Well we're back for the next installment of Top Chef California On The Roooooaaaaad (Oprah voice)! The contestants have barely broken into the Los Angeles culinary scene and they're already packing up and heading off to their next stop, Santa Barbara. This season is making me want to take a road trip. You know, the kind where you throw an overnight bag of a few t-shirts and jeans, your Social Security card, and all of the cash you have into the back of your car and just drive and drive and never look back at your problems. That's a road trip, right?
The chefs pile into their Chrysler whatevers and head to a marina where they meet Stephanie Muntz, a sea urchin diver. We get a quick lesson in fresh uni, namely that the part of the animal that we eat is actually its gonads. I kind of want to go back to the world before I knew that, but I guess that's not an option. Everyone is inspired by the fresh, sweet sea urchin, so they grab a to-go cooler of it and head to their next stop.
This is California, so it was only a matter of time before we ended up at a vineyard. Padma Lakshmi and Dana Cowin greet the chefs in front of the picturesque mountains, their long flowing cardigans billowing in the dry breeze. The scene immediately goes from serene to stressful when Padma announces that this is a sudden death quickfire. The winner earns immunity from elimination while the loser will be forced to go head-to-head against another chef to stay in the competition.
Hearing this, Grayson Schmitz immediately starts complaining that back in her first season, they never had sudden death quickfires. It's kind of like when someone stays at your house for the first time and they're like, "Um, that's not how I fold a fitted sheet," and you're like, "Well dammit Lindsay this isn't your house so shut up."
The challenge is to create a dish highlighting the fresh uni from the marina and to pair it with one of the wines from the vineyard. Everyone faces different problems with this quickfire. Chad White doesn't drink, so he can't really taste the wines and has to go off of the notes listed on the label for his pairing. Cooking without drinking the wine seems really challenging. Not to get the flavors right, but just like, doing something without drinking wine seems challenging to me. Giselle Wellman also struggles because her plan to do an egg dish is ruined when she can't find any eggs. Easily three other chefs can be seen using eggs during the prep, so in the words of my mother every time I can't find something, maybe she "just isn't looking hard enough."
Karen Akunowicz has an problem with her uni egg drop soup. She planned to do it in a large bowl so the uni could ribbon, but all that's left are shallow baking dishes. When she pours her soup into the vessels, the uni dissolves and is completely lost. I don't really see how that's the dish's fault, but I'm a big fan of making excuses, so we'll go with it.
Time's up and Padma and Dana float through the field in their Nancy Meyers-approved sweaters to taste the dishes. One of the highlights is Grayson's crab salad with cucumber and uni, which paired well with the wine. Good thing she nailed the pairing because she mentions multiple times that her boyfriend is a sommelier and it's like, did my mom tell you to say that a lot to make a point? Okay, date men with jobs. Got it.
They also love Wesley True's creamed corn with uni and fennel, as well as Carl Dooley's sea urchin omelet which he paired with Chardonnay. And yes, he's one of those super talented chefs who was able to see the eggs. Isaac Toups's uni potato salad is also a surprise hit, as is his pairing it with a rose wine.
There were a few misses in this challenge, though. Angelina Bastidas created a far too salty iteration of pasta with uni butter. Giselle, without having access to eggs, didn't quite hit the mark with her potato with onion jam and uni and its imperfect wine pairing. Karen's egg drop soup also didn't work, mostly because the uni was virtually unnoticeable.
The overall winner of the challenge is Grayson and the loser is Giselle. This is probably the first time in history anyone has ever written the phrase "the loser is Giselle," and I'm sure somewhere a supermodel is just laughing and laughing. Because this is sudden death, Giselle must pick another chef to compete with. If she wins, she stays. If the other chef wins, she goes home immediately. It's high stakes. [Note to self: thanks to an initial typo in that last sentence, I have a business idea. It's a weed infused butcher shop called High Steaks. Figure out the rest later.]
Giselle picks Angelina because she was also in the bottom and that seems fair. They must prepare a dish with ostrich egg. Well, Giselle wanted eggs, now she's got ‘em.
Padma and Dana taste the two dishes and prefer Gisele's simple soft scrambled ostrich egg with roasted pepitas and chipotle salsa to Angelina's spicy tomato jam with ostrich egg and veggie scramble. Giselle gets to stay. I'm pretty glad she's sticking around. As another brunette with a nose ring who loves leather jackets and can't shut up, her presence is comforting to me.
For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs will once again be highlighting Santa Barbara's abundant, fresh proteins. They must pair up to create their own surf and turf dishes. Grayson doesn't need a partner because she has immunity.
Jason Stratton and Frances Tariga-Weshnak team up even though they have very different culinary styles. Jason is all Italian while Frances cooks mostly Thai food. Classic odd couple. Creating one dish from those two regions is incredibly challenging, but Frances talks Jason into doing a dish with their pork and black cod that is way more on the Thai side than Italian.
Kwame Onwuachi grabs crab while his partner Chad picks up lamb. On their own, these are excellent ingredients. For a dish, though, they don't really make sense. You never see crab and lamb in the same place. Kind of like me and Lisa Loeb — you never see us both in the same place at the same time. It's just like that (it isn't).
The chefs go to Whole Foods to buy everything else they need for their surf and turf dishes. Angelina and Giselle are already fighting and everyone else is uncomfortably watching, which is exactly what the night hours at Whole Foods are for.
They get back to the restaurant where they'll be cooking and everyone is in a great mood, really excited about working together and creating some spectacular dishes. Then Tom Colicchio rolls into town. "This challenge is about to get fishy," he says and then explains that now, instead of working together to create one surf and turf dish, the teams will be competing against each other by making two separate dishes, surf vs. turf.
Lots of teams struggle to divide up the rest of their ingredients. It's one thing when you're making a single dish together, it's another to have to create two separate meals from it. By far the most challenging is Jason and Frances. It's not necessarily that they don't have enough produce or anything, but that now Jason is stuck cooking Thai food on his own even though he's not comfortable with the style at all.
During prep, Wesley takes a closer look at his ribeye and sees it has virtually no marbling, so he decides to sous vide the meat to try and soften it up. It unfortunately doesn't work and the resulting protein is really tough and wildly under-seasoned. But he can't be bothered with that, he's busy using a hand-crafted stencil to plate his sauce so it looks like a leaf!
The judges arrive and seat themselves at a beautiful outdoor table and Padma is wearing a floral maxi dress and all is right in the world again. In addition to Padma, Dana, and Tom are Cat Cora, Richard Blais, and several other notable California chefs and restaurant owners.
The first group serves the judges. They mostly enjoy Amar Santana's olive oil poached halibut with asparagus and eggless Bernaise, though it's a little simple for some of their tastes. It's still better than Wesley's tough ribeye with morels, though. Since Grayson could pick whatever protein and group to join, she jumped in here with her lacquered pork belly with spicy carrot puree. She's the unanimous winner of the three.
Phillip Frankland Lee explains in the kitchen that he, "opts to make butter, not buy butter," which is exactly what you would think he'd say just by looking at him. He serves a ribeye with rutabaga puree and nori beurre blanc, which the judges point out isn't quite a buerre blanc because it's brown. "Beurre brown?" he suggests. Regardless, they enjoy the dish overall. They don't enjoy it quite as much as Jeremy Ford's pan-roasted spot prawns with potato gnocchi and english peas, so he wins the battle.
Angelina and Giselle are up next. Angelina serves a beautiful looking dish of marinated mussels with escabeche sauce, fennel, and leek. It has so many elements — including a foam — that the ingredients have been what Tom considers to be totally tortured. She would have been much better off just perfectly executing a pot of steamed mussels. Giselle's quail with cucumber radish salad and tamarindo sauce is the better dish of the two, and she bests Angelina for a second time this episode.
The judges have their first tough decision with Kwame and Chad. They love Kwame's rock crab salad with turmeric, asparagus, and radish. It's a fun dish and is even described as one judge as being "slutty," which I don't understand in any way. Chad's spicy bean, honey, and orange lacquered lamb with asparagus and mint puree is also a huge hit, and earns the descriptor "luscious." Overall this is an extremely sensual battle, and after a tie decided by Tom's vote, the win goes to Kwame.
Karen has clearly watched her fair share of Top Chef seasons, and knows that overcooked fish is kind of a death sentence. With that in mind, she holds off until the absolute last minute to cook her cod, which unfortunately leaves her scrambling so much at the end that she's missing a piece of fish for one plate. That plate is Padma's. Huge problem. At least, though, the other judges are all raving about her seared rock cod with carrot orange puree. It's possibly the best dish of the day, but Padma wouldn't know that since she just got a plate of sauce and roasted carrots. Her competitor, Marjorie Meek-Bradley prepared roasted pork loin with olive oil crushed potatoes and vegetables. The dish is a bit dated in look and the pork is a little dry, so even down one piece of fish, Karen wins the battle.
Last to serve is Jason and Frances. His marinated grilled pork with steamed Asian vegetables isn't very developed in terms of flavor, and it's obvious from the dish that he's not comfortable with this style of cooking. Frances, however, who is comfortable with Thai flavors, delivers a mess of ginger glazed black cod with jicama, cucumber relish, and squash. The skin is poorly cooked and the dish needed some serious editing. The win goes to Jason.
The top three dishes of the day according to the wins and the judges' favorites were Jeremy, Kwame, and Karen. Though Karen honestly can't win for not completing every plate, they loved her food. Kwame wins the challenge and a barrel of wine from Sanford winery. Jealous.
As for the bottom three, the judges decided that Frances, Angelina, and Wesley had the weakest dishes of the day. It's Frances who is sent to pack her knives and go. Everyone is sad and crying, but that lasts for about three seconds before she leaves and Padma cheers everyone up by telling them that the next leg of their road trip is taking them to Palm Springs! Top Chef is just like real life — don't worry about sad things when you can be excited about a trip!