Swagger. Noun. “A way of behaving that shows confidence.”
During each Top Chef season, there is a customary sizing-up in the early episodes. “You worked where? For whom?” chefs ask. Over its 11 seasons, the brand has grown, attracting higher-caliber chefs looking for a big break and the cave-aged cash of celebrity chefdom. By the time they button their chef coats for the first time, some chefs boast Beard Award nominations. Others show stars courtesy of Michelin.
And some chefs just have swag.
Each year when the chefs arrive at the Top Chef house, exchanging stories and trading tartare and tortellini recipes, there is a feeling-out process whereby the true contenders are identified. In most cases (Kuniko aside), by the end of week one, the contenders have marked their territories at the table. The other chefs—and the discerning viewer—know who the favorites are going to be.
Tonight’s competitors—Jennifer Carroll and Nyesha Arrington—were presumptive top-tier talent on their respective seasons. Nyesha stood out quickly in the Austin field thanks to her association with a certain Monsieur Robuchon. She looked like one of the chefs-to-beat before being undone by a group challenge that forced her to pack her knives as a result of someone else’s muffed meat. Jen had a similar star connection, helming Eric Ripert’s Philly side project, 10 Arts, but her brash personality and considerable technical skill established her as Jenny-far-from-the-chopping-block. Her Las Vegas season was arguably the show’s most-credentialed group, with Mike Isabella, Kevin Gillespie, and the brothers Voltaggio all making their marks. Jen finished fourth and later returned for an ill-fated All-Stars appearance where she unraveled after only two weeks.
Despite their relatively modest final positions in the standings, Jen and Nyesha each—like George Clooney on ER or Justin Timberlake in *NSYNC—stood out, even among talented fields. We knew we’d be hearing from them again. It’s fitting that each gets a chance at a spin-off Duel where each gets the chance to be considered among the group they probably belonged all along.
Jen draws first choice on the quickfire, and her chosen cuisine, sea urchin, is as prickly as she is. She’s as chippy as ever, but with her eagerness to show off her Le Bernardin-honed skills comes the same maturity we’ve seen out of many of the chefs so far this season. Despite her haute cuisine background, Nyesha’s a little green with cutting open the crustacean, and Jen’s help prevents another unfair fight.
Jen didn’t reveal all the urchins’ dirty secrets, though, and despite her “ballet”-like approach to her “mental mise en place,” Nyesha and her raw uni aren’t quite on point—a few of the judges get gritty pieces of meat. Despite her green apple sorbet and kombu broth receiving high marks, she falls victim to perhaps the most strangely specific critique the show has ever seen from Wolfgang, who decides the dish could’ve used yuzu. Because why not?
Since it’s her challenge, Jen has a fully realized plate at the ready, serving Japanese-style urchin with scrambled eggs, salmon roe, and nori and bonito for that extra brine factor. Her urchin tongues are appropriately free of sand, seawater, and gonads, and despite the eggs being under-seasoned and Nyesha’s kombu broth being the best plated component of the round, Jen gets a clean sweep and takes the first quickfire.
NEXT: A return to the scene of the culinary crime