Top Chef Recap
By David Mumpower
December 23, 2013

Justin remembers that while he may have lost, he still lives on the same street as Mardi Gras.

Previously on Top Chef, another exceptional challenge performance led to the elimination of someone who cooked rather well overall. Travis was banished to Last Chance Kitchen due to a raw biscuit. Otherwise, the judges offered universal consent that the food presented by the bottom group was delicious. Ergo, the people who finished at the top of the challenge must have delivered outrageously great cuisine.

That premise goes double for Nick, whose food was so tasty that actor and guest judge Anthony Mackie quipped that he wished he could be Nick’s daughter. That is the hallmark of a perfect plate of food. Nick appears to be ascending at the perfect moment. He has now won consecutive challenges, one of which was as the executive chef of the winning team during Restaurant Wars. At this point, Nick is challenging Nina as the strongest competitor.

The episode begins with Nina lamenting the absence of Travis. She refers to herself as the last Gossip Girl alive, which is presumably a huge surprise to Leighton Meester and Blake Lively. Nina recounts the connection she shared with buddies Bene and Travis. Their conversations rarely involved Top Chef. I would note that the lack of focus on the competition itself could be the causality for Travis and Bene being eliminated.

Brian has a different thought. He recognizes that there are only eight chefs remaining. In the earlier portion of the show, there could be a dramatic difference in performance between the worst dishes and the middling ones. Now that the herd has been thinned, the margin of error between first and last place can be as simple as the degree of doneness of a biscuit. Any chef would gulp at the thought of such a demanding performance yet the players face it every challenge now. This season of Top Chef may be the most tightly bunched one in the history of the show. How the eight chefs handle the ever increasing pressure could easily determine the final outcome.

After these moments of paranoid introspection, the chefs arrive in the Top Chef Kitchen for the Quickfire challenge. They are greeted by Ahmir-Khalib Thompson, whom the world knows as Questlove, leader of The Roots, Jimmy Fallon’s house band. The Grammy Award winning musician also happens to be the owner of a New York restaurant named Hybrid. At least he did until early November when the critically celebrated chicken joint closed. Ergo, this segment is a bit awkward in hindsight. Nobody knew that at the time, though.

In fact, the joint starts jumpin’. Questlove’s presence is quickly followed by a drumline of musicians. The players all start bouncing as the marching drummers bring in the noise and funk. Bringing up the rear is a wheeled table full of drumsticks. These are (well, were) the signature dish at Hybrid. Did I mention this segment in hindsight?

The Quickfire challenge demands that the chefs craft the most creative chicken dish possible. There is a mad scramble for the various parts of the bird. In the scrum, Shirley collapses. Nick demonstrates his honah as a gentleman by catching her then helping her back upright. Shirley rewards his nobility by…taking the protein he wanted.

Undoubtedly the most creative approach is taken by Brian. He builds a chicken soup (!) using his drumstick. I think that is in the conversation for most original idea on Top Chef this season, possibly ever. Alas, Questlove is stone faced during the sampling. He announces that Nick used too much salt, Justin was too boring, and Carlos overcooked his dish. Carlos also used a knife to hack at the bone of his bird, which caused Padma to swallow a shard (!!!) of bone. Suffice to say that she was displeased.

The best three performers in the Quickfire are Carrie, Nina and Brian (nice poker face, Questlove). Carrie had been saddled with quail, which every other chef had avoided like the plague. Her presence in the top group is a total shock. Nina is praised for the cooking technique of her game hen. And Brian is correctly complimented for the creativity and confidence of his dish. Given what Brian has accomplished, I switch from thinking Questlove didn’t enjoy his dish to believing that he has won right up until Carrie is lauded as the winner. Clearly, Questlove is an enigma to me. More important, Carrie has immunity during the elimination challenge, which means that everybody else has a one in seven chance of going home.

The Elimination challenge is entitled Back to School. Louisiana State University is enjoying Fall matriculation. With freshman orientation ongoing, the chefs will be required to cook a meal for the new batch of college students. That is a batch of 500 freshmen who have never been away from home and will suddenly be tasting haute cuisine. Even better, the chefs will spend the night in dormitories to complete the college experience. The winner of the challenge will get a Toyota RAV4, which is a much better prize than they have given out lately. I say this because most of the winners this season have gotten absolutely nothing. What’s up with that, Top Chef?

We learn a lot about the Top Chef contestants as they discuss college. Carrie became a chef because she didn’t like college so she dropped out to start culinary school. Then, she dropped out of culinary school. Carrie’s parents probably had some anxious nights. Brian’s situation was altogether different. He was a tennis player for UCLA, which means Brian could humiliate you on a tennis court. Finally, Justin never went to college and he sounds a bit bitter about the situation.

Next, we hear Carrie mention that she may have a baby if she wins the RAV4. I don’t completely understand the underlying logic supporting the idea, but I love Nina’s query of whether the baby will be named Padma or Tom. I wonder if there is a Subreddit for people who have named their babies after Top Chef contestants.

Brian recounts a story about how he received a scar. I don’t mean just any scar, either. He has one that would make your average 10-year NFL veteran wince. Apparently, Brian used to get drunk and stoned a lot, and he once put his arm through a car window, causing the skin to flap open. What does Shirley take from the story? Brian talks too much. Yes, *Shirley* is bothered by someone’s incessant chattering.

The preparation portion of the challenge begins with chefs declaring a need for either a hot or cold work station. Carlos is asked if he wants to man the hot station. He states that his fish dish requires a specific plancha station. Shirley becomes annoyed once again, this time for a justifiable reason. She had previously claimed said work station. She states that Carlos’s true nature has come to light. I initially believe that this is a harsh accusation, but the rest of the episode is not Carlos’s finest hour.

As the chefs ready their dishes, a key aspect of the challenge is revealed. People with a lot of college experience understand the dietary habits of students better than those who skipped school. Justin, may God have mercy on his soul, is building a cauliflower and asparagus dish, even as she acknowledges that the 500 students would probably prefer chicken tenders. Almost simultaneously, Justin diminishes Brian’s dish for its simplicity. This is like a car wreck where everybody sees the collision coming but nobody can stop it from happening.

A couple of surprising chefs experience a rare degree of difficulty with their dishes. Stephanie, ever the planner, wants to plate a cheese dish. She is sandbagged by the types of cheese in the LSU kitchen, which forces her to use unplanned flavors. Even worse, she makes a last minute decision to emphasize the soup and sandwich nature of her dish by placing the sandwich in the soup bowl. It sounds greasy, it looks greasy, and I am worried she may be going home.

Nina’s plight is no better. After being close to perfect for the body of the season, she decides to double down on chicken this week. Her dish is intended to shine due to a corn puree that will make the flavors pop. What Nina had not anticipated is that the LSU kitchen lacks an appropriately sized blender. She is trying to cook for 500 students using a blender no larger than the one in your kitchen right now. She knows that the puree is far too coarse. I suspect that if Nina finishes in the bottom group, she would get a mulligan due to her dominance thus far, but the editing strongly indicates that the bottom group is likely to be Justin, Stephanie and Nina. While Justin has struggled lately, that is a combination of three very strong chefs.

The students receive their dishes and excitedly chow down. The editing shows that Brian’s shrimp cake is worth the hype. A large line forms at his counter. Meanwhile, Carrie’s line is less popular with LSU students than Nick Saban. She is serving blanched broccoli, and she defensively states, “It’s not my fault the kids are stupid and don’t eat their broccoli.” The winner tonight receives a new car but Carrie’s prize of immunity tonight looks to be the even bigger reward at the moment. It probably keeps her in the competition.

The worst moment of the episode and probably the season occurs in an oddly non-confrontational manner. Carlos is still worried about preparing his fish. He asks Nick to remove his bowls from the oven. Nick states that he cannot do so, and since Nick claimed the area first, that should be the end of it. When Tom Colicchio and Emeril Lagasse reach Carlos’ station, the contestant is not ready to plate the judges’ dishes. They ask about his tardiness. Carlos replies, “They, uh, steal my oven. Nicholas started warming up the plates so…sorry.” Nina and Stephanie’s heads snap up in shock over the baseless accusation of dirty play.

While the challenge finishes soon afterward, Nick is informed of Carlos’s comments. Rather than let them slide, he vents in the Stew Room as the players await word from the judges. “Apparently, I stole Carlos’s oven. Chef Tom told me that you told him that I stole your oven.” Carlos weakly defends himself by saying, “I really needed an oven.” Later, he adds that he didn’t say it in a mean way.

The opinion in the stew room is unanimous. This is a huge no-no in the competition. Carlos spends the next several moments defending himself before eventually offering a full throated apology. He also starts to tear up a bit. Still, I believe Brian speaks for everyone when he says, “Some of the moves he makes in the kitchen kind of questions his integrity.”

The producers give the signal that the drama has died down so the judges begin to speak. As if on cue, Emeril mentions that Carlos said he had an oven problem before announcing that the food was delicious. Nick does his best “I could have had a V8!” impression, worrying that the judges will punish him for something he did not do. Fortunately, Top Chef has never been that type of show, which is why I love it so much.

Eventually, a consensus is reached. Shirley, Brian and Carlos are called back to Judges Table, presumably in order to allow Shirley to complain about Brian’s chattiness. All kidding aside, Carlos’s presence is infuriating and I say that as someone who likes him quite a bit. He was selfish and immature today. I resent that he receives positive reinforcement for his behavior. He is not given a new car, though. That honor goes to Shirley, who is the proud owner of a new RAV4. This is her fourth victory this season. Shirley is a real threat to win Top Chef.

The loser’s bracket is not a mystery. Had Carrie not won the Quickfire challenge, she would probably be going home. In her absence, the editing all but shouted who would be on the bottom. Nina, Stephanie and Justin all made mistakes. And a very good chef will be going home tonight.

Tom lectures Stephanie on dipping the sandwich in the soup bowl. A couple of the other players, notably Justin, had indicated that they liked the choice and I thought it was spontaneous fun. Tom disagrees and we all know that Tom is the only voice that matters on the topic. Fortunately for Stephanie, her dish is very well received otherwise. She did a great job in finding the right flavors for the lackluster cheeses available in the kitchen.

Nina and Justin, on the other hand, are in real danger. The corn puree is a disaster. It is “watery and thin” according to Gail Simmons, and everyone agrees that it needed to be cooked twice, something Tom noted while standing in line earlier. Even worse, Nina’s server had presented the dish sans the corn to several students, a huge no-no since it violated the explicit instructions of the challenge. Nina’s only hope is that Justin has done worse.

He has. Justin also added a puree that was on the bottom of his dish. According to Gail, it had no flavor save for garlic, which is great if LSU is ever overrun by the cast of True Blood. For Top Chef, it’s not good. Tom adds that the dish was bland. Justin explains his decision by pointing out that he refused to play it safe. The judges are kind to him, noting that his lack of experience with the college diet hurt him. There is some truth to that.

There is also truth to the fact that Justin’s palate has never seemed in line with that of the head judge. Tom frequently lamented the dryness of Justin’s worst dishes this season. Every time, Justin thought he had nailed the flavors. We have witnessed this situation a handful of times over the 11 seasons. Sometimes, a chef’s natural cooking style does not ingratiate him/her with the judges.

Justin has undeniably made some mistakes over the last few episodes, but I also believe that some of his struggles were wholly beyond his control. Tom was the wrong type of food critic for Justin’s flavor, and this thought process is reinforced during Last Chance Kitchen. Justin is defeated by Louis because Tom once again finds Justin’s dish a bit too dry. This situation must be maddening to Justin, but if he reflects upon it, his elimination should be more tolerable than most. He made some great food. His primary struggle was caused by a specific style of New Orleans cooking not being a good fit with the judges despite the season’s locality.