This week's Top Chef was really one for the record books. Oh, you didn't watch it because you saw the first few minutes and thought, "Wait, I wanted to watch a reality cooking competition and this is clearly some dating show where models and professional athletes have to exchange as many bad flirting lines as they can in order to win a dream vacation"? I understand how you could have thought that.
The six remaining chefs are greeted in the kitchen by judge/host/overalls enthusiast Padma Lakshmi and New England Patriot/large hunk Rob Gronkowski. While she is supposed to be introducing the day's challenge, Padma is flirting up a storm with the tight end (which was oddly enough not mentioned or joked about). Aware that every sports commentator, Bostonian, and fantasy football team "owner" calls him "Gronk," Padma asks, "Do you mind if I call you Rob? You can call me honey." Keep it in your pants, Padzies.
This Quickfire feels like a sixth grade boy came up with it after watching these two nightmares eye-fuck for the better part of an hour. The chefs must, in one hour, make an outstanding sausage for Gronk. After explaining the task at hand, this exchange went down (verbatim):
Padma: I have a feeling you eat a lot.
Rob: I eat a big sausage.
Padma (pausing):...me, too. (giggles)
[then the two mount a horse painted with the Patriots' colors and ride off into the sunset to exchange stilted sexual innuendos for eternity]
Okay, the horse thing didn't exactly happen, but the dialog is all real. The chefs somehow manage to pull it together after this nauseating moment and start cooking. Doug Adams feels very comfortable in this challenge because his restaurant does a lot of sausage and he knows the ins and outs of cooking the meat and getting the casing perfect. He opts for a sausage that's simple, but perfectly executed.
Mei Lin is using a variety of meats in her sausage. I zoned out for a minute during this part of the show, but then I heard her say "backfat," and was like, "Wait, did someone call me?" Several of the chefs are struggling to get their casings on, which is bad enough without all of the terrible puns and sexual jokes getting thrown around. Hey guys, leave that to the professionals (me).
Of all of the chefs, George Pagonis struggles the most with the meat grinder and the casings. After several failed attempts to form the sausage, he says he's going with Plan B, which is weird because I didn't see a pharmacy in the Top Chef kitchen. Instead of a traditional sausage, he makes a patty.
Time's up and Padma emerges from the other room after what I can only imagine was an hour of her rubbing coconut oil on Rob's head like it was a crystal ball while reading aloud from one of her cookbooks.
Weaker dishes of the challenge are Melissa King's wild boar and pork sausage with lentils and cucumber crudite for being too light for Rob, and Gregory Gourdet's tasty but complicated pork and boar sausage with kaffir lime, chilies, lemongrass, garlic, cucumber, and carrot.
Both Padma and Rob love Doug's simple but spot-on beer-braised pork sausage with onions and mustard on a bun. Also, despite the unexpected form, they both love George's pork and veal sausage patty with sunny side up egg and potato hash. In a tough choice, George wins the challenge over Doug and gets immunity from elimination.
Padma (Honey) and Rob bid adieu, both just aching for this dumb food contest to be over so they can get back to that mega-hot flirting. For the elimination challenge she welcomes guest judge, chef Tony Maws, who is charged with the manual labor of wheeling in a giant prop bookshelf. A professional football player does nothing but stand there and toss sexy glances at a model, yet an average-sized culinary expert has to move large furniture? Okay, Bravo, whatever you guys want to do.
The bookshelf contains books bearing the names of authors who call New England home. For this challenge, the chefs must prepare a dish celebrating one of the authors' works both conceptually as well as visually on the plate.
I'm blown away by this challenge — not because it's particularly difficult or creative, I've just never actually seen a way to put my English Literature degree to use. It's like seeing Bigfoot: you've heard the stories from crazy people you know, but convinced yourself there's no way it's real. The chefs go down the line choosing their authors, and poor Doug is last and stuck with poet Emily Dickinson. He asks if she wrote Pride And Prejudice and I laugh and scream at the television, "Haha, no you idiot!" as I continue to eat my dry Cheerios for dinner while on hold with Sallie Mae.
The chefs read and shop and cook and plate, all heavily focused on both the flavors in their dishes as well as making sure the presentation reflects a work or the oeuvre of their selected authors. Feels like this challenge was a move the producers made to highlight Boston as an intellectual town after the first half of the show is spent being like, "LOOK AT THIS GUY'S BIG MUSCLES! PATRIOTS! BOSTON! FUCK THE REDSKINS!"
Judges for the challenge Padma, Tony, Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, and Clarkson Potter Editor-at-Large Francis Lam enter the restaurant for service. Padma wore a dress with cut-outs, but it's lost on a Gronk-less group.
First is Gregory, who serves an Edgar Allen Poe-inspired dish. He picked The Raven as the specific work when creating his plate of seared beef tenderloin, grilled hen, parsnip puree, beets, and crispy nori. The judges enjoy the dish, save for Tony's piece of meat which is slightly overcooked. Though the flavors are nice, the connection to the short story about a crazed man and a sky nightmare (bird) on a winter night is loose at best.
George had immunity for this challenge, so the success or failure of his dish doesn't quite matter so much. His literary inspiration was Dr. Seuss, and he designed his dish based on the legendary One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. The judges all enjoy his flavors, and the seafood is cooked well, but with such a zany canon as Seuss, he had the opportunity to really push the envelope and he stayed a little too safe.
Mei serves the judges next. Her inspiration was Henry David Thoreau, noted American author and vegetarian. She let Walden guide the dish, which is roasted vegetables with charred onion soil, tom kha snow, radish, and carrot top vinaigrette. It's visually stunning, and Tom very eloquently notes that it could be on any restaurant menu and just be called, "Roasted Vegetables - Walden Pond" and it would work. Aside from its appearance, the dish is flavorful as well as technically impressive.
Melissa follows Mei, which is challenging because they both created dishes around the idea of a vegetable garden. Her author was Nathaniel Hawthorne, and instead of the expected nod to The Scarlet Letter, she chose The Blithedale Romance as inspiration. She chose well, because the judges absolutely love her seared halibut with spring vegetables, morels, charred baby corn, asparagus, peas, and mushroom broth as a dish reflecting the changing seasons in the book.
Stephen King acolyte Katsuji Tanabe serves next. He made the boldest move with plating as he translated Carrie to the plate. He presents the faux blood-splattered dishes to the judges and then says, "This is inspired by...I forgot." Padma, in her leftover sexy pilgrim Halloween costume, reminds him and he goes on to describe his dish of fabada with white beans, chorizo, jamon serrano, short rib, veal osso buco, red beet puree (the blood), and hot sauce. Tom calls it "the most unappetizing looking dish I've ever seen in my life," which, oddly in this challenge, doesn't mean it's a failure. The judges all enjoy the flavors, though find the sauces to be a little too thick.
Doug entered the challenge the most nervous about his dish. For starters, he isn't a huge fan of Emily Dickinson (weird, who doesn't love sad dead ladies??). In her rather spare works, though, he sticks to a line from one poem that read, "sunset in a cup," and from that created a carrot bisque with grilled carrots, orange, cumin vinaigrette, radish, and dandelion. All of the judges love the intense and deep flavor to the dish as well as its masterful reflection of the literary work.
As often happens at this point in the competition, all of the contestants served excellent, sophisticated, well thought-out dishes. There were no big cooking disasters or plating mix-ups or anything. They just had six really good dishes, and one of them has to go home.
Instead of going back to the Top Chef Judges' Table, Padma calls all of the chefs out to the dining room to announce the winner and loser right in the middle of the (now thankfully empty) restaurant. It feels weird to have a judging not at that standard metal table with everyone nice and spread out and expertly lit for television.
The top dishes of the evening were Mei, Melissa, and Doug. Hell yes the last two women are in the top on this challenge. They both knocked it out of the park so hard that I took a break from using my "This Is What A Feminist Looks Like" t-shirt as an ironing board cover and put it on proudly in honor of my fellow successful women. The overall winner for the night is Mei. And, she won with a vegetarian dish, which is pretty badass (or at least as badass as something being vegetarian can be).
The bottom two for this challenge are Gregory and Katsuji. It would be hard to believe that Gregory would go home at this point over something as trivial as his dish not visually connecting to the literary inspiration as much of the others, but more shocking decisions have been made in Top Chef history.
Ultimately, Katsuji is sent home for his creative but a bit sloppy culinary interpretation of Carrie. He graciously accepts the decision, noting that he's honestly surprised he wasn't gone in the first week. All is not lost for the finale for dear Katsuji, though. Tom very naturally reminds him of Last Chance Kitchen, something I'm meaning to watch, as soon as I close out all of these browser tabs open to pictures of the new otter pup at the zoo.