Top Chef Recap
By David Mumpower
January 21, 2014

This is something I'm planning to throw at Tom's head.

Previously on Top Chef, my favorite player this season and possibly ever was eliminated for being exceptional during an Elimination challenge. The person in question is of course Stephanie and if you follow Top Chef at all, you know all the sordid details by now. Stephanie was part of a three player team that also included Nick, who had immunity. Nick also failed completely in the challenge. Since he could not be voted out of the winner’s bracket, the judges determined that Stephanie was slightly less wonderful than her partner Shirley.

As I stated during last week’s Power Rankings, I was initially quite irritated with Nick, as was most of the social media realm. Upon reflection, I appreciated the fact that nobody on Survivor is ever asked to give up immunity because they have done something wrong. Okay, it did happen one time but that kid was an idiot who made ice cream for a living. And he was manipulated by a sultry woman. The point I am no longer making is that if a game provides immunity, the player who earns it should not be asked to give it back.

Instead, the flaw with last week’s challenge was simple. A group of six people should not be divided into teams. That goes quadruple if immunity is up for grabs. The producers of Top Chef, people who consistently provide one of the best programs on television, made a rare mistake. I do not want to belabor the point because that would cause me to ignore the regular excellence of their work. Instead, what I will note is that Nick earned further advancement into the game.

Stephanie should not have been voted out, but I am confident that she will be invited to return during a future season. She has already “won” this year because she is a popular player who redeemed herself as a chef. The fact that she will not be able to claim the title of Top Chef is unfortunate; still, Louis beat her fair and square in Last Chance Kitchen. Ergo, she clearly was not the best player this year. With another couple of years of experience, the sky is the limit for her.

As one would expect, the mood is somber at the beginning of the episode. Shirley is sobbing uncontrollably. Nick’s expression is grim. Throughout the season, he has described Stephanie as his younger sister. I am not being the least bit melodramatic when I say that Nick has SACRIFICED HIS KID SISTER TO THE GODS OF TOP CHEF!!! OH, THE HUMANITY!

After Nick has been castigated to the satisfaction of the Twitterverse, we cut to the Quickfire challenge. Roy Choi makes a return appearance. You may remember him from last season’s final few episodes wherein he confided that Emeril Lagasse changed his life. It was a heartwarming story that resonates with me to this day. Alas, Roy Choi will not enjoy his latest visit to Top Chef Kitchen nearly as much.

Choi, a food truck icon, became famous for his Los Angeles tacos. He requests that the chefs provide a similar local dining experience with the New Orleans answer to the taco, the po' boy. The participants are given only 20 minutes to achieve deliciousness. They fail completely. I am not joking. Choi is brutally honest about his crushing disappointment.

“I’m going to start talking on the real, man. Like, you guys kind of missed the boat on this. So… I don’t know what’s going on in your heads right now but you guys had a cook’s dream. You had a po’boy bread in New Orleans and you had a chance to tell your story. And you all *bleeped* this *bleep* up.”

Top Chef is not a show that requires a lot of bleeps in the editing room as a rule so you know Roy Choi is mad. Here is what he disliked about each chef. Nicholas provides fried shrimp with sriracha. The bread is tough while the shrimp is not seasoned to Choi’s satisfaction. Nina fries mahi, but she does not provide the crunch that Choi seeks from a sandwich. Brian, who mentions he shares a similar upbringing to Choi, tries to take advantage of what he knows of his friend. His secret ingredient is gochujang, expecting that flavor to win over the judge. Choi feels that it is a terrible flavor profile.

Finally, Carlos has the oddest incident. He crafts an al pastor po’boy, which causes Choi to note that he is “very particular about al pastor because I’m from LA." Carlos is befuddled by whatever implication Choi was making. He wryly notes that he is from Mexico, and that is how he likes his al pastor. Carlos, if it helps any, I think that even if you AND your al pastor had been from LA, Choi was in such a bad mood by then that he still would have hated your dish.

By process of elimination, you can deduce that Shirley wins the challenge although I am not sure if my wording is precise. It could be that she loses less than the others. Whatever the explanation, the victory is a huge relief for Shirley because she receives immunity. Yes, nothing has been learned from last week. With only five players remaining, one of them is given immunity. Everybody but Shirley now has a 25% chance of being shipped to Last Chance Kitchen tonight. Even Nina!

Speaking of the Elimination challenge, the special guest judge this week is actor/director Jon Favreau. I am going to avoid the temptation to provide 50 quotes from Swingers during the rest of this recap. Simply know that I really want to do it. The Iron Man director, who is so money and he doesn’t even know it (hey, I didn’t say I wouldn’t do ANY quotes), announces that the challenge this week is brutal. The cheftestants will be required to prepare meals using only what they can find in local dumpsters. Before the players are forced to consider which wines pair well with soylent green, Favreau announces he is joking. The chefs instantly like him better than Roy Choi.

Favreau is producing a movie about a chef who “is cooking food he no longer connects with.” Favreau has written and directing the project, which features Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr. and him, making it a foodie’s sequel to Iron Man 2. What is the challenge? No, the chefs do not have to build a meal that will fit in Tony Stark’s armor. (You missed a real opportunity here, Bravo.) Instead, they are expected to “create a dish that represents your career turning point.” I wonder if any of them craft food that displays how they felt in the wake of Roy Choi destroying their confidence.

The particularly notable aspect of the meal is that it will be served at Café Reconcile, Emeril Lagasse’s local pet project. This organization seeks to get at-risk youths off the streets and teach them life skills at a functioning restaurant. Emeril Lagasse fans need to get the Nobel Prize people to pay more attention to what this dude has accomplished.

Before the chefs are forced to quote, they are given a night on the town with Favreau and Emeril. He takes them on an expedition to sample the local food truck cuisine in the area. He starts asking personal questions about the chefs. Brian shares his origin story about how he was a weapons dealer and international playboy who found himself trapped in a cave in Afghanistan. Pushed by creativity and the will to survive, he built a metal suit that could not only withstand gunfire but also sustain his severely damaged heart. Eventually, he escaped his captors and brought them to justice. Or maybe Brian got a DUI once that caused him to reconsider his life choices. It’s one or the other.

The person who is experiencing the most personal growth this season is Shirley. She recounts how much Emeril Lagasse’s trip to the shrimp docks meant to her. Prior to her appearance on Top Chef, Shirley felt that she had lost her voice as a chef. Her participation this season has allowed the Californian/Chinese woman to rediscover what she loves about the art of cooking. Her description matches her recent hot streak wherein she has gone from solid to at worst the co-favorite.

The next phase of the challenge involves grocery shopping. At this point, Nick reveals that the movie that has made the strongest impression upon him is Forrest Gump. Doing his best Bubba Blue talking about shrimp impersonation, Nick begins to recount his plans for the mighty carrot. He will be creating an entire menu of carrots including “carrot juice, carrot top puree, carrot top oil, carrot powder, shaved carrot, piece of fish.” Wait, which piece of fish is comprised of carrots?

Nina tries her damnedest not to laugh at Nick. She fails. Trying to play it off as being amused by the concept, Nina snidely states, “All carrot everything.” To a larger point, is Nick creating a meal or planning an entire line of baby food? If elementary school children wind up being the judges, Nick is going to be voted out before he can finish saying “carrot top puree.” Hopefully, the sophisticated palates of the judges will save him from himself. If not, he will have no one to blame but himself. At this moment, the only logical conclusion to draw is that Nick is a plant for the giant Carrot Conglomerate that controls all aspects of our everyday lives. I would say more but they’re watching me. The carrots are always watching me.

Carlos is preparing pork belly. While I believe his days on the show are numbered, I immediately decide that he is fine for this week once I see the product he is handed. The grocery store has some of the finest pork belly I have ever seen. If he blows this dish, it is an unforgivable affront to the pig that died so that the judges may have deliciousness.

Now is the moment on the show when we remember that Nick and Carlos have a Moonlighting kind of thing going on. Nick, the Cybill Shepherd in the relationship, has placed three pots in a certain location. Carlos, that inconsiderate David Addison archetype, does not heed the request/demand to leave Nick’s pots untouched. What follows is repetition of the word “pot” until it loses all meaning. Seriously, if I had a Bitcoin for every time Nick says “pot” or “carrot” in this episode, I would have a million dollars. No wait, now it’s eight hundred dollars. Anyway, he says those two words a lot.

The mistake of the day belongs to Nick. After demonstrating how fastidious he is with regards to pot placement, Nick places a pan of quinoa in the oven. His intention is to cook it at 275 degrees. The temperature gauge clearly shows that it is set to 500 degrees instead. When Nina smells something burning, Nick instantly recognizes that his quinoa is ruined.

Nick accusingly mentions that he set the thermostat to 275, hinting at sabotage. Hopefully, he apologized to his fellow competitors after the episode aired because this mistake was 100% his own. Nina commented earlier in the episode that Nick has a quick trigger temper. His behavior here reinforces her belief. Nick is having a bad couple of episodes.

This week’s challenge is a case of the haves and have nots. Shirley is one of the haves. She presents a plate of seared snapper with crustacean broth, silken tofu & napa cabbage. The judges collectively lick their lips with joy. “This is really delicious,” says Tom Colicchio. That statement alone identifies that Shirley has a strong chance of winning the challenge. The better compliment comes from Gail Simmons. She adds, “I’m like drooling on myself at this point. It’s sooo good.”

Nina is also a have. She provides a marvelous looking plate of fettuccine with charred calamari, pine nut gremolata & crab meat. I don’t like 75% of those ingredients yet I would take a bite of this. The plate is that appealing. Tom gives her the best compliment possible. “At this stage of the game, this is how they should be cooking.” Since Shirley has immunity, Nina is one of the four players up for elimination tonight. Her meal’s quality is bad news for the three men who have yet to provide their dishes.

Brian is the first of the three remaining men to present his dish. He provides a chicken anticucho with twice cooked potatoes & feta walnut pesto. And here is the problem with his dish. Brian had his choice of any protein for this particular meal. He oddly chose skinless chicken breast, something you can find for $5 in the frozen section of your grocery store. The other chefs were aghast at this decision, preferring refined proteins.

The presentation to the judges is a moment of truth. And he fails in that moment. Even Jon Favreau, who is overwhelmingly positive by nature, can find nothing positive to say. Meanwhile, Emeril’s “twice-baked” potato is raw. And Tom describes the dish as “so boring.” Brian is in real danger. The judges did not hate the dish, but they did find it questionable in design and the cooking of the potato could prove to be a crucial mistake.

The next participant is Carlos, he of the delicious looking pork belly. The meal he presents is straight off of a magazine cover. It is braised pork belly with sweet potato puree & chipotle tamarind glaze. Carlos confides that this is the first item he has cooked this season that he had planned ahead of time. It is a staple on his restaurant’s menu, meaning that he has complete confidence in the dish. The judges devour it. The other customers love it as well. And even the employees working at Café Reconcile celebrate its brilliance. I think Carlos has won this round.

The final contestant to present tonight is Nick. All he has to do is beat Brian to be safe this week. When I see his plate, I do not think he has managed this feat. Nick presents yellowfish tuna, several preparations of carrot & fennel pollen dust. Even if the words “pollen dust” were not wildly unappetizing, I would sneer at this dish because the tuna looks disgusting. I am also surprised when Nick confides to the judges that he failed with his quinoa preparation.

They did not need to know that prior to tasting the food. I am surprised when Padma is positive about the flavor, describing it as “incredibly sophisticated.” Emeril and Tom are less impressed. Emeril quickly announces that the dish lacks seasoning. Tom agrees emphatically before Emeril can even finish the sentence. The head judge’s larger complaint, however, is that Nick has presented a couple of raw carrots rather than something that involved, you know, cooking. For his part, Nick is convinced he is going home. Nick, I doubt you live at Last Chance Kitchen.

The judges are again complimentary of the cheftestants as a whole. This has been a theme for the past several episodes in a row. There may not be a lot of separation between the five remaining players in the winner’s bracket, but they are all notably consistent.

The judges start their interrogation, and the player who bears the brunt is Brian. There are plenty of mistakes made during a season of Top Chef. The ones that bother Tom the most, however, are those that involve lack of imagination. When Brian explains that he thought chicken breast would fit any circumstance, Tom berates him for not bringing entire chickens then adapting to circumstances as they unfold. Tom is very disappointed in Brian, which usually means elimination.

Before the judges reach what I now believe is an inevitable conclusion, they choose a winner. I had expected this to be Carlos based upon the comments. Instead, Shirley slightly bests him for her second win of the episode. At this point in the season, Shirley has established herself as the strongest performer, usurping Nina’s long held status. The judges go on to state that Carlos narrowly missed victory with Nina slightly behind him. So there is no doubt about the ordering during the Elimination challenge this week.

The players are sent out of the kitchen while the judges debate between Brian and Nick. For his part, Nick is assailed for what I consider to be a hilarious reason. Remember the joke I made above about Nick crafting a bunch of carrot dishes…and fish? Well, Gail does not understand that either. The meal lacked cohesion. The explanation is of course the burnt quinoa but I find the turn of events hysterical. If Nick had not cheated on carrots with fish, he would not be in this mess. That’s the bad news. The good news is that he finishes in fourth place.

Brian is eliminated from the winner’s bracket. His mistake is one of the strangest ever on Top Chef. He chose chicken breast, and the judges harshly condemned him for the transgression. There is a positive aspect for Brian. During Last Chance Kitchen, he presents a dish that Tom describes as Brian’s best of the season. Alas, Louis continues to perform at an almost unconscious level. His dish is celebrated by Tom as THE best of the season. So Brian is eliminated from Last Chance Kitchen. Louis is like the Black Plague of Last Chance Kitchen these days. He’s killing everything.