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‘Top Chef’ Recap: Fear and Loathing During Brunch

In episode 10, the chefs must impress Cronut inventor Dominique Ansel with mashup foods

[ Paul Cheney/Bravo]

And then there were six — kind of like the number of glasses of wine I had last night. Sylva Senat is riding high off of his second win and also being the last remaining newbie. Everyone is getting settled post Judges’ Table in the stew room when Tom Colicchio surprises them and shows up. He tells them they’ve been doing a great job and he has a treat for them in the morning. They’re all supposed to meet him at a restaurant near the marina, so, it’s probably a boat. I’m excited about this because boats are very important.

In the morning the chefs arrive on the docks to, what else, but a boat. Sheldon Simeon is dressed in his finest Weekend at Bernie’s Hawaiian shirt and everyone is already uneasy about their time at sea. Shirley Chung and Brooke Williamson both get seasick, but they better get over it before their morning of shrimping. If I were on that boat I would have no problem with the waves and many problems with the giant pelican just chilling out behind Casey Thompson while they examine the shrimp.

[Paul Cheney/Bravo]

The boat returns to the dock, where we find Padma Lakshmi in a halter neck acid washed denim jumpsuit with a makeshift kitchen set up behind her. She explains that the Quickfire Challenge should be no big surprise — make a dish featuring fresh-caught shrimp. The twist is that this is a Sudden Death Quickfire, so someone is getting off the boat and on a plane home.

Shirley is loopy on motion sickness pills and can’t seem to get it together. Sylva also seems scrambled as he uses a $400 knife to try and open a can, to no success. Casey is eager to make up for her last few critiques of under-seasoning her dishes, and John Tesar is doing the same.

Overall it’s a good challenge and the chefs do well. The one standout in the field is Sheldon for his tomato water poached roe shrimp with smoked pine and yuzu. Unfortunately, three of the chefs must face off in a sudden death challenge. The bottom contestants are Casey for her red curry shrimp, Shirley for her garlic shrimp with charred sea bean, and Sylva for his orange marinated shrimp in coconut broth.

To see who will be eliminated and hopefully not hurl themselves off the dock for going home over a Quickfire, the chefs are tasked with creating a dish using the bycatch from the morning’s excursion. Bycatch is the non-shrimp fish and wildlife in the net that’s dragged aboard. There’s shark and squid and some pretty good seafood in the coolers, so this isn’t like the trash fish challenge.

[Paul Cheney/Bravo]

It’s a super high pressure challenge because elimination is on the line, and they are in makeshift stations on a dock after already going shrimping all morning and doing another challenge. And on top of all of that, there are dozens of pelicans circling and screaming. Who knew pelicans screamed?

The judges love all three of the dishes — no one made any mistakes. Shirley’s grilled squid with fennel and tomato in chile broth is bright and flavorful. Casey’s charred squid in mushroom soy broth is a tasty umami bomb, as Tom puts it. And Sylva’s redfish with tarragon butter, tomato, and cabbage is a refreshingly subtle creation. Of the three, sadly, it’s Casey who is sent home from the dock. It’s never easy to get eliminated this late in the competition, but it must be even tougher in a Quickfire.

Well, one elimination down, one to go in this episode, apparently. For the challenge, Padma welcomes culinary genius and creator of the Cronut, Dominique Ansel. If you don’t know what the Cronut is then you weren’t trying to walk down a sidewalk in Soho at any point over the last few years. This man is the absolute king of whimsical food mash-ups that leave you thinking: “Wait, if you can make a tiny shot glass out of a cookie, could you make me a Big Gulp sized cup out of one that I could casually snack on all day? Or would my coffee eventually dissolve it? Either way, I need an all day cookie beverage container SOMEONE GET ON THAT.”

[Paul Cheney/Bravo]

Anyway, the Cronut is, of course, a Frankenstein pastry of a donut and a croissant that New Yorkers and tourists alike stand hours on line just to taste. But Mr. Ansel isn’t the only chef who has mastered the art of the tasty mash-up. Tom explains that his kitchen used to make a foie graffle, which is a foie gras waffle. Fun fact: The name of the dish sounds the same whether you are saying it normally or with food in your mouth. (Yes, I just tried; this loaf of bread isn’t going to eat itself.)

For the challenge, the chefs must take a page from Ansel’s creativity book and prepare a mash-up style dish for brunch. That’s right, it’s a brunch challenge. So put on your indoor aviators and double down on the watery mimosas while screaming, “Oh my god, he did NOT just text you.”

Brooke notes that the Cronut wasn’t invented in 10 minutes, so conceptualizing a creative and more importantly executable dish is a pretty tall order. With the challenge in mind, the chefs head to Whole Foods with $400 each. What are they supposed to get with that much money there? A chicken breast and four almonds?

Sylva knows French cuisine, so he feels extra incentive to impress Dominique Ansel in this challenge and really show off some of his technique. Brooke is anxious because her dish from the last challenge would have been the absolute perfect thing to serve, but she can’t repeat it. Not only does she feel the need to do something completely different, but she’s still creatively wiped out in this area.

Adding a wrinkle to the whole challenge is the fact that there is no pre-cook, so the chefs simply have two hours before service to prep, cook, and plate their dishes. Two hours isn’t much time. I mean, every time I go out I spend two hours just getting ready. Granted it’s 20 minutes of shower/hair/thinking about then abandoning the idea of makeup and then an hour and 40 minutes of staring at my closet saying, “Ugh, I hate everything,” but still, it’s not a ton of time.

[Shirley’s beef & cheddar dumpling with bacon tomato jam]
[Bravo/Top Chef]

A bunch of ladies in hats arrive, which is what I expect of brunch in Charleston, SC. Shirley is first up with her beef and cheddar dumpling with bacon tomato jam. Her idea was an Americanized version of dim sum. It’s a mash-up on top of a mash-up and the judges seem to really like it. The beef is a bit dry but the cheese crisps up in the dumplings nicely and the bacon tomato jam is an excellent addition. Overall it works and it’s a very fun and whimsical version of what Shirley does best.

Not everyone had an easy time in the kitchen, however. Oven problems leave Sylva forced to shift gears from frittata to scramble. So guests are disappointed when his arctic char frittata with fresh morels, beet sabayon, and pancetta turns out to be overdone scrambled eggs over a piece of fish. The execution is a big problem for most of the dining room, but even worse for the judges, the dish just lacked the excitement and inspiration they were hoping for.

On the heels of her sensational breakfast crepe from last week, Brooke shifts gears completely when it comes to brunch food and does something more on the sweet side. Like Sylva, she runs into problems in the kitchen and her plating is nothing like the more creative concept she originally wanted. She prepares a matcha and chia Greek yogurt with hibiscus strawberry broth and peanut butter crumble. She wanted it to be a beautiful take on a parfait with a peanut butter and jelly element, but it ends up being a plate of yogurt and overly sweet broth.

When you think of John, the first word you think of usually isn’t creativity. In fact, many other words come to mind first, and most of them are related to his personality. But he stretches himself to create an octopus hash with kimchi scramble, chorizo, and hollandaise. It has all of the elements of being a good dish, except the most important part of any hash: the crispiness. Hash without crispiness is like a Tom Hardy movie without a sex scene: disappointing!

[Sheldon’s Korean fried chicken with seaweed butter & waffle crumble]
[Bravo/Top Chef]

Next up is Sheldon, who actually seems to embrace the idea of the challenge with his take on chicken and waffles. He serves Korean fried chicken with umami butter, waffle crumble, and maple drizzle. He takes the chicken and makes it the waffle by twice frying it and then sticking it in the waffle iron. The judges find it super flavorful and use the word “craveable,” which I would imagine is the best compliment a dish can get. Gail Simmons notes that it feels crazy to dip fried chicken in butter, but it works. Of course it works. It sounds like what they serve in heaven after telling you, “Calories don’t exist here.”

It’s an overall tough day for the contestants. No one really wows them with something creative and whimsical and also tasty. For a group of chefs that have survived this long in the competition--and four of the five of them being on the show for the second time--there are a lot of execution problems.

Based on reactions during the meal, it’s obvious Shirley and Sheldon are the top two. Both served clever and fun dishes that were well executed and tasted good. Though they each did a good job, the winner for the day is Shirley for her cheeseburger dim sum.

[Paul Cheney/Bravo]

The bottom three of John, Brooke, and Sylva all had serious flaws in their dishes. It’s crazy because I have been convinced at least for the last few episodes that we would see a finale that includes Brooke and Sylva, and here they are both on the bottom so close to the end. John had some issues, but ultimately his octopus was cooked nicely and his hollandaise was good. So that means that either Brooke or Sylva is actually going home.

After what I assume was a long deliberation, and for sure with a heavy heart, the judges send Sylva to pack his knives and go. He was the last of the newbies in the competition and clearly a talented chef. I would put all my money on him making it through Last Chance Kitchen and returning for the finale. So, all of my money--anyone want to take a $26.18 bet on this show?

Alison Leiby is a writer and comedian.

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