Top Chef: Seattle Recap
By David Mumpower
December 26, 2012

Funny unfortunately doesn't win Top Chef.

Previously on Top Chef, the stars of Moneyball and The House Bunny kicked Eliza off the show. Hollywood celebrities are such jerks. Okay, that wasn’t exactly what happened. Anna Faris and Chris Pratt were actually quite pleasant. I blame guest judge Rick Moonen for Eliza’s absence. That guy is always obnoxious.

Perhaps the more compelling aspect of the most recent episode was the ascension of Brooke. After struggling over the course of the first four episodes, finishing in the bottom group twice, Brooke suddenly won two different challenges on the same day. Ordinarily, this would indicate a competitor on the rise. Thus far on Top Chef: Seattle, however, it has been indicative of a player who will suffer a brutal reversal of fortune in the following elimination challenge. Brooke is already a favorite of mine so I hope she avoids this particular peril.

Tonight’s episode, Foiled Again, picks up with a topic I mentioned last week as well as in the most recent power rankings. I placed Danyele at the bottom of the list, not because of how I perceive her skill as a chef but instead because of her deep set insecurities. I had mentioned the same concern about Joshua previously; however, he appears to be gaining confidence in spite of his results thus far. He has worked with John and Stefan enough to appreciate that their skill is not significantly higher than his own. If Joshua would serve a better pork dish, he would be in good shape in this competition.

The same cannot be said of Danyele. Last week, she demonstrated the tell-tale signs of a cheftestant who is ready to quit. Also, like Jeffrey before her, Danyele lacks resolve about her presence on Top Chef. She acts like someone who had to be talked into appearing on the show. Historically, players such as Edward and Beverly last season are stronger competitors because they have that x-factor of hunger. Their drive to excel and thereby prove themselves led both of them to the final four (first one then the other…not that I’m still bitter).

Danyele is not a quitter, yet her behavior last week was indicative of the fact that she is mentally checked out of the competition. This is a characteristic that judges recognize. Over the course of Top Chef, they have administered more severe criticism towards the players whose desire is questionable. It is a part of the weeding out process…and also a good demonstration that blind tasting would lead to fairer results.

“She’s coming back into the competition.” This particularly clever joke coincides with the return of Top Chef Chicago champion Stephanie Izard. The only woman to win the competition thus far, Izard is best known for attaining victory during arguably the strongest season in the history of Top Chef. In heads up competition, she defeated Richard Blais, the eventual champion of Top Chef All-Stars. Stephanie is spectacular and would instantly become the heavy favorite if she did re-enter the competition the same way that Josie, CJ and Stefan did.

Alas, this is not why Stephanie is on the show. She will only be judging the Quickfire challenge. And what a stupid challenge it is. A blatant example of product placement, this Quickfire requires chefs to open ingredients wrapped in…a commercial brand of aluminum foil. I will stubbornly refuse to mention the particular one. With everything in the kitchen – and I do mean everything – wrapped in tin foil, the chefs have their hands tied. Any ingredient they unwrap must be used in the dish. Also, they must cook their dishes in the tin foil rather than frying pans et al. This is not going to be pretty.

The dishes wind up looking gorgeous, which speaks to the overall quality of this season’s chefs. There are a couple of missteps but even those are due to the constraints of the challenge. Finishing on the bottom are Micah and Brooke, both of whom fail to cook their dishes properly; this is presumably why mankind invented pans. Tin foil needs augmentation. Joshua also finishes in the bottom trio, which I find odd since he did not unwrap pork as one of his ingredients.

The top tier of the Quickfire challenge includes Sheldon, Josie, Kristen, Bart, Stefan and Danyele. Stephanie Izard is apparently a fan of Participation Trophies. Still, this is great news for Danyele, Bart and Josie, all of whom have failed to get untracked thus far. The winner is relatively obvious. Kristen unveiled ingredients including almond and chocolate. She boldly determined to create a cake despite the fact that she did not have a cake pan. Her creation, an almond and chocolate sponge cake, is one of the most dazzling demonstrations of culinary skill in ten seasons of Top Chef. Kristen is a star in the making. She is also immune from elimination this episode, not that she has been in any danger of this so far during Top Chef: Seattle.

The Elimination Challenge is a duel at a food festival. The people at the festival will vote for the winning dishes as the remaining ten contestants face off in head to head battle. The winner finishes in the top group while the loser has a 20% chance of being eliminated. So, populist food is more important to finishing on top in this round.

If you are doing a mental head count and getting to 11, you are correct. As the winner of the Quickfire challenge, Kristen does not have an opponent; she is still creating a dish, though. I presume that she cannot finish in the bottom group and even if she does, she clearly cannot be eliminated. She can, however, win once again if her dish is good enough. Kristen is in the catbird seat.

The heads up matches are determined as follows. The chefs in the top group of the Quickfire challenge select their opponents. Sheldon chooses first and he decides to battle Micah. In most instances, this would mean that Micah is perceived to be a weak competitor. Sheldon is not playing the game that way, though. He just wants to match wits with his younger opponent.

Danyele chooses to face Joshua in another Texas/Oklahoma battle (Joshua having previously faced off against John Tesar, also a Texan). Assuming this is not simply luck of the draw, the ordering would indicate that Danyele finished third in the Quickfire, a refreshing performance for her. We will see if she can sustain momentum. A one on one challenge could stoke her competitor fires and get her head back in the game.

Stefan has many personal failings – I gleefully enumerate them with each recap – but he does want to be the best. In order to prove himself yet again, he targets John Tesar as his opponent. On paper, this is easily the strongest matchup of the quintet.

Meanwhile, the March Madness aspect comes into play with the next two choices. The only remaining players on the bottom are Lizzie and Brooke while the competitors with the “honor” of choosing their opponents are Josie and Bart. Lizzie and Brooke can beat either one of them, so the only question is who Josie believes is slightly less intimidating. She correctly picks Lizzie, who did not win two out of the last three challenges. Of course, Lizzie will still crush Josie so it’s the Ogre’s Choice. This leaves Bart with Brooke. I will go ahead and write down a loss in his column, too.

Preparations are brutal. With so many different meals being prepared, the chefs square off at the market. They fight for the best proteins. Stefan watches Sheldon purchase the last of the fresh tuna. He is left with only one choice; The Thumb purchases packaged frozen tuna instead. Ordinarily, chefs get eliminated for these sorts of choices.

The location of the challenge is Remlinger Farms. The players quickly realize that their designated cooking area was not intended for the preparation of 11 simultaneous meals. Tempers flare early and often. Joshua splatters some blender concoction on himself and – more importantly to John Tesar – John Tesar. The slowest runner, Danyele, has to beg and please for work space because all of it has already been claimed.

Bart discovers what everybody else already knows: John Tesar is selfish. Bart needs a blender. He notices that the only person who has claimed one that is currently unused is John. Guess who becomes territorial about his blender! The conversation quickly grows heated and Sir Bart the Paladin eventually drops an F-bomb on John. That’s like being slurred by a Sesame Street character. Mr. Tesar will not be starring in any Miss Congeniality sequels.

As the chefs reach their serving booths, Tom Colicchio shows up. He quizzes the cheftestants about their plans as well as their opponents. A humorous moment occurs as the old men of the competition, John and Stefan, attempt to talk smack. Stefan starts by mentioning that he should have no problem beating a 53-year-old man. John counters by tattling. He tells Professor Colicchio that his counterpart is not using sustainable product, instead purchasing a frozen block of tuna. The three of them enjoy a rare moment of levity during an otherwise stressful season.

The oddest moment of Top Chef: Seattle occurs when Josie serves her dish to the judges. I guess that Josie is auditioning for a permanent engagement as a chef/host in Branson, Missouri. She spends so much time entertaining the audience at her booth that her food preparations fall far behind. The line at her booth is longer than the line for all ten other meals combined. Gail Simmons whispers to Tom Colicchio, “Is she high?” Tom thinks she is joking; she is not. There is decent reason to believe that Josie took a 4:20 break during her meal preparation. Let’s all pretend to be surprised when she loses.

The judges sample the dueling dishes in combination. The first battle is Danyele vs. Joshua. She presents a chicken pine nut terrine with blueberry mostarda. It looks like an open-faced peanut butter and jelly sandwish with a garnish on top. Josh provides a savory goat cheese mousse with blueberry compote. This is a measured dish that is probably 1/20th the size of his last two pork dishes. The judges are shocked by the crunchy nature of Danyele’s dish. She has messed up her calculations. Josh looks to be the clear winner with Danyele in serious jeopardy of being eliminated.

Josie’s rock n’raspberry roll contains sockeye salmon, Dungeness crab & raspberry aioli. The end result is that a huge chunk of meat in the middle of the plate appears to be bleeding badly. This is nasty. Conversely, Lizzie creates another gorgeous plate of food: a raspberry steamed cabbage roll with heritage pork & bacon stuffing. The judges as well as the festival attendants all agree that Josie’s dish is a mess while Lizzie’s is a triumph.

Perhaps the biggest mismatch on paper is Sheldon vs. Micah. This is meant as no disrespect to Micah. Sheldon is just that good. His latest masterpiece is an ahi summer comprised of ahi poke, strawberries & sweet chili sauce. Micah counters with strawberry fried chicken with strawberry & bacon biscuit. All of Micah’s food sounds delicious but the judges again favor Sheldon. I think Micah is safe; he simply fell victim to a brutal match-up.

The prize fight of the afternoon is John vs. Stefan. Tesar serves a white gazpacho with Spanish chorizo, gooseberries & sweet grapes. It may be delicious but the cup looks like fat and grease floating to the surface. I wouldn’t eat that. Stefan rises to the challenge with a cali crudo with radishes, gooseberries & spiced vinaigrette. The judges appear skeptical when they see Stefan’s dish and are frustrated by the lack of gooseberry flavor. Overall, they like his dish, though. Meanwhile, John has failed in his attempt to balance the chorizo, which overwhelms the dish. Stefan is going to win this heat.

The final battle is between Brooke and Bart. She offers a spicy smoked chocolate pudding with blackberry tapioca. It looks like an ice cream sundae topped with berries. I want it in my mouth. Bart’s dish is blackberry soup with salmon & rhubarb yogurt. It looks like congealed cranberry sauce. The judges love it save for the salmon, though. A bitchy mother makes a snide comment about it that I presume is the production crew’s way of identifying why Brooke is going to beat him.

Lonely Kristen has been isolated for most of the afternoon. This has allowed her to focus more in her preparations. This proves to be an unfair advantage as the judges love her matcha goat milk custard with macerated tayberries. The audience is even more receptive. People are shown coming back for seconds and thirds of the dish. As the ten other cheftestants hope for victory in their individual competitions, Kristen has largely aspirations that are quickly realized.

The judges announce that Kristen is victorious for the second time in the episode. And she already knows what she will do with her prize money. Kristen’s birth mother never returned after delivery (!) so she wound up being taken to the police and was later adopted by a family in Michigan. She wants to see Seoul, the place of her birth. The $10,000 she wins in the elimination challenge will pay for her trip. In the semi-immortal words of Green Day, I hope you have the time of your life. Also, please do not take Stefan as your Plus One.

There are no further surprises as the editing is honest for a change. The winners of the heats are all the people I had expected: Sheldon, Stefan, Brooke, Lizzie and Joshua. The losers discover this in awkward fashion as they are the first group asked to make an appearance at Judges Table. Most of them seem resigned to their fate so there is no false hope with this move. Even if John thought he might have won, seeing Danyele, Josie, Bart and Micah join him would eliminate the doubt. This would be the equivalent of all the 16 Seeds beating the 1 Seeds during the opening round of March Madness.

The judges focus their criticisms upon Josie, Bart and Danyele. They berate Josie for performing a cooking demo rather than focusing upon her dish. Given that Josie was experiencing a laser light show in her head, this is unsurprising. I hold out hope that she will be eliminated from the competition since she was sleepwalking through the elimination challenge.

I am resigned to the fact that Danyele will go home due to the crunchy nature of her dish. Both the attendants and the judges hated it, and that is why when Danyele’s name is announced, there is no real surprise. It’s a shame because I believe she is a better chef than Josie and maybe even Bart.

Danyele does have the opportunity to redeem herself at Last Chance Kitchen. She battles CJ in a sandwich making challenge. Danyele believes that this is to her advantage since she literally makes a version of the sandwich she prepares at least once a day. Alas, her advantage is negated by CJ’s creativity and culinary skill. CJ upends Danyele to remain alive in the competition. Danyele does receive a parting gift however as she takes her losing sandwich with her as comfort food. During Last Chance Kitchen, Danyele’s sense of humor shines through. She has a dark, caustic wit that I wish had been better highlighted during her run on Top Chef. Unlike Josie (whose elimination is probably just a challenge or two away), she will be missed.