Top Chef Charleston Recap: Episode 4
By Jason Lee
December 27, 2016

At least he looks cool, though.

Top Chef is bringing it home for the holidays this Quickfire Challenge, with presents galore atop each chef’s work station. A glowing Padma stands next to Nilou Motamed, the new Editor-in-Chief of Food & Wine Magazine, who replaces the beautiful Dana Cowen - a frequent guest on Top Chef. Looks like that honor will be passed down to her successor.

But back to the important part - the presents. Padma tells the cheftestants that the boxes contain ingredients and cooking tools, each of which will have to be used in pulling together a dish in 30 minutes. And so begins the most Chopped-like challenge in Top Chef history, but here, with immunity at stake for the winner

In the box, the chefs finds a pressure cooker, a bottle of tequila, white chocolate-covered pretzels, cloves, wasabi, squab, and a melon baller. Sheldon is perplexed by how to incorporate tequila with wasabi. Next to him, Shirley organizes her tools and ingredients to make sure she uses them all.

Meanwhile, Emily has no idea how to use a pressure cooker, which John finds unbelievable. “Have you ever watched Top Chef?” he fumes to the camera.

At this point, that’s the least of Emily’s problems. She’s burned her rice and is throwing it into the blender with some cabbage to make some sort of soubise. Lovely.

At the other side of the kitchen, Sheldon has accidentally stolen Shirley’s tequila. As she searches for it, her squab goes up in flames. Like serious flames.

Before you know it, the 30 minutes are up and the judges come around for tasting. As they do, Shirley notes that everyone seems to have incorporated spherical foods in their dishes. Aghast, she realizes that Sheldon also stole her melon baller, which she never used in putting together her dish.

This, along with her charred squab, leaves Shirley in the bottom of the Quickfire (though to Sheldon’s credit, he totally owns up to his inadvertent actions). Joining her is Emily, with her gummy soubise, and BJ, who made the bad decision to deep fry his squab, leaving it very tough.

On the other side, we have Brooke with a delicious pan-roasted squab and flavors that all worked together, Casey with smoked chili and tequila squab soup that smartly incorporated pineapple, and John, who somehow made a pan-seared squab with mole in under 30 minutes. Casey takes home her second (!!!) win of the season in the first four episodes, and immunity to boot.

This gives her a big advantage in the Elimination Challenge, which will have James Beard award-winner Mike Lata as the Guest Judge. This does not please Emily - she used to work for Mike and was fired for being too bossy and mouthy in the kitchen. Mike Lata is all about seafood, and sustainable seafood in particular. Thus, for this “holiday” Elimination Challenge, the chefs will have to do their take on the feast of seven fishes, which is an Italian tradition that usually takes place on Christmas Eve. But of course there’s a twist - the cheftestants will be using “trash” fish, the incidental catches that end up fishermen’s nets that are thrown back.

The chefs will work in teams of two, drawing knives to determine their partners and their fish. Casey, as the winner, will work alone and gets to choose her fish (she picks amberjack). The other pairings are Sheldon with Shirley (sabatagee and sabotager), Brooke with Emily (who shows her Top Chef chops by deferring to Brooke on all decisions), Amanda and Jim (a study in contrasting personalities and energies, if there ever was one), Katsuji and John (who immediately start trying to tame each other’s culinary styles, excess versus simplicity), and Sylva and BJ (they seem to get along just fine).

With these pairings in place and with shopping done, tensions run high in the kitchen. Emily is terrified of putting on a poor showing in front of the chef who fired her, Brooke feels the weight of making all executive decisions for her team, Katsuji and John bicker about the merits of canned tomatoes (John) versus fresh tomatoes (Katsuji) for their sauce, while Amanda is an absolute mess in the kitchen, yelling and screaming and running and yelping. I know she doesn’t mean to be annoying, but she can apparently accomplish great things without even trying.

Sheldon and Shirley are up first and their dish of Szechuan peppercorn-braised mullet is a hit. Richard loves how they paired their fish with tofu, and Tom appreciates how subtly they incorporate the flavor of Szechuan peppercorns (not known for being a delicate flavor).

Jamie and Sylva also do a great job. Their fish typically has a very iron-y flavor due to its thick bloodline, but they smartly pair it with ras al hanout to mask it. The dreamy Hugh Acheson, a frequent guest judge on TC but making his debut appearance this season, notes that the judges thought that the team would fail miserably due to the difficulty of the fish, but they did a nice job.

Next are Pinky and the Brain, a.k.a. Emily and Brooke, with a roasted blackberry rose with marbled potatoes. Nilou finds that the dish has a split personality, with flavors fighting each other, every which way. Tom asks about how they came up with the dish. “It was very collaborative,” Emily lies between her teeth. Brooke tries to inject some truth in the situation by noting that they didn’t have many disagreements (indeed, Emily didn’t have many things to say at all). Gail wishes that there’d been more editing in the decision making process.

Silvia and BJ are next with a barrel fish brodo with leeks and kale. Mike Lata notes that their fish, already known for not being tender, is even more firm and tough that it typically is. Padma compares it to an overcooked chicken breast. Tom guesses correctly that their fish firmed up as it dried out and wishes that there had been more broth to keep the fish moist and succulent.

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, Katsuji starts plating his fresh tomato sauce without talking with John, who’d been making an alternative canned tomato sauce. Without discussion, he starts adding his own sauce to the plate. Despite this foreboding start, the dish is a hit, with the diners raving about Katsuji’s sauce. Mike loves the soulfulness of the dish, and Hugh compliments them for having bridged their two egos (oh Hugh, if you only knew).

With the next dish up, Amanda is screaming and running around the kitchen like crazy, worried about their fish, worried about their beans in the pressure cooker - she is a madwoman. I feel bad for Jim, but he seems to be holding up well by dialing down his energy to compensate for Amanda’s abundance of it. They serve a seared gray tiefish with tomato and fennel broth. All the diners criticize the undercooked beans, which, in Mike’s words, are hard to get past.

Casey, Miss Immunity, is last up, and she’s a mess as well. She barely has time to char her amberjack before serving it with kimchi and charred rabe, noting as she leaves the kitchen that she wishes she could just throw it out the window. Many fish on the diners’ plates are raw and Padma says that Casey’s porridge is “horrible.” She apologizes, “I don’t know how else to say it, it’s gummy and has no flavor.” Ughh. Casey knows that if she didn’t have immunity, she’d be sent home. And she’s right.

We have some good news to get through before we’re there, though. At the top of the group are Sheldon and Shirley, who put out a well-planned, well-executed fish, John and Katsuji, with a delicious sauce, and Jamie and Sylva, who cooked every component of their dish perfectly. Katsuji takes home the crown due to his amazing fresh tomato sauce.

With Padma noting that Casey picked a good day to have immunity, the other three teams are brought before the judges. Jim and Amanda erred with their undercooked beans and pedestrian mussels, which brought a “South Jersey” flavor to the dish. Emily and Brooke suffered from a lack of editing, with way too much going on in the dish and nothing making sense. Silvia and BJ’s fish ate “like overcooked chicken breast,” which was painful to get through because it was so tough.

Unlike last week’s triumph, with great dishes all the way around, each one this week had major flaws. Tom asks Mike which fish, in his opinion, was the worst of all, and Mike singles out BJ and Silvia’s barrel fish. Tom notes that it wouldn’t have been so tough if BJ hadn’t overreduced the sauce, leaving no liquid for the fish to bathe in.

And that’s enough. BJ is going home. His team had the worst fish and he was the biggest reason for that error. BJ notes that it “sucks” going home this early - he spent ten years trying to get on the show and thought he’d come in and win the whole damn thing. Instead, he’s headed off to Last Chance Kitchen. He’s proud that he was able to hold his own with some very talented chefs, but he’s going to have to do that and more if he hopes to get back into the competition.