Welcome to the first Top Chef of the new year. I hope you’re reading this while on a treadmill, holding a green juice, and not screening your calls from your mother (what, aren’t those everyone’s resolutions this year?).
Well the pool of chefs keeps getting smaller as time goes on. When you think about it, this show is a lot like dating — every week there are even fewer people and it’s definitely more fun when you’ve had at least a glass of Pinot Grigio.
The remaining contestants enter the kitchen and are greeted by Padma Lakshmi and her purple lipstick. She introduces the guest judge for the Quickfire Challenge, Dr. Vivek Murthy, who is the U.S. Surgeon General and not, as many of the chefs thought, a sea captain. Dr. Murthy explains that health and fitness are high priorities right now in this country. That’s valid, considering I think at this point our national mascot is an Arby’s cup full of ranch.
For this Quickfire, the chefs must take a traditional comfort food and make a healthy version of it. So dishes like hamburgers, spaghetti and meatballs, and sloppy joes all need some kind of low-cal makeover. And for a twist, the meat-heavy dishes must all be vegetarian. And since making healthy vegetarian versions of traditional carnivore comfort food is too simple a task, the chefs must grab ingredients and tools from the pantry one at a time. It’s the culinary equivalent of running suicides, only for each sprint you come back with one shallot.
This challenge seems extra difficult for Katsuji Tanabe because his dishes usually involve roughly 847 different ingredients, so he either needs to really pare down a recipe or get really good at short-distance running.
Jim Smith, while working on his healthy version of chicken fried steak (which is eggplant with pistachio crust and mushroom gravy) explains that in college, his version of rebelling and fighting the man was being a vegetarian for a while. Pretty hard to imagine Jim into the metal scene or dipping into hard drugs, so this all adds up.
There is a sharp divide between the chefs using meat substitutes like tofu or seitan or tempeh, and those using purely vegetables to attain a meat-like texture. Katsuji is on the side of just use a vegetable as a meat, which leads to his elegant “meatballs” that are simply squash that met a melon baller. Sylva Senat is on team fake meat and uses seitan for his chicken and dumplings. Sadly, both dishes for these chefs are a miss.
Padma and Dr. Murthy love Emily Hahn’s vegetable “meatloaf” with almonds and charred tomatoes, as well as Brooke Williamson’s vegetable lasagna with grilled zucchini. Whenever Brooke is describing a dish or being evaluated in a Quickfire Challenge, the producers always cut to a shot of Emily looking annoyed, and vice versa. The editing sets them up to be adversaries like this is some kind of romantic comedy where they are both after their high school crushes at the 10-year reunion. The crush would be played by Andrew Garfield or something and I would get a bit part as the sarcastic brunette friend with glasses who’s always like, “Ugh, MEN, amirite? Please don’t let me die alone!!!!”
Another hit, and the winner of the Quickfire Challenge and immunity from elimination is Jamie Lynch’s vegetarian sloppy joe made of tofu and peppers. It looks like the real thing and seems to taste like it, too. Once, a grown American woman asked me what a sloppy joe was, and the best way I could describe it was “a wet, loose, meat sandwich.” I guess that’s not even true in the case of Jamie’s winning dish. They can be made well without even using meat. Still a wet, loose sandwich though.
It’s Elimination Challenge time, and Padma welcomes Toni Tipton Martin and guest judge Alexander Smalls. These two people have been significantly impacted by the work and legacy of southern chef Edna Lewis. She did for southern cuisine what Julia Child did for French cooking, but unfortunately fewer people know who she is. As a powerful figure that elevated cooking in the south above many of the stereotypes still held today, it’s shocking that many of the chefs don’t know her name. I mean, until this episode I didn’t know who she was, but I’m also not a chef.
For the challenge, the contestants must make a dish that pays homage to Edna’s legacy and serve it to a table of esteemed southern chefs and authors who have all been influenced by her work. Before setting out to spend $300 at Whole Foods (aka a normal trip to Whole Foods for any one person grocery shopping for the week), the chefs get to talk with Toni and Alexander and read Edna’s books for inspiration. They learn her cooking was seasonal, local, and simple, but still very refined.
After cooking in the actual restaurant kitchen where Edna Lewis cooked, the chefs serve their dishes two at a time to a table full of key southern chefs and writers like BJ Dennis, Nathalie Dupree, Art Smith, and more. Also, for some drama, there are several alligators floating in the nearby water.
First to serve the judges are Jim and Katsuji, who make each other look like a Pixar character when standing together. Jim serves seared shrimp with smoked turkey wing and pork consomme, squash, and english pea salad. The judges are enamored with the bright and flavorful broth and feel it truly pays respect to Edna and her cooking. Katsuji took a risk with fried chicken and pickled watermelon rind salad. It’s a stereotypical southern dish, but it’s so well done that it transcends that preconception and is simply beautiful.
Rom-com foes Brooke and Emily are next. If this were part of the movie I’m convinced Bravo wishes they were filming, one of them would comically trip on her way to the table, spilling her dish everywhere. But this is “reality,” so we have no such luck. Brooke prepared braised chicken with swiss chard, sunchokes, lemon pudding, and blackberry vinaigrette. Hugh Acheson can’t decide if it’s a dessert trying to be a savory dish or the other way around, but it’s too complicated and muddled. Tom Colicchio agrees that the sweetness overpowers everything else on the plate.
Emily’s dish doesn’t fare much better. Her oddly similar fried chicken livers with corn puree, dandelion green salad, and blackberry sauce has the sweetness but not the tartness needed to balance out the fried fattiness. Also, as time ran out she deep fried instead of pan-fried her livers, a big no-no based on the judges’ reactions.
Shirley Chung’s confit chicken wings with collard greens, rice, and watercress salad are perfectly done, as is John Tesar’s pan-broiled chicken thighs with watercress, roasted sunchokes, and peas. Another impressive dish is Sylva’s skillet fried snapper with garden vegetables and vegetable broth. The fry on the fish is not at all greasy, the vegetables are beautifully featured, and the whole dish echoes Edna and her influence. This is an emotional challenge for Sylva, who previously wasn’t familiar with Edna and feels connected to her struggle as a black chef.
Sheldon Simeon also drew from emotion and channeled his mother and grandmother’s cooking, serving his pork belly and cabbage with cabbage jus and potato. He didn’t reinvent something to fit the challenge, rather he took a dish and ingredients from his family and his background and elevated them to a new level.
Amanda Baumgarten predictably tornadoes through the kitchen in a frenzy before serving her heavy-handed roast duck with sweet potatoes, dandelion greens, and spiced pecans. Even though the elements are all southern, somehow the overall dish isn’t at all. On top of that, the duck is chewy and the presentation lacks any real inspiration. Casey Thompson’s dish of chicken and chicken-stuffed dumplings with ham is so flavorful it gets raves from all of the judges.
Last to serve is safe-from-elimination Jamie. And it’s a good thing he’s safe, because as time finally runs out while he is plating, the buzzer goes off before he can get one last dish done, so not everyone gets served. The judges love his corn soubise but feel the roasted New York strip is underwhelming.
Back at Judges’ Table there were many excellent dishes to choose from, but the top three are Jim’s consomme, Sylva’s snapper, and Sheldon’s pork and cabbage. They all hit many notes Edna would have loved, but the ultimate winner for the day is Sylva. It’s a great win for him, especially considering this is his favorite dish he has ever cooked. I mean, maybe he is saying that because it’s the dish that earned him his first challenge win. Kind of like when someone asks what your favorite subject in school is and you say “English” because it’s the one you do the best in and also will major in, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on, and then ultimately regret focusing on when your friends in finance are buying their second summer homes.
It’s ladies night on the bottom three as Amanda, Emily, and Brooke are all called forward. It’s a mess of defensiveness, confusion, and tears. Typical women, having intense emotions over the thing they’ve been working their entire lives on and made sacrifices for 10 times over just to be here. Like, get your hormones in check! While everyone on the bottom had major flaws in their dishes, it is Amanda’s turn to pack her knives and go. Sad to see her leave, but I’m sure the kitchen is a lot quieter and more manageable without her.
Alison Leiby is a writer and comedian.