I've been seeing Christmas ads on television for weeks, so it only seems fitting that Top Chef decides Thanksgiving will come early, too. Even weirder is that this episode probably filmed in the summer (based on everyone's sweating), so the chefs and judges must have felt extra out of whack. It's like when stores decide that mid-February they are getting rid of the winter clothes and only selling shorts and tank tops and you're thinking, "Well, I broke a frozen piece of my hair off yesterday coming home from the gym, but yeah, show me something in a halter."
Former Top Chef contestant and Boston celebrity chef Tiffani Faison shows up at the apartment to surprise the contestants. She's taking them to see something special, beautiful, and unique to the area. Since they're in Boston, I thought it might be a drunk guy in a Starter jacket, but then I remembered we have those in every city and it's more of a numbers game. She actually brings them outside the city to a cranberry bog.
Tiffani introduces cranberry grower Adrienne Mollor from the Ocean Spray Co-operative (right, like Bravo would feature anything that wasn't a sponsor). They explain how the cranberries are grown and that the six million in the bog are ready for harvest. Adam Harvey jokingly asks, "Did you count?" I don't know what it is about Adam, but I feel like I'm supposed to hate him. I feel like between the chest tattoos and the nose ring and the American flag bandana that his overwhelming hipness would elicit a major eye-roll from me (side note: I have a nose ring and tattoos, so it's probably more self-hate than anything else). But no, I really really really like Adam as a contestant. He's clearly talented, he has a positive and supportive attitude, and I genuinely enjoy when he's on screen. There, I'm team Adam.
In this pre-challenge, the chefs must race in and out of the bog filling up containers. The first four to fill theirs will receive an advantage in the Quickfire. Katsuji Tanabe has an early lead that quickly falls apart when he gets tired after the first leg. The challenge is a bit like suicide runs through water while carrying heavy buckets. I wouldn't be surprised if somehow this became the next Crossfit-esque exercise craze, because it looks tiring as hell.
The first four to fill their buckets are Katie Weinner, Adam, Gregory Gourdet, and Doug Adams, in that order.
Back in the kitchen, Padma Lakshmi, in her most outdoorsy jeans and leather belt, introduces the Ocean Spray (duh) Quickfire Challenge. The chefs must create dishes highlighting the flavor of cranberries. The four winners of the bog race get to use the side of the pantry that is stocked with high quality ingredients, while everyone else will be cooking with ingredients that are a bit more basic — and I don't mean that they wear Uggs.
Tiffani and Padma taste all of the dishes. They don't love Katsuji's steak tartare with cranberry salsa because he used a skirt steak, which is way too tough for a tartare unless cut very small. Another low point is Stacy Cogswell's curry cauliflower soup with smoky pepper and cranberry relish because it's underseasoned and "a bit clunky." They also don't really care for Adam's dish, but mostly because he set them up to hate it telling them all of the things that went wrong for him while cooking.
There were some excellent dishes among the group though. Doug's borbon and cranberry glazed tenderloin just tasted like fall and Mei Lin's sweet and sour pork with mustard seeds and apple salad wowed both Padma and Tiffani. The winner of the Quickfire Challenge and the one with immunity from elimination, however, is Katie for her cranberry borscht with charred brussels sprouts and pancetta. Katie has been a bit of a dark horse in this competition. At the start she seemed so destined to fail thanks to her lack of fine dining credits and her too-simple midwestern fare. In the last few episodes, though, she's really proved she has the chops (ugh, I'm sorry) to hang in this competition.
Now it's time for the elimination challenge, which is all about Thanksgiving. The chefs will travel to the Plymouth Plantation and as a group prepare a traditional Thanksgiving feast. This isn't traditional like a Norman Rockwell painting or a Martha Stewart Living spread. This will be traditional in the sense that most of the people that would have attended this kind of dinner would have their cause of death just be "winter" or "woman."
At the apartment, Stacy is feeling a bit down about constantly being on the bottom. She video chats with her boyfriend, a marine (she thinks) currently deployed overseas. It put a bit in perspective both for her, and for me. Sometimes watching these shows when contestants miss their loved ones I start to feel bad for them for being forced to be separated. Then I remember that some people aren't separated from their friends and family to live in a high rise and cook food for famous people, but to defend our country in a dangerous area of the world. Thanks for doing that, Stacy's boyfriend.
The Plymouth Plantation is pretty much what you'd expect, and I imagine when they aren't filming reality shows, there are lots of elementary school field trips roaming around. Instead of their normal environs of high-end Kenmore appliances, the chefs must use what, presumably, the cooks of the first Thanksgiving used: fire pits, wooden spoons, and buckets of water.
These challenges always remind me that this is an entertaining reality show first, cooking competition second. They are trying to find the most talented chefs in the country. When, in a career of precise food preparation and fine-dining executions, are you ever going to walk into your restaurant kitchen and see that your normal set-up has been replaced by early-American-settler-era cooking tools?
Keriann Von Raesfeld originally set out to do a blueberry pie, but, realizing she couldn't chill the crust, switched gears and instead uses the pie filling as a sauce for a venison dish. That's a pretty big 180. She may as well have thought, "Well, the blueberry pie isn't working, so instead I'm going to build a shed."
The judges' table is a mix of culinary experts and, I guess, Thanksgiving experts? Along with Padma, Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, and guest judge Ken Oringer, are descendants of both the Wampanoag tribe and the Mayflower pilgrims. The table settings, like the cooking, are based on what was available at the first Thanksgiving, which includes a lot of mismatched pottery and plates. It looks more like those really forced modern table settings that are trying to seem rustic and like they aren't trying too hard. The whole thing is one thin blonde in a $300 apron dress away from being the cover of an Anthropologie catalog.
Doug serves first in his group and presents a spit-roasted rabbit with garlic, ramps, hazelnut and chestnut. The judges all love the dish. They also enjoy Katsuji's roasted pumpkin with poached lobster, chestnut, and ancho chili butter.
The judges like Stacy's ramp-smoked clams with butternut squash and lobster, and Tom commends her for finally cooking the way she should be. One issue is a musty taste that Gail and Ken pick up on, which is possibly dirt because Stacy plated her dish on the ground in, well, dirt. Melissa's roasted parsnips, green beans and zucchini with ramp and onion vinaigrette have a nice flavor, but are nothing special as she made the only dish without a protein.
Before serving, Gregory struggles to get his goose cooked properly so it isn't so chewy. Goose is a tricky dish to do in two hours with only cast iron and an open flame. But Gregory thought it was important to have a bird on the table. That's a Thanksgiving tradition, like mashed potatoes, or passive-aggressively asking your 30-year-old daughter why she didn't bring a guest again this year.
The second group serves their dishes and the entire table loves Adam's succotash with beans, corn, squash, wilted spinach and spiced goat milk. They also love Katie's blueberry stuffing with blue cornmeal, cornbread, and sauteed lobster, though no one can really explain why it actually works.
Mei's duck fat roasted cabbage with trout vinaigrette is another hit across the table. Despite having to completely re-conceptualize her dish, Keriann's venison loin with blueberry compote works. Golden-child Gregory doesn't deliver with his goose, which everyone agrees is chewy and dry.
This judges' table is particularly tough since there were no obvious failures. All of the dishes were actually good. Sure, there were a few missteps, but nothing that would necessarily send someone home any other week.
Doug, Katsuji, and Mei have the top three dishes of the night, though Katsuji is the overall winner.
The bottom three is Melissa, Stacy, and Gregory. It would be truly shocking to see Gregory go home for his well-seasoned but poorly cooked goose, seeing as he's won almost every other challenge. Between Melissa and Stacy, it could really be either. Both have been toward the bottom recently, both had slight problems with their final dishes in this challenge, and both had segments in this episode where they showed emotion about their girlfriend and boyfriend, which is usually a sure-fire sign you're on your way out the door.
In the end, Stacy is sent home, which isn't probably far away because she's from Boston.
Now that we've celebrated Top Chef Thanksgiving, real Thanksgiving is just around the corner. I'm thankful for so many things this year, but more than anything, I'm glad this episode aired a week early and I can spend my Wednesday before Thanksgiving next week doing what I normally do to prepare: baking chocolate chip cookies, taking Xanax, and coming up with ways to artfully dodge personal questions from my family.