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‘Top Chef’ Recap: When Barbecue Goes Up in Smoke

The contestants go low-and-slow in this meaty episode

All photos: Paul Cheney/Bravo

Well, it’s the last episode of Top Chef of the year. My guess is the show’s new year’s resolutions for 2016 were more jumpsuits for Padma Lakshmi and to wedge in even more product placement. If that’s the case, they did it. Who knows what 2017 will bring: Maybe they’ll feature more older chefs, or start doing more extreme challenges, or Padma will start wearing more chokers. Anything can happen.

This week, Silvia Barban celebrates her birthday and reminds us all of the birthday curse on the show, where chefs are typically eliminated on or around their birthdays. Is this a Chekhov’s gun, indicating her ultimate elimination, or just a fun little personal tidbit about her? We learn it’s also her 26th birthday, and she is about to own her third restaurant. Twenty-six. Owns three restaurants. I’m 33 and don’t even own my Honda Civic.

Sheldon Simeon is complaining of back and leg pain that could be related to a herniated disc that required surgery years ago. That pain is no joke and completely debilitating. I’ve had three herniated discs and subsequent surgeries (next one on my punch card is free, I think) and it’s impossible to imagine running around a kitchen, carrying giant trays of food, or just bending over to open an oven. I also herniated one of my discs just putting on a bra, so like, maybe my body isn’t made for reality television.

The chefs arrive in the kitchen and it’s dark, there are no producers, and no be-jumpsuited Padma in sight. They are awkwardly guessing and chatting and Katsuji Tanabe does a half-hearted Padma impression. Suddenly a buzzer goes off and a timer begins counting down from 40 minutes as the pantry garage door opens to reveal a table of ingredients with no instructions whatsoever. The chefs rush over to inspect and Sylva Senat smartly determines that based on the flour and buttermilk, they must be making biscuits.

As the chefs scramble, Padma is waiting in the production booth watching them mentally unravel in the face of no explicit challenge. She says, “We should do it this way all the time,” as if her job as host during a Quickfire Challenge is so exhausting. It’s the same thing, she just went from standing to sitting — though standing is pretty awful.

Sheldon has never made biscuits before, so he’s just copying Brooke Williamson’s every move, which seems to be a safe bet most of the time. Despite owning a restaurant in the south, Jamie Lynch doesn’t know much about making biscuits, either.

Padma finally emerges wearing a shirred white button-down with a giant suede belt that I’m assuming was an outfit Paris Hilton almost wore to court in 2007. Somehow, she’s pulling it off. She also introduces the guest judge for the Quickfire Challenge, biscuit master John Currence. The chefs were right to make biscuits, as that was the challenge. But looming larger than the immediate biscuit on the plate, this was a test of how well they do without a lot of direction — aka, a challenge about improvising. Thankfully, they mean improvising in the kitchen, not comedic acting. I never want to see a Top Chef improv troupe. It would probably be called “Cats Have Nine Knives” or “Quickfired Up” or “Tom Colicchio’s scalp moisturizer.”

Sheldon sliced his rather thin biscuits in half and forgot to plate the top half on his buttermilk biscuit with country ham dish, so he’s at the bottom. Shirley Chung is also on the bottom for her dense biscuit with black pepper mascarpone, as is southerner Jim Smith and his cream cheese and butter biscuit with an overly seared scallop.

The best biscuits were Brooke for her salmon biscuit with avocado and creme fraiche, Katsuji’s sweet version with honey butter, and Jamie’s breakfast-style biscuit with a sunny side up egg. Winning the Quickfire, though, is Brooke, who also gets immunity.

Keeping with the very southern theme for this episode, the Elimination Challenge centers on another South Carolina delicacy: barbecue. And the guest judge is none other than barbecue legend Rodney Scott. For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs must split up into three teams of four to cook a whole hog and three sides for 150 people, including Darius Rucker. You know, of Hootie and the Blowfish fame. Why wouldn’t he be involved?

Sheldon is super excited to cook a whole pig, but is in so much pain that he skips the meat crawl (a term I’m using to mean “a day where you visit more than one barbecue pit”) to get an MRI. But while Sheldon is lying perfectly still on a table for about 45 minutes, the rest of the competition heads first to Sweatman’s, a barbecue pit that specializes in mustard sauce. There are apparently two sauces used in South Carolina barbecue, one that’s mustard based, and one that’s vinegar based.

For the best version of vinegar-based sauces, everyone heads to Scott’s Bar-B-Que and are all floored by the meat and the flavors. For the challenge, the chefs must choose one sauce style for their hog, but after going to Scott’s it appears everyone wants to try and recreate Rodney’s vinegar magic.

That night, Sheldon returns with a herniated disc and some decent drugs and is ready to take on this endurance challenge. Everyone starts breaking down pigs and burning wood to create smoke and get this 15-hour show on the road. It’s a truly long night, made exponentially longer by John Tesar’s non-stop rambling.

In the morning, John has somehow stopped talking long enough to start the smoked mac and cheese side he’s preparing for his team. For his signature cheesy dish, though, he needs all-purpose flour and somehow didn’t get any at Whole Foods. Now he’s stranded in a field after being up all night cooking and there’s no solution — that is, until Katsuji offers him a trade of some Xanthan gum (which can be used as a substitute) for some pre-peeled garlic.

The green team is taking a lot of risks and veering off the well-trod barbecue road. Sylva’s sauce isn’t the mustard sauce, but it isn’t truly the vinegar-based one either, as he has added hoisin and ketchup. Silvia (honestly, did Sylva and Silvia have to be on the same team?) is doing something she is referring to as potato salad, but it’s really roasted potatoes and vegetables in an Italian salsa verde. It resembles potato salad as much as I resemble the Olsen twins stacked on top of each other. Also Katsuji has added something to his dish to create some seriously funky beans, which sounds like it would be a slang compliment from the mid-‘90s, but it is very much a problem.

Diners — and Darius Rucker — arrive and are ready to eat until there’s no more pig left. Judges Padma, Tom, Rodney, and Gail Simmons get a plate from the yellow team first. It features John’s smoked mac and cheese, Emily Hahn’s braised pinto beans, Brooke’s pineapple slaw and a chile citrus vinegar sauce–coated whole hog prepared by Sheldon and his herniated disc (plus Percocet, I’m thinking). The judges love every item on the plate, though Emily’s beans are undercooked. Not only are all of the components good, they harmonize to create an excellent overall plate of food.

Next up is the red team of Jim, Shirley, Jamie, and Casey Thompson. Everyone is enamored with the trotter and pig head hash with sweet potato, as well as the pickles and the braised cabbage. The sides are excellent, though the judges note that the sauce on the pig just isn’t as vibrant or complex as what the yellow team made.

Last is the green team, which is a plate riddled with problems for diners and judges. Not only does Sylva’s hoisin vinegar sauce not work, Silvia’s potato salad with salsa verde is a huge miss, as are Katsuji’s oddly sour beans. Amanda Baumgarten walked away with the biggest compliment on her kale and apricot slaw, which was Padma calling it “forgettable.”

Everyone has now been awake for about 32 hours, which seems like an excellent time to start doing some harsh critiquing of their life’s work at Judges’ Table. The clear winning team for the day is the yellow team, with John earning his first individual win ever on Top Chef for his smoked mac and cheese.

The losing team was just as clear to Tom and company — the green team. Despite so many missteps by so many people, ultimately, Silvia is sent home for her potato salad. It turns out the birthday curse continues. She’ll be fine, though: She can blow out the 26 candles on her cake at one of her three restaurants.

Alison Leiby is a writer and comedian.


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