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‘Top Chef’ Season 13 Episode 4: Out of the Kitchen and Into the Desert

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To thoroughly enjoy the glory that is Top Chef California, please welcome Alison Leiby, who now recaps the two-part season premiere. Spoilers below.

Dale Berman/Bravo

Sometimes I wonder if at Top Chef they start with the idea for the challenges and then write the puns for the judges, or if they just start with the puns and then are like, "Okay, how do we turn that into an hour-long cooking competition show?" Either way, they're doing a great job.

The chefs all head to Palm Springs, or as Jason Stratton refers to it, gay mecca with white wine spritzers. I know it more for bachelorette parties and where my parents say they "could totally retire" if I end up moving to Los Angeles, so it's a real fun town any way you slice it. The first stop isn't the spa, though, it's the middle of the sandy mountains, right on top of the San Andreas fault. Padma Lakshmi greets the chefs in her finest desert romper. Alongside her is José Andrés. I truly hope the producers asked him to do this episode so his last name lined up with the country's most active tectonic plates. They probably booked him for this episode because of his interest in solar powered cooking, though.

For the quickfire challenge, the chefs must use one of two types of clean energy cook stoves that produce heat entirely from the sun. One device is more of a stovetop while the other is a cylindrical oven that looks way more like a weapon from the Independence Day sequel than a machine that heats up food [full disclosure: I'm only referencing this movie as an excuse to watch the trailer again and see the love of my life on screen, Jeff Goldblum]. Isaac Toups is all about the "lightsaber action," though, and decides to use the oven he's assigned to make cornbread.

Giselle Wellman planned to do couscous, but she pours liquid in the tube and it completely shatters. There are 13 minutes already gone and now glass all over her station. Thankfully, there is a back-up for her to use and regroup. Even more thankfully, Top Chef does not — as far as I know — have a you break it, you buy it policy.

Not surprisingly, Grayson Schmitz is complaining that her oven isn't getting hot enough and her skirt steak isn't cooking as fast as she'd like. The most irritating part of her complaints is that she acts like she's the only one running into a problem. But everyone is cooking on the same tricky, non-traditional devices. You are not special. I know someone along the way told you that you were, but get a grip.

Phillip Frankland Lee, the consummate earth child in this competition, decides he wants to serve his oyster dish not on a plate, but on rocks he finds on the ground near his station. He asks, "Why not eat with your hands off a stone?" Um, because we're human beings and it's 2015. That's why.

Padma is so horrified by his dish, both the plating and the decision to serve a raw oyster in a 200 degree desert, that she complains about it several times during the judging. She called "snot on a rock," which sounds pretty spot on.

Padma and José love Isaac's hatch pepper and manchego cornbread with smoked butter. They are also big fans of Jeremy Ford's seared halibut and pickled mushrooms and Carl Dooley's chorizo stuffed date wrapped in bacon. Wesley True loved cooking with the solar powered stovetop and it showed. They both loved his shrimp with coconut broth, lemongrass, and mushrooms.

When Padma and José get to Grayson she instantly starts complaining about the oven. Padma condescendingly asks, "Did you not hear when José said to angle the stoves toward the sun?" Normally, a judgy comment from Padma feels unwarranted since she is not a chef and from what I can tell just spends all of her time eating other people's food and having really shiny hair. But in Grayson's case, I'm happy she's letting her slightly-inner bitch come out.

The weakest dishes came from Grayson, Giselle, and Phillip. The highlights, according to José, were from Jeremy, Wesley, and Isaac. The winner of the challenge is Wesley, who finally has made it out of the hole he'd been in with the last few challenges. He wins immunity as well as a $10,000 donation to the World Central Kitchen made on his behalf. But because he was so enthusiastic about the cooking surface, José gives him one of the stoves to keep.

To explain the Elimination Challenge Padma rounds up the chefs into two teams that will each be responsible for four courses which should be prepared to a tee if they want to get a hole in one for their dish. Maybe they should cook some kind of birdies in club sandwiches and use par-ing knives dear God this is exhausting, I don't know how the writers on this show do it. Yeah, they're cooking on a golf course on refreshment carts. You get it.

Photo: Dale Berman/Bravo

Photo: Dale Berman/Bravo

For the four course progressive meal, the teams each have three pairs cooking together and then one lone chef doing a dish. In order to create cohesive menus, the teams need to pick a style to unite all four courses. The orange team of Isaac, Grayson, Giselle, Kwame Onwuachi, Angelina Bastidas, Amar Santana, and Chad White decides to go Latin. The blue team chooses a vegetable driven menu and includes Jeremy, Wesley, Carl, Phillip, Jason, Karen Akunowicz, and Marjorie Meek-Bradley.

As the teams divide up courses, Giselle and Angelina are supposed to work together. Neither of them is interested in this as it's been pretty disastrous the last two times they were working side by side. Giselle especially doesn't want to work with Angelina because in the last challenge Angelina called her a bitch. Girl, I get it. I never want to work with someone who has called me a bitch. You hear that, liquor store cashier who wouldn't open before 10am even though I was standing in front of your entrance screaming? We will never work together.

Back at the nice hotel where they are staying, all of the chefs unwind a little. The guys get drunk and loud and all pile into the hot tub like some kind of culinary professional soup. Jason is a bit uncomfortable by all of the machismo and bro-ing down that the other guys are into, and it gives him some unpleasant flashbacks of high school. But it's okay, because they are staying in a beautiful La Quinta Inn that has a sprawling pool, large kitchen, and fabulous tile floors that complement the desert. It's very beautiful and definitely not a sponsor at all, just a very nice hotel called the La Quinta Inn in Palm Springs.

The next day everyone arrives at the PGA West golf course ready to cook — or come as close to cooking as you can on a golf cart with a hot plate. They are still in the middle of the desert, so it's pretty hot there, but then John Besh shows up to make it even hotter. Looks like I just got interested in golf for the first time.

At the first hole, both teams are serving ceviche. Jeremy decides that his team should serve their citrus marinated halibut and kumquats in a bowl that is sitting on top of another bowl of ice. This keeps the fish nice and cold even though it's hotter on the course than Alec Baldwin baking a cake (when it comes to celebrity crushes I skew old, get over it). Both groups of judges enjoy this ice cold version a bit more than Kwame and Chad's tuna and swordfish with sweet potato emulsion.

The second hole — which sounds like the worst porn title ever and I'm sorry — also involves two similar dishes. Angelina and Grayson are doing grilled shrimp with guacamole and corn and chorizo hash. The judges agree that the corn in the hash should not have been cooked. Grayson didn't think the corn was good enough to serve fresh, which begs the question of why she bought it at all. It also could have used more acid, which Grayson did say but was met with disagreement from Angelina.

Marjorie and Jason's summer squash with eggplant puree, grilled shrimp, and tomato and celery salad had a different effect on the judges. They loved all of the elements of the dish, especially the fresh bites of vegetables.

The next course on the course for the orange team is Giselle and Amar's spice-rubbed New York steak with potato salad and salsa verde. The judges liked elements of it, but found it to feel almost like two separate dishes. For the blue team, Wesley and Carl serve roasted pork loin with greek yogurt, green chili, and grapes. The first group of judges suggested that the grapes should be cold, not cooked, so before the next group showed up they tossed some fresh grapes on the plates.

The fourth and final dish of the challenge is dessert. Isaac noticed while shopping that Phillip was buying limes for his dish, but the limes weren't quite ripe yet. Seeing that, he decided to make a grapefruit sabayon with tequila whipped cream. Despite issues keeping the burners lit in the face of the wind, he pulls it off and the judges love it. Their only suggestion is more grapefruit. Phillip struggled a bit more, especially during plating for Padma and her crew. After his plates blew away in the wind, he had to serve his dishes under a cart and tablecloth in the weirdest experience Padma claims to have ever had in her life. While I doubt that's true (she was married to Salman Rushdie, after all), it's pretty weird. She and the other judges enjoy the flavor of his coconut pudding with strawberries, basil, and a mint and lime foam, but Tom Colicchio cannot get past the problematic texture.

Back at Judges' Table, Padma announces that the blue team was the day's overall winning team. They had a lot of good dishes, but the best was Jeremy and Karen's ceviche, which was in part thanks to Jeremy's genius ice-plating, so he wins the whole shebang. And in this case, the whole shebang conveniently includes a week's stay at that gorgeous La Quinta Inn that the show put him up in last night.

The worst dish from the orange team — which still had a strong day, just a few missteps — was Grayson and Angelina's grilled shrimp and chorizo and corn hash. Tom reiterated the concern about cooking the corn, and Grayson immediately started making excuses that the corn was too starchy. Again, then why did you get it and use it? That's like bringing a guy to a wedding who then tells the bride she's fat and being like, "Sorry, he's a mean drunk." Then don't date him. (Trust me.)

After deliberation, Grayson is asked to pack her knives and go. She starts up again with excuses and attitude, saying she should have stayed because she's been cooking longer and she's older so that makes her better. After a few hugs and spitting some serious fire at Tom for trying to give her a note about the dish, she throws her hands in the air and leaves with a big "Fuck that!" to everyone. Bye, Grayson. See you in hell probably.

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