Top Chef Charleston Recap: Episode 3
By Jason Lee
December 20, 2016

A lot of the audience just lost interest.

As if the producers of Top Chef (those Magical Elves) haven't already done enough to spoil fans of the show this season - bringing back hottie chef Sam Talbott, always-good-for-a-little-shade Katsuji, and underdog-is-my-identity Brooke Williamson - they kick things off this episode with the glorious, chaotic, and beloved mise en place relay race for the Quickfire. Ah, I love it.

The cheftestants are broken up into two teams of seven, with five chefs doing prep work and two chefs assigned cooking duties. In a nice twist on the format, the preppers will all work at the same time, peeling and mincing five ounces of garlic, finely dicing two quarts of onions, turning three artichokes, peeling and deveining 30 shrimp, and shucking 15 clams. Once a chef finishes with a task, he or she is able to help out another chef on his or her team with another task. The first team to complete their prep work not only can start on cooking their dish, but can also force the other team to pause for three minutes-thus cutting out precious prep and cooking time.

And oh yeah, the winning team's MVP will get immunity.

I anxiously await a flashback montage of Casey taking FOREVER to dice up her onions on the Top Chef All-Stars mise en place challenge. That was hilarious and agonizing and I can't wait to see her re-live it. And yet, for some perplexing reason, the producers don't harken back to that challenge. So odd. Did this disappoint any other TCers out there?

In any event, the two teams (blue and green) are neck and neck through almost every face of the challenge. Katsuji (green) finishes his onions just moments before Sheldon (blue) does as well. The blue team jumps back ahead in the garlic round before green ties it back up. Same thing happens with the artichokes and the shrimp. It all comes down to the clams and with just one clam remaining on the blue side, green finishes it off. Sam and Amanda, the designated chefs for green, immediately start work on a stuffed clam dish, while Brooke and Shirley agonize on the other side during their three-minute pause. It's clear that it's the longest three minutes of the other team's life - I love the mind games that the producers are putting these chefs through.

Finally, with 12 minutes left to go, the blue team clears their last clam and Brooke and Shirley go to work, revamping their dish due to the lost three minutes. When time is up, they serve their fried clam bellies with shrimp to Padma and Guest Judge Chris Cosentino, while the green team has a similar dish of stuffed clams and fried artichokes. The blue team comes out on top based on their use of raw artichokes paired with the fried clam belly, and Sheldon gets immunity as the team's MVP.

The same chefs are stuck together for the elimination challenge, which will require each team to cook a seven-course progressive menu to a room of Top Chef super fans (THOSE LUCKY DEVILS). Each course will be compared head-to-head, with the winning dish garnering a point for its team. The first team to four dishes wins. On the losing side, only the chefs who lost their head-to-head battles will be up for elimination. And as one final constraint, each dish must feature Chris's favorite ingredient, the humble radish, including each team's required dessert course.

The chefs are unleashed in Whole Foods and the smack-talking and strategizing begin almost immediately. Amanda learns that she's going head-to-head with Shirley and instantly feels the pressure, knowing what a serious cook Shirley is. Jim and Katsuji figure out that they're going up against each other and tweak their dishes to highlight what they view as their tactical advantage - with Jim simplifying his dish because of Katsuji's tendency to use too many ingredients, and Katsuji emphasizing his bold flavors given Jim's tendency towards restraint. Brooke and Silvia learn that they're both doing dessert for their respective teams - Brooke sees this as redemption for having not made it to the dessert round in her head-to-head against Kristen Kish in her TC finale, and Silvia plans to do a take on a yogurt cake her mother used to make her.

The mind games continue through the prep period. The green team is loud and emphatic about how good Silvia's yogurt cake is, giving pause to the blue team, as Brooke's panna cotta has not set up correctly. Also on her side of things, Shirley is running out of time to make her homemade noodles and decides to cut them in irregular shapes purposefully because she doesn't have time to make them uniform.

The superfans arrive, bringing a level and noise to the final moments of preparation. With the judges seated on a platform in the middle of the audience, it really reminds me of Emeril's set when he used to do his show on Food Network. The rules of the challenge are announced by Padma - each of the four judges will have one vote, and the superfans will collectively have their own vote. First dish to get three votes will win the point for that team.

And first up is Emily from the blue team with a black radish-cured salmon, against Sam's “banh mi,” which really looks like a “banh where is it?” It's a teeny, tiny little hors d'oeuvre that looks nothing like a typical banh mi with its big, crunchy roll and bountiful veggies. The vote from the superfans is incredibly close, with Emily prevailing by two votes. Chris also goes with Emily because of her aioli, while Tom goes with Sam's banh mi due to his use of acid. Richard swings things for Emily, who takes home the point.

Round two is a clash of contrasts, as Jim has a grilled radish with an oyster emulsion and Katsuji has a crab salad enchilada with radish tortilla. Given his bold flavors, it's not at all surprising that the diners go overwhelmingly with Katsuji. Tom votes for Jim but Richard “totally disagrees” with Tom, voting for Katsuji's “refined” dish. Padma, though, liked Jim's dish better, leaving Chris to break the tie. He goes with Katsuji, and we're tied up with one point per team.

BJ slaps on the last of his ingredients, pressed for time as always. He puts up a conserva with pink radish and trout against Jamie's braised French-breakfast radish. The voters pick Jamie, as does Tom, declaring that Jamie “nailed it.” Richard goes with BJ based on the progression of the green team's meal so far. Chris agrees. With Padma as the decider, she goes with Jamie's dish and blue is up by a point.

Casey is confident that she can tie things up, feeling that Silva simply has too many components in his dish. She presents a seared scallop that looks for all intents and purposes like a scallop with a sweet corn sauce. Silva has a spice rubbed-halibut with radish on his side. The diners adore Casey's dish but the judges uniformly disagree. Tom likes the lightness and flavor of Silva's dish, Richard has no hesitation in agreeing, and Chris as well. Casey looks absolutely stunned.

Next up is Amanda versus Shirley, and Amanda feels like all the pressure is on her, as the green team must sweep the next three dishes in order to win. Her roasted black cod with black radish puree must defeat Shirley's beef braised daikon with misshapen pasta. The voters overwhelmingly pick Amanda's dish, but the first two judges (Richard and Chris) go with Shirley based on how well she paired the daikon with beef broth. Padma goes with Amanda, tying things up. With Tom left as the tiebreaker, he goes with Amanda, noting that Shirley's dish was a bit heavy and that some of her pasta stuck together - a technical mistake that keeps the green team alive.

To keep things going, John has a radish “ramen” for the green team, while Sheldon has an adobo radish with radish porridge. The Diners go with John's ramen and Richard does as well. Chris adores Sheldon's porridge, though, and goes with Sheldon, and Tom does as well, noting that Sheldon did a better job of bringing the radish flavors to the forefront. With Padma as the tiebreaker, she goes with John's ramen, leaving dessert as the deciding dish.

As they did during the prep period, the green team is very vocal in how delicious Silvia's yogurt cake is, with Sam predicting that it'll bring Padma to tears. It'll have to beat, though, Brooke's purple daikon panna cotta with sour pineapple curd. The diners by a four-to-one margin go with Brooke and every judge does as well. The blue team prevails.

But not by much. Back at Judges' Table, the judges are quick to point out that every dish that was served during the Elimination Challenge was delicious. Padma declares it the best meal she's ever had on Top Chef and Tom seconds that, noting that each dish was delicious and demonstrated great work. On the winning team, though, two dishes really stood out. Silva's halibut dish was elegant and refined, while Brooke's dessert is described as “transformative.” Tom notes that last season, Mei Lin cooked what he judge to have been the best dessert ever on the history of the show, and that Brooke's dessert in this challenge “rivals” that one. With this said, of course Brooke is declared the winner of this Elimination Challenge. Hopefully she can start calming some of her nerves now. She's such a self-doubter sometimes.

As for the green team, four chefs are up for elimination. Tom notes that Silvia's yogurt cake wasn't bad, it just “ran into Brooke's freak show with a delicious dessert,” and declares that there's not much he would have changed about the dish. Chris says that the outside was perfectly crumbly and he would love to have another serving. As for Casey's radish scallop, Padma thought it was beautiful and really looked like a scallop.

As this point, the praise is so profuse that it starts to sound like the judges are complimenting the winning chefs in this challenge. That changes slightly with Sam and BJ. Sam erred, Tom says, in picking brioche as the bread in his banh mi. BJ, for his part, lacked textural variety, with everything being very soft. Tom adds that his radish flavor was as pronounced as in the other, more successful dishes.

As the judges wrestle with their decision (“how on earth do you send someone home in this challenge?” Padma wonders), two things become clear. BJ's dish, though good, was a bit one-note in terms of texture and flavor, while Sam's flavors were too muted for something that was supposed to have been a banh mi. “A failure in marketing,” Richard notes.

And that failure is enough to get Sam sent home. Tom assures him that he's going home for making a “great dish” and not because he didn't give it his all. But that's cold comfort. In a challenge where everyone made fantastic food, he draws the short end of the stick. Padma apologizes that Sam is leaving so early, and Tom comments, “this sucks.” But that's “just part of life,” as Sam notes.

That's true. Sometimes, that's just life on Top Chef.