Top Chef: Seattle Recap
By Kim Hollis and David Mumpower
December 4, 2012

Welcome to Loserville, population you two.

Previously on Top Chef, Tom Colicchio proved once and for all that he is a far superior chef to Emeril Lagasse. Somehow, he was able to do this even though neither he nor Emeril ever plated a single dish. Both men headed up a team of chefs in a Thanksgiving Battle Royale, with the eight players on Tom’s team unanimously besting the nine would-be “bammers”. In the end, Kuniko experienced a stunning reversal of fortune, as eh went from winning to first two challenges to being eliminated.

Remember how we mentioned last time that John Tesar was antagonizing the other contestants after his “friend” Kuniko’s ouster? We pick up right where we left off last week. He continues to criticize Kuniko for her failures in the Elimination Challenge and every chef except for one is shaking their head in derision. The only person who seems somewhat amused by this turn of events is Stefan, who is pleased that he’s not the one having to push people’s buttons for once.

Speaking of Stefan, remember how he had a crush on Jaime during his original season? The same Jaime who dated a girl from the L-word? We’re starting to think Stefan has a type. He awkwardly flirts with “not a lesbian” Kristen, deciding that his best play is to discuss her foot odor. Even if Kristen does like boys and not her BFF Stephanie, we still don’t think that this is the best way to win her heart.

Meanwhile, the tension between John and everyone else in the house is palpable. This is not a trick of editing. When he enters a room, all the eyes follow him. It’s the same expression that children get when they don’t want the unpopular kid to sit at their table at lunch.

We quickly move to the Quickfire Challenge, which features guest judge and Top Chef Masters alum Naomi Pomeroy. We only mention this to say that she has a restaurant named Beast. This name is quite possibly the best one ever for a restaurant. Would you rather go to Chili’s, TGI Fridays, or BEAST? We’re just saying.

What Padma and Naomi reveal looks like something out of a mobster movie. The flayed corpses of skinned animals are hanging from meat hooks. All that is missing is Rocky Balboa shadow boxing beside them. For this challenge, the contestants must butcher the meat for their dish and then prepare it. Padma emphasizes “safety first.” She instructs the chefs that only two of them may carve one slab of meat at the same time. We presume these instructions are in place to prevent the other contestants from giving John Tesar the “Ides of March” treatment.

The two most notable aspects of the cooking during the Quickfire are CJ’s confidence and Tyler’s nervousness. CJ fully believes that he is the best chef this season, and he is certain that his plate will be a winner. Also, he’s bound and determined to defeat John Tesar, who has thoroughly aggravated and annoyed him over the last couple of days. Meanwhile, Tyler is bummed about having finished in the bottom group two times in a row, and it seems to be getting in his head. He’s trying to take a risk with his dish, but he clearly has no confidence whatsoever.

Stefan and Carla continue to butt heads. She hates that he seems to be demeaning her while he’s just sick of listening to her talk.

After Padma and Naomi have tasted all of the dishes, they announce that the bottom three dishes include:

Lizzie, whose shank with roasted turnips was just too tough, mainly because Lizzie used a pressure cooker to complete the process. Lizzie didn’t have a lot of familiarity with this apparatus and knew that it was dicey to cook the meat in this manner. She’s not particularly surprised to hear Naomi bring up her meal.

Eliza’s flank steak was well cooked, but the combination of asparagus and cherries was ill-considered (sounds pretty gnarly to us).

Tyler, with a bottom round crudo that was under-seasoned. His nerves were clearly a problem in this challenge.

On the other, more happy side of things, we have:

CJ’s fantastic tartare, with perfect knife cuts. His confidence extends to this judging session, because he smiles a little smugly. (It’s okay. We still dig him.)

Josh, who created a meatball with polenta. The flavor profile was fantastic, and the meatball was perfect.

John Tesar’s name is announced as winner of the challenge, much to CJ’s chagrin. John’s oxtail gnocchi had a delicious sauce that came together as a result of the process he used to cook the meat. Naomi says that John’s dish really showed a knowledge of beef in general and also notes that the difficulty level was high. Thus, Texas beats Oklahoma (John vs. Josh), and CJ’s swagger is dashed to pieces.

We move immediately into the Elimination Challenge, and Padma brings out Mark and Brian Canlis, co-owners of Canlis. Their grandfather opened the restaurant in 1950 and it was fine dining the likes of which had never been seen. Today’s challenge will require the chefs to choose items from the original menu and recreate them using today’s techniques and skills.

Stefan takes this opportunity to celebrate the 1950s. He likes the more basic cooking style as well as the dirty martinis. He says, “Extra dirty. Super dirty.” Every word Stefan says leaves us with the impression that the law requires him to introduce himself to the neighbors every time he moves.

Another curve ball is thrown at the chefs when Padma announces that two people will be eliminated after this challenge. Tyler immediately takes a moment to freak out a little bit more. Composure is not in his vocabulary right now.

While the assignments are being divvied up, some notable comments come from the likes of Kristen, Carla and Chrissy. Kristen is annoyed that she’s basically making two side dishes in fried onions and sautéed mushrooms; Carla is uncomfortable with cooking squab; and Chrissy feels very much under the gun because she has agreed to take on the trademark Canlis Salad, a dish that has remained on the menu from the time of the restaurant’s opening.

John has decided that he will expedite since he has immunity, and instantly irritates both CJ and Josh. CJ isn’t really receptive to having John boss him around, while Josh’s hackles are raised when John tries to give Josh some advice about making French onion soup.

Stefan is making liver, and he frets a bit about the method of cooking it. He’s determined to make the best throwback dish possible. The grill room is so small that only a couple of people can fit inside it, so Carla is having to tell the assigned grill people how she wants her dish to be cooked. She tells them that she wants the squab to be cooked medium rare. Also, the birds look pretty gross.

CJ is using the sous vide technique on his shish kabobs. This seems unnecessarily complex for a dish that is supposed to be straight out of the 1950s. We struggle to picture the Fonz ordering this off of Al’s menu.

John Cesar has taken the lead here, and he’s being pretty insistent that dishes be plated the way he suggests and shows some irritation at his fellow chefs when they don’t jump precisely when he says jump. As the tickets for the first meal orders come in, chaos reigns. John is barking out orders, but he’s only confusing the other chefs. His communication skills are lacking. Also, the routine he has established over his career does not seem adaptable to this particular circumstance. Clearly, there are too many chefs in this kitchen.

The first set of dishes to be served include:

Tyler’s fresh crab leg cocktail, which is colorful and nice. We can tell immediately that in order to cook ‘50s-style, components are stripped. A crab leg is just a crab leg.

Marinated herring from Lizzie, complete with saltine crackers on the side. This is a very simple dish, but Tom is beaming after he sees it.

The aforementioned French onion from Josh, which looks great, but the bread at the top is not really breaking apart and soaking into the soup like you would expect. It looks tough to eat. Architecturally, this dish strikes us as flawed.

John serves steamed clams bordelaise. The bread on the side looks great, while the clams are surprisingly colorful.

The Canlis special salad from Chrissy is pretty sloppy looking. To be fair, as we’ve noted, this was the toughest dish to draw since it’s such a staple of the restaurant. From the looks of the salad, she has not come through. Hopefully it tastes better than its appearance.

Brooke has created seafood salad a la Louis. It’s pretty basic, but that seems to be the theme of the night.

The judges comment that Tyler’s crab cocktail is perfectly suited to the time period and that his ingredients were mixed perfectly. Finally, Tyler seems to have gotten off the schneid. If he can pull off a top three finish, he’s going to have an enormous boost in self-assurance.

Josh’s soup was too salty, cold, and “not guest friendly.” One of the Canlis brothers comments that you need a spoon, a fork and a knife to eat this meal. It’s way too hard to cut through the crouton. At this moment, we cut to the kitchen, where Josh is complaining that his dishes are not being expedited at the speed necessary to ensure they are hot. The feud continues.

As for Brooke’s seafood salad, the judges note that it looks like it came straight out of a 1950s Time-Life cookbook. Naomi is a little unhappy with the green beans, though. What we’ve learned from the owner of Beast thus far is that everything needs to be cooked exactly the way she wants it, or it’s wrong.

Chrissy’s salad is overdressed and the croutons are soggy. The dish is pretty much overwhelmingly rejected. The owners of Canlis are clearly disappointed that this signature dish did not meet the standards of their restaurant. Chrissy is in a lot of trouble.

The marinated herring from Lizzie is called delicious, and the judges love her boldness in putting those saltine crackers right on the plate. Amused, Tom notes that back in the 1950s, the crackers probably would have been served in their packaging. This dish is a big hit.

Finally, John Tesar’s clam dish doesn’t get a lot of commentary, but the judges are pleased with it. They have not complaint.

Back in the kitchen, people are having trouble hearing each other, and John is struggling to communicate with the kitchen – and Carla. He advises her that she needs to go communicate with the guys manning her squab on the grill, because a lot of her dishes are being sent back because they are undercooked. She comments that she thinks that the squab should be cooked medium rare, but she supposes that people must want it to be a little be more done than that. Even so, she only meekly approaches the grill, and does not bother to taste her food. She believes that it’s going to be crispy enough, though she doesn’t seem to have any real evidence to back that up.

The second set of dishes comes through, and this grouping is composed of the following:

Sheldon’s fresh Hawaiian mahi mahi, which seems like it ought to be right in his wheelhouse.

The whole milk-fed squab from Carla looks pretty bloody on the plate, though we suppose it could be a reduction instead.

Micah has made mixed vegetables. BOR-ING! Seriously, this dish looks like the same thing I get at Texas Roadhouse.

Stefan & Kristen have collaborated, combining his liver dish with her French fried onions. Liver is disgusting, but this looks pretty fantastic.

A double cut New York steak from Bart is pretty average-looking, but is in keeping with the simple theme of the evening.

It sounds like something from a horror film – Gargantuan baked Idaho potato. Nonetheless, Josie is serving it with tonight’s meal. Once again, this looks like a pretty run-of-the mill restaurant potato. There’s nothing too special here. Then again, we might have said the same thing about Lizzie’s mashed potatoes earlier this season.

Finally, we get to CJ’s shish kabobs with pilaf and Kristen’s side of mushrooms. The meat appears to be mealy and the pilaf mountain looks like it’s trying to achieve sentience, sort of like the dish that Lane Meyer’s mom serves in Better Off Dead that slithers off the table. We are not fans of mushrooms, so they look nasty to us, but that’s no reason to believe that the judges will dislike them.

Sheldon’s mahi mahi is a big hit other than a slight bloodline on Tom’s dish. He still says that it’s cooked perfectly. In fact, this dish inspires an entire anecdote about how mahi mahi was originally delivered to Seattle illegally via Pan Am flight attendants. I guess if your dish encourages your customers to tell stories, you’re doing all right.

Hugh comments that Micah’s vegetables are just blah, but Naomi likes the combination of veggies that thinks that their look is just right. Apparently, Texas Roadhouse is stuck in the 1950s.

We come to Carla’s squab, and while Padma likes the sauce, almost everyone else criticizes it. Hugh doesn’t like the way it’s been cut, while Naomi and others believe it’s been cooked too long. It’s possible that Carla had made the right call about cooking the squabs medium rare, but overcompensated for the judges’ dishes once she realized that they were too raw for most customers.

Stefan receives some of the rosiest commendations of the evening. Everyone agrees that his dish is effectively a time capsule from 1950s. Emeril Lagasse delivers a backhanded but apt compliment when he states, "Finally he left something alone." Porsche or not, Emeril clearly does not think much of Stefan's culinary skills.

The surprise of the evening is that Kristen receives the "my hat's off" treatment from the Canlis brothers. This is an aspect of Top Chef that occurs infrequently. If a participant is stuck with a food such as onion rings, they had better get it right. The responsibilities for this meal are uneven. Kristen could have grown frustrated by the cooking assignment that the kids get while the grown-ups do the real cooking. Instead, she took onion rings seriously and appears likely to finish at the top.

CJ, on the other hand, suffers the inverse fate. His shish kabob dish is a mess. Hugh Acheson confirms our suspicion that the meat is mealy. Ordinarily, this is code for failure on Top Chef. While we love CJ, he has struggled in two out of three elimination challenges thus far. Similarly, Bart's reputation is not matching his performance. Once again, the chefs are disappointed by the plate of food he serves. Does Belgium ever retroactively retract knighthood?

The final two servers are Eliza and Danyele. The former woman is concerned because the sherbet is not cold enough. The instant we see her dishes, we appreciate that her worries are unfounded. Her mint sherbet is menu picture perfect while her fresh frozen Hawaiian pineapple parfait only needs to be in black and white to seem perfectly at home in the 1950s. Danyele's dessert is equally appetizing. The royal Hawaiian supreme is magnificent.

The judges rush to judgment and the judgment is, "We love sugary desserts!" This is why we lead the world in diabetes per capita but if loving ice cream is wrong, we will never be right. Oddly, there is very little discussion of the judges beyond "Yum!"

While sitting at the table, the judges quickly discuss the dishes that will comprise the best and worst dishes. There isn't much back and forth here; instead, the consensus is clear. Everyone knows who knocked this challenge out of the park and who failed miserably.

Lizzie, Kristen, Tyler and Stefan comprise the best chefs for the meal. This is great news for Tyler, who clearly needed a win after his struggles to date. Since he cooked a key component, the crab, he could benefit from the side dish nature of his competitors. Stefan's liver is similar in this regard yet the nature of the discourse reveals that the judges feel a deeper appreciation for the unheralded contributors. The person we believed was least likely of these four to win, Kristen, is the victor thanks to onion rings and mushrooms. How do her feet smell now, Stefan?

The bottom group is a quartet of players who all deserve elimination. Carla, Chrissy, CJ and Josh are unquestionably the worst performers. Josh is grilled first. When pressed about the saltiness of the dish as well as how cold it is, Josh goes on the attack. He accuses John Tesar of being "a monkey" in terms of expediting the food. The judges quickly change the subject. Out of the four, Josh appears to be safe.

Two of the other contestants bungle their replies. When pressed about the quality of her squab, Carla professes that she tried the last one. Yes, several hours passed between her first sampling and her last. Even if the dish had not been terrible, she would be in danger of going home for this statement. Her elimination is inevitable. As much as the other chefs attacked Tesar for his comments at the start of the episode, there is simply no excuse for a chef to fail to taste their dish multiple times throughout the evening.

The other decision regarding elimination comes down to the quality of Chrissy's food versus CJ's decision making. The sous vide process is not even a little bit representative of the 1950s. It wasn't a popular American style until the 1960s. Even worse, in cooking his protein with this method, he created the mealiness. We love CJ yet we must acknowledge he should go home for his mistake. Fortunately for us, this does not occur.

Chrissy joins Carla as they pack their knives and go. Carla plaintively states that if we visit her restaurant, she will cook a delicious squab meal. What we have learned from this season of Top Chef thus far is that nobody, even the finest chefs in the world, can create a delicious squab meal. The attempt almost eliminated Stefan and now it has crippled Carla as well. As for Chrissy, she got a raw deal in being forced to cook a family brand salad. Still, if a player can win with onion rings and mushrooms, any kind of salad should be manageable.

CJ, you need to step it up. We are noticing that Padma isn't flirting with you as much as she did in season 4. Supermodels date winners.