Top Chef: Seattle Recap
By David Mumpower
December 18, 2012

She absolutely doesn't seem like she's in over her head!

Previously on Top Chef, my beloved CJ was eliminated because he failed to create a tasty burger. Also, Tyler was removed from the competition for being an unsuccessful Yes Man to CJ. Tyler is the John Elway chef with the insecurity complex. Tyler’s inability to stand up to a chef he perceived as better rightfully led to his elimination. This is a learning experience for future contestants. Going along for the ride on somebody’s coattails is the quickest way out of the game.

These two gentlemen managed to produce the worst food during a challenge where everyone failed so completely that Head Judge Tom Colicchio refused to award any participant with the announced $10,000 prize for first place. In other words, CJ and Tyler finished last in a competition wherein everyone’s food tasted like Papa John’s pizza. As much as I like CJ, this was a tremendous setback.

The good news is that Last Chance Kitchen has returned so CJ and Tyler are still alive at the moment, thanks to a victory over Kuniko. Their odds of a return to the game are still remote. CJ would have to win the equivalent of eight consecutive coin flips. If you’re going to try this, CJ, remember that tails never fails. Except when it does.

After only four episodes of the actual Top Chef competition, we have witnessed some strange math. Initially, 15 contestants earned their jackets. Then, three former players were added to the mix. Single eliminations occurred in the first two episodes. Over the past two episodes, four different chefs have been eliminated from the game. So, we started with 15, added three and have now removed six. A dozen contenders remain in the winner’s bracket along with Tyler and CJ at Last Chance Kitchen. There have been a lot of moving parts considering how little has been settled thus far.

Tonight’s episode begins with multiple chefs dealing with the ramifications of the most recent Judges Table. Brooke is despondent over the harsh words directed at her cooking. Joshua is being teased that he will have to change the name of his restaurant from Divine Swine to Divine Cow. A bit of foreshadowing occurs when Stefan states, “No more pork, dude!” Joshua is hopeful that he will have a chance to redeem himself with regards to his favorite protein. So he is either going to win an upcoming challenge with a pork dish or he will be sent home for one.

We segue straight to the Quickfire Challenge, where the chefs are introduced to Marilyn Hagerty. The 86-year-old gained notoriety early in 2012 when her sincere review of a new Olive Garden Restaurant went viral. You can read the review here if you have not already done so. The 55-year veteran of the newspaper industry became an overnight media darling because she is the grandmother everybody wants. The cast of Top Chef instantly falls in love with the woman due to her genial positivity.

Ms. Hagerty requests that the chefs create a dish that honors her ancestry. The cooks are to create a sweet and savory holiday dish using some product placement that supposedly tastes like sugar but does not. Because this is Top Chef and the producers cannot help themselves with regards to “twists”, the competitors are asked to draw knives. Lizzie believes she is the big loser because her knife is blank. Instead, this is the lucky blade. Lizzie is the only person whose knife will be used during the competition. The others must borrow said cutlery from her or use whatever sharp object they can find to prepare their dishes. Since Lizzie is a nice person, this is not a huge constraint on the others.

The judging portion of the Quickfire challenge is the reality show competition equivalent of a Participation Trophy. Everyone receives a verbal hug from Ms. Hagerty. The closest she comes to criticizing a dish occurs when she informs Micah, “You’ve created something rather unusual.” She later irritates him when she refers to his tamale as a “taco." Suffice to say that Micah doesn’t win. The other player on the bottom is Bart for creating a dish with too many components.

Conversely, Padma refers to Brooke’s dish as “homey." Brooke appears close to another crying jag. Moments later, Brooke is identified as the winner, marking yet another instance wherein a food that reminds a judge of home leads to an inane yet sincere compliment. This is the first sign that Brooke is the high caliber chef I believe her to be as I had mentioned in the most recent power rankings.

Joshua’s johnnycakes and Stefan’s combo of Salmon Tartare and potato latkes are the other dishes in the upper portion of the Quickfire challenge. Stefan also absorbs the sole zinger from Ms. Hagerty. When he informs her that he was married to the same woman twice, she gently but firmly states, “That doesn’t show a lot of imagination on your part.” I’m ready to fire Tom Colicchio and replace him with Ms. Hagerty…and I LOVE Tom.

The Elimination challenge features a Hollywood couple. Chris Pratt and Anna Faris are both from the western Washington area. They have planned a homecoming dinner with their families; the cheftestants will be preparing the meal. Faris was many months pregnant at the time of filming and the happy couple comes across as wrapped in bliss throughout the episode.

I have loved Pratt since his days on Everwood, a show nobody watched that somehow lasted four seasons anyway. I have relished watching his celebrity rise over the past couple of years thanks to performances in Moneyball and Zero Dark Thirty. And Faris is one of the funniest actresses in Hollywood. I love this duo and I am relieved that I only like them more after watching the episode, which is rarely the case with most celebs.

The chefs are provided an opportunity to grill the actors regarding their favorite foods. Since Faris is very pregnant (she had the baby within weeks of this segment), she is up for anything. Pratt reveals that he is a carnivore of epic proportions. He bonded with Faris’ brother by devouring squirrel heart together. Yes, Chris Pratt is the mortal enemy of squirrels everywhere, establishing him as Dug’s favorite celebrity. It’s funny because the squirrel is dead.

Narcissist Stefan gleefully points out that Faris and him have something in common. They both appeared on Entourage. The difference of course is that people remember Faris’ episodes. Well, they would if anybody cared about Entourage.

Overall, this is a good episode for Stefan, though. Kristen continues to creep out North America by flirting with him. There appears to be some sort of indoctrination process wherein models are automatically attracted to celebrities, even if they look and act like Stefan. Then again, Joshua has become a champion of sorts for the bald German. Against all odds, the two of them have become friends. I lost the bet on this one as I figured Joshua would serve Stefan as a protein at some point this season.

The event is hosted at Chihuly Garden and Glass, a decision that reinforces my enjoyment of high definition television. The place is breathtaking. Also, both sets of parents of the Pratt/Faris coupling are at the event. This leads to an amusing incident where Pratt’s mother confesses that she almost broke one of the glass statues at the Garden. I’m guessing the price to replace it would have been larger than Pratt’s Zero Dark Thirty paycheck. Adorably, he relishes the story and gleefully relays it to his wife later in the episode. Like Charlize Theron and the Foo Fighters before them, Team Parks and House Bunny are comporting themselves wonderfully on Top Chef.

The preparation of meals is a rarity for this competition. All of the chefs who believe that their dishes are coming together well deliver delicious food while the ones who had concerns wind up on the bottom. Frequently, contestants brace for the worst only to be pleasantly surprised or arrogantly assume the best only to have the rug swept out from under them (hi CJ!). There is none of that with this meal. Anyone who thinks they are in the weeds winds up in danger of elimination. The unfortunate few are Lizzie, Eliza, Micah and Danyele. Fortunately, not all of them can go to Judges Table…I don’t think.

The first set of meals are all savory. Bart prepares a loin of elk with cherry beer sauce & mushroom couscous. It somehow looks simultaneously delicious and disgusting. The colors on the plate are splendid but the meat itself grosses me out. Brooke produces something I could never eat, a lamb-stuffed squid on black rice with coconut milk. Sheldon continues to demonstrate the culinary melting pot of his home state, Hawaii. He created a braised Okinawan pork belly with seared scallop & rice congee. This is a simple dish on the plate but its composition is complex. Finally, Stefan serves German gulasch with marjoram, bread dumplings & sour cream. It is a beautiful dish.

The other judge for the evening is Rick Moonen, a fact that will be important when we get to John Tesar, his former protégé. Suffice to say that everyone is happy with this course of food. Sheldon’s food is not the least bit mainstream yet the guests love it. Bart’s elk is so tasty that Pratt states, “If this isn’t the frontrunner, this is going to be the best bleepin’ night of my life.” Moonen feels the dish is under-seasoned but that dude is bitchy.

Stefan’s goulash is so tasty that the celebrities question whether they understand what the dish is. I thought it was something the Germans forced Hogan’s Heroes to eat. As they lavish praise upon Stefan’s food, he is shown awkwardly flirting with Kristen yet again. “I’m going to divorce you” is his choice of romantic quotes. It doesn’t quite have the ring of “You had me at hello,” does it? The star of the evening, however, is Brooke. Her squid ink/lamb dish may sound like a future SyFy monster movie creation but the judges adore it. Having already won the Quickfire challenge, she is poised to win twice in one episode.

The second batch of dishes proves less popular. Kristen prepares a Délice de Bourgogne Tortelloni, which looks like it came straight off a magazine cover. It does feature foam, though. That’s usually a Top Chef no-no. Micah sloppily splatters food all over his plate and calls it braised pork ribs with celery root puree, grilled apples & celery leaf salad. Before hearing the judges debate it, I call it the Dish Most Likely to Get Somebody Eliminated. Hey Micah! Learn to paint within the lines, big guy.

Lizzie delivers another remarkably composed plate of food. It is crusted king salmon with radish & beet salad. I like none of these components yet the end result is impressive. Eliza is the last performer on this course. She creates an elk ribeye with elk sausage polenta, spiced carrots & huckleberry pork sauce. The sauce has the unfortunate effect of giving the elk meat eyes. It looks like some raspberry Jello tried to run away with a burnt pork chop. This is not Eliza’s finest work…and she knew it.

The tortelloni is a big winner. Pratt mentions anecdotally that friends have described it as the best meal of the night. Moonen quickly agrees, describing it as “a perfect bite.” Praise from Caesar is praise indeed. Micah’s dish is instantly dismissed for having “too much cream.” Tom appears aggravated. Lizzie’s dish frustrates Gail because it wasn’t seared enough and needed to caramelize. This is exactly what she feared during the preparations. Eliza’s dish is not insulted the way I expected, with Gail going so far as to compliment the acidic flavor of the bite.

The final batch of contestants also eschews desserts for main courses. Danyele creates pan-roasted wild boar, hoppin’ John & tomato-bacon marmalade. Almighty Google informs me that hoppin’ John is a classic Southern dish to celebrate New Year’s. As someone who lives in the south, this is news to me. Part of the component is black-eyed peas so Danyele has lost. Those things are NASTY. The dish she serves does seem misguided. Danyele’s insecurity continues to impact her performance.

Joshua subscribes to the “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” line of thinking. Why, if the judges didn’t like the previous amount of pork, I’ll give them double! This reminds me of a recent restaurant experience where I was given a pork “chop” that looked like a Macy’s Day Parade balloon made real and shoved in an oven. And I think that piece of pork was smaller than the one Joshua plans to serve.

Josie, who is still in the competition for reasons passing understanding, prepares Malbec braised short ribs, pork belly and polenta with cippolini onions & figs. There is no polite way to say this. This dish looks un-flushable. After a warm welcome from former mentor Rick Mooney, John Tesar presents seafood chowder with cockles, manila clams, crab, mussels & sockeye salmon. The chowder looks gorgeous.

The judges universally agree that the tomato bacon jam is great but the meat is sliced too thin. This caused it to cook unevenly. Joshua is predictably slammed for the size of his portions. Like Grayson last season, he suffers unfairly from the judges’ prejudice against large amounts of meat. Virtually nothing is said of Josie’s dish, which is fitting for such a blasé competitor. By far the most popular dish of this course if Tesar’s chowder. Moonen’s praise comes across as a bit masturbatory since it’s a plan on his recipe. Still, this is preferable to Tesar failing to produce chowder that his teacher respects.

The top group this week is easy to guess. John, Sheldon, Brooke and Kristen are rewarded with glowing praise for their dishes. The judges seem pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of the meal, presumably due to the lowered expectations due to the prior challenge’s food. In the end, Brooke is rewarded for taking a risk at the perfect time, the moment when she had immunity. She receives a Toyota Prius as a prize. The bad news for Brooke is that the last two times someone did this well on multiple challenges in the same episode, they went home the following episode.

The bottom group consists of Joshua, Eliza, Danyele and Micah. Okay, so they could send four people to Judges Table. Fortunately for Lizzie, she was not one of them. Poor Josh needs to stop cooking pork. In fact, Padma pointedly tells him to stop saying that pork is his specialty. Micah is then criticized for his style while Danyele’s fear becomes a topic of conversation. The judges know she is intimidated by her surroundings and that this insecurity is preventing her from performing well.

In the end, there is an obvious choice, though. Eliza knew that her meat was cooking poorly and she second-guessed how to slice it. She presented a dish that did not look appetizing. While her mistakes were not major, the accumulation of them led to a mediocre plate of food during a challenge when most of her competitors excelled. I suspect Eliza is a fine chef but she clearly deserved to be eliminated tonight.

The news goes from bad to worse for Eliza at Last Chance Kitchen. CJ and Tyler split, leading to a three-way showdown to remain alive in the competition. Yet again, CJ shows that his newfound bravado is at least somewhat based in fact as he defeats his former teammate as well as Eliza to become the reigning Last Chance Kitchen champion. So CJ is down to about seven correct coin flip guesses needed to return for the finale. See, CJ? Tails never fails!