Nicholas goes cuckoo for carrots; Roy Choi doles out tough love

Top Chef Po Boy Recap
Credit: Bravo
S11 E14
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A lot of chefs have wanted to win Top Chef very, very badly. But I think Nicholas’ need to win has gotten out of hand, and it’s turning him into a kitchen-monster. I don’t blame him for not giving up his spot for Stephanie last week — rules, including immunity, exist for a reason, and it would undermine the integrity of the game to bend those rules just because it’s the nice thing to do. But at the same time, it doesn’t make me like him. I actually consider his behavior in the kitchen this week a full-on meltdown. His desperation to win reminds me of a Bachelor contestant’s psychotic need for validation. More on that later.

Despite the tears of last week, everyone, especially Nicholas, seemed ready to move forward. Roy Choi, one of my favorite guest judges from last season, was back to preside over this week’s Quickfire Challenge, which was to create a po’boy — the “taco of New Orleans” — that represented each chef’s signature style. The trick for the chefs was to balance their flavors against a large amount of bread. I actually think the way Roy presented the challenge might have confused the chefs. He basically seemed to be directing them to make a taco but wrap it up like a po’boy, but tortillas and buns are two very different animals.

And according to Roy Choi’s assessment, everyone totally failed. This was one of the harshest judgements I’ve ever seen during a Quickfire. I wasn’t sure how much of it was grandstanding on Roy’s part and how much of it was truly a disaster on the chefs’ part. After tasting the po’ boys, Roy said, “You missed the boat on this. I don’t know what’s going on in your heads right now … y’all f—ed this s— up. … If you were in my kitchen, this is the point where we go in the walk-in and start straight-talkin’.” I expected a “JUST KIDDING” fakeout after all this, but Roy meant it. To Carlos, he said there was flavor lacking in his al pastor — as a Mexican, Carlos thought Roy the Angeleno didn’t know what he was talking about. Nick’s New England-themed po’boy was too salty. Roy couldn’t taste Brian’s gochujang. Nina didn’t quite make him “dance.” Roy settled on Shirley as the winner for her pickled vegetables and “fun” black vinegar, although the whole thing wasn’t “Chinese” enough for him.

Once again, Shirley won immunity. Once again, Shirley emerged as the new frontrunner.

NEXT: The Elimination Challenge gets a bit cinematic, although I doubt these chefs will win any Oscars…

I felt like Roy was trying a little too hard to be the “inspirational teacher,” like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, leaving them with words of wisdom like, “You gotta find your soul right now,” and, “Take this as a challenge to find your flavor.” Let’s all jump up on our desks right now and scream at the top of our lungs.

Luckily, Jon Favreau, director of Elf (can we go ahead and call it a genuine Christmas classic now? Best use of Zooey Deschanel ever), arrived to take some of the self-seriousness out of the kitchen. As the director of the upcoming film Chef, starring Robert Downey, Jr. as a chef who’s lost his voice, Favreau challenged the chefs to create a dish that represented a turning point in their careers that led them to discover their voice.

Yet another cooking-as-psychotherapy Elimination Challenge — and fittingly, it would happen in a place called Café Reconcile, a nonprofit restaurant that assists young people from at-risk communities.

As it did last week, the pressure got to some of the chefs, especially Nicholas. Nina noted — very accurately, might I add — that Nicholas, in addition to over-thinking things, also has a short fuse, which makes for an ugly combination. Nicholas barked at Carlos like an animal over minor territorial issues. “Don’t move my f—ing pots! Do you understand me?!” (Let’s not forget that Nicholas has been showing his narcissistic jerk side since the very beginning of the season. I bet if his arrogant friend Jason were around longer, we’d have seen more of it). It was even more disturbing how emotional Nicholas was getting — his voice was quivering even as he was screaming at Carlos, and he got more and more irrational, accusing him of deliberately moving his pots as some act of sabotage.

Okay, maybe Carlos was being a slob in the kitchen, but maybe Nicholas was taking up a disproportionate amount of space because he was trying to do too much. While others were cooking from the heart, Nicholas planned a ridiculously elaborate dish that presented carrots five ways. Carrots five ways? He started listing a bunch of different incarnations of carrot like Bubba Nick Carrot. (Carrot cake, carrot brioche, carrot salad, carrot steak, carrot pudding, carrot ramen, carronut…)

NEXT: Orange may be the new black, but carrots just aren’t very cool.

Adding to the weird tension was just how many pots were boiling. The kitchen seemed extra frantic and hazardous this week, and I wasn’t at all surprised when Shirley got splashed by scalding water. Most of those pots, by the way, were probably Nicholas’. He was trying to do an absurd amount of cooking. He took his insanity to another level when he all but accused Carlos of turning the temperature on the oven from 275 to 500 degrees, causing his quinoa to burn. Nicholas, perhaps you were too busy trying to create a life-size carrot sculpture of Tom to notice that you were incinerating your quinoa? I’m just glad none of the teenage servers got hurt in the process.

Umm. Speaking of which, that brings us to another awkward part of the episode… I thought the decision to use all those young kids as the waitstaff and not as guest judges or something presented a problematic image. They did, however, provide some great, perceptive commentary about the food.

Shirley, fresh off her Quickfire win, started things off with a seared snapper with crustacean broth, a disk of silken tofu, and Napa cabbage. Basically the chefs had nothing to say but, “SO GOOD. DROOL.”

This week, Nina had a real make-it-work moment. Her agnolotti was breaking apart due to the heat, so she adapted and decided on a house-made fettuccine instead. The judges’ praise was nearly as glowing as it was for Shirley’s dish. The charred calamari turned out perfect as well.

From the start, Shirley knew Brian‘s choice to serve boneless, skinless chicken for this challenge was nuts. You don’t need to resort to boneless, skinless chicken unless you’re crash-dieting to get in shape to play a superhero in a Marvel movie. School cafeterias use it as a cheap, easy way to inject a boost of protein into kids’ bodies. You don’t use it to impress Tom Colicchio. Most of the judges thought the dish was pretty tasty, but they couldn’t get over the meat and an undercooked potato on Emeril’s plate.

Carlos was freakishly prepared to serve his braised pork belly dish. It was as if he knew he wanted to serve it all season, and he chose a challenge this late in the game to finally show it off. Everything on the plate was harmonious, and Emeril loved that you could taste every element.

For all the crazy work Nicholas was putting into his log cabin made out of carrots, his dish turned out looking plain, sad, and chunky. The tuna looked recently thawed. I loved how the description of the dish just said, “Several preparations of carrot and fennel.” Favreau joked, “This was inspired by the comedy of Carrot Top?” Padma appreciated the sophistication of the sauces, but Tom wasn’t impressed by the slices of raw carrot and thought nothing was linking the sauce and the tuna together — perhaps the quinoa would have achieved that. The Café Reconcile kids put it best. “It’s not nasty or nothing… It’s just too gooey.” From the mouths of babes.

When it came down to picking a winner, it was a tough call, but it ultimately went to Shirley. It seemed like the right decision — the judges all had specific things they loved about Nina and Carlos’ dishes, but when it came to Shirley’s, they were just like, “YUMMY.” Her dish just hit them in the gut.

The two-way race for worst was almost too close to call. Brian chose a lame ingredient kind of as a lack of ambition. Nicholas was ridiculously, stupidly ambitious and failed to execute. Who failed more egregiously? Whose judgment was most clouded? In the end, they chose to eliminate Brian. For me, it was a toss-up, although I would have loved to see Nicholas’ pride beget his fall. (Ooh, Biblical.)

Has Nicholas unfairly gotten this far? Is Shirley now the frontrunner? Is quinoa-gate the new pea puree?

Episode Recaps


Top Chef

Tom, Padma, and Gail tell the cheftestants to pack their knives and go.
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