It's the second week of the season of Top Chef and we are already down two. Writing that was tricky and felt unnatural, because I wanted to write "down to" as in "down to party" or "down to make out in a bar after two and a half whiskeys" or "down to pass out on my bed with my house keys still in my hand." But, here we are, with fourteen of the original sixteen chefs still in the running.
We join them immediately after the elimination, all in the stew room jacked up on adrenaline, relief, and whatever white wine Bravo buys in bulk from Costco to keep its shows interesting. Aaron Grissom and Keriann Von Raesfeld argue about their dishes and cooking styles despite neither of them being up for elimination. Hmm, I wonder if the producers mean this fight to be an amuse bouche for a full meal of bickering to come this episode, or if this is like a free sample of frozen yogurt, where you have a taste but never actually get anything.
This episode we finally get a peek at the Top Chef house where most of the chefs feel comfortable walking around nearly naked. James Rigato reveals his bewildering Patrick Swayze tattoo on his upper arm. He claims the actor is a hero. We all have heroes. Mine happens to be Mariah Carey (a fact unrelated but pleasantly coincidental to her hit single, "Hero"), but I'm not off to permanently embed her likeness into my skin. Yet.
The chefs arrive at the kitchen to see judge Padma Lakshmi and chef Todd English. Snare drum music plays in the background signaling that, of course, this Quickfire Challenge will be Revolutionary war themed. Padma starts reciting some history about Paul Revere's ride and then quizzes the chefs about which famous phrase came from that event. The answer is "one if by land, two if by sea." The original phrase refers to the number of candles that will be lit depending on how the British soldiers arrive in Boston. Here, it's more of a surf or turf thing.
The chefs must start preparing dishes, and throughout the time either one lantern or two will light up, signaling to the chefs they must grab an item from either the land or sea tables. There is no immunity but there is $5,000 on the line for the winner.
One lantern lights up and the chefs race to the land table. Items are first come, first serve. Also, the table isn't just land proteins like beef or pork or eggs, it's also pretzels, jam, and Velveeta cheese (which was so conveniently advertised during every commercial break, because product placement). The chefs are thrown by the ingredients and uncertainty as Adam Harvey yells from his station, "I feel so lost, I want my mommy." We all do, Adam, we all do.
The land lantern turns on again and the chefs rush over to pick another ingredient from the same table, this time with obviously less appealing options than the first go-around. During what is now very much reminding me of suicide runs from my days as an athlete (which was before I discovered that you can buy and drink wine just like, whenever you want), Katie Weinner collides with Katsuji Tanabe, spilling the his chili halfway through the challenge and forcing him to start over.
Finally, the two lanterns light up and the chefs sprint toward the "sea" table to pick their ingredients. Adam is deep in concentration on his dish and misses this commotion, leaving him last to choose and getting stuck with dried crab snack. He tried one and didn't die, so went with it. That's the kind of attitude I like to see in someone: settling for just above death. It's a common personality trait in many of my exes, too.
Time is up and Padma and Todd taste the dishes. One highlight of the challenge is Katsuji's poached sweetbreads with uni, caviar, quail egg and hot pepper jam, a dish that Padma notes shows restraint. Another excellent dish is James's sauteed mussels with boar bacon broth. The weak dishes are Joy Crump's marinated skirt steak and veal cutlet and Stacy Cogswell's overcooked pork chop.
The winner of the challenge, though, is James. Congrats, buddy! I hope you use that five grand to get the pottery wheel scene from Ghost tattooed on your calf.
For the Elimination Challenge, Padma welcomes the Boston police and fire department commissioners Bill Evans and John Hasson, respectively. The chefs will be working in teams of three to prepare cohesive dishes for Boston's bravest and finest. But, like most Top Chef challenges and all of the gin martinis I had for lunch yesterday, this comes with a twist.
Normally, the chefs do their Supermarket Sweep-style Whole Foods shopping trip to get ingredients for a challenge, but not this time. The teams will arrive at the restaurant to different boxes of ingredients and must be "first responders" to those items in the kitchen. Look, I have nothing but the utmost respect for police and fire departments of Boston and every city. And I'm thrilled that they are getting attention and a nice evening from the show. What I do have a problem with is using the phrase "first responders" to equate rushing into a dangerous emergency situation to save lives with running up a flight of stairs to find leeks. But maybe that's just me.
The chefs draw knives and see their teams. Mei Lin is already rubbing her temples from stress when she sees her teammates are Katsuji and Katie, both of whom were on the bottom in the last challenge. They do, thankfully, have the luxury of going first, which means they get first pick of the ingredient boxes and have some time to prep in the kitchen while it's not cluttered up by the other lunatics on the show.
The yellow team is Ron Eyester, Melissa King, and Joy, all middling and seemingly even-tempered, so no fireworks there. The blue team is Adam, Gregory Gourdet and Rebecca LaMalfa, another team of reasonable adults with decent cooking skills. Because of the awkward number, the gray team is just Doug Adams and James. The other teams should be instantly jealous of this dynamic. What's the phrase? Two's company, three's a crowd? Whatever, we all know one is ideal.
The last and definitely most interesting team is Aaron, Keriann, and Stacy. We knew from minute one of this episode that Aaron and Keriann disagree, so this is obviously the team to watch. I just don't get how the producers managed to get them on the same team for the challenge when the chefs randomly draw knives. Someone needs to make a special, kind of like those Magic: Secrets Revealed shows, but instead about how reality television producers accomplish these kinds of tricks. Honestly, can someone get on that? I'd watch it more than once.
Back at the house, Aaron, Keriann and Stacy start talking strategy but keep butting heads. Well, it's more Aaron and Keriann yelling, and Stacy just standing in the back with her hands in her hoodie pockets like a kid watching her divorced parents argue who has to take her to soccer practice. "We should at least entertain the idea of hypothetics at this point!" Aaron yells, both making a point and making up a word.
The red team presents their dish to the judges Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, and chef Dante de Magistris, along with Padma and the police officers and firemen of Boston. Together they created a pea coconut puree with sauteed halibut, pickled rhubarb, cherry, and grilled fennel slaw. The judges love the sauce and garnishes and all agree the fish was cooked perfectly. The team worked together harmoniously to create and elegant dish, and it showed.
Next to serve is the blue team with their filet mignon, parsnip puree, pan-seared scallops and marcona vinaigrette. Another hit with the judges and another team that worked well together. This was also the dish from the evening that I think I would have enjoyed the most. Who doesn't love a clever surf and turf combination? Also, pretty much anything would have been better than the cereal I had for dinner while watching this because all of my grocery money is currently tied up in brown liquor and silk blouses.
Third is the gray team, which is just Doug and James. They serve a grilled pork chop with grilled stone fruit salad, morel mushrooms and walnuts. Again, approval from the judges on all fronts. Dante enjoys the dish and notes, "You're two awesome guys." The rest of the table, along with Doug and James, agree. If they don't start a pork-centric food truck or at least a write a buddy-cop movie with that name, then what was the point of any of this?
Joy, Ron, and Melissa of the yellow team are next with their maple and vanilla, wood-roasted veal chop with vanilla scented celery root puree and citrus kale slaw. Before plating, Melissa noticed that many of the veal chops were still rare or undercooked, though Joy wanted them to be medium. There was no time to remedy this, so dishes went out and the veal was almost inedible. Padma made her "I'm not eating this but you guys are still paying me to sit here" face when trying to cut her piece. Aside from being undercooked, the dish was also overwhelmingly flavored with vanilla to the point that it was all anyone could taste.
The green team is last and has to finish their cooking and plating with the rest of the chefs just standing around watching. Aaron and Keriann are all over Stacy about her chicken, screaming around the kitchen about her being in the weeds and them not having plates ready even though she said she was fine and then was. Aaron, however, while plating his marmalade realizes its too watery and decides to heat it up. But nothing could save their pan-roasted chicken breast with bourbon onion chorizo jam and fresh corn salad with serrano chiles. Well, the chicken saved the dish in that the judges agreed it was excellent and surrounded by terrible garnishes. Keriann's salad is unappetizing because of the starchy corn and the raw onion, an element Aaron told her not to use during prep.
The judges ask how they worked as a team and Keriann and Aaron each deliver answers, with Stacy silently in the middle, probably pretty jazzed about all of those chicken compliments. Keriann lied through her teeth and said they worked well as a group before Aaron takes the chance to throw her under the bus about the onion. It felt like culinary Judge Judy.
Back in the kitchen their fighting continues. Aaron, keeps prodding at the argument and revisiting things that can't be changed. Keriann, however, takes passive-aggression to a professional level which I have only ever seen in my family. Respect.
I'm very into the new style of Judges' Table where all of the chefs are in the room and present for the good and the bad, kind of like a Roman Colosseum of criticism. The red team and the blue team are the best dishes of the evening. While the judges agree both are excellent, the blue team wins for their attention to detail.
The bottom two teams are the yellow and green teams, unsurprisingly. While the green team had, to quote Tom, "terrible garnishes" around a very nice piece of chicken, the yellow team had a poorly cooked protein among garnishes that all were flavored like a Bath and Body Works candle. Keriann and Aaron owe Stacy a lot because she saved their team from being on the bottom and eliminated, and Joy is sent home for undercooking her veal chops.
We learned a lot this episode. We learned an undercooked veal chop is worse than warm agar. (Who knew?) We learned Katsuji can make a refined sauce. We learned Aaron never takes off his stupid black hat. Oh, and thanks to Padma we learned a little bit about Paul Revere, too.