If this episode of Top Chef was a CD of soft rock loves songs, it would be called "Chowder and Second Chances." We were on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster this week, and while I'd love to open this recap with a deep reflection on the feelings some of the competitors must have felt through all of the curveballs and let-downs of this episode, it's hard to process any of it when I'm still focused on PADMA'S OVERALLS.
The chefs enter the kitchen to find Padma Lakshmi and her shiny, shiny hair standing before them in a pair of long, denim, weirdly-fitted overalls. The sheer absurdity of her wearing them was all I could focus on when I saw her. She could have said, "I would just like to let everyone know that this whole time I've actually been a pile of bronzer sticks wearing a wig and the real Padma Lakshmi lives in a snow globe and controls the weather," and I would have no idea because all I heard was, "Hi, I'm in overalls and I still look great!"
Padma introduces guest judge Jasper White and explains that the Quickfire Challenge will be, of course, Boston based. The chefs must make their own twist on the classic Boston clam chowder. I'm sorry, Boston clam chowdah. But this isn't any old Quickfire, this is a sudden death Quickfire, and the winner receives immunity in the Elimination Challenge.
With 30 minutes to cook, the chefs run to a table of clams and shellfish. Mei Lin grabs a bucket of littleneck clams, which are perfect for chowder because of their sweeter flavor. Adam Harvey wants in on those and asks Mei to share. Unfortunately, while Mei is grabbing more ingredients, Adam, Melissa King, and possibly other chefs help themselves to the bucket, leaving only 3 for Mei when she returns ready to start her dish. So, instead of the littlenecks, she's forced to use the steamers.
Everyone is playing to their obvious strengths, Katsuji Tanabe is going spicy and Mexican inspired, Gregory Gourdet is doing another coconut broth curry. Katie Weinner rolls the dice on a sourdough and tea-infused dish.
Jasper and Padma enjoy Adam's red wine poached littleneck clams with boiled potatoes, vegetables, and tomato water, which is his take on Manhattan Clam Chowder (a sophisticated nod to New York and a "Fuck you!" to Boston all at once, bravo). They also enjoy Melissa's cioppino chowder with clams, shrimp, garlic, and leeks. Interesting that the two chefs who lifted Mei's clams ended up on top. The winner of the challenge and of immunity, however, is Gregory for his razor clam and sweet potato chowder with bacon, dashi, and coconut milk broth. After a week at the bottom and another in the background, Gregory is back on top where he really belongs.
Padma tells Adam after announcing Gregory's win that it was a very tough choice and he was a very close second. How nice. Was he also just one digit away from winning the Powerball and the last guy someone dated before they got married?
The weakest dishes are Katsuji's oyster chowder with poblano and jalapeno peppers, which overpower the flavor of the oyster, which was a similar problem that Doug had. Ultimately though, the loser of the challenge is Katie for her tea and bread soup (I know it had a more elegant description, but that's what it sounded like).
Katie has to cook for her spot in the competition now or be sent home. In the past, for these challenges the loser chooses which chef they want to battle, but Padma notes that we're mixing things up. In walks Tom Colicchio and the seven previously eliminated chefs all the way up through last week's Keriann Von Raesfeld.
These eliminated chefs can vote for who of them gets to go up against Katie and fight their way back into the competition. Most chefs vote for George Pagonis, who was sent home during the first Quickfire on the first episode, and with his culinary background, deserved another shot.
All of the eliminated chefs look so happy to be back in the kitchen. They have these wide-eyed looks like they've been trapped in some underground, Bravo-owned bunker for weeks, just throwing back Skinny Girl Margaritas and playing solitaire with the housewives whose shows aren't in season and thus can't be exposed to the sun for fear of melting. (Contestants, email me to confirm this is true!)
Katie and George must face off with rabbit dishes. Katsuji is helping and rooting for Katie, because it's a devil you know versus devil you don't moving forward if George re-enters the competition.
Having only competed in one very brief Quickfire Challenge before elimination, George clearly isn't used to the harried pace and high pressure the way Katie is. Even though he sweats through the challenge (both figuratively and a LOT literally), the judges like his roasted rabbit loin with barley risotto, glazed carrots, and mustard rabbit jus more than they like Katie's braised rabbit leg with moroccan tomato sauce, so Katie is sent packing and George rejoins the competition.
It's hard to say after a brief re-entry challenge whether or not he's at an advantage or disadvantage now entering the competition while the others have been trudging through challenge after challenge. On the one hand, he's not used to the speed and the kitchen and just the general state-of-mind you must need to be in to stay sharp during some of these ordeals. On the other hand, he's fresh, rested, and has an arsenal of dishes and techniques that the judges have not yet seen.
With the new line-up of contestants waiting, Padma brings out fellow judges Gail Simmons and Richard Blais to explain the Elimination Challenge. She says that they are going to do something that they haven't done in 11 seasons of the show? Then I screamed at my TV, "BE ENTERTAINING?" Sorry Pads, you can't set me up like that. Anyway, she says that they are kicking open the kitchen doors and inviting 75 Top Chef super fans into the kitchen to taste what the chefs create. I don't know if she said, "kicking open the doors," or if that's just what I inferred from the overalls, but either way, that's the challenge.
There's another twist though, the four judges will actually be doing the shopping at Whole Foods instead of the contestants. I'm sure Padma hasn't been in a grocery store doing her own food shopping since the Clinton administration, so this should be a real treat.
Sure enough, I was right, all of the judges act like it's their first time in a store of any kind. Padma seems hesitant, kind of waiting for someone to shop for her. I can only assume that once the cameras turned toward someone else, a team of people filled her cart for her while she walked around the produce section slowly pronouncing the names of fruits.
The judges aren't trying to make it a bigger challenge for their chefs (who were determined by the standard knife draw), and are all going for versatile and flavorful proteins and vegetables and then a few extras that are more their tastes. For Richard, those extras are versawhip and agar-agar, for Gail it's harissa (yes, a thousand times yes to this choice), and for Padma it's two giant jack fruits.
Once they have access to the items bought for them, the chefs start preparing their dishes. Everyone seems a bit on edge. Sure, it might be that they had to improvise a dish on the spot with no planning because they had no idea what ingredients they'd have, but it seems more likely that swapping Katie for the unknown George has thrown everyone for a loop.
Adam decides to do a shrimp dish using a preparation that sounds more like a method from the CIA's Torture Report than a culinary technique. He plans to cover his shrimp in hot oil and then give them a quick sear in the pan, so it's somewhere between cooked and raw. It sounds like a gamble, as a lot of foods need to really be one or the other. Okay pretty much all foods need to be either cooked or raw. That limbo area sounds rough, especially for shrimp.
In walk the 75 people here for what is essentially a Top Chef fan meet-up group. The judges are here, too, and Padma has swapped her overalls for what look like the super tight version of Beetlejuice's striped pants. And she pulls it off. Christ.
The mood in the kitchen is kind of fun and celebratory. Gregory is showing guests what a jackfruit is, Richard is signing cookbooks, and Padma is bragging to everyone that she went to a grocery store.
Katsuji had Gail's pantry, which he called "cute." He prepared a harissa poached shrimp with Tunisian potato salad, along with a white sangria. Gail and Richard like it, and I have to say, I would always give extra points to anyone who offers me food AND a cocktail.
Gregory had Padma's haul, and was very happy with her choices. He served a coconut milk and chicken madras curry with jackfruit relish. Padma and Tom both love the curry flavors as well as the sweetness at the end.
Richard and Gail struggle with Adam's shrimp the same way Adam struggled imagining using the molecular items from Richard's pantry. His flash marinated shrimp with mushroom conserva, peppadew peppers and herbs earns a confused and disappointed look from Gail, who calls his shrimp "squeaky." Of all of the sounds shellfish can have, that's not one you really shoot for.
Tom only had to shop for Mei, so he gave her options based on her strengths so far in the challenges. She used those ingredients to make a rack of lamb with charred eggplant puree and scallion ginger relish. The judges love the puree, but the lamb is undercooked.
Melissa had Gail's pantry, which should have been an easy win since they seem to have similar tastes. Her sauteed shrimp with harissa yogurt, roasted fig, fennel, dill, and artichoke salad was nice, but a very, very safe play. It's shrimp on a salad, and it's something that the judges have seen before from her.
In the middle of the event, Tom, Padma and a semi-circle of strangers are chatting, and Tom insists that without her heels, he and Padma are the same height. She fights it at first, but then removes her shoes and, sure enough, he's as tall as she is. The whole thing felt like the party bit that a miserable couple does in groups to put on a show about being happy before they drive home in tense silence wondering where things all went wrong.
Next to serve the judges is Doug Adams, who had Richard's pantry and found a great way to edit a dish from all of the ingredients at his fingertips. He prepared chorizo marinated mussels with sweet pepper and cauliflower relish. Everyone loves it.
Finally, Padma and Tom get to George. Padma apologizes that she couldn't shop specifically for him because she hadn't tried enough of his food to know his style. Thankfully for him, she went heavy on Greek ingredients, and that's his specialty. He served a beef and lamb kebab with green lentils and cucumber mint yogurt.
The party ends and the fans go home after taking hundreds of selfies in the kitchen. Ol' Beetlejuice Pants calls all of the contestants in to Judges' Table. While everyone did a good job, the three strongest dishes of the evening belonged to Gregory, George, and Doug. The judges loved all three, though agree that the winner for the night, and for the second challenge in a row, is Doug (or Dougie, to Gail).
The weakest three of night night are Mei, Adam, and Melissa. This is tough, because they are all actually very talented and deserving. It's at this point in the competition where it isn't just that you have to be good, you have to not make a single mistake. It's like dating in that way. You could go on dozens of dates with someone and then all of the sudden one night over mediocre pad thai he says, "I just don't trust the Jews." Sorry buddy, pack your knives and go (ugh, but also, please don't have knives on our date).
Sadly, Adam's risk with his shrimp technique didn't pay off, and he's sent home. It's a real bummer for me, as both a New Yorker and as someone who appreciates the art of the reality tv sound-bite. Hopefully he'll return in the finale thanks to Last Chance Kitchen (oh, yeah, that's back, even though they barely mentioned it to us until an ad at the end of the show).