The culinary road trip continues this week on Top Chef, as our contestants find themselves in the middle of the desert in Palm Springs, or as Jason calls it: the gay mecca. Jason knows Palm Springs as the magical land where he and his friends come to sip on white wine spritzers. It sounds delightful. Alas, our chefs have no time to experience the healing power of a good spritzer; they’re dropped off in the middle of the desert, literally on top of the San Andreas fault line. This specific location has nothing to do with the upcoming challenge; it is merely so that Padma can let us know that “we’re about to shake things up.” Padma loves puns, you guys.
No, this Quickfire Challenge instead plays with a different elemental factor: the power of the sun. World-renowned chef José Andrés has joined Padma in the desert with some of his solar-powered kitchen equipment. The chefs will draw knives to see who will be cooking their Quickfire Challenge dish with a solar stove or a solar oven. Most of the chefs accept this twist to desert cooking with excitement, some not so much. Can you guess which contestant complains the entire 30 minutes of this Quickfire? You’re right, it’s Grayson. It’s always Grayson.
So how did this Quickfire shake out (wait — maybe I love puns now, too)? Well, Padma and Chef Andrés had some notes. Their three least-favorite dishes belonged to Giselle, Phillip, and Grayson (see kids, complaining gets you nowhere!). Giselle was forced to recover after exploding her oven by putting a liquid in there (a solar-powered oven no-no). She had 17 minutes to whip up a new batch of Mediterranean couscous salad with roasted asparagus and bacon, and it just wasn’t enough to impress the judges. Dear Phillip decided to plate his Italian sausage with raw oyster on actual desert rocks, prompting Padma to refer to it as “snot on a rock,” chiding Phil for his amateur mistake of serving oysters in such extreme heat. Grayson chose to fight with the equipment because of his obvious inability to work with it, and this led to a very dry plate of skirt steak with fresh tomato salsa and goat cheese.
Aside from these missteps, though, Chef Andrés is impressed with how well the chefs were able to harness the sun’s energy for cooking. He particularly enjoyed Hot Dad Jeremy’s simple but elegant seared halibut with pickled mushroom and habanero tomato vinaigrette, as well as Isaac’s risky hatch pepper and manchego cheese cornbread with smoked butter and vanilla milk. However, the winner of this Quickfire Challenge is Wesley.
Wes needed a win after last week’s sous-vide snafu, so this comes at a perfect, self-esteem boosting time. Wesley used his solar-powered stove three ways to create his shrimp with coconut broth, lemongrass, sautéed mushrooms, and pickled red onion. Not only did Wesley’s dish have great flavors and texture, it also showed that Wesley fully embraced the challenge. He is Messy Wesley no more! He also wins immunity in the elimination challenge, a $10,000 donation to World Central Kitchen made on his behalf, and a fancy new solar-powered stove.
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There’s no time to celebrate Wesley’s coup of a new stove, because Padma and José inform the chefs that the judges are teeing off at PGA West tomorrow and the chefs will be responsible for the refreshments. She also says something about “staying on par” because, well, puns, but I’m glossing over it because come on, Padma, you can do better than that.
Here’s how the challenge will go down: The chefs will be split into two teams based on if they had to cook with the stove or the oven in the Quickfire. Each team will be responsible for providing a four-course progressive menu from appetizer to dessert to be served on the golf course out of a refreshment cart (no kitchens!). José hopes all the chefs “hit a hole in one,” and let it be known that this is the moment I realize just how big my crush on José Andrés is: Dude can pun with the best of them, talks about controlling the power of the sun, and I guess he can cook or something.
José isn’t the only chef on hand to work on his short game and judge our contestants: He, Padma, Tom, and the Blais, are joined on the course by John Besh of the Besh Restaurant Group, Mary Sue Milliken, chef and co-owner of Border Grill, Douglas Keane, chef and owner of Cyrus, and Jimmy Schmidt, executive chef of Morgan’s in the Desert.
The cheftestants then jump into their golf carts and head off to their respective holes to maximize their one hour of cooking time before facing the judges.
NEXT: The judges go from putts to plates
First Course: Citrus-marinated halibut with kumquats, passion fruit caviar and avocado mousse (Jeremy and Karen/Blue Team) and marinated swordfish with tuna and sweet potato emulsion (Kwame and Chad/Orange Team)
Both teams opt to start with a refreshing ceviche, but only the Blue Team’s Jeremy and Karen really nail the “refreshing” part. Jeremy has the genius idea of serving their dish in a bowl on top of another bowl filled with ice. What can’t Hot Dad Jeremy do? The judges appreciate the thought that went into the dish but, even more so, appreciate the fresh flavors and perfectly cooked halibut. Kwame and Chad serve up a nice dish with complex flavors, as well, but José finds it to be too warm, and after tasting the Blue Team’s fish, this just doesn’t hold up.
Second Course: Grilled shrimp with summer squash, roasted eggplant purée, and tomato celery salad (Jason and Marjorie/Blue Team) and avocado, chorizo, shrimp, and corn (Grayson and Angelina/Orange Team)
Again, both teams serve up very similar dishes. But Jason thinks he and Marjorie have the more compelling of the two shrimp dishes. He may be right. Grayson and Angelina only ended up as a pair after Angelina and Giselle refused to work together and have issues from the start. Grayson doesn’t feel totally comfortable with the Latin flavor profile the Orange Team has decided to go with and so leans heavily on Angelina. After the first foursome of judges taste the ladies’ shrimp and lament that the corn and chorizo hash doesn’t have raw corn in it, Grayson could’ve adjusted the dish but decides against it. It’s a shame because the second foursome of judges don’t go any easier on the dish: The corn and the shrimp are both overcooked, and the hash needs more acid.
Third Course: Roasted pork loin with yogurt, green chili, apple and grapes (Wesley and Carl/Blue Team) and spice-rubbed New York strip with bacon asparagus potato salad and salsa verde (Giselle and Amar/Orange Team)
Unlike Grayson and Angelina, Wesley and Carl use the fact that the judges are split into two groups to their advantage. After José complains about the grapes being cooked instead of chilled, the guys tweak the dish before Tom and co. arrive — and the plan works. The second round of judges are big fans of the pork loin. Their opponents on the Orange Team split the judges as well. José doesn’t think the steak and potato salad work as a cohesive dish, and Tom thinks all the flavor comes from the salsa verde, rather than the marinade. The Blais, though, thinks the meat is cooked really well and it tastes better than it looks.
Fourth Course: Coconut pudding with strawberries, basil, and rum lime air (Phillip/Blue Team) and grapefruit sabayon with tequila whipped cream and lemon shortbread almond crumble (Isaac/Orange Team)
Both our dessert guys are having a tough time with the wind. Phillip can barely get his burner lit, and when it comes time for the judges to taste his dessert, he is plating underneath a blanket. All the extra effort seems to be for naught, though — none of the judges are really thrilled with his dessert. Jimmy Schmidt likes the fresh strawberries and basil, but everyone agrees that the texture of the pudding is strange. And although Isaac questions his sanity for electing to do the dessert course, he has no reason to be worried: Everyone enjoys the sabayon, and the only criticism is that it needed more grapefruit. Not too shabby for a chef who didn’t want to tackle dessert.
After a long day on the golf course, in which there was considerably more eating than golfing (also: Is this how golf actually works? Have people been keeping this delicious game a secret from me all this time?), the judges are impressed by the amount of solid dishes the chefs were able to serve up. Both teams had several contenders for best dish, and the duds of the group were fairly obvious. Padma, Tom, the Blais, and John Besh (fare thee well, sweet José!) head over to the Judges’ Table to make their final decisions.
Our judges announce that the winning dish of the night hails from the Blue Team: Karen and Jeremy’s first course halibut was the easy winner, with its impressive presentation and refreshing flavors. Since Jeremy was responsible for the tasty fish and the ice bowl, he takes the win. This second win for everyone’s favorite dad earns him a week’s vacation back here in Palm Springs — make sure you try the white wine spritzers this time!
This means the judges’ least favorite dish comes from the Orange Team: Angelina and Grayson’s debacle of shrimp and corn and chorizo hash puts both chefs up for elimination. Grayson, of course, is completely blindsided that she’s in the bottom again, but Tom explains that the hash needed more acid and that sautéed corn was a mistake — the dish wasn’t cooked well. He also has a problem with the shrimp, which was overcooked, over-marinated, and too rubbery. The judges are left to decide who made the more egregious error: Grayson and her corn or Angelina and her shrimp.
In the end, it’s the corn, and Grayson is told to pack her knives and go. She takes it about as well as one would expect, which is not well. So it seems the second time is not a charm for this chef — unless she can power through the Last Chance Kitchen. If nothing else, it would make for a dramatic return, no?