men enjoy the way his face and body look, but Padma probably doesn't get it. I'm sure she made a terrible joke about Yogi Bear that got edited out, and she probably doesn't know that Yogi Bear is a reference to the baseball player. Padma and Tom are joined by Sean Brock, Emeril, Gail, and Hugh Acheson. I wonder if Hugh and Sean like each other. Is there room for two modern Southern chefs with an average of 1.5 eyebrows apiece at the Top Chef judging table?
Brooke serves a poached salmon in a seafood broth with mustard seed caviar and a dill sourdough. The judges seriously dig her bread, but the look of the mustard seeds on her plate is a lot to take. That said, the flavors are great. Sheldon has a green tea and chive sourdough with smoked salmon and pea soup. Padma makes quite a face when she tries the bread; she likes the flavors of green tea and chive but not together, and not in this bread. His broth is too thick and the bread doesn't have much salt. Also, the judges are uneasy with his choice to use chum, a type of salmon mostly fed to dogs, and that he pulled it apart with tongs. Brock says it's disrespectful, but also probably less disrespectful than serving it to dogs, so make up your mind.
Emeril tells a pretty amazing story about one of his cooks keeping his restaurant's sourdough mother alive during Katrina by taking it out of the walk-in and putting it into a cooler for the whole hurricane. I love Emeril. Has anyone thought about giving him a TV show? I'd even just watch a sitcom loosely based on his life where he plays himself. Somebody call Jeff Zucker. Josh has a roasted garlic and sourdough soup with poached sockeye salmon and black olive croutons. The balance is somewhat off; both parts are good on their own, but they don't seem to have anything to do with one another, and the garlic overpowers the delicate fish. Lizzie serves what amounts to a salmon slider. She glazed it in citrus and beet juices but no one can taste that. Her crust is super, but it overpowers the fish.
The chefs face the judges, and boy does it look miserable. It's raining and it's cold and they are outside and I feel like I'm watching a scene in a movie about Siberia where somebody tried to escape and is about to get shot. If anybody is doing the shooting, it's Padma, because she looks drunk. Nobody give her a gun. The judges and the diners agreed: Brooke wins. Green Mountain Coffee is sending her and a guest to Costa Rica. She is far more into this prize than that cruise she also won. "I don't want my son to live in fear of Costa Rica."
At this point in the competition, everybody thinks Lizzie could have come up with something a little more impressive than a fish sandwich. Like, if you're going to do a fish sandwich, it should be such a good, Top Chef-worthy fish sandwich. Hers wasn't. She's headed home, and she seems a little relieved. Padma yells, "So nice to meet you, Lizzie!" Huh? Even Lizzie's like, "Uh, you too."