Top Chef Season 17: Episode 2 Recap
By Jason Lee
April 1, 2020
The coals in the beachside fire pits are still glowing when we rejoin the chefs in the wake of Joe’s elimination. We knew this season was going to be intense, and Padma is barely giving the chefs a chance to catch their breath. The next Elimination Challenge starts right now.
Well, after some significant exposition. And a good night’s rest.
There will be no Quickfire this episode because the chefs are being asked to do some research before the Elimination Challenge. That challenge will honor the late Los Angeles Times food critic, Jonathan Gold, who was the first person ever awarded a Pulitzer Prize for food criticism. He famously compiled a list of the best (or some might say, his favorite) 101 restaurants in Los Angeles. The chefs’ task tomorrow will be to explore restaurants in east LA, west LA, Hollywood, and downtown that were included on Jonathan Gold’s final list.
Taking inspiration from that, they will create a dish to serve to 200 guests at an event at Los Angeles’s Union Station that will honor his life. Their guest judge for the challenge will be food critic Ruth Reichl—news that makes Stephanie turn to Jamie and say, “that’s such a big deal.”
The next day, the chefs self-select into four groups to begin traversing the city. They go as far east to dine at a Szechuan-style restaurant named Chengdu, they try out a Thai restaurant called Jitlada, they eat at a taco truck, a filipino restaurant named Lasa . . . it’s a ton of eating and should provoke strong waves of envy for any foodie. This experience alone makes it worth it to come back to Top Chef.
Through it all, the chefs meet chefs and restauranteurs who are passionate about their work and cuisine, and who recognize the incredible debt they owe to Jonathan Gold for the spotlight he shone on (and the love he showed for) their food. They each know what his favorite dish was at their respective restaurant, and many of them tear up as they talk about his kindness and generosity.
I can’t help but be moved by hearing from all these restaurant owners. In this time when so many in the food and service industry are struggling, it reminds me that few people open a restaurant because they want to get rich. Many, if not most, do so because they are passionate about food. This sequence is a reminder of how much this industry needs and deserves our help right now.
Before we know it, the eating is done and the shopping begins. The chefs each have 30 minutes to plow through $700 in Whole Foods. As he shops, Bryan muses about making a filipino dish, while Nini is leaning towards a play on matzo ball soup. Eric wants to do something with duck, but because Lisa buys all the duck available, he has to switch to scallops.
Once in the kitchen, it’s a flurry of activity. Karen is in the weeds making dumplings for her dish. Stephanie is also feeling the pressure of time, struggling to get everything done while simultaneously worrying that she’s overthinking her dish. Meanwhile, Angelo can’t seem to find the right balance for his turmeric broth.
The chaos continues at Union Station. Melissa, who’s doing a play on beef carpaccio, worries about Brian, who’s also doing a version of the dish. For his part, Brian is less concerned about the food than with bringing a happy, buoyant atmosphere to his station. Meanwhile, Angelo is still wrestling with his broth. He asks Jen Carroll to try it. Upon sipping it, she involuntarily makes a face. “Something’s not right,” she says, suggesting that it needs to be more sour. Angelo decides instead to bring up the spice level.
The guests and judges arrive and begin the task of tasting fourteen dishes. For the most part, the judges are poker-faced, giving nothing away. It causes Jen Carroll, commiserating with Lee Anne, to exclaim, “they’re not giving us #$%.” So true.
There are really only two instances of drama. First, when Tom tries Melissa’s mala beef tartare with anchovy oil, he somehow gets a big piece of chili. Thus, while Ruth finds the dish pleasantly spicy, Tom’s mouth is on fire. This leads to momentary panic by Melissa.
The second instance comes when Stephanie serves her grilled naan with curried peas, crispy lamb, and carrot relish to Padma, realizing in the process that she was serving an Indian-inspired dish to an expert in Indian cuisine. Gail, standing next to Padma, asks if Stephanie had ever cooked Indian food before, to which Stephanie responds, no. When Tom and Ruth come by later, Tom asks her the same question. Needless to say, it’s not a confidence-building challenge for Stephanie.
I could regale you with the various dishes made by the fourteen chefs, but with the judges withholding all feedback, it would be an uninteresting endeavor. So let's move onto Judges Table. Padma says that three chefs really stood out in this challenge: Nini, Kevin, and Bryan.
For Nini, this is quite an accomplishment, since she’s one of the youngest and least accomplished (so far) chef this season. She also was far from making the finale last season. And yet, she’s holding her own among these heavyweights. The judges loved her “masa-ball” soup with a coconut-ginger chicken broth. Her concept was playful, her flavors shined, and the broth was magic.
Kevin bounces back from a very disappointing performance in the opening episode with a delicious roasted pork, mushroom, and black currant terrine with apple butter. While Ruth thought that it looked like a clunky block of brown stuff on the plate, it was a revelation in terms of flavor when she bit into it. She is also convinced that Kevin should bottle and sell his apple butter, which borrows from his grandmother’s recipe.
Finally, Bryan hit a home run with his short rib with charred eggplant puree, fermented radish, and butternut squash vinaigrette. He took a risk incorporating filipino flavors, as he is quite obviously not of filipino descent and has limited familiarity with the cuisine. But, per Gail, his dish carried his signature refinement and showed pristine technique.
The winner of the challenge is deemed to be the chef who made the dish that Jonathan would have loved most, and that’s Kevin. He’s thrilled, not just because it’s a return to form for him from last week, but also because of the significant health problems he had to deal with over the past three years. Here’s hoping he can maintain this level.
On the bottom of the challenge are Angelo (who reacts with visible surprise), Stephanie, and Eric.
Stephanie fully admits that she bit off more than she could chew with her grilled naan dish. Padma complains that it lacked salt, lacked acid, and lacked a point of view (“but other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”). Tom felt that the dish “ate dry” and there wasn’t much to it. Ruth wished (and Stephanie agrees) that there had been some chutney added to the dish to give it some life and wake it up.
Eric’s Ethiopian-braised red cabbage with seared scallop and kitfo oil didn’t wow the judges. He continues to harp on the fact that he wasn’t able to use duck in his dish, but the scallops weren’t the problem. Tom’s issue is that the cabbage wasn’t cooked long enough, leaving it extremely watery. Ruth lamented the lack of any crunch in the dish and says that the flavors simply didn’t work well together. Gail echoes this point, saying that the two parts (the cabbage and the scallop) didn’t “talk to each other.”
Finally, the judges had serious reservations about the chilled turmeric coconut broth that Angelo paired with his crudo of tuna and jicama. Specifically, the broth was way too sweet, overwhelming the tuna. Padma tries to stick up for Angelo, saying that the tuna itself was seasoned well, but Ruth isn’t having any of it. “This tuna died in vain,” she tells Angelo. “It was a piece of flesh in a sweet broth.”
Though the judges voice concerns about the composition and execution of Stephanie and Eric’s dishes—her dish was bland and failed to highlight the lamb, while he severely undercooked his cabbage and couldn’t get his flavors to cohere—Angelo’s broth is his undoing.
Angelo takes his elimination rather well, giving a softened version of “I stand behind my dish” by saying that he thought the flavors were balanced and not overly sweet, but that he respects the decision of the judges. And with that, Angelo—a runner up in Top Chef: DC and former contestant on Top Chef: All Stars—sees his third appearance on the show come to an end.
Two down, thirteen to go.