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'Top Chef' recap: My country, 'tis of thee

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Image Credit: David Giesbrecht/BravoFrom 17 cheftestants, we dwindled down to nine at the beginning of last night’s episode, but still, the only thing on my mind was who stole the friggin pea puree last week? Ed was still scratching his head, and Alex continued to spout out deceitful lies, but seriously, Andy Cohen, bring us some answers in the reunion episode.

Alas, there’s no use in crying over stolen pea mush, but there’s also no use in crying over heavy-handed salt use, Kelly. Me thinks her household salt shaker will forever haunt her.

When it was time to regroup, the gang met up with Padma and star chef Marcus Samuelsson for the Quickfire. They were going to prepare dishes inspired by his Ethiopian heritage, which made sense because D.C. is as overrun with Ethiopian joints as it is with seedy politicians (ha!). At the same time, though, it’s strange because Marcus’s shtick is Swedish cuisine. But I suppose there aren’t too many prominent Ethiopian chefs to choose from, not to mention the fact that Marcus is the most recent winner of Top Chef Masters. So really, they’re just keeping it in the family.

I’ve always thought Marcus was one of the culinary world’s more dapper chefs, and his velvet blazer (and later in the episode, his subtlety colorful fedora) didn’t disappoint. What was disappointing — to him anyway — was Kevin’s “too shy” braised chicken with chickpeas and Stephen’s lamb meatball stew, which needed some juice.

But what was most redeeming was that Marcus dissed Alex’s beef and lamb tongue stew. You may be tall enough to get a pot in the kitchen first, but you still suck, Alex. As Kevin said: “When you watch Alex cook, he’s, like, throwing darts at the wall and hopes it works, and it doesn’t work.” Oh also, he fell in the kitchen, which was pretty funny.

For all of Amanda’s confused expressions and haphazard actions, she still manages to make her dishes work and, by George, she did it again! This time, Marcus loved her modern goat stew. And she seemed just as shocked as we were: “I end up in the top. Whoa! Crazy! Who knew?”

Angelo also made the grade with berbere-spiced duro watt with egg and yogurt (that’s a double word score for using Ethiopian terms). Marcus wondered if Angelo was actually born in Ethiopia, to which Alex and Kelly looked like they wanted to shoot themselves. Lucky for them, he didn’t win. Tiffany did! She looked genuinely thrilled and cute when she won, so I’m happy for her because levels of excitement and cuteness are the true arbiters of good food, natch.

The elimination challenge was similarly multicultural. Each cheftestant picked a different country to use as inspiration for a dish they’d serve to diplomats, ambassadors and dignitaries. Everyone was fairly lucky except Stephen who got Brazil and Kevin, who got India and admitted he didn’t know much about the South Asian cuisine.

Being from New Jersey like Kevin and being Indian myself, I can verify that he either lives under a rock (at Rat’s Restaurant) or is bonkers. If you walked around New Jersey and threw a dart aimlessly in the air, chances are, you’d hit an Indian person. Just sayin’.

The other cheftestants had it pretty easy. Alex (Spain) has traveled extensively around the country, Amanda (France) studied French cooking and Ed (China) has had Chinese girlfriends. He may be all cute with Tiffany (even though they’re not flirting, as they say), but after this comment and the previous one about “banging” Angelo’s girlfriend, I’ve got to say, he sounds a bit skeevy.

The challenge part was that on the day they cooked, they wouldn’t have a full kitchen, only sternos — those silver serving trays with burners that you’d find at banquet halls. Still, that really didn’t seem to faze many of them. By this point, most of the sub-par cheftestants who may have struggled with this twist have been weeded out – well, most.

Some highlights: Angelo’s tuna ribbons made guest judge José Andrés positively giddy, and Amanda made beef bourguignon, which turned on the light bulb in my head that she sometimes reminds me of Amy Adams’ character in Julie & Julia. Always flustered, but with better hair.

At judges’ table, it wasn’t too surprising to see Tiffany and Kelly in the top three but to have Indian-food-novice Kevin up there, too? That just lays more foundation to my theory that Kevin is going to either take it home or come close. Boy can improvise! His balance of hot and cold showed talent but the real smarts was not calling it a curry. I mean, are you really going to call that a curry to Padma’s face?

Kelly’s beef carpaccio took José back to a reverie of his recent Italian vacation, but it was Tiffany’s expert chicken tamales that wowed them the most. If you count the number of time she talked about Texas and in particular, her hometown of Beaumont, you could’ve probably guessed that she’d take the win, what with her proximity to Mexico and all. Winning an elimination even with an immunity: Has that ever happened on TC? Remind me, readers!

She took home $10,000, which I’m sure made her fiance happy… that is, until he saw footage of her with Ed. Making things extra sweet, they matched that $10,000 to José’s favorite charity, D.C. Central Kitchen. Brava, Bravo! His utter joy and surprise at the generous gift was so cute! Sorry, Tiffany; he wins the cuteness this time.

But with happiness comes sadness, but not really, because we all knew Stephen was next to get the boot. If you think about it that pee prank was quite the foreshadowing. Well, that and it was gross.

Stephen’s Brazilian chimichurri flank steak was neither Brazilian nor tasty. Fortunately that kept Ed in the game because even though he failed to render the fat in his tea-smoked duck, it wasn’t all that bad. Unfortunately, that also kept Alex in. Sigh, how many more weeks of this guy?

Next week, it’s everyone’s favorite game: Restaurant Wars!

What did you guys think of the episode? Does anyone have a fan favorite yet? (I definitely don’t.) And how about that necklace Padma was wearing? Was it distracting for anyone else?

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