“My softer side? I mean, I like to snuggle.”
So said 6-foot-6-inch, 265-pound New England Patriots Tight End and, now, Top Chef guest judge Rob Gronkowski this past week in ESPN the Magazine. In culinary TV, there’s only one Top Chef, and in football, there’s only one Rob Gronkowski.
To sports fans, the giant pass-catcher’s outsized personality is fairly well-known—he’s a hard-partying dance freak who loves spiking footballs, hanging with Justin Bieber, and taking off his shirt. In some order.
If there’s ever been a stranger guest appearance than watching Gronk pose in the Top Chef kitchen, then I don’t remember it, but it’s a necessary humor infusion into a kitchen where nerves are taut and stakes are high. We’re only a few weeks away from the finale, and after last week’s episode, the tension could use a little slack. There are fist-bumps, penis jokes, and trash-talking. Even Padma’s disarmed by his…uh…arms.
So Gronk (or “Rob,” to Padma) wants sausage, Padma agrees, apparently, and the chefs set to work. The double entendres are flying through the kitchen during prep—Mei and Melissa are stuck in a sausage party; Katsuji tells Gregory he’s “cocky.” How old are we, again?
Sausage from scratch seems really tricky—getting the casings correct is an art that few of the chefs seem to have mastered. Poor George can’t even assemble his mixer to stuff the darn things and has to assemble a pork and veal sausage “patty” instead, piling on a sunny side up egg and potato hash to appease the hungry behemoth. Surprisingly, Katsuji of all people seems to have the most refined approach, using liquid nitrogen to cool his meat to keep fats from breaking. So for all you home cooks out there—make sure you refill your nitro canister before the you cook sausage next.
I was tempted to let Gronk’s responses be all that was said about the dishes, as his to-the-point appraisals of the dishes, in some ways, are a fun change of pace. Doug’s pork sausage braised in beer and onions with mustard is “a good pregame meal for sure.” Melissa’s wild boar and pork sausage with lentils, and a crudite of cucumber, fennel, and pickled red onion is “fancy with this leaf [for garnish]. It’s beautiful.” And the yuzu aioli that accompanies Mei’s pork sausage with ginger, garlic, fish sauce, avocado, and coconut puree is “a good sauce.” Who said food criticism was only for the professionals?
Continuing the apparent changing of the guard we’ve seen over the past few weeks, Doug and George wind up on top; both of their dishes are “very delicious.” Doug has really shone the last few weeks because he has so ably fit his cuisine into the contours of the challenges, and this time, he gave Gronk what he asked for: a big sausage. But despite that, George winds up satisfying the giant’s appetite, even sans sausage and despite very unsuccessfully talking smack. I think George is too traditional a chef to win this thing, but he’s definitely making the most of his second chance and has thrown the kitchen into relative chaos. Immunity means he’s cooking next week no matter what.
Unsurprisingly, Melissa’s technical problems led to tiny sausages, the opposite of what the challenge called for, which weren’t enough for Rob and his big muscles (which he’s more than willing to flex). She winds up on the bottom, but unfortunately, she’s joined there by Gregory, who seemed to be breaking out of his funk last week but has now hit another snag. His pork and boar sausage with kaffir lime, chiles, and a lemongrass, garlic, cucumber, and carrot salad looked overwrought even to me, and it obviously was too much for Gronk.
In the early going, Gregory established himself as the favorite and looked to be starting off an almost unprecedented run, winning four of the first five elimination challenges. Even Paul Qui in Austin didn’t do that. But since Thanksgiving, Gregory’s been rattled, and Doug has won three of the last four elimination challenges. I’m not quite sure if we should be anointing him the new favorite, but the field is certainly more competitive than it seemed a month ago.
NEXT: From ball players to bibliophiles