Last week, the judges (and I) took the chefs to task for plating food that felt uninspired. Four episodes in, there were still enough chefs remaining that middle-of-the-pack competitors could stay solidly there, eschewing risk and allowing other less-skilled chefs make errors that would ultimately lead to their demise. Everyone was focused on not standing out for the wrong reasons.
But with six of the 16 original chefs gone after a double elimination last week, there’s considerably less room for the chefs to hide, and the chefs are going to have to start cooking with more conviction. After last week’s relatively disappointing dishes, it’s nice to see the chefs going out and challenging themselves more and focusing on competing versus simply surviving. For the quickfire, chefs choose their competition, going head-to-head. In choosing their battle partners, rather than targeting the weakest remaining link, friends challenged friends of relatively similar skill level (Adam vs. Doug), the frontrunners (Mei and Gregory) were picked last for the first time in their lives, and rivals like Aaron and Katsuji renewed hostilities from last week… when they were on the same team and still managed to fight.
(Before going any further, we have to address the elephant in the recap—for those of you who don’t know, Aaron was arrested this past week on suspicion of domestic violence after an argument with his girlfriend. You can read about it here.)
Lauded guest judge Jamie Bissonnette is regarded for using unconventional cuts of meat and approaches (his Twitter bio says, “Eat offal”), so the dishes the chefs do battle with could’ve probably been a bit more unique if not for the Reynolds requirement. It’s the first really egregious sponsor product-placement task of the season—a necessary evil on Top Chef, usually—but in the grand scheme of things (remember when they had to use Truvia?), it could definitely be worse. And with $10,000 on the line for the best overall dish, the basic, recognizable dish requirements make it all about cooking skill.
Aaron and Katsuji have become fiery frenemies in recent weeks—neither takes the other seriously as a cook or a person—so smoking salmon seemed like a perfect choice. When Katsuji reached for the liquid nitrogen container and suggested that he was working on “layers of flavors,” it seemed like he was going to be repeating past mistakes and overwhelming the judges, but his sake-infused chipotle broth with smoked jalapeños and cold-smoked salmon sashimi was simple, elegant, and interesting. For Aaron, 30 minutes didn’t give him enough time to infuse enough smoke into his fish, and even though a tarragon crème fraiche sounds great, Katsuji emerged victorious.
Adam is kind of a weird guy—he walks a fine line between bold confidence and arrogant cockiness—but he’s got an unconventional approach and produces unique, interesting-sounding foods. His Vadouvan curry-spiced mussels with a Fresno chili broth and apples and toasted pumpkin seeds packs more flavor (how could it not?), but Doug does a better job of cooking his more conventional orange and saffron steamed mussels, and the cooking wins out.
One of the more unique approaches this week came from an unlikely source—Katie—who cooked pine nuts down like baked beans in a chili that impressed the judges, though I’m not quite sure how grilled chicken breast fit into their “smoked barbecue” category. Melissa’s smoked and seared scallop with charred corn, smoked bacon, and grilled fennel was definitely more classically refined, but also wasn’t very barbecue-y either. It’s funny, though—at one point Katie says she “didn’t come to Top Chef to play it simple and safe.” Could’ve fooled me!
Both Keriann and Stacy have been stuck squarely in the bottom of the middle most weeks so far, and both prepared solid—if unspectacular—takes on trout en papillote, though neither served her fish in paper. Keriann’s has more of everything (flavor, texture, and balance), and poor Stacy’s losing momentum fast as the ranks thin.
And finally, there’s Battle Dumpling, the first head-to-head meeting between Mei and Gregory. The other chefs are all engaged watching the two presumptive favorites duel, though Gregory has outpaced even Mei in recent weeks due to his strongest attribute: flavor. Mei’s been making dumplings since she was 7, Padma loves her black vinegar dipping sauce, and Jamie praises the folding of her pork dumplings, but flavor wins out and Gregory takes another victory and $10,000.
I wonder: Is it good that the season has such a clear frontrunner? Most years have three or so chefs who stand out, but Gregory seems to be on another level at this point, winning the last three elimination challenges and now two of the past three quickfires. Most recently, Paul Qui reeled off a similar dominance by the end of the Austin season (winning six of the final seven elimination challenges including the finale), but Gregory is in the driver’s seat even earlier this year. I’m sure there will be some bumps along the way (especially if Woody Harrelson gets involved), but does it already feel like everyone else is cooking for second place?
NEXT: Win the battle, lose the war?