We have reached the unlucky week 13 on Top Chef. Perhaps that is the reason this episode was so tremendously tense and dramatic. Or possibly it was because the lovely Carrie Mashaney was eliminated last week. Or maybe it was the polar vortex tightening its frigid grip over most of the country.
(Yes I understand how television and timing work and am fully aware that the contestants and judges had no idea that a life ruining cold snap would plague most of the country when the episode aired, but really, it's all I can really think about as I write this recap sitting on a space heater, which seems super safe.)
The episode starts with Nick Elmi criticizing Carlos Gaytan — not to his face, of course — for only cooking Mexican food so far for challenges. Ever since the Great Oven Wars and Knife-gate, Nick has had it out for Carlos. He shows his rage the only way he knows how: being slightly more unfriendly to Carlos than to everyone else.
In the kitchen, Jacques Pépin greets the chefs for their Quickfire Challenge. He's wearing an apron, which is odd for guest judges on the show. The judges and the challenges are usually like me and any fight between my friends: watch but don't get involved. For the challenge, the chefs must recreate Jacques's favorite dish, dover sole with artichokes and asparagus, which he will first prepare for them. The winner earns immunity, though everyone thought it was a bit late in the game for immunity to still be on the table.
Carlos is very excited that Jacques Pépin is the guest judge because he "follows him on Facebook." I don't understand that logic. Here are some people and things I follow on Facebook: people I went to high school with, a guy who dumped me via text, and Planned Parenthood. I wouldn't be excited to see any of them.
Pépin prepares his favorite dish with grace and ease. He skins the sole, chops the vegetables, and cooks it all perfectly before finishing it off with a butter rose. Nick and Shirley Chung both feel confident going into the Quickfire because they both have French technique backgrounds.
Carlos never went to cooking school, so he struggles with the challenge, as does Stephanie Cmar. Apparently, the proper way to remove the skin from dover sole is in one clean pull, kind of like ripping off a piece of plastic wrap using the metal teeth on the box. Stephanie cannot do this and spends most of her time in the challenge trying to remove the skin. Nina Compton is pretty confident in her skills until with five minutes left she realizes that she never turned on the burners for her fish.
Jacques and Padma Lakshmi go around the room and see that the chefs completed the dish to varying degrees. The bottom are Brian Huskey, Stephanie, and Carlos. Pépin's favorites are Nick and Shirley. In the end Nick wins the Quickfire and thus immunity from elimination.
To introduce the Elimination Challenge, Padma brings in Julian Serrano and Dominique Crenn, representing Spanish and French cooking, respectively. They will each coach a team of three chefs to make a five course meal of their styles. The chefs will use ingredients common to both cuisines: olives, almonds, mussels, chicken, and chocolate. Add in whiskey and Baked Lays and that's basically my entire diet.
The chefs draw knives to find their teams. On the French team is Nick, Shirley, and Stephanie. On the Spanish team is Nina, Brian, and Carlos. Obviously the French team seems stacked with three stand outs and Nick and Shirley being trained in French cooking.
I'm having a hard time picking an early favorite here when it comes down to France or Spain. The cuisine of France features some of my favorite things like rich cheeses, pate, and bread. Spain, however, has chorizo and other cured meats. France has obnoxious pretentiousness, which I love and am great at, yet Spain has a whole culture centered around midday naps. And both countries drink a lot of wine. I can't decide, I'll leave it up to the chefs to make the decision for me.
After planning menus the teams go to Whole Foods. While team France is buying up all the cornish game hens and chicken liver they can find, Julian is wandering around the store looking for Nina and the rest of team Spain like a child who wandered off from his mother because he saw the candy aisle.
Since Nick has immunity, he takes on a lot of the French team's responsibility. He decides to make two courses, a chicken and chocolate dish with a corn silk nest as well as the dessert. Mastering the culinary concepts for both modern and traditional French cooking is difficult for all of the chefs, so they toast the end of day one with Dominique with white wine. Everyone is drinking out of a wine glass, except for Shirley, who is drinking out of a resealable plastic tub. It's like, Shirley, where do you think you are? My apartment on a Monday?
Before going to the kitchen for day two, Stephanie says, "I'm nervous this morning, but I'm nervous every morning," which I could not identify with more. Though I don't wake up nervous about being sent home, I'm nervous about having to leave home. Carlos misses his family and calls them on a flip phone. Carlos, this isn't Breaking Bad. Go to the Apple Store. Nick is confident but says that he knows everyone is leaning on him. He has quickly gone in my mind from "hot Jason's bro" to "good chef I think" to "kind of unpleasant guy who I feel is getting a little screwed over by other contestants" to "cocky jerk."
The judges enter the dining room at R'Evolution. At the table is Padma, Jacques, Emeril Lagasse, Tom Colicchio, Rick Tramonto, John Folse, as well as the coaches Dominique and Julian.
The first course is Shirley's snapper ceviche with dehydrated olives and olive oil ice cream against Nina's potato salad with green olives and gulf shrimp. The judges enjoy both, though are very impressed with how traditional and flavorful Nina's salad is.
The second course is Stephanie's pickled and poached mussels in crustacean jus and tomato. Having such success with mussels in the home cooking challenge a few episodes ago, it makes sense she took on the mussel dish. She didn't disappoint, and the judges, especially Tom, really enjoyed the flavor of her mussels. For the Spanish team, Carlos presents Nina's ajo blanco with almonds, crab, and cherries which gets a great response from the table.
For the third course, Shirley and Stephanie collaborated to create a chicken liver mousse with roasted chicken bouillon. The judges are floored and Padma calls it the best bite of the night. On the Spanish team, Carlos prepared mussels a la romesco with crispy leeks, which the judges enjoy but find to be a bit one note.
The fourth course is Nick's dish. He did a cornish game hen with a spiced chocolate sauce and a corn silk nest. Stephanie did not like or understand the nest and wanted to take it off the plate, but it was Nick's dish and he had immunity. To me it seemed like a dish made of things I really like on their own but would never combine. It's like a Long Island Iced Tea. You get why all of the parts are good, but together they'll arguably make you want to throw up.
Julian pushes his plate away and scowls at Nick's dish. While Dominique praises it for being envelope pushing, Julian shoots back, "You like that?" which is a totally fair question. As Julian and Dominique argue, Tom and Emeril sit on the side chuckling. Hey Bravo, if you run out of drunk 45 year-olds who think they have interesting lives and want to start dog Botox clinics, maybe make a show of just Emeril laughing. Non-stop joy.
The Spanish team made chicken and saffron rice. The judges enjoy it, but claim it is a bit one-note. Though it in no way earns the hate that Nick's dish does. Haute cuisine, like haute couture, is tricky. Yes, I can appreciate something avant garde and outside the box, but am I really ever going to wear a rhinestone encrusted lace bodysuit with a metallic floor-length cape? No, I'll stick to cashmere sweaters, thanks.
The fifth and final course is dessert, and both teams made flan. This is Top Chef, not Top Flan. Nick prepared the French team's dessert, which was almond flan with plums two ways and cocoa. Brian made the Spanish team's flan, which was a straightforward and traditional chocolate flan with strawberries.
I want to say, "Back at Judges' Table," but the chefs don't go back to Judges' Table, Padma just calls them in to the dining room of the restaurant where they will face their criticism roughly two feet away from the judges rather than the standard half-mile that it seems like in the studio.
The first team called back is the Spanish team. They are the favorite of the evening as they cooked the overall best meal for the judges. The real winner of the evening should be Jacques Pépin's bow-tie. The actual winner is Nina as they loved her potato salad and her garlic and crab soup.
The French team goes back for their critique. The judges all thought that Stephanie and Shirley's chicken liver and consume was the best dish of the evening, and their other dishes were very good as well. The team is on the bottom because Nick's two dishes were the worst dishes they had all night.
As Tom explains to Nick how absolutely terrible his "chocolate chicken" was, Nick clearly begins to get upset and unable to handle the criticism, even though he knows he has immunity. Then Tom says, "It's about to get worse," as they tear into his flan. All Nick can say in response is, "Thank you, chef," which is of course the mature and professional thing to do, yet he still makes it sound pretty douchey.
Jacques Pépin is upset that they have to eliminate one of the two chefs who created the best dish of the night. He suggests to Nick that perhaps his team should not be penalized for him, and that he should resign from the competition. The other judges agree that he should but Nick believes his performance in the Quickfire earned him that immunity and he would not be stepping down. Look, if Jacques Pépin tells you to quit, you should quit.
Both Shirley and Stephanie are upset, and rightfully so, that one of them will be sent home for this challenge. They both say that if they were in Nick's position that they would resign. I totally get why they are saying that, but it's easy to say that you'd do the right thing when you aren't in the position to have to actually do it. Like when I wanted to break up with my boyfriend I told everyone that I was going to calmly sit down with him and talk out our relationship problems like two adults. Instead I sent him a string of knife emojis at 2am followed by a drunk and cryptic, "i kno where you live ashole."
Forced to make a real Sophie's Choice, the judges send Stephanie home. Everyone is sad and crying, though Stephanie is not mad or dramatic, she just decides to kill it in Last Chance Kitchen and come back with a vengeance. I hope she does. And I hope Nick carries the guilt of sending her home with him until she beats him in the finale.