Our top nine chefs assemble for tonight’s mystery box challenge. Up comes the lid, revealing liquor and matches. Olivia’s instantly enthused, telling us, “Let’s have a shot!” while this box reminds Nick of his college days. I get the liquor part, but the matches…? Gordon Ramsay explains that everyone’s going to be flambéing tonight, and then he and Christina Tosi and Graham Elliot step behind the stovetops and give us a taste of how the pros do it. Before they begin, Christina translates that “flambé is French for flame.” Thanks for that, Christina. “You take alcoholic liquor and light it on fire.” (Uh, is there another kind of liquor that doesn’t contain alcohol?) She’s going to use cognac to make beef bourguignon, Graham’s anise will go in his mussels, and Gordon’s peach and shortbread dessert will be flamed with brandy.
Simultaneously, they pour, tip, and tilt the pan and three columns of fire shoot into the air. They finish up and present some delicious looking dishes. Now it’s the hopeful’s turn. “The closest I’ve gotten to flambé is burning my house down in 1997,” Stephen tells us and I have no idea if he’s serious or not. He hopes to not repeat that incident today. Is it wrong to secretly hope something does go awry? Christina asks if they’re ready to make a stunning flambé dish, and “light this place on fire,” though not literally, Stephen. Tommy answers her with, “I’m so glad I’m not the only thing flaming in this kitchen,” and everyone chuckles. Oh, Tommy.
Everyone gets started, and the judges walk around. Stephen’s “got magic happening” at his station. “The food is telling me what it wants and I’m listening,” he tells Graham. The food is apparently telling Stephen to make it into a “garden on a plate” in the form of seabass wrapped in leeks and flambéed in anise. Derrick and his exposed arms are also doing a sea bass, though he’s got some fancily-cut potatoes to make a tunnel cascading down. Katrina’s also team bass, but she’s doing it in a stew form. The time flies by and Stephen sadly doesn’t alight anything he’s not supposed to. It’s not long before we hear the top three dishes the judge are “dying” to see.
First up is Tommy and his bananas foster. “Yass, baby! I’ve been called first,” he tells us. Gordon calls it beautiful and it does look amazing. Post-bite, Gordon declares it delicious, and Graham agrees, though thinks Tommy could’ve skipped the apple garnish. Next up is Katrina and her sea bass seafood stew. Graham packs every ingredient onto his fork for the perfect bite, and gazes up and off to the left, as is tradition, while he tastes. This is the best dish Katrina’s ever cooked, he says, proud of how she’s growing. Last up is Stephen, who “cooked my heart out. I deserve this.” Mmmkay then. His plate looks like restaurant quality, and Christina says it’s “darn delicious. I’d be blown away by this in any restaurant.” Amped, Stephen and Gordon do their weird face-off and grunting thing before high-fiving. I would watch a buddy cop movie starring Stephen and Gordon.
The judges huddle and confer. It’s a tough call, but they give it to Stephen, who is “feeling electric right now, man.” Back to the pantry they go so Stephen can learn what his advantages are, aside from exemption from the forthcoming elimination challenge. He’s presented with three Southern dishes—shrimp and grits, chicken and waffles, and gumbo—and asked to select one for his compatriots to cook. He opts for chicken and waffles. Thankfully, Christina does not explain fried chicken nor waffles to us. The dish pleases Tommy, who loves “chicken and waffles more than church loves sin.”
About to begin, Gordon drops Stephen’s final advantage on the group: he can choose one person who has to make this dish in half the time, 30 minutes. At this revelation, Stephen giggles and then shows us some rickety board with his opponents’ names written on there, ranked in order of how serious he views them as competitors. At the top? Derrick. (Next to his own name, of course) And so he’ll “take Derrick, the little drummer boy, for $500, please.” Stephen’s irreverence about this whole process makes me like him more. Derrick is nonplussed at being singled out. “You watch me work,” he coolly says to Stephen.
NEXT: Stephen watches Derrick work… [pagebreak]
Everyone save Derrick rushes into the pantry. Shelly can’t wait to “kill this one,” and Hetal’s been oddly mum about working with protein. Tommy’s got duck fat heating up to fry with and now I want to invite Tommy over to make me duck fat-fried chicken. Katrina’s going Asian, with miso chicken and scallion waffles. And Derrick’s just standing there, until Gordon announces he may begin. As he scurries around his station, Stephen takes “psychological warfare to a whole other level,” to steal Graham’s quip. He starts yelling Derrick’s name over and over before saying things like “I love you” and reminding Derrick where the door to leave is. It’s kinda brilliant the way Stephen relentlessly jabs at him. Undeterred, Derrick gives Stephen a taste of his own medicine by growling up at him and labeling Stephen picking him “a waste.”
Shelly, meanwhile, has still not managed to cook one decently colored waffle in one hour, and with minutes to go, she pours fresh batter to try yet again. Christina astutely notes that Shelly’s in her own head too much, but nothing’s going to give that chicken more color at this point. Time is called and Derrick’s up first. He’s nervous, as this wasn’t easy, but he hopes they admire his effort. Gordon begins by asking him how it feels that Stephen so clearly wants him gone. “I’ve got a target on my back and I’m going to wear it like a cape, just like Batman or Superman,” Derrick says, addressing Stephen directly. “That’s cool,” Stephen chuckles. “I hope you can use it to fly home.” I freaking love this rivalry. Derrick’s chicken tastes better than it looks and Gordon calls it a brave effort, though not his best. “But I’m amazed at the level of finesse within 30 minutes.” This praise brings a look of disappointment from Stephen, and a beaming smile from Derrick.
Up next is Hetal, with an Indian spice fried chicken and cornmeal waffle. Christina takes a bite while a visibly anxious Hetal asks if she made Christina proud. Christina sighs twice and Hetal goes into a panic, but it’s amazing and Hetal is flying high on the accolade. Claudia’s cayenne chicken and sweet waffle “looks terrible,” Gordon begins. Eek. “Like it’s just come out of a diner. The chicken is still pink!” and so are Claudia’s cheeks, flushed with embarrassment. “Touch the waffle. It’s like my grandfather’s mattress; soft, spongy and horrible. Have you gotten lazy? Is this your best?” he says. Claudia blames it on a lack of time to finish garnishing and Gordon cuts her off. “How dare you ask for more time when Derrick did it in half the time?! That’s put you in the back of the line for me.” Harsh, yet true. “Dead Mexican walking,” Claudia tells us glumly.
Nick’s southwest chicken and waffles with horseradish maple syrup (horseradish maple syrup?) is a miss because horseradish has nothing to do with the region. Katrina’s miso chicken makes Gordon “so disappointed,” citing dry tenders and a sub-par waffle. Olivia’s honey and soy glazed chicken is also dry and her waffle is just “okay.” Which brings us to Tommy and his duck fat fried chicken with a pecan quinoa corn waffle. Gordon uses words like “incredible,” and “another league” and “chef’s dream,” which means Tommy’s crushing this. Graham wants to jar his tomato jam. I’d buy it.
Last up is Shelly, whose plate looks worse than something I’d get from the overnight crew at a Denny’s. She’s not happy with her dish, and knows her plating stinks. Flipping the chicken over, Gordon discovers that it’s already been cut. “To make sure it was done,” she offers. Oh, Shelly. I can see from a single glance that it’s still pink, girl. So can Gordon. “What about your chicken back on your cutting board? Is that cooked?” Yes. “So you’ve left the cooked chicken and served me the pink chicken,” Gordon says, rubbing his temples in disbelief. It’s all a mess and it’s not sufficient enough for this late stage in the season. Shelly gives us a speech about wanting to stay, her voice cracking.
Tommy and Hetal win, nabbing team captain aprons for next week. And Shelly and Claudia are the bottom two chefs. While I’m not surprised Shelly’s there, I am shocked about Claudia. However, Claudia will stay and Shelly is dismissed in a nicer than usual manner by Gordon, and her goodbye to Claudia and the judges is a touching one. “I’m leaving on a high note. The defeat stings, but I’m proud to have made the top nine,” she says.
Were you saddened to see Shelly go? Are you Team Derrick or Team Stephen? Were you surprised that Claudia duffed this challenge?