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‘Top Chef’ Recap: One Man’s Trash Fish

A holiday-themed episode brings (surprise!) fighting and food

All photos: Paul Cheney/Bravo

This episode opens in the wake of Sam Talbot’s elimination, which everyone is disappointed by, but most of all me. Was this a devastating loss? Yes. Did the wrong person go home? Probably. Could Sam make it up to me by showing up at my house in Los Angeles with a bouquet of roses and wearing a t-shirt that says “ALISON LEIBY PLEASE MARRY ME”? I mean, that would be a start.

It’s the holiday episode, so the chefs arrive in the kitchen to be greeted by Padma Lakshmi, the new editor of Food and Wine magazine, Nilou Motamed, and giant wrapped gift boxes at each of their stations. My guess is there aren’t cashmere sweaters in there (or usually in the case of my gift giving, there aren’t printed out pictures from the internet of a cashmere sweater I ordered you too late and it hasn’t arrived in time to give it to you).

The Quickfire Challenge requires the chefs to create a dish in 30 minutes using all of the items they find in their wrapped presents. The winner gets immunity, which is the real gift here.

So (Brad Pitt in Seven voice), “What’s in the box??” Well it’s a pressure cooker, Patron tequila, pomegranate, chocolate-covered pretzels, cloves, wasabi, squab, and a melon baller. It sounds like the ingredients you get out to make “dinner” at two in the morning after finishing the tequila and you fall asleep before you even start putting everything together.

Shirley Chung’s squab is fully on fire as she takes the pan off the stove and puts it on the ground, huddled next to it like it’s a campfire keeping her warm. Emily Hahn runs into some burning problems, too, with her rice that she’s making in the pressure cooker — though sans pressure. To fix it, she tosses the rice and cabbage into the blender to make a creamy, disgusting dish.

Everyone is plating, and Shirley notices that thanks to Sheldon Simeon accidentally using the wrong station at one point, he has two melon ballers to Shirley’s none. So every other dish has a spherical element sitting on top except for hers.

Time is up and Padma and Nilou taste whatever it is the chefs whipped up with this box of whatever. This must be an annoying challenge to judge because so many of these dishes were exactly the same. Understandably, Shirley and Emily are both on the bottom for mistakes they know they made, along with BJ Smith for his tough pretzel-crusted fried squab with wasabi cauliflower puree. Throughout the tasting, Katsuji Tanabe is taking swigs out of his square glass bottle of Patron.

The judges love Brooke Williamson’s roasted squab with clove, tequila and pomegranate stock, as well as sweaty John Tesar’s seared squab with mole and avocado and pomegranate salad. But the winner is Casey Thompson for her smoked chile, tequila, and squab soup.

For the Elimination Challenge, Padma welcomes local chef and handsome guy Mike Lata. He recognizes some chefs, but none more than Emily, a former employee he once fired. The task at hand: Chefs must create their version of the Feast of the Seven Fishes. This is apparently an Italian-American Christmas Eve tradition stemming from the times of fasting from meat. It’s like that old saying, “Those who can’t do, teach,” but it’s “Those who can’t eat meat, eat fish.” That’s something, right?

This won’t be a feast of lobster and scallops, though. The fishes in question are trash fishes. I didn’t know “trash fish” was a culinary term, but now I want to use it all the time, and mostly to describe people who have wronged me in the past (I’m looking at you, other girl in the coffee shop who wouldn’t stop loudly talking on her phone next to me while overusing the word “fiance”). She’s a trash fish, but other trash fish include uncommon fish that get caught in shrimp boats and are usually thrown back.

Jim Smith doesn’t like the term: Even though they aren’t the common filets you find in fine-dining restaurants, plenty of these fish can be used to cook beautifully. He also happens to have won the Great American Seafood Cooking Competition, so he’s like, good to go.

The other twist for this challenge is that chefs will be working in teams of two, except for Casey, who gets to work solo with her immunity and her first choice trash fish. Most of the teams seem good to go, except for the firecracker duo of Katsuji and John. And while the pot-stirrer and the reformed jerk seem like a dangerous pairing, usually-on-the-top Brooke working with usually-on-the-bottom Emily feels risky, too. Shirley and Sheldon feel like siblings solving a mystery in Whole Foods, and if Bravo is looking for new shows, I suggest they start with that.

John and Katsuji go with the triggerfish, which feels like an appropriately named species for the two of them. Both compromise-averse, they decide to each make a version of the fish, Katsuji with his fresh tomatoes, John with his roasted ones, to see which they should serve for the judges.

First to serve the table of Padma, Nilou, Mike, Tom Colicchio, Richard Blais, Hugh Acheson,and Graham Elliot is Shirley and Sheldon. They prepared Sichuan peppercorn braised mullet with tofu, celery, and buttered radish. Apparently mullet is also a trash fish and not just a hairstyle on a guy who left his lighter in his good jorts. The judges like the dish a lot, though most seem to pull tiny fish bones from their mouths.

Jamie Lynch and Sylva Senat have a fish that “tastes a little like blood,” the tunny. For their dish they did a ras el hanout-dusted tunny with melted leeks and parsnip puree. “We were all guessing that you’d fail miserably,” is something Hugh says to the chefs and also what my trainer says to me every time I show up to the gym again. Surprisingly, though, the flavors and preparation were just right for what Graham called a gateway drug to trash fish.

Brooke and Emily serve roasted blackbelly rosefish with marble potatoes, leeks, corn, fiddleheads, and a coconut tamarind sauce. The only thing Emily took responsibility for was the cook on the fish, and it’s the first thing her former boss critiques. Aside from the poor sear, the dish overall needed serious editing and could have used the word “no” at least two or three times.

Silvia Barban and BJ run into some issues with their flavorless, tough fish. They also don’t have nearly enough broth for their barrel fish brodo with leeks, kale, cauliflower, and pana carasau, which is an Italian cracker of some kind according to BJ.

John and Katsuji both just start plating however they want to plate and are fighting over everything. John says it doesn’t feel like the holidays to him. They are fighting and there’s lots of food around, it sounds exactly like the holidays. They finally serve their triggerfish with chile sauce, fennel puree, and stewed tomatoes. Against all odds, the dish is a hit with the judges.

Jim and Amanda Baumgarten serve a gray tilefish in tomato and fennel broth with mussels and white beans. Tom asks who cooked the beans and Amanda immediately gets defensive. The Southern-French style for the dish is a hit, but the actual preparation of the elements was lacking.

Casey and her teammate Immunity serves her dish last, which is Amberjack with kimchi, charred rabe, and rice porridge. It fails miserably. Good thing she can’t get sent home, or she probably would be.

At Judges’ Table, the teams of Shirley and Sheldon, Jamie and Sylva, and John and Katsuji are the standouts. It’s true what they say, one man’s trash fish is another man’s treasure fish. These teams did the best with what they were given and produced some pretty impressive food. The winning team is John and Katsuji and the overall winner of the challenge is Katsuji for his phenomenal sauce. I guess pot-stirring works.

The bottom is basically everyone except Casey, who really should have been there. Undercooked beans, over-reduced sauces, and poorly edited dishes were just a few of the problems on these plates. But of all of the mistakes, BJ’s were the worst, and he’s sent to pack his knives and go.

This felt like a fitting holiday episode of Top Chef: lots of yelling, tons of fighting, and gifts you don’t really know what to do with. Throw in a few passive-aggressive remarks about being 33 and unmarried, and you have a regular Hanukkah at my house!

Alison Leiby is a writer and comedian.

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