Top Chef Season 17: Episode 4 Recap
By Jason Lee
April 11, 2020
We rejoin the twelve remaining chefs for what feels like a forgotten relic of a distant time: the reality television show/new feature film tie-in. Remember when films were released in large buildings called movie theaters? Can you recall when film studios paid television networks large sums of money to feature their priority releases in themed challenges?
In a challenge filmed back when Universal Pictures and Dreamworks anticipated releasing “Trolls: World Tour” into theaters for a $30+ or $40+ million opening weekend, our chefs enter the Top Chef Kitchen to find it decked out in rainbow Troll colors. They cheer when the guest judge is introduced—none other than Kelly Clarkson, who voices one of the characters in Trolls: World Tour (what? Justin Timberlake was too busy?).
After watching a clip from the film’s trailer and humoring Kelly with some appropriate laughter, the chefs get down to business. The film is about bringing together the six Troll worlds, which represent six different styles of music. In that vein, there are ingredients representing each the six colors of those worlds. Their task is to incorporate one ingredient from each of those colors to make one harmonious dish. The winner gets immunity and two tickets to the red carpet, world premiere of Trolls: World Tour.
We watch the twelve chefs cheer in a pre-coronavirus parallel universe where something like that still happens before the 30 minute clock starts and they make a mad rush towards the ingredient tables. While a few chefs decide to take the plunge and grab crazy, sugar-y ingredients like rock candy and cotton candy, most of the male chefs wimp out and incorporate a multitude of berries (strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, etc.) into various sauces. What? Are Kevin and Eric all of a sudden too scared to break out the flaming Cheetos and grape jelly all of a sudden? Is a Troll-dish somehow something to be taken more seriously than fried rice?
In the end, Nini, Stephanie, and Bryan Voltaggio end up on the bottom. Nine tried to make gnocchi out of purple potatoes with shrimp, pickled blueberries, mandarin orange, chiles, and a coconut yellow curry broth. The texture of the gnocchi, however, seemed off. Stephanie had a rainbow rice roll with shrimp, carrots, mango, purple potato, peppers, and cotton candy peanut sauce, but the dish overall was just too sweet. Finally, Bryan offered a shrimp ceviche with uni, orange, blackberry, blueberry, and raspberry vinegar, but Kelly couldn’t get past the mushy texture of the shrimp.
On top of Troll mountain are Gregory, Lisa, and Karen. Gregory has butternut squash and plantain soup (really, it’s so thick and orange that it looks like Velveeta cheese sauce) with pickled apple, figs, blueberry, and Fresno chiles. Kelly describes it as a “mouthful of awesomeness,” which I believe is also the name of her new hit single. Lisa provides a citrus brown butter ribeye, roasted potatoes, plums, apricots, passion fruit, and a wisp of cotton candy on the top that more resembles a limp toupee. She nailed the cooking of her protein, though. As for Karen, her beef and pomegranate tartare with saffron, carrot, plum, and bleu cheese had wonderful texture throughout.
Somehow, Gregory’s Velveeta sauce brings home the win and he’ll be “going” to the “movie premiere” with Nini, who lent him use of her can opener during the challenge on the condition that he’d take her as his date if he won. That’s a good man living up to his promises. I hope they have both managed to master the use of Zoom so they can attend the “premiere.”
From cotton candy to organic produce, the chefs will have to get their next set of ingredients at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market (yes, yes, I know, I could probably put that location in scare quotes as well since it’s presumably also shut down). The market is (was) a prime shopping destination with 75 organic farmers (hopefully all still in operation and getting small business loans) serving over 9,000 shoppers a day (hopefully few of which have coronavirus).
The chefs draw knives to split into two teams, red and blue. Each team will have to put together a six-course progressive menu, where each chef handles one course, and the menu must include dessert. They’ll have $1,200 to spend, 45 minutes to shop, and they won’t know what’s available til they get to the market. Their dishes will be served to a restaurant full of diners, including their guest judge, Jeremy Fox, a Michelin star chef who has won acclaim for his vegetarian restaurant in LA.
The chefs head off to the market where they hope to find the components of their contemplated dishes. Some, like Bryan Voltaggio, are unlucky, as the mushroom vendor isn’t there today. Bryan thus switches to a dish featuring legumes and beets. Other chefs luck out—Lisa is finally able to find some Brussels sprouts for her dish. Still others find things they hadn’t expected. For example, Kevin is thrilled to find some dates that had been picked earlier that day and is intent on finding a way to use them.
They take their spoils to the site of the challenge and begin preparing their dishes. Melissa works on a rich corn broth and Nini gets started on her dessert. Brian intends to buck tradition by doing something that’s (surprise surprise!) clean, simple, and not overly complicated. And Jen Carroll is making a beautiful coriander cashew butter that’s . . .
WAIT. Someone turned up the flame under her coriander cashew butter and it’s now a scorched mess. Perfect timing for the judges to walk in and the guests to start arriving in. With little time before service is set to begin, Jen pulls together what extra ingredients she can and starts making a new batch of butter.
Meanwhile, the first dishes go out. On the Red Team, Brian has his “clean and simple” pairing of tomatoes and burrata with a sherry and champagne vinegar vinaigrette. It’s a beauty to look at and delicious to eat, but it’s a dish that everyone—judges and diners alike—have seen and eaten before. On the Blue Team, Kevin has an heirloom tomato and melon salad with avocado tofu, fresh dates, and “California” togarashi. His flavors are more interesting and brighter. Tom also appreciates that Kevin let the market, with those fresh figs, dictate his dish.
Like last week, Lee Anne is in the weeds trying to finish her dish and asks for all hands on deck in plating it. With his dish out of the way, Brian is asked to put some finishing salt and olive oil over it. For the Red Team, Lee Anne offers a butternut squash hummus with goat feta, and a market crudite. Again, it’s beautiful, but Gail wants more salt to bring out the flavor of the vegetables and Tom questions why the Red Team paired two raw dishes back-to-back. As for the Blue Team, Melissa has a coconut corn soup with pickled garlic chives and puffed grains. It has great texture and flavor.
For the third courses, Lisa for the Red Team has chili, soy Brussels sprouts with apples and pistachios, which are plated together in a lump of grey. The flavor of the dish is fine but the Brussels sprouts are dried out. Jeremy is also put off by the lukewarm temperature of the dish. On the Blue Team, Karen has a pasta with a mint and pistachio pesto—a world of green in a bowl. Gail loves the dish, as it’s very vegetable forward.
Next, Stephanie has for the Red Team a cauliflower “a la plancha” with quinoa and a spiced piri piri sauce that Padma adores, deeming it one of her favorites so far. Gregory matches the praise with his dish of grilled carrots, charred scallions, coconut yogurt, and charred kale oil. Though it looks like a ton of liquid on the plate, Gail adores the carrots. Tom also points out that the progression of the Blue Team has been much better overall.
Bryan tries to continue the Red Team’s newfound momentum with his smoked beet, sprouted legume, and watercress dish. Tom deems it fantastic and appreciates the smokiness of the dish. Jen Carroll worries that her dish is comparatively less sophisticated to Bryan’s dish, but puts forward her dish of jerk cauliflower with cashew sauce, broccoli flowers, and grapes. Gail likes the flavor, calls it “pretty successful,” and praises the way Jen cooked her vegetables.
It’s finally time for dessert. On the Red Team, Nini has a cream puff with peaches and cream with peach sorbet. Gail loves it and would eat it every day. Not to be outdone, Eric offers what he feels is his best dessert to date on the show—a butternut squash and goat milk pudding with chocolate hazelnut soil and ginger granita. It looks like mush with shaved ice next to some dirt, but Tom loves the crunch and Padma compliments how Eric was able to get bitter, salty, and sweet all together in one dish.
Even though the Red Team came on strong in the end, the Blue Team wins the challenge. As Tom describes, their menu had a beginning and an end, and each dish was solid along the way. But due to the perfect texture and viscosity of her soup, Melissa is today’s winner, taking home back-to-back Elimination Challenge wins. Indeed, with only four Elimination Challenges to date, Tom notes that she’s now won half of them.
Addressing the Red Team, Tom asks why they started with two raw dishes. Bryan tries to diffuse the tension, agreeing that the second dish should have been a cooked dish. But really, all of the first three dishes were lacking. Brian gave the judges a great version of what Padma says “everyone has seen a million times.” Lisa’s Brussels sprouts were cooked unevenly and felt greasy and clunky. Lisa protests that she’s a rustic chef, not one who enjoys making fine dining dishes, but the judges point out that the flaws in the dish related to flavor, not plating.
As for Lee Anne, her crudite was “impeccable” but they wanted more oil and acid in the hummus. Lee Anne notes that, due to the time crunch, she wasn’t personally able to do the finishing touches on her dish. Brian owns up to the fact that he was responsible for putting salt and olive oil on the dish, and then says, “but I’m hearing there were seasoning issues with the hummus, too, am I right?”
Wow. It’s basically a “I might have messed up Lee Anne’s dish, in addition to putting forth a trite dish myself, but wouldn’t you agree that the portion of Lee Anne’s dish that she did herself was also bad?” moment. Brian generally comes off like a slightly distracted airhead most of the time, but his willingness to throw Lee Anne under the bus in the hopes of avoiding elimination is glaringly clear.
In the end, they both avoid elimination, as Lisa is chosen to pack her knives for her undercooked, dry, and clunky Brussels sprouts. Having made it to the finale of her own season (where she topped Richard Blais but lost to Stephanie Izard), Lisa has never been told to pack her knives and go. But now she heads off to Last Chance Kitchen.
Meanwhile, Lee Anne and Brian live to cook and fight (with each other) another day.