America changed in the days following the Great Restaurant Wars of 2017. After the selfish captain was sent home to look after all 4,975 of his ingredients he put in every dish, both sides put down their knives and headed for the warm land and cool water. Okay, all of this is to say that with Restaurant Wars over and Katsuji Tanabe out of the competition, the chefs take a much needed morning at the beach thanks to Sheldon Simeon.
The chefs somehow manage to get all of the sand off of them on the same day that they head to the kitchen for the next challenge (at least according to reality TV editing). That’s shocking to me. You can’t just spend a morning at the beach and then go live your life like you aren’t still covered in sand even after you took a shower. Sand is like most of my relationships: a one week commitment.
In the kitchen Padma Lakshmi greets the contestants and introduces guest judge and former Top Chef champion Michael Voltaggio. Even in the annals of winners of the show, Michael is considered a stand-out, so it’s high stakes for the chefs still in the competition.
The Quickfire Challenge isn’t about testing cooking skills this time around though, it’s about testing everyone’s palate. Each chef will have five minutes to identify as many of the 20 ingredients they are given by taste while blindfolded. Without seeing the food, they can touch, smell, and taste each ingredient and either guess or pass and try again at the end, time permitting.
Knowing what a food is without seeing it is pretty challenging. I know that when I’m a bottle and a half of Sauvignon Blanc deep and eating in the dark on my bed, it’s hard to tell what is the pita chips or burnt onion rings or string cheese or handful of stale Puffins cereal from the “party mix” I made in what I thought was a bowl but turned out to be my purse. So, I feel for the chefs on this one. Tough stuff!
The winner of this challenge will not receive immunity but will receive 14 cases of wine. I mean, that much rosé kind of is immunity if you think about it. Before they start, Voltaggio warns the field that some of the items are pretty nasty. But unless it’s an old purse Sucret with hair and part of a dental insurance late payment notification stuck to it, I’m not impressed.
[Sidenote: this recap is making me sound like a bit of a disaster, but I promise I have my life together, Mom, who I know reading this.]
Brooke Williamson is up first and flies through ingredient after ingredient easily identifying even difficult-to-pinpoint things like pimento cheese. John Tesar, on the other hand, thinks cream cheese is flour, so it’s safe to guess he doesn’t get a ton of them right. Sylva Senat seems to struggle, too, but no one has as hard a time as Emily Hahn. She passes on almost everything she is handed and then has to go back and try again, mostly unsuccessfully.
The top three of the challenge are Sheldon, Brooke, and Casey Thompson. They all got over 50 percent of the items right, but it’s Brooke who wins with 16 out of 20. She even beat Michael Voltaggio’s 11. Emily only identified five.
Time for the Elimination Challenge, which I was about to say is about one of the other senses--memory, and then I realized memory isn’t a sense and maybe I had too much lunch wine today.
For the challenge, the chefs must create a dish that celebrates a happy memory from childhood, which they will serve at a $500 per ticket charity gala for MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital. It’s always fun to watch a challenge where chefs must draw from something in their past to inspire a dish. We get to know everyone a little better and it usually humanizes even the nastiest of competitors.
Speaking of nasty competitors, John is still reeling from the rough Judges’ Table after Restaurant Wars. This whole season he’s been pointing out that he’s changed since he was last on the show, that he’s been working on himself, figuring things out, meditating, making an effort to be a new John. Personally, new John has a lot of old John asshole moments. Even Casey and Brooke notice and comment on it while driving in their totally not sponsored BMW X5 plug-in hybrids to Whole Foods to shop for the challenge.
John immediately beelines for the seafood case and buys up all of the king crab that the store has to offer. It’s great for him, but a blow to Sylva who was planning on doing a crab cake inspired by his time growing up in Haiti. He manages to switch gears and buy a ribeye to make an updated version of beef patties.
Once back in the kitchen, everyone starts cooking and reminiscing about their childhoods. Casey asks Emily, “So...what...are you...cooking?” in a way that screams, “The producers told me to ask you about your dish but I honestly don’t care at all and should really be focusing on my dish and not feeding unnatural sounding questions to a competitor I’m not even friends with.” Emily takes the bait and explains that she’s doing a take on the icebox cake her grandfather used to make when she was little. It seems like an odd choice to do a dessert for a challenge like this, until you remember that in Restaurant Wars the judges hated Emily’s savory dish and actually enjoyed her buttermilk cake, so she might be on the right track doing something sweet.
Voltaggio and Tom Colicchio stop by the kitchen to see how prep is going for everyone. Casey explains that her dish is inspired by the time she spent with her Southern grandma and her French grandma. She is making a crab macaron. The look on Tom’s face when she says that is like the look on my face when someone says, “Sorry, we don’t have wifi in this coffee shop, we encourage you to look up from your phone and interact with people in real life.” Once she goes into detail though, it’s clear she’s just making a mini crab cake sandwich, and that’s something I can get on board with.
After a mandatory sequence of the chefs unplugging their BMW X5s, they arrive on Kiawah Island for the event, which Padma neglected to mention would take place completely outside. It’s a beautiful waterfront venue perfect for a charity cocktail party, or, according to Sheldon, Denzel Washington.
The heat takes its toll on some of the chefs, though. Emily’s cake is not quite staying together, so she has to mix up the cake, cream, and liqueur and put it into other molds. Sylva also has to reshape his beef patties from scratch because they didn’t hold in the heat initially. The contestants’ dishes have a lot of made-to-order elements, which seems like a bold choice for a 100 person cocktail party.
Guests start to arrive early, perhaps so the production crew can get plenty of totally natural shots of that Patron tequila that we definitely haven’t seen in other challenges so far this season and are for sure not a sponsor of the show in any way. The judges are rolling four deep this episode, with Padma, Tom, Michael, and Graham Elliot.
John’s station is first. He prepares a butter-poached king crab with garlic flavors and garlic foam. It’s inspired by growing up at the beach and his mother’s penchant for scampi-ing everything she could find. The judges like the dish a lot. It’s very flavorful and, for once, it has a very effective foam, something you rarely hear the judges say.
Next is Casey’s crab macaron with orange and lemon marmalade, fennel, and pea shoots. It’s a good dish, but Padma notes to Casey that it is just a little underseasoned and could have used a grain or two of sea salt. That’s how stiff the competition is at this point in the show. Grains of salt can separate you from winning and losing.
Tom and Graham stop by Brooke’s station for her fresh ricotta and egg yolk crepe with trout roe and crispy prosciutto. It’s a decadent breakfast blini of sorts and inspired not by her childhood, but by her son for whom she makes crepes for breakfast. The judges love it. It’s refined and flavorful and Tom notes during Judges’ Table that it’s the best breakfast or brunch dish he’s ever had.
Shirley prepared roasted leg of lamb with Beijing spice, sesame sauce, and cucumber and radish salad. The dish draws from her childhood in Beijing where she would sneak out to the night market with her friend to eat the street food that her mother never allowed her to have. While the dish is beautiful and very flavorful, the cut of the lamb is much too big, so it’s difficult to eat and a touch fatty and hard to cut.
Emily’s icebox cake with orange bourbon zabaione, cherries, hazelnuts, and cocoa nib mascarpone is good enough, but pretty underwhelming for the judges and the guests. It’s a fine dessert if you had to make a dessert, but it’s not from the heart or exciting or all that memorable.
Next is Sheldon and his toasted barley tea and rice with steamed snapper, mushrooms, and turnips. As a child, his father would take a thermos of tea to work with him every day, and when he came home, the family would eat the leftover tea over rice. He took that flavor and memory and elevated it to an excellent dish that the judges and guests can’t get enough of.
Last is Sylva, with the dish that I would most want to eat in this whole challenge. Inspired by his childhood Christmases when they would get to stay up late and eat fried food, he made island beef “lollipops” with ground ribeye, turmeric potato, and truffle jus. It’s a very refined beef patty and everyone loves it.
This is a tough Judges’ Table not for who will go home, but for who will win. There were so many excellent dishes across the board that picking one as better than the others seems like a daunting task. The best three of the night are Sylva, Brooke, and Sheldon. All of their dishes were cooked from the heart, refined, and incredibly flavorful. Of these three, though, it’s Sylva who wins the challenge. I don’t know why, but I foresee a Sylva-Brooke finale.
The bottom three of the night are Emily, Shirley, and Casey. They all still cooked good dishes, but Tom notes that at this point in the competition, if your dish isn’t winning, you’re pretty much on the bottom. Small issues can make or break you when there are this few contestants left in the pool. It seems like Casey and Shirley each had minor execution problems to otherwise very good dishes, while Emily’s was uninspired and also had muddled flavors. And because of those issues, she is (finally) sent to pack her knives and go.
Well the competition is now even tighter, and Sylva is the one remaining newbie left against all veterans. Will he last another episode? The only way to find out is to watch next week. Or to be a psychic who can see the future, in which case, is my dry cleaning going to be ready on time?
Alison Leiby is a writer and comedian.
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