Welcome back to Top Chef. It's been weeks. Who are these people? What is this show? Is it about cooking? I would have Padma Lakshmi explain it to me but she talks so slowly who has the time when there's a new episode to watch?
Thanks to the "previously on" segment, we're reminded of Grayson Schimitz's long overdue departure from the show last week. She went out with guns blazing, or rather, middle fingers blazing. Real class act. So now the remaining non-nightmare chefs pile into their cars for the next leg of the road trip. Oh right, this season is on the road. Man, what a few weeks, holidays, and bottles of midnight wine at my parents' house will do to your memory.
The chefs arrive outside of Palm Springs at a date farm. Date farm? That's what I call the checkout line at the grocery store, amirite? Okay I promise I'll stop asking questions and making jokes that require high-fives now. A quick machete tutorial for Isaac Toups later and the chefs are on their way to the kitchen with crates of three kinds of the farm's dates.
In the kitchen, the chefs are greeted by Padma and Chrissy Teigen. This is unfair on the part of the Bravo programming department. It's rude to show a program with two smokeshow supermodels after two weeks where all anyone did was stuff their face with cookies, cheese plates, and whatever else would make it too hard to answer the question from your aunt, "So are there are lot of single guys at your office?"
The following interaction actually happened. I am not making this up.
Chrissy: Dates are sweet, succulent, and sticky.
Padma: Like you.
And with that, the sounds of fingers clicking on a keyboard flooded the air as thousands of people began writing Top Chef erotic fan fiction.
All of the aggressive sexual innuendos aside, this Quickfire Challenge is to make a date-focused dish inspired by the chefs' best romantic dates. Since I'm perpetually single and ready for Pringles, I would just serve a glass of vodka with a date dropped in it and be done with the whole thing.
The chefs are all reminiscing about their great dates from history. Giselle Wellman explains that she's making her dish based on a recent blind date that got kind of spicy and involved some soft making out. And now you can't unhear that. Phillip Frankland Lee describes his first date with his now-wife was at his restaurant and he was still in a chef's coat. Probably the least surprising thing I've ever heard.
Time's up and the chefs have to serve Padma and Chrissy. They both love Isaac's chicken ballotine with Medjool date sauce. It was inspired by a dish he and his wife shared on their tenth anniversary in Lyon. Chrissy asked him if they had sex that night. Super hot women can ask you pretty much anything and you have to answer them. I think it's one of the later constitutional amendments.
They also love Jason Stratton's roasted carrots with deglet nour dates, brown butter and pine nuts. To quote Padma, "I heart that char." Another hit is Giselle's date salad with pork sausage, arugula, sweet and spicy pecans, and watercress.
Weaker dishes of the challenge are Chad White's roasted halibut with date froth, Phillip's tuna crudo with peaches and dates, and Carl Dooley's date milkshake, even if it was inspired by a cute story about his wife visiting him after his wisdom teeth surgery.
The winner of this hot date challenge is Jason, who gets immunity from elimination. We all bid a fond farewell to Chrissy Teigen and can welcome back at least half of our self-esteem now that she's not on screen anymore.
After enough dates it's time for the obvious thing — marriage. Yes, Top Chef loves a good theme, and this episode's is all about love. To introduce the challenge, Padma welcomes guest judge Art Smith. The two of them explain that the chefs will all work together to cater one, "big fat gay wedding" for 25 gay couples. Padma is officiating, because there's nothing she can't do (including take five minutes to fill out an online form).
All of the chefs needing to work together to create one cohesive menu for the event feels like trying to get a bunch of 23-year-old girls at a bar to try and pick a next location. I half expected to see some of the contestants pull out their phones and wander away during the initial planning. Phillip immediately volunteers to do a steak and mashed potato dish, and loops in Kwame Onwuachi to do an eggplant and tomato relish to finish it off.
Marjorie Meek-Bradley and Carl team up for a dessert. I could not be more on board for this team. First of all, Marjorie won the first challenge with her back pocket Middle Eastern dessert. Second, they both seem super nice and normal and extremely competent. I like that they can work together and away from all of the garbage noise of some of the other teams.
Jason reluctantly pairs up with Angelina Bastidas to do a swiss chard roll with braised chicken that he's familiar with. Kwame also jumps in on Wesley True's shrimp and cucumber salad dish and adds an Asian flair with the sauce.
Giselle clearly wanted to be "a floater," but she and Karen Akunowicz get forced into a partnership to make an asparagus farro salad. They worked together before, and even though the end result turned out great, getting there was like pulling teeth. To camera after this uncomfortable interaction, Giselle confesses that she thinks she's really nice, but doesn't feel like she's making friends here. She follows that up with, "Fuck off everyone, I don't give a fuck anymore." Honestly, that makes me want to be friends with her.
Before heading to the kitchen for the day, Padma sends an instructor to give the chefs a nice poolside yoga class in the morning. I love yoga. I think of all of the positions; my favorite one is carrying the mat around all day so that people know you do it. Wesley and Isaac both take a hard pass and instead take naps on the lounge chairs.
Even with the calming practice, a lot of the chefs still lose their cool in the kitchen. Giselle asks Karen a question before doing a single task. Is this right? What should I do with this? Are these too big? You can tell it's getting to Karen and you can tell that Giselle can't tell that.
Jason and Angelina are having the opposite struggle. He knows exactly how the dish should be prepared and she keeps getting in the way of its perfection. She claims she has the chicken under control, but as soon as she steps away he adds more vinegar. It's one of those "if you want it done right you have to do it yourself" scenarios, like decorating or orgasms.
The wedding itself is absolutely moving. The sight of 25 couples declaring their love for each other is almost as inspiring as Padma's unbelievable white suit. Jason "has a writing background" (same!) so he writes up the station cards so that the course of the meal feels like the arc of a relationship.
The first stop is the appetizer course, sweetly named "Just One Look." At this station is Chad and Amar Santana's sherry glazed pork belly with smoked orange marmalade and pickled fennel, Jeremy Ford's citrus roasted carrots with yogurt, radish, and baby kale, and Wesley and Kwame's pickled shrimp with cucumber and onion salad. The judges are blown away by all three dishes.
Next up is the "For The Family" station. Here, the judges find Jason and Angelina's swiss chard stuffed with braised chicken with a caramelized honey sauce as well as Isaac's dirty rice. Once again, the judges are enamored with both dishes. Tom Colicchio talks about Isaac's rice as the kind of dish where when you see it other times it's fine, but then you try his and you finally understand what the dish is about. His sticky rice is like what She's All That is to teen movies.
The third course is the "Bought a Station Wagon" phase of a relationship, which I think is something about family. Whatever it means, the dishes include Karen and Giselle's charred eggplant with asparagus, mushroom, and citrus vinaigrette as well as Phillip and Kwame's steak with mashed potato cream and tomato eggplant relish. Neither dish works for the judges. The asparagus is undercooked and the mushrooms are under-seasoned. Art claims it's just not wedding food. When it comes to the steak and potatoes, the potatoes — if you can call it that — are the real problem. They are gummy and flavorless and the only redeeming quality of the dish is Kwame's garnish.
The last and final stop on this love train is "Happily Ever After" which is, of course, dessert. Marjorie and Carl prepared grilled apricots with cherries, mascarpone cheese and hazelnuts. The judges and guests all love it. It's like a cobbler, but without the heavy feeling.
This is a relatively positive Judges' Table, at least at first. There were so many great dishes over the course of the evening. The best of the bunch, however, was Wesley and Kwame's shrimp and cucumber salad. For some reason there can only be one winner, and it's Kwame. Isaac called him Kwame West, so in my mind, that's his name now.
The bottom two dishes came from Karen and Giselle and then Phillip and Kwame. Talk about a rollercoaster. Padma assures Kwame that he isn't going anywhere, and he's more in front of the panel to help them get to the bottom of what happened with that dish. But they didn't even need to ask him, as other chefs chimed in from the side about Phillip's potato disaster.
Phillip begins to explain that it was his plan from the beginning to do a potato cream sauce, not mashed potatoes. He's one of my favorite types of reality show contestants. Lying is so much a part of his personality that it doesn't matter to him that what actually happened during the menu planning is ON TAPE. Carl and Marjorie both jump in saying that he told the team he'd be doing mashed potatoes, not some vegetable based garnish like he claims. And even if the dish did turn out as he intended, the judges didn't like it anyway.
Karen and Giselle have a different problem. Giselle claims these weren't her flavor profiles and she felt like a sous chef, but she kind of put herself in that position by deferring to Karen at every turn. At the same time, Karen didn't properly execute any of the elements of the dish.
It's a tough call about what's the greater sin here. Is it worse to sit back and do nothing? Worse to put out underseasoned and poorly prepared food but understand your mistakes? Or worse to put out a weird and bad dish and then when it's criticized, lie and claim that was your goal the entire time?
Apparently, doing nothing is the greatest sin of all and Giselle is sent to pack her knives and go. As an avid viewer of this show, I think it was the right choice. She just didn't have the chops to keep going. Having said that, Giselle, I will happily be your friend and we can go shopping for leather jackets and new nose rings and talk about how to properly condition textured hair together.