Top Chef Season 17: Episode 10 Recap
By Jason Lee
May 26, 2020
Two of our chefs are feeling a little down and out as we rejoin them. Melissa’s stuck in an emotional rut after a subpar performance in Restaurant Week and narrowly escaping elimination in the brunch challenge. And Stephanie, who’s been mired in the low-middle/high-bottom since the first episode, is feeling a little isolated and emotionally drained. Still, she was greeted by a beautiful morning and will try to bring a little light into her cooking and mentality.
The six remaining chefs arrive at the Top Chef Kitchen joined by Padma and our guest judge for the Quickfire, Sherry Yard, a three-time James Beard Award winning pastry chef and host of the Great American Baking Show. She’s here to see what the chefs can do in a dessert challenge.
The twist—yes, of course there’s a twist—is that the chefs will have to earn the ingredients they’ll be able to use to bring flavor to their desserts. Bringing back a beloved and entertaining challenge, the chefs will have 5 minutes to identify 20 ingredients while blindfolded. The ones they identify correctly are the ones they’ll be able to use. The top two chefs will have an hour to cook/bake, the middle two get 45 minutes, and the bottom two will have a mere 30 minutes.
As an aside, it’s sort of amusing how Top Chef and RuPaul’s Drag Race have both been around so long that they have developed challenges that are brought back each year as traditions. Restaurant Wars is pretty much the Top Chef equivalent of Snatch Game.
The chefs suit up, get their blindfolds on, and one-by-one sample a bevy of ingredients, including peaches, ricotta, taragon, lavender, dried cherries, guava paste, blackberries, and lychee. Gregory and Stephanie are astute in their identifications and rapid-fire in their identifications—in fact, Stephanie finishes her batch with a whole 12 seconds to spare.
In the end, she ends up at the top of the leaderboard with 15 out of 20 right. Gregory and Melissa tied for second with 13 right. Determining, via a tiebreaker, that Gregory edges out Melissa because he actually made it through all twenty ingredients in the time allotted, he and Stephanie will get the whole hour to cook their Quickfire dish, while Melissa and Bryan (who ended up in 4th with 11 ingredients right) get 45 minutes.
Bringing up the back are Karen (8 right) and Malarkey (a paltry 7 out of 20 right). They’ll only get half an hour to cook.
Not confident in her baking skills, Karen decides to make a panna cotta. She prays that it sets before her 30 minutes are up. Malarkey, in a (rare) stroke of genius, decides to use the obscenely hot woodfire oven to cook a cake and char some peaches. He also returns, once again, to the ice cream machine to make some pink peppercorn ice cream.
This throws off Melissa, who had wanted to try and make an ice cream. She conjures up an egg custard ice cream using liquid nitrogen to pair with her olive oil cake. Next to her, Bryan serves something that looks like a plate of crumbs—it’s actually a lychee curd with macerated peaches and coconut “sand,” but really, it’s little balls of unidentifiable stuff on a plate.
Like Melissa, Stephanie is stymied with Malarkey’s use of the ice cream machine. She too uses liquid nitrogen to make an ice cream—hers flavored with white chocolate—to go with her peach and paragon crostata with pistachios and cartelized ricotta. As for Gregory, he has apparently decided to use every ingredient available to him with a coconut milk chocolate curd topped with tropical fruits, coconut ice, salty pumpkin seeds, and pickled cherries. “Everything but the kitchen sink,” Sherry comments.
He ends up being safe with Stephanie, though. On the bottom are Karen (whose panna cotta simply did not set) and Bryan (who used flavors that fought with each other). This leaves Melissa and Malarkey. Melissa’s cake was delicate and her flavors really sang. As for Hurricane Malarkey, his woodfire cake was soft and spongey, and the gastrique added at the end was great.
Proving that more is not more, Melissa’s subtly beats out Malarkey’s boldness and she takes home the win, plus what Padma describes as a “very important advantage” in the Elimination Challenge.
If last week Top Chef was in an alternate universe where summer camps are still happening, they remain in that alternate universe this week, where the Tokyo Olympics are still happening in July (as someone who had event tickets to the Olympics and flight and hotel reservations already made, this brings a tear to my eye). The chefs will cook for an elite group of Olympic athletes in honor of the Tokyo 2020 (*sniff*) games. In homage to Japan, the site of the Olympics, the chefs will be making a six course progressive kaiseki meal.
Kaiseki, as some might already know, is one of the most respected and elevated form of Japanese cuisine. It’s a meal that celebrates nature and respects the integrity of individual ingredients. Restraint is praised, as is simplicity.
Malarkey’s eyes widen, as it slowly begins to dawn on him that maybe this isn’t going to be a challenge that necessarily plays to his strengths.
Realizing the difficulty and precision needed for this challenge, Padma brings in some help: co-owners of the 2 Michelin star restaurant n/naka in Los Angeles, Niki Nakayama and Carole Ida Nakayama. They will also be this week’s guest judges.
The two chefs walk our six cheftestants through a kaiseki course. It begins with a sakizuke—an opening, appetizer dish that always has some type of vinegar. That’s followed by owan, a soup that starts out a bit underseasoned, but then becomes perfectly seasoned by the end, as the flavors combine and the components at the bottom of the bowl are incorporated. Next is yakemono, a flame-grilled dish. Then the mushimono, a steamed dish. Shoukuji, a rice course, follows. Finally, there’s mizumono, the dessert.
As the winner of the Quickfire, Melissa gets to select her course and assign the remaining courses to her fellow chefs. She chooses the mushimono (steamed course) for herself, wanting to make a traditional chawanmushi, a steamed egg custard. As for the remaining courses, Bryan will do the appetizer, Brian Malarkey will make the soup, Karen gets the grilled course, Gregory handles rice, and Stephanie will wrap things up with the dessert.
Before the judges head off to Whole Foods to shop for their ingredients, Padma adds one more enticement: the winner of the challenge gets an all-expenses trip to the Tokyo Olympics (*sniff*).
**As another aside, the prizes this season have been really unbelievable. Multiple awards of $10,000 and now a trip to the Olympics? This has been an all-star season in more ways than one.
After shopping finishes, the chefs arrive at Memorial Colosseum in Los Angeles, the site of the 1984 Olympic Opening Ceremonies. It’s a huge venue, but Top Chef will only be taking up a teeny tiny part of the space, with the chefs down in the kitchen and the Olympians and judges being served on an outdoor terrace.
Bryan has no qualms about going first, as he feels that the food he normally cooks is quite close to kaiseki. Here, the challenge is that he’ll only be able to serve one or two bites of food and must use that to impress the judges. He offers a scallop and avocado confit with tomato dashi and bonito aioli. It’s a beautiful dish with beautiful flavors, with the scallop adding texture and the avocado adding fattiness.
Next is Brian’s owan soup. He recognizes the absurdity of plating one of his dishes using tweezers, but he’s all in. He has a spot prawn, dashi broth, celery, and kabocha squash. He recommends the diners swirl the ingredients in order to gently poach the celery. That’s hard, as the soup is only lukewarm. Also, Carole Nakayama calls him out for his uneven knife work on the ingredients.
Karen wanted to make grilled duck but she simply didn’t have the equipment in the kitchen to do so. She instead tries to hot smoke the duck in Jasmine tea to incorporate some grilled flavor. She gives Melissa some to try, who has kind of a “meh” reaction. Melissa recommends that Karen try and crisp up the skin a little more. Karen tries to do so, but her efforts are not enough for the diners, who want more crispness. Tom also points out the unevenness of the cuts on the ingredients. Meanwhile, the n/naka chefs find the dish to have too much richness and sweetness, lamenting that more acid wasn’t added.
Meanwhile, given how tiny the dishes are, I’m wondering whether the Olympians are used to larger portions. Certainly, they consume way more calories than what they’re bring served.
Melissa is next with her chawanmushi with Dungeness crab, chanterelle mushrooms, and Meyer lemon. She had worried about getting the egg custards to set—whereas she normally would have steamed them in a pot, here, given the number of diners, she had to use the industrial steamer. That did not work out. Though the flavors are great, it didn’t set enough. Also, Carole Nakayama notes she had a small piece of shell in her egg custard, which would have been a humiliation for any kaiseki chef.
Gregory is busy plating his rice dish of short grain rice, sable fish, and mushroom broth. As he does so, he tastes the broth and realizes that it severely needs salt. But there’s nothing he can do and is forced to serve the dish as is. The lack of seasoning is apparent to the diners, as even one of the Olympians (who is clearly unaccustomed to such fine dining cuisine) calls the dish “bland.” Niki also criticizes the broth, which is cloudy instead of clear.
Finally, Stephanie has a panna cotta that she baked in an empty lemon shell. Atop that, she adds fresh yuzu curd and orange granita. It’s a beautiful dish that looks of nature and tastes like heaven. Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics, Nastia Liukin, declares that she has fallen in love and openly wishes that she’d been served two portions instead of one. Niki loves that the panna cotta was baked in a lemon shell, which Carole calls a “vessel of flavor.” Tom agrees, complementing the subtle interaction between the flavors of the ingredients while still making an assertive dish.
Back at Judges Table, Padma informs the chefs that the panel was unanimous in selecting the winner of the challenge. It’s Stephanie, who looks like she’s about to keel over in shock. She knows that there’s a ton of talent in the top six and can’t believe she beat them all for the win and for the tickets to the Olympics.
The other favorite of the judges, and who’s also safe, is Bryan Voltaggio, whose use of scallops was great, incorporated textural contrasts, and balanced all his flavors very well.
The remaining four chefs are all up for elimination. Karen recaps for the judges the limitations she faced in grilling her duck, but the judges cut her little slack. They missed the “unctuousness” that duck usually has and the fat needed to be rendered more. Beyond that, the skin could have been crispier and the cuts on the duck were uneven. After the chefs have left, Carole sticks the dagger in Karen’s chances of remaining in the competition: “she disrespected the ingredient.”
But there’s still more feedback to be given. The judges loved Melissa’s flavors but the texture of the custard was off and the pieces of shell, though small in size, were sizable errors. Malarkey’s dashi broth was beautiful, but it should have been hotter and the celery overpowered the other ingredients. As for Gregory, his dish “ate bland” because the rice was not seasoned and the broth was underseasoned.
But surprising no one, Karen is the one going home today. She laments the fact that she’s now been eliminated twice this season after making a good dish, but she’s proud of how much she pushed herself and the tenacity she displayed. “I’ll see ya in Last Chance Kitchen,” she says as a sign off. It was a successful showing for her last time.