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‘Top Chef’ Recap: When You’re Here (in Charleston), You’re Family (Meal)

The first true elimination challenge claims a victim

All photos by Paul Cheney/Bravo

Finally, six days after the hour-long Quickfire Challenge episode to kick off Top Chef Charleston, we get the first true Elimination Challenge. Only getting the first half of an episode was kind of brutal. It was like watching the first part of When Harry Met Sally and then waiting an entire week to find out if they end up together or not and if "baby fish mouth" is in fact the right answer in Pictionary. (Sorry, it's the holidays — it's all rom-coms and entire pizzas until the January 2nd gym and juice cleanse regimen begins.)

Padma Lakshmi, noticeably jumpsuit-less for the plantation "sudden death" Quickfire, introduces the guest judge for this challenge, Frank Lee. The chefs join him for a low country boil and Jim Smith notes that you can smell the Old Bay in the air. I didn't realize Old Bay was so important to southern cuisine, but apparently it is. I'm from Maryland, so we put Old Bay on everything from crabs to fries to lacrosse sticks. Okay, but for real though, put it on eggs. Trust me.

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs are split into two teams that will each prepare a family-style southern meal inspired by having dinner at a local South Carolinian chef's home. But how on earth will they ever split up all of these competitors? Will they do it as men versus women? Restaurant owners versus executive chefs? Beards versus non-beards? Kidding, obviously this is a rookies versus veterans challenge.

Though it's an obvious dividing line, many chefs aren't happy with this separation. Emily Hahn is sick of being considered a rookie chef when she's really anything but, she just happens to not have cooked in any ridiculous televised challenges before: Doesn't make her a rookie, it makes her a sane person because she's never been on a reality show. BJ Smith also hates the split because he thinks he associates more with the veterans, that they have more in common. BJ is basically the sophomore in high school who thinks he's friends with seniors and they're all like, "You don't even have your license yet, loser."

Emily, BJ, and the rest of their team go to dinner at biscuit queen (I don't think this is an official nickname, but she's welcome to it) Carrie Morrey's home for some real southern cooking. She explains that her family secret ingredient in biscuits is cream cheese. Yup, just double the fat. Her logic is, "If you're going to have a biscuit, have a biscuit." I would like this on my tombstone.

The vets head to dinner at the home of personal chef and Gullah cuisine expert B.J. Dennis. Look, we know I mean the veteran Top Chef contestants, but isn't it just a little fun to imagine that a bunch of animal doctors showed up for a homestyle dinner? And also maybe they brought a bunch of cats and dogs and one of them has wheels for legs. Anyway, that's just what's happening in my head right now. Everything is fine.

Over the course of these family meals we learn that many of the chefs have southern cooking roots, like Annie Pettry's Appalachian hippie upbringing and the Texas kitchen of Casey Thompson's grandparents. Notions of togetherness and connection and everything that food can do for us brings Casey to tears in her confessional as her voice shakes through saying, "Isn't food cool?" It sounds like the 2 a.m. revelation of a stoned college student, but I totally get it. Yes Casey, food is cool.

The chefs change gears quickly from a heart-warming dinner to a heart-racing trip to Whole Foods. This is one of the main areas where I think the veterans have a real edge. Chefs on the veteran team have already done many runs of this higher-stakes Supermarket Sweep (I know that sounds redundant because nothing was possibly more high stakes than the errand-based '90s game show). But the vets know the challenges, they know how to manage their time, they know how to think about the total budget. No amount of Klonopin could make these shopping trips tolerable for me.

In the store, the vets seem to get everything they need, but the rookie team is struggling as they near the $500 budget with several chefs not even ringing up any of their ingredients yet. BJ takes control in the least surprising move possible. Like, of course he appoints himself some kind of group leader. Coordinating everyone's shopping lists looked like the world's worst birthday dinner check split. I was waiting for someone to yell out, "I mean, I didn't have any of the brussels sprouts you ordered for the table."

Whenever I’ve had a very full glass of cold wine my friends refer to it as an "Alison pour," but this sounds better.

Dreamboat Sam Talbot takes the shopping trip to inform us that he's doing fried chicken for this challenge because he's opening a fried chicken restaurant in Brooklyn. Really, Sam? Are you trying to be the most perfect person alive? Do you also have a health condition that makes you more aware of yourself and those around you? Oh, you have Type 1 Diabetes and strive to incorporate healthier recipes into your businesses for everyone? For god's sake. You probably have a great dog, too, don't you? Of course you do. (Yes, this last part is thanks to some internet stalking that I have done and am not proud of, but just let it go.)

Back at the house, the rookie team is already coming apart at the seams. Despite having dinner at a bona fide biscuit maven's home, no one on the team is doing a biscuit for the challenge. This feels like a huge missed opportunity, but it's too late now. Shopping is done, dishes are planned, they just need to move forward.

In the less stressful part of the house, Casey teaches everyone what a "country club pour" is. Whenever I've had a very full glass of cold wine my friends refer to it as an "Alison pour," but this sounds better. As the ladies are sipping on glasses of rosé with ONE ice cube in each, Casey lifts her hefty glass and reveals this amazing name that I will use probably more often than any other phrase in the English language.

Prep in the restaurant kitchen is expectedly hectic, and it's the most literal definition of "too many cooks" I've ever seen. Not only is it crowded, but the ovens have no racks, so everything will have to be cooked at the base, which isn't ideal for most dishes. Judges Tom Colicchio and Frank Lee tour the kitchen asking what different contestants are making. Sheldon Simeon explains his eggplant dish and Frank comments, "I've never met an eggplant I didn't like." Well then you, sir, have never been a woman on Tinder.

The rookies serve first, and along with Padma, Tom, and Gail Simmons, the diners are other famed South Carolina chefs who know southern cooking better than John Mayer knows his way around a vest store. As in last week's episode, Jim hits another home run with his grits and charred asparagus, ham hock, and spring onions. The judges also love Sylva Senat's cornish game hen with permanent slaw and Emily's refreshing pickled shrimp and dressed cucumbers.

Not everything was great, though. BJ, despite being a self-proclaimed "meat guy," cooked his meat so inconsistently that while some diners got tough pieces of his pork and pickled peaches, other diners, like Gail, got pieces that were practically raw. Annie also struggled with cooking technique as the dough for her tomato tart — her take on the classic tomato pie — was nearly raw, as well. And Jamie Lynch, despite his desperate attempt to redeem the burned vegetables of his Quickfire Challenge, failed plants again with his messy and muddled summer squash casserole.

It's overall not a bad meal, but Tom notes there are a few misses and it didn't quite come together all the way. And before anyone even took a single spoonful of food, Padma lamented the lack of biscuits on the table.

The veteran meal is a much better experience as pretty much everyone hits it out of the park. Every dish wows the judges, from Shirley Chung's pork and oyster stew to Amanda Baumgarten's whole fish ceviche with Old Bay.

Standouts for the veteran team's meal, however, are Sheldon's eggplant stewed in tomato, fish sauce, and pickled onion; Casey's collard greens with turnips, coconut, peanut, crispy chicken skin, and trout roe; and John Tesar's Carolina rice with caramelized okra, green onion, and crab gravy. Tom is a famed hater of okra, mostly thanks to its slime, yet even he was on board with John's dish.

With such an outstanding meal overall, it's no surprise that the veteran team wins the challenge. And of all of the excellent dishes, Casey's collard greens are deemed the best of the day.

Unfortunately, this means the rookie team has lost and someone needs to go home. They still cooked a great meal, but the vets were just batting a thousand. Of the three weakest dishes, it is Annie's undercooked tomato tart that gets her sent home. Well, not quite home, but to Last Chance Kitchen, and then probably home.

Alison Leiby is a comedian and writer in Los Angeles.

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