Every week when I get ready for Top Chef I wonder to myself, "Is this the week where people finally crack and start to lose it and maybe throw something or swear or mess up something so aggressively that they walk out of the kitchen in a fit of rage?" and then every week I'm slightly disappointed that doesn't happen and instead, everyone cooks relatively well and someone is sent home for a dish that ultimately would have been good enough for the competition just an episode or two earlier.
I was bummed to see Karen Akunowicz sent home last week for her overly Chinese-Japanese dish. I'm even more bummed because that leaves Marjorie Meek-Bradley as the last woman in the competition. Again, I'm not shrilly screaming from the roof of an Ann Taylor Loft, "Give it to a woman because we deserve it!" but I do think Karen had the chops to keep going in this competition and I would have liked to see her and Marjorie keep cooking alongside each other. Also they seemed like friends, and that's always refreshing to watch.
For the Quickfire Challenge, the chefs head to M.Y. Chinese restaurant and are greeted by Padma Lakshmi in yet another all white ensemble (does the woman just like, never, ever spill?) and guest judge, the legendary chef Martin Yan. His impressive history in cooking is the only thing that could actually steal the attention away from the chef cooking behind everyone with a wok full of giant flames.
In this challenge, the chefs have 30 minutes to create their own version of the American Chinese cuisine staple, chop suey. Making this style of Chinese food would seem easy enough — if it can be flash frozen and sold in bags at Trader Joe's, there must be some simplicity to it. But cooking with an extremely hot wok is not easy. The heat is so high that you can go from raw to on fire in a matter of seconds.
Padma explains there is no immunity in this challenge, but there is a pretty significant advantage for the winner going into the elimination.
Marjorie is playing with the lobsters, putting them in Jeremy Ford's face and saying, "Say hello to my little friend," thus earning her another check mark in the "we need to be friends" book. She seems comfortable with the wok, while others are struggling a bit more. Amar Santana keeps sparking flames so high I'm genuinely worried for the safety of anyone in that building. Considering his struggle, he decides to do a version of chop suey that also involves fried rice.
Thanks to the magic of television editing, the 30 minutes flies by and the chefs quickly serve Padma and Martin their Chinese American creations.
Everyone does pretty well, but there are some missteps. Carl Dooley's Szechuan-style lobster with snow peas, ginger, chilies, and scallops doesn't have the right proportion of protein to vegetables that traditional chop suey has. Kwame Onwuachi's eggplant got oily in his stiry fry with crispy beef, long beans, and cabbage. Isaac Toups made the mistake of using too much corn starch on his spicy general tso's chicken with crackling sambal, orange, and broccoli — a problem he was aware of as he was finishing his dish.
Of course, there were some seriously great dishes, as there always are. The judges enjoyed Jeremy's Dungeness crab stir fry with bok choy and Thai chili, as well as Amar's pork chop suey with vegetables and Szechuan peppercorns over rice. The winner, though, is Marjorie for her well-balanced lobster chop suey with ginger, Thai chili, and orange. It's her first Quickfire win, which, annoyingly, comes without the prize of immunity.
Because they are in San Francisco, the city of Yelp employee open letters and $1,000,000 studio apartments, the elimination challenge is all about venture capitalist firms, kind of. The chefs must each come up with a concept for a fast casual restaurant, prepare one dish to serve to 150 diners at an event, and plan the rest of the menu for that establishment. And to help judge this challenge is Umami Burger founder Adam Fleischman.
The key to succeeding with this challenge is developing a concept that represents each chefs' culinary style but also could work in any city across the country. The judges keep saying that fast casual is "blowing up," but I don't think that's true. There's always been fast casual dining. It's just actually getting good for the first time in history.
Since this is a pretty tall order of a challenge, the chefs get some help in the form of recently eliminated contestants as sous chefs. Here is where Marjorie's advantage from winning the Quickfire comes into play. She not only gets first pick of the group for herself, but she gets to pair all of the chefs up.
Marjorie picks Angelina Bastidas, which feels like a bold choice given Angelina's struggles on the show. But, she points out, she's a fast as hell sous chef, so she's kind of perfect for the situation. She then pairs Jeremy with Jason Stratton, Carl with Chad White, Amar with Karen (a team I could not be more in support of), Isaac with fellow Southern gentleman Wesley True, and Kwame with the one and only Phillip Frankland Lee. Obviously, these pairings weren't accidents. She saved Phillip for Kwame based on their history of working together in the kitchen ending in failed dishes.
Now that they have their sous chefs, the contestants start planning their fast casual concepts. I was thinking of what I would do if I were in their shoes. Honestly, I would probably create a restaurant where there is unlimited free wine and you can show up in a bathrobe. The rest is kind of irrelevant to me. The first person to create this restaurant as a real place will get an investment from me of my entire fortune ($137 and a 2000 Toyota Rav 4).
Amar is going with what he knows — and has been cooking for most of the season — and doing a rotisserie chicken restaurant. Marjorie is showcasing her pasta know-how from her year at Per Se with an Italian concept. Carl's idea is my favorite of the bunch and is a Southern Mediterranean version of Chipotle (ideally sans bacteria issues). Kwame is working with chicken and waffles, and Isaac is doing his Lousiana gumbo. They all make sense not just overall, but as restaurants that could conceivably work across the country.
The one part that doesn't make sense is Jeremy, who is more hung up on naming his restaurant Two Dudes than figuring out what it serves. Even though it's totally outside his wheelhouse, he decides to embrace his inner surfer-brah and do tacos. But not just tacos, "tacos that are kind of different," which sounds like the idea you come up with when you're stoned and staring at a fridge full of eggs, Chinese leftovers, and a shoe.
Given the time constraints, Kwame decides to go with frozen waffles rather than making them himself. It's a risky move since waffles are pretty much half of the dish and the concept, so if he isn't making those, what is he really doing?
The first day of prep wraps and everyone is packing up their station when Marjorie realizes she doesn't have a way to actually cook the pasta at the venue the next day. She doesn't have pasta baskets or even know if she'll have a spot to boil water when she gets there, which might really mess up her spaghetti dish. Thankfully, she comes in the next day and improvises by filling her fryer with water and using that to boil the pasta.
Guests arrive and in typical Top Chef fashion there are long lines at every station, overwhelming all of the chefs. Padma notes, "Everyone looks like they're having a good time. They look happy, they're eating." Of course they're happy, they are eating. Have you ever seen someone eating while looking upset. It never happens — unless you're eating a salad alone at your desk, and then cry away.
First up is Savory Med, Carl's southern Mediterranean build-your-dish concept. I'm biased because this is my favorite cuisine, but it is actually a good idea. It's healthy and flavorful and you can customize your meal. His representative dish is a lamb and piquillo pepper stew with couscous, yogurt, feta, and fresh herb salad in a bowl. Diners at the actual restaurant would be able to mix and match with a pita or bowl, different proteins, and different toppings. The judges all love it, and one diner calls it "investaworthy" which I'm happy about for Carl's sake but want to crawl under my bed when I think about someone saying it out loud.
The judges head from northern Africa to southern Louisiana to Gumbo For Y'All, which is obviously Isaac's concept. He did what he does best and created a gumbo restaurant where you could choose what you want in it. It's a good concept, but even more impressive when he explains you could get a bowl of it for yourself for lunch, or you could get a giant serving of it for your family of 10. It's the alternative to the bucket of fried chicken you bring home on a Friday night. He serves up a version of his original gumbo for the judges and guests, which is gumbo ya ya with chicken and sausage. It's hearty and tastier than some of the other stews he's prepared in past challenges.
Next up is Kwame's chicken and waffle restaurant, Waffle Me. In the actual establishment, diners would be able to pick different kinds of waffles, like whole grain, sweet potato, or coriander, and then also choose the sauces and toppings. Unfortunately, for the challenge he used Whole Foods' frozen mini-waffles that he griddled in butter. The judges are underwhelmed by the ancho chile fried chicken with maple jus, mustard seeds, red onion and scallions on a soggy whole wheat waffle. Even worse, the bite-sized portions are awkward to eat, and also just wouldn't translate to an actual restaurant.
Negative feelings are wiped away when they get to Pasta Mama, Marjorie's station. Her menu is straight-forward, classic pasta and sausage dishes that would be freshly made in-house. As a sample, she serves spaghetti with olive oil poached tuna, chili, garlic, and lemon breadcrumbs. It's properly cooked, tasty, and overall a concept that would definitely work in any city.
Taco Dudes is Jeremy's overly complicated take on a taqueria. Diners would essentially build their own tacos but from a long and overly confusing list of elements and ingredients, one of which is "texture." I don't want to choose the texture of a food, I want the food to have the texture I'm expecting of that item. He serves a crispy pork belly taco with caramel glaze, savoy cabbage slaw, and lime aioli in a crispy wonton or a lettuce wrap. It's kind of hard to eat and good, but not great. Worse than the taco, though, is his description of the restaurant. So it's apparently an Asian take (mostly) on tacos, but also it would feel like a gastropub with cool beer, but also a chill rooftop garden, and then also hot chicks serving you. So Hooters.
The last stop is Amar's rotisserie chicken concept, Pio Pio. Great name, great idea, the only problem is he isn't serving whole chickens or pieces of chicken. The dish is a mix of breast and thigh rotisseries chicken with Spanish yellow rice, four bean salad, and then your choice of roasted garlic mojo, creamy chimichurri, or romesco sauce. All mixed together it's great and flavorful, but not quite there.
At Judges' Table, we're down to so few chefs that they only select the top and bottom two competitors. Marjorie and Carl both had the best dishes and concepts of the day, but ultimately the winner is Carl for Savory Med.
The bottom two of this challenge are Jeremy for his poor concept and Kwame for his mini frozen waffles. Both have been hovering around the bottom in the latter part of this competition. Sadly, Kwame is sent to pack his knives and go. I wanted it to be Jeremy, because I've been burned by a bro before (both emotionally and also once thanks to some careless joint handling).
As Kwame leaves and shakes the judges' hands, he stops at Tom Colicchio and says:
"I just wanted to say, I've been cooking for like, four or five years. I started as a waiter in your restaurant, in Craft. When walking into that kitchen, it really showed me what cuisine could be. Before then I was just working with my mom. And I really appreciate everything."
It brings Tom, Padma, me, and I'm sure every person who watching to tears. Bye, Kwame. And while Tom may have inspired you to become a chef, we all know you'll miss Padma most of all.