Last week may have been the wedding, but this trip to San Diego is no honeymoon for a few of the chefs.
The city known for zoos, sunshine, and board shorts as acceptable clothing is also Chad White's home turf. The remaining chefs head to a harbor where they are greeted by Padma Lakshmi and guest judge and renowned Baja chef, Javier Plascencia. Padma explains that for this Quickfire Challenge, the contestants will be making the quintessential San Diego food: fish tacos. After making the most creative and decadent versions of the beachside snack they can imagine, one chef will win immunity from elimination.
Before they start cooking, Padma also informs them this is a sudden death quickfire. This is the second one of the season, though no one has gone home yet since in the first one Angelina Bastidas beat Giselle Wellman in the desert.
The clock starts and everyone is racing around looking for the most decadent fish taco filling on the dock. I could watch Isaac Toups cook all day. He's fun, positive, and has a million things to say about every single event that happens to him. The soft-shell crab he's using was already cleaned? "Someone loves me!" It's like he's permanently doing a segment on a late night show.
Wesley True is doing a decadent lobster and foie gras taco, but halfway through prep can't find his lobster. He does the natural thing and claims that someone stole it. He sees one on Marjorie Meek-Bradley's station and accuses her of taking his lobster. She tells him that she got back to her station and just found it sitting there, and maybe he had just put it on the wrong station because she wasn't using it. Whoops. Just a standard misplaced crustacean. I totally get that inclination to blame someone else though. When I visit my parents, my mom and I suggest to my dad that maybe a stranger is coming into the house and leaving the little Hershey Kiss paper flags on our kitchen floor. There's no way it could be from us carelessly eating them at night after we're a bottle of Malbec and three old episodes of Homeland deep. It's just got to be someone else.
The chefs only had 20 minutes to make their tacos, so the final seconds are harried for everyone. Worst off, though, is Angelina, who in the scramble to plate her tacos accidentally prepared them on the cutting board on her station and not on the plates provided. Apparently, Top Chef rules state that dishes must be plated on the plates for judging, so Angelina has nothing to show for the Quickfire. Seems kind of unfair. If I can eat a taco off the floor (just once, okay, I was drunk), then I think Padma and Javier can handle a cutting board.
There were some tacos that did make it on the plates that the judges love. They're super into Kwame Onwuachi's wahoo taco with truffle cream and chipotle salsa and Karen Akunowicz's oyster taco with kimchi sesame salsa and pickled red cabbage. The winner, however, is Chad's thresher shark taco with oyster and sea urchin salsa. This is a great win for Chad. Not only is it his first check in the "W" column on the show, but he gets immunity, honors his hometown, and makes up for that Mexican food fiasco from earlier in the season.
Angelina is automatically in the bottom and forced into the sudden death head-to-head challenge because she didn't get her tacos on the plate. It's annoying we never got to even hear what they were, but I guess Padma feels the same way. Angelina chooses to compete against Wesley, which is probably the same choice I would have made. He's been on the top, but he seem easily stressed and frazzled, so maybe he'd blow it.
For this face-off, the chefs must each make a dish using only the ingredients that Javier uses in his trademark caesar salad at his restaurant. We learn, via aggressive trash talk throughout the challenge, that this is apparently the oldest competitor against the youngest competitor. We also learn that Angelina is good at slinging insults while she's cooking, which makes me like her infinitely more.
When time's up, Wesley's fried egg with anchovy remoulade and grilled romaine beats Angelina's crostini with garlic, dijon vinaigrette and anchovy. This means Angelina must immediately pack her knives and go. It's a bummer because the women are dropping like flies, but it feels fair. In her last two chances she didn't plate any food, and then made glorified toast.
Tom Colicchio, Emeril Lagasse, and Richard Blais join Padma on the dock and have a few six packs of beer in tow. According to the judges, San Diego is one of the leading destinations for craft beer. The chefs got one of four different brews, each one concocted by one of the judges and Ballast Point and Stone Brewing Co.
Padma's golden ale has jalapeño, ginger, and tamarind flavors. Richard's is a stout with Ras el Hanout, beets, and chocolate. Emeril's beer honors his hometown of New Orleans with coffee, cayenne, and tangerine. And Tom created a wheat beer with lemon, coriander, and banana.
For the elimination challenge, the chefs must make a dish that pairs well with the craft beer they chose. I'll tell you what pairs well with beer — more beer. I would also accept as answers: pizza, chicken fingers, or a family-sized bag of Baked Lays that I somehow paid for at a bodega with a handful of change and loose gum from the bottom of my purse.
Wesley is frustrated because he drew Richard's beer, and he has recently become the executive chef at Richard's old restaurant, and he didn't make a great impression on him during the first challenge he judged. On top of all of that, the chefs are cooking at Richard's San Diego restaurant, Juniper & Ivy. If this were a rom-com, Wesley and Richard would eventually get together, probably in the rain at the top of the Empire State building or something. But this is Top Chef, so it's just stressful instead.
The chefs are settling into their ultra luxe suite for the night when there's a knock at the door. It's Emeril! And he brought wine. He brought so much wine that he stuck a bottle in the back pocket of his pants. I've truly never seen a reason to wear anything but leggings, but now I totally get regular pants. So practical! He's there to check in and give the chefs a little pep talk. He's like the great coach/mentor/dad you always wanted, but he also gets you buzzed. Talk about motivating.
Isaac is pretty befuddled by the presence of banana in Tom's craft beer. He decides to make a mayonnaise-like spread with it and calls it banannaise. He asks, "Am I high, or is this good?" Feels like the answer could be both.
Marjorie has never used a pressure cooker before, and decides no time like the present to give it a whirl. She apparently gets it going and then realizes that the top wasn't secured properly. She adds some more water and fixes it, but the damage could already be done. I hope it's not. I really want to see her make it to the end for some reason. Maybe because she crushes it with the desserts, maybe because I like seeing women succeed on this show, maybe just because she seems super chill. Whatever it is, get it Marjorie.
The judges sit down with guys from Ballast Point and Stone Brewing Co. to taste the dishes. I'm happy to see Ballast Point on the show, I'm a big fan. I love the Sculpin IPA and ordered it on a date not long ago. The guy I was with tasted it and then ordered the same thing. I scored major points and then we got into a heated discussion about how Boy Meets Girl's "Waiting for a Star to Fall" is one of the greatest songs of all time. Anyway, thanks Ballast Point, you made me look super cool.
First up are the dishes paired with Padma's golden ale. Chad and his immunity serve a carrot herb roasted opah with ginger hominy, jalapeno puree, and tamarind glazed carrots. The judges enjoy it, but he's also not going anywhere. They really love Amar Santana's sous vide chicken breast, crispy chicken thigh, and jalapeno popper with tamarind ginger chutney. Why are we not seeing more sophisticated jalapeno poppers on menus? We need that.
The next group cooked to complement Richard's beer. The dishes were all similar, though had huge disparities in quality. Judges love Karen's roasted duck breast with cocoa nib beet puree and Ras el Hanout roasted carrots. They enjoy — to a lesser extent — Jeremy Ford's duck with chocolate and sea salt granola and habanero Ras el Hanout pickled beets. It's good but could use a few things. They have serious issues with Wesley's lamb with roasted beet puree and Ras el Hanout carrots. The meat is overcooked, the puree is one-dimensional, and the plating was Jackson Pollock-esque, and not in a good, intentional-seeming way.
Next up is the group cooking for Emeril's New Orleans-inspired beer. Richard and the other judges all love the taste of Marjorie's roasted potato gnocchi with chicken ragout and roasted mushrooms, but the bold tastes of the beer don't really come through. It's good, but not right. Phillip Frankland Lee's roasted duck breast with rutabaga puree and tangerine juice is technically good, just as he intended. Carl Dooley's grilled short rib with ancho chile salsa is good, but the notes of the dish pair almost too closely to the beer and you lose the flavor for both.
Last up are the dishes for Tom's wheat beer. Isaac's corn and crab veloute with crispy potato, king crab salad and sriracha banannaise attempted too much. He needed to choose the soup or the salad, but both together is a bit of a mess. Kwame wows the judges once again with his chicken mojo with banana sofrito puree, garlic puree, and charred green onion. Finally, the judges all struggle with Jason Stratton's archaic pork and squid meatball with grilled tentacles and carrot wheat beer sauce and salsa povera. It's odd in conception, as well as texture and presentation.
At Judges' Table, Padma announces the top three of the evening are Amar, Karen, and Kwame. They all cooked excellent dishes that were not only complex and interesting, but paired well with the beer they had. Karen wins the challenged for her refined puree. I'm happy she won. She seems to really know what she's doing despite having a few rough challenges, mostly with groups. She also seems cool and normal and not the kind of person who speaks exclusively in reality tv sound bytes and talks about "throwing people under the bus" all the time, so she has that going for her, too.
The bottom three for the challenge are Jason, Isaac, and Wesley. They all seemed thrown by the challenge for whatever reason. For Isaac, that was reflected in the conception of the dish, for Wesley, that manifest itself in the actual cooking he did. And poor cooking will always get you sent home on Top Chef, so Wesley is sent to pack his knives and go.
We lost two chefs this episode, so this season is flying by. I'm interested to see how things are going on Last Chance Kitchen, but I want to leave it as a surprise. It's not that I love suspense, it's more that I hate internet videos that aren't otters floating on their backs.