Well, here we are, the third episode of the season. If Top Chef were a relationship, this would be date three, where things really start to heat up. For me, date three is usually when I finish the entire bottle of wine myself and whisper (say loudly) to the man I'm out with that I'm so afraid of horses that I have cried about it on several occasions.
No such horse secrets were wine screamed on this episode of Top Chef, but things did get a whole lot more serious. Padma Lakshmi introduces guest judge for this challenge, Chris Cosentino. Some people know him as a winner of Top Chef Masters, others as an acclaimed offal aficionado. John Tesar mostly knows him as the guest judge that sent him home on his season. What a fun reunion for them!
All of this, plus the cooking, has to be done in only 25 minutes. I can barely find an onion in my kitchen in that time.
The Quickfire Challenge this week is an early in the competition favorite, the mise en place race. It's the closest to a relay race that the show ever gets. With two of the rookie chefs sent home already, there is no longer a clear and obvious line for how to create teams. So finally, after two full hours of newbies vs. veterans, we get Padma telling the cheftestants they'll be drawing knives to see who is on which team.
For this race there are five ingredients to prep and then a dish must be made using them. With seven chefs on each team, there is one chef per ingredient and then two tasked with whipping up an impressive dish. Teams must peel and mince five ounces of garlic, finely dice two quarts of onions, turn three artichokes, peel and de-vein 30 shrimp, and shuck 15 clams. All of this, plus the cooking, has to be done in only 25 minutes. That's basically no time. I can barely find an onion in my kitchen in that time. This is mostly because I always think it goes in the fridge but then I know I don't keep them in the fridge but I open the fridge anyway and would you look at that, I ate a whole block of cheese while standing.
The winning team's MVP gets immunity from elimination. And in the 25 minutes, no cooking can begin until all five ingredients have been prepared and approved by the judges. But, like my gin martini dinner, there's a twist — whichever team finishes prep first gets to hit a giant "pause" button for the other team, causing them to stop working for three minutes. Where is this button in real life? I would sell a kidney just to have a pause button I could hit every time someone I meet in Los Angeles starts talking about "good hikes." Three minutes is plenty of time for me to run away screaming before they start talking again.
Time starts and Katusji Tanabe is the first to call "check" for his impressively diced onions — though he did have a false start by calling for the judges when his containers weren't all the way full. He recovers though, and his team moves on. No one is really having problems with any of the tasks. Usually at least one chef gets assigned something they've never cooked and are like "wait, shrimp have veins?" Not this season, everyone is flying through their prep.
It's neck and neck all the way to the end, with shockingly quick chopping and shucking from everyone, most notably veteran Sheldon Simeon, who is a stand-out on the blue team. Cosentino notes that he's quick, clean, and helps everyone finish. So funny, that's how I describe what I'm looking for in a boyfriend.
The green team narrowly beats the blue team with prep by one clam, and John runs over to hit the "pause button," while his team's chefs start cooking. Sam Talbot and Amanda Baumgarten take the prepared ingredients and make stuffed clam with shrimp, fresh herbs, sambal, chili, fried artichokes, and bread crumbs. Once their three minutes is up, Shirley Chung and Brooke Williamson scrap their initial idea for time and do fried clam bellies and shrimp with shaved raw artichoke salad. Even with the time deficit, the blue team wins. Sheldon is the obvious MVP and is safe from elimination.
For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs will stay in their teams. These teams will each be responsible for cooking a seven-course progressive meal where dishes will go head-to-head in a kitchen full of Top Chef super fans. There's one more element to this challenge, though. Cosentino explains that every dish must feature one of his favorite ingredients. Some contestants are scared about this because he's the reigning king of offal. On television it can be hard to know when people are saying offal (internal organs and entrails of butchered meat) or awful (the way I was described as an employee of Sunglass Hut in the summer of 2001). Apparently they were saying offal.
Offal or awful doesn't matter though, because the ingredient required in every dish is actually radishes. The oft-overlooked root vegetable must be featured in every course, including the final one, which has to be a dessert. The dishes will pit a chef from each team against another for seven rounds, and the first team to four wins is the victor for the whole challenge. On the losing team, only those chefs who lost their head-to-head battle will be up for elimination. The show has added so many wrinkles to this challenge that it could apply for an AARP membership.
After the chefs head to Whole Foods in their BMW SUVs (which is legally the only way you're allowed to go to Whole Foods), they return to the kitchen to start prep. Along the way Katsuji is poking all the other chefs, trying to get a rise out of them. Looking at Jamie Lynch's dish he says, "Isn't kale, like 2014?" Katsuji has the insults of a teen girl with the bow tie of a conservative political pundit.
For the competition, the kitchen is set up like a gladiator arena, with hoards of super fans watching two competitors face off to the death. Okay not death, but slight possibility of elimination from a cable reality cooking competition. It's almost as serious. The crowd's choice counts as one vote, and then judges Padma, Cosentino, Tom Colicchio, and Richard Blais each have one vote.
I feel like I should have been there to comfort him, you know?
Round one finds the blue team's Emily Hahn and her black radish cured salmon with black radish aioli narrowly beating out Sam's radish banh mi with crispy chicken skin on a brioche. It's difficult to watch Sam lose something. I feel like I should have been there to comfort him, you know? To be by his side and say, "You still made an amazing dish and are a very talented chef," and then he would say back to me, "Alison, thank you, not only are you supportive but also you're the most beautiful woman I have ever met and I hate horses too and forget this competition, let's run away together and elope."
Katsuji and his giant ego takes the second round with his crab salad enchilada with radish tortilla and salsa verde, beating Jim Smith's grilled radish with oyster emulsion, pickled mushroom, and radish tops. This win for the green team ties things up going into round three, where BJ Smith and his pink radish conserva with trout and pickled and raw radish lose to Jamie's braised breakfast radishes and pink radish with red miso emulsion and kale chips. Seems Jamie has finally redeemed himself and his vegetable skills from the previous challenges.
The blue team takes home a third win in the fourth round. The audience loves Casey Thompson's radish "scallop" with sweet corn yogurt sauce, pickled radish, and salsify (which to me sounds less like plant and more like a blender setting). Unfortunately, all four judges prefer Sylva Senat's berbere-rubbed halibut with radish and tomato broth and dashi braised daikon.
With a 3-1 score, this puts a lot of pressure on the fifth round. If the green team loses, the whole competition is over. Amanda is nervous about going up against Shirley, but finds her confidence in her roasted black cod and black radish puree with caramelized radish greens and pistachio vinaigrette. She had every right to be confident in the dish though, as she beat out the blue team's beef braised daikon with misshaped pasta, toasted walnuts, and daikon greens. The green team is still in the game.
Round six finds another green victory when John's radish ramen with mushroom, tofu, and radish oil wins out over Sheldon's abodo radish with radish porridge, spiced cashews, and micro radish greens.
So it all comes down to round seven, just like many a World Series. The whole competition is riding on a radish dessert. Brooke approached the challenge eager to make up for the dessert she never got to serve in her finale of Top Chef. Silvia Barban also came in hot with a radish twist on a yogurt and apple cake that her mother made for her growing up. Everyone on the team is raving about her daikon radish cake with tarragon marinated blackberries and yogurt vanilla cream, so they assume it's a shoe-in to win. Unfortunately for her, it can't compare to Brooke's show-stopping purple daikon panna cotta with sour pineapple curd, white chocolate pop rocks, and pineapple black radish juice. And with Brooke's win comes an overall win for the blue team.
Padma notes that this is the best meal that they have ever been served on Top Chef.
This Judges' Table is a challenging one, because Padma notes that this is the best meal that they have ever been served on Top Chef. Not one dish was bad. It seems like any other week, any dish in this challenge could have won, yet some of them could get a vet or a rookie sent home right now.
All of the judges loved Sylva's dish from the victorious blue team, but the winner of the challenge is Brooke for her dessert. On the green team, Sam, BJ, Casey, and Silvia are all up for elimination, as they lost their head-to-head battles. Casey and Silvia are safe as their dishes had absolutely no flaws except that they went up against dishes that happened to be slightly better. So this leaves it to Sam and BJ. Neither highlighted the radish as beautifully as other dishes, but ultimately Sam's choice of a brioche instead of baguette for his banh mi sends him packing his knives to go.
While I'm incredibly sad to see my reality television crush leave the show, this does mean that he's free, and like, not doing anything right now so really doesn't have any excuse not to come to my friend's wedding with me this month. Sam, I'll be wearing a gold sequin jumpsuit and got a room at a La Quinta Inn. Dress accordingly and see you there.
Alison Leiby is a writer and comedian.
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