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Emmys 2017
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Top Chef recap: '12 Chefs Walk Into a Bar...'

Top Chef contestants try to make a name for themselves at a Boston institution.

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Top Chef
David Moir/Bravo

Top Chef

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

Why does a person go on Top Chef, anyway?

Sure, $125,000 is a pretty hefty chunk of change, but in the grand scheme of reality purses, it’s a fairly modest sum. The booth spot at Food & Wine in Aspen is nice, but there are plenty of other food festivals that don’t require months of your life away from home in order to gain a spot. And who reads magazines—even Food & Wine—these days anyway? (Aside from EW of course.)

The real reason more than 100 people have tested the sharpness of their knives and intellects on Top Chef over the past eight years is for recognition. Whether they have designs on becoming the next Guy Fieri or Gordon Ramsay, young chefs put themselves through reality TV’s proverbial meat grinder because it is their chance to make a name for themselves and/or publicity for their personal brand.

Top Chef is an interesting case, though, because some of its most recognizable alumni—Marcel, Spike, Carla, Casey, Fabio, and a host of others—didn’t make it to the finish line, cash the six-figure check furnished by the sponsors, or score that Food & Wine feature. That’s because on Top Chef, winning doesn’t matter as much as standing out. Mostly, you go on Top Chef because you want people to know your name.

There’s a place for that in Boston, and the Cheers bar is another perfect setting for a quickfire, and having George Wendt’s Norm sitting in his usual spot at the bar clinking glasses with Padma makes things even better. Elevated pub food was inevitable when Top Chef chose Boston, and given the city’s requirement that every bar serve food, it fits perfectly. Unfortunately in this case, the food coming out of the kitchen at 84 Beacon Street is far from the best stuff we’ve seen from this talented culinary cast. Rebecca’s “wicked hot” chicken wings with a spicy ponzu glaze, lime vinaigrette, and fresh herbs looked dry and lacked sufficient sauce. Stacy didn’t even know Cheers had food, and her arugula pesto, prosciutto chips, balsamic tomato jam, and burrata on crostini is unmemorable. And regardless of what Padma says, Aaron’s burger with peanut butter and mayo didn’t sound the least bit appetizing.

After sweeping things last week, Gregory emerged as the new frontrunner, and the other chefs seemed to be chafing uncomfortably at his winning streak. But for the quickfire, Gregory’s the one who seems unsettled (apparently due to thoughts of Woody Harrelson), and even if he’d managed to plate his complete dish, an uninspired burger, it wouldn’t have been a serious contender. Gregory’s fairly frazzled (even his hair is a mess), but George’s consolation lets him off the hook: Harrelson’s a vegan anyway.

The other dish on the bottom was James’ apple cider vinegar, Belgian wit, and coriander-pickled carrots and a red bean puree—a dish that, from the outset, made no sense. There was ample room to push the boundaries of “comfort” food, particularly in that setting, but James’ insistence on his choice, in spite of the fact that it was entirely unsuitable for the challenge, doomed him from the start. And hummus is not as common as chicken wings in any bar, James. Sorry.

George Wendt’s top two dishes—Katsuji’s and Keriann’s—makes me wonder about the decision to use non-expert judges: How capable of objective assessment are they? Or are they just picking what they think tastes good? (Existential side note: Isn’t that the whole point anyway?) Anyway, George admits he likes the taste of crab, so of course Keriann’s beer-battered onion ring with crab salad and spicy hollandaise was in the top, though it was a well-conceived dish and probably deserved to be there given the other offerings. The surprising winner, though, is Katsuji and his sashimi-esque “ceviche” of mahi mahi and tuna with a roasted tomato and jalapeño salsa. One of the few things Aaron has said that makes any sense is that Katsuji has been adeptly playing some mind games over the young season, rattling the other chefs and causing general chaos. And while Katsuji has yet to prove he’s capable of staying out of his own way and isn’t really looking like a contender yet, the surprise win and its immunity mean he’ll be back next week.

NEXT: Menu management