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‘Top Chef’ Recap: Walking, Not Grilling, the Plank

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At the midway point of the season, it’s a pirate-themed challenge — because why not?

Photo: Paul Cheney/Bravo

We’ve reached the point in Top Chef that I like to call the mid-season mudslide. Okay, I only started calling it that about four minutes ago when I started writing this and then also got a craving for the TGIFriday’s alcoholic milkshake we all know and love. Still, I think the term applies. This is the time in the season when episodes have started blending together, you forget who was even there when we started, and it feels like I blinked and all of the sudden there is, like, no one left. So they kind of mud-slid out of the competition? I don’t know, guys, I’m trying here.

The chefs enter the kitchen and not only find Padma Lakshmi, but also signs for “earth,” “wind,” “fire,” and “water.” Sheldon Simeon guesses they might be for a Captain Planet–themed challenge. But any crazy person who is anyone knows that these are elements associated with zodiac signs. As a longtime Susan Miller astrology zone devotee (hi everyone losing respect for me as you read this! Thanks for following along!), I recognized this immediately.

Padma introduces guest judge Michael Cimarusti and correctly explains that these are zodiac elements. She asks if anyone reads their daily horoscope and John Tesar raises his hand, which is both extremely surprising and not surprising at the same time. Jamie Lynch is also familiar because his wife is a gypsy star lady (who sounds v cool) and she texts him his horoscope every day.

The challenge is for chefs to take inspiration from their zodiac sign elements and use ingredients and tools that align with those. But this isn’t just any old astrological Quickfire Challenge, this one is sudden death.

Tension is super high, and I’m not even sure if Mercury was in retrograde when they were filming this episode. Emily Hahn is an air sign, so she picks up the whole bowl of chicken wings from her element. Casey Thompson is also an air sign and annoyingly has to go ask Emily if she’ll spare some so they can both use chicken wings.

Time’s up and it seems like most of the contestants are actually fire signs. I wonder if there is something about being a chef that appeals to masculine, self-expressive, passionate, and self-centered people. Padma and Michael love Jamie’s dusted lamb chop with fire-roasted pepper salad and toasted cashew jus. They are also pleasantly surprised by Katsuji Tanabe’s highly creative take on fire with his charred onion with cauliflower puree, fire-roasted habanero, and shishito pepper salsa. Sheldon’s water-sign dish, a Filipino ceviche with shrimp and coconut milk, is a huge hit as well.

Jamie’s dish is the best, though, perhaps thanks to his wife’s daily text inspiration, and he receives immunity from elimination. This is his second Quickfire Challenge win that has earned him that, so he better use it, according to Padma.

Jim Smith, unfortunately, is among the bottom of the astrological barrel thanks to his too-watery fire sign dish of charred bison with watermelon dashi. Also tumbling from the top to the bottom is Sylva Senat and his fire-roasted poblano couscous with cherry smoke. Lastly, Emily’s pan-seared chicken wing with spaetzle and herb salad was under-seasoned and uninspired. The three of them will battle in a sudden death challenge, and one will be immediately sent home.

Graham Elliot shows up to play the role of tie breaker. Since none of the chefs are earth signs, the challenge is to use that element and pick a dish that they will all have to make. I’m an earth sign and frankly, I’m not surprised. Signs under this element are grounded, logical, and reliable. We would never enter such an uncertain and volatile field like cooking. No, we stick to safe spaces, like stand-up comedy and food television recap writing. We also do reasonable things like get the sign for Capricorn tattooed on the back of our shoulders after too many shots of Goldschläger at beach week in high school.

The three chefs confer and decide that given the 20-minute time restraint and the ingredients available, their best bet i steak tartare. Jim does a refined take that’s almost too simple for the judges. Sylva’s tataki-style version with beet juice is a new idea, though slightly under-seasoned. Emily’s classic version with egg and some potato chips is well done, but a little over-seasoned. Sadly, though, it is Jim who is sent to pack his knives and go before the episode is even halfway over. Such a bummer, Jim was a reality TV breath of fresh air. He’s not an executive chef or a restaurant owner or there to talk shit about anyone. He’s just a really good chef who likes everyone and is nice to people and very funny. I’ll miss him.

Padma seamlessly transitions from sending home the nicest man ever to be on Top Chef to talking about the history of Blackbeard the pirate. Hundreds of years ago, he allegedly threw a legendary party that eventually got him caught by the police, who had been after him for quite some time. So the challenge: the chefs will be split into teams of three, go on a treasure hunt for ingredients throughout Charleston, then cook dishes for a big pirate party.

The black team is Brooke Williamson, Casey, and Katsuji, which is a very strong team. The yellow team is also a force to be reckoned with, as it has Shirley Chung, Sylva, and Sheldon. The red team is the real wild card here. It features Jamie, who has immunity, along with John and Emily, who are both notoriously difficult. Immediately John takes advantage of Jamie’s immunity, suggesting that if in the course of the treasure hunt they get stuck with any tough ingredients, Jamie can take those since he’s safe from elimination.

Conveniently, there’s a tropical storm the same day the chefs are racing through the streets of Charleston. It does solve the problem of any crowds being in the way, but also, it’s a tropical storm. They show up to starting line in the pouring rain and see a pirate and a treasure chest on the dock and Casey notes, “there better be some rum,” which is actually the way I RSVP to every party I’m invited to.

Different teams have different strategies. Red and yellow both rush to the seafood chest first, but black goes for specialty ingredients. The red team gets to seafood first, so they have their pick, and John screams for the lobster, barely taking his team’s opinions into consideration.

Running around is not the strong suit for several chefs. For one, Katsuji is struggling, but only because he’s out of shape and likes to complain about things. Sheldon is still feeling the lingering pain from his back injury, but still manages to help the yellow team get all of their ingredients and get back to the kitchen first, with two and a half hours to prep. Almost right behind them is the black team, and third to return and start cooking is the red team.

Photo: Paul Cheney/Bravo

The yellow team has a relatively good ingredient haul of mussels and filet mignon, yet have to figure out a way to successfully use pineapple. The black team also has some hits and misses. On one hand, they grabbed scallops and cauliflower, but they also have to deal with raisins. As for the red team, John got what he wanted in the form of lobster and truffles, but they also need to somehow figure out how to use chicken breast and peanut butter. But hey, that’s what Jamie is for, apparently.

Since Jamie has the chicken and peanut butter to sort out, he decides to do a chicken satay. It’s not a dream dish for him by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a way to use both ingredients together. Unfortunately, he checks on his chicken breasts only to discover the grill has been turned off and all he has left to use is a little convection oven. Meanwhile, Emily is breaking down lobsters for her and John to use, while John slaves over his delicate gnocchi for his dish.

The pirate party begins and Tom Colicchio is wearing paisley, so we’re off to a running start. Judges stop first at the yellow team’s station. Sylva prepared asparagus soup with a 63 degree egg and tarragon. Sheldon made a Vietnamese take on filet mignon using charred pineapple and candied macadamia nuts. Finally, Shirley served her “crewman stew” of mussels, farro, roasted red pepper, and bacon. I do appreciate that Shirley names as many of her dishes in this competition as possible. The judges really enjoy all three.

Next up is the black team, which seemed like it would be a strong group, given the experience and collective wins of these three veterans. Casey prepared salt-brined scallops served raw with preserved lemon puree and toasted Brazil nuts. It’s a beautiful dish, but the scallops aren’t fresh, so the taste is unpleasant and fishy. Brooke made fried cauliflower with preserved lemon aioli, raisins, mustard seed, and Brazil nut relish. Her deep hatred of raisins was expressed through aggressively adding vinegar, making her dish a certifiable acid bomb. Last is Katsuji and his cauliflower soup (which is clearly more of a puree) with spicy pork sausage, lemon hot sauce, chive powder, and cumin. Debates over what to call it aside, the judges all love the flavors of the dish.

Last to serve is the red team. John’s lobster with truffled butter and canned pea gnocchi is a hit with the judges, but that’s the only thing they enjoy. They really don’t care for Emily’s muddied version of lobster chowder with crispy chicken skin and kaffir lime leaves. And Jamie is lucky to have immunity because they also aren’t happy with his chicken satay with pickled fennel and orange salad.

Photo: Paul Cheney/Bravo

Tom points out the red team’s strategic misstep: It’s obvious that Jamie got stuck with bad ingredients because he had immunity from elimination and couldn’t go home for whatever he made with them. However, if his dish is really bad, it could cause the team to lose, and therefore send one of the other two people home for something that he did.

Back at Judges’ Table, it’s obvious that the yellow team won the challenge, but the individual winner is Shirley. Everyone loved her layered and surprising stew.

Both the black and red teams had serious problems. Casey and Brooke both failed pretty miserably. Over on the red team, though, when John starts to explain how Jamie very kindly offered to take one for the team and use the tough ingredients, Emily jumps in to say that John forced Jamie into this situation. As they are fighting about who did what, Jamie asks if he can offer up his immunity and be judged with his team. He doesn’t want to skate by for a bad dish just because of immunity; he wouldn’t be able to live with himself for that.

After some deliberation, the judges decide that the red team is the day’s loser. Before announcing who will go home, Padma asks Jamie one more time if he’s sure he wants to give up his immunity and be judged. When he says yes, she informs him that he has been eliminated and must pack his knives and go.

This was a tough one. We lost the two chefs with arguably the most appeal and integrity in one episode. And we still have Emily around. I’m sure that Emily is a talented chef and a nice woman when she isn’t on the show. On this program, however, she’s a nightmare who should have been eliminated several episodes ago. She should have been part of that earlier mudslide of long-forgotten competitors. And I guess it’s too much to ask that the show let Jim, Jamie, and Sam Talbot all win Last Chance Kitchen and come back for the final, right?

Alison Leiby is a writer and comedian.

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