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Top Chef recap: 'For Julia anad Jacques'

Chefs attempt to master the art of French cooking in a Julia Child-inspired elimination challenge.

Posted on

David Moir/Bravo

Top Chef

TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons
Reality TV

Post-Top Chef holiday break, we’re back with only five chefs remaining. Things are starting to approach boiling point in the Top Chef kitchen: It’s almost finale time.

Tonight, though, with college winter breaks around the country drawing to a close, it makes sense that the quickfire guest, Bravo bigwig Andy Cohen, is taking the chefs back to school. Joined by his college roommate, Dave, Andy’s his usual self—asking about hook-ups in the Top Chef house (when was the last time we saw one of those?) and poking fun at Padma the taskmistress. One of the things that has always made me like Andy Cohen is that, despite his celebrity, you can tell that he was at one point a “normal” person. So the thought of him eating ramen in a crummy dorm at Boston University is comprehensible.

The chefs’ assignment is to recreate that vision, using authentic college mises-en-place drawn from Emerson College students’ mini-fridges: half-full jars of salsa, leftover pizza, and “sushi shrimp.” Many a great college meal has started with less when the situation has called for it, though I’m surprised by the absence of alcohol, especially in Tim’s basket. It’s a funny quickfire, but the chefs’ faces during prep tell the real story—most of the food college students eat is really kind of gross.

Regardless, it’s interesting to watch the chefs work, because it’s clear that they’re coming up with dishes that go against their training and sensibilities. George and his hair gel (I laughed very hard when Andy commented on this) are the clearest example of this—ramen chili with hot dog, chicken wing chunks, crispy spam, and ketchup-glazed chicken wings (or meat-on-meat-on-meat SpaghettiOs, if you will) seems like a culinary sin. But in the end, they taste good, and like the chefs have been forced to learn throughout this season, that’s sometimes all that really matters.

Despite her breakout success in the previous elimination challenge, Mei still hasn’t won a quickfire, and this time her ramen in spicy tomato miso sauce with sushi shrimp and nori is too fishy and lacks a proper broth. She herself gives it a D-, but then suggests that that isn’t all that bad of a grade. Does the scoring work differently in culinary school or something?

Also at the bottom is Doug, who, judging from the heavy bags under his eyes and the slow response to Andy’s questions, seems like he’s pulled one too many all-nighters. His ramen in coconut pineapple water broth with ham, egg, grilled tofu, bell pepper, and sunflower seeds earns a few satisfactory slurps from Padma, but it ultimately fails to coalesce coherently.

Joining George at the top are Melissa’s roast chicken mac and cheese Carbonara with Frito crumb topping and Gregory’s ramen in bacon and pizza broth with string cheese, edamame, and Doritos. George’s dish sounds like straight-up college hangover food, but Melissa and Gregory impressively reconstitute their limited ingredients into recognizably sophisticated dishes. When Andy and Dave say that bacon makes everything better, it seems like Gregory’s going to reclaim the top spot, but Melissa’s soft and simple dish is a surprise winner. She really struggled a few weeks ago, but she seems to be settling down. $5,000 for making ramen certainly helps.

Going from dick jokes with Rob Gronkowski to literature last week seemed like the ultimate highbrow/lowbrow juxtaposition, but the producers one-upped themselves this week, following dorm-room dining with the most inspirational and aspirational American chef ever: Julia Child. Her televised mastery of French cooking introduced the nation to eating well, and though she moved on to the great dinner table in the sky 10 years ago, her legacy looms large. Without Julia, there would be no Top Chef.

Her old friend and TV companion Jacques Pépin is here in her stead, bringing wine and conversation to the awed chefs as they approach the hugely difficult task ahead of them—to recreate one of her iconic dishes. There’s a whole menu of famous Julia recipes, including beef bourguignon, coq au vin, and salade nicoise, all of which require a blend of immense patience, cooking knowledge, and technical skill. It’s a perfect challenge this late in the game.

NEXT: Mastering the art of French cooking.