Two chefs who made it this close in their respective seasons return for a head-to-head.
Credit: Nicole Wilder/Bravo

To date, 181 chefs have drawn their knives, buttoned their chef jackets, and vied for the title of Top Chef. Only 11 have won.

How, then, have the other 94 percent stood out? Some are fan favorites—the soft-spoken Sheldon Simeons, pretty boys like Chris Crary, and forces-of-personality such as Carla Hall. Others have been villains—the Lisa Fernandeses, Sarah Gruenenbergs, and Robin Leventhals—who terrorized the kitchens around them while other chefs stewed in various rooms over their attitudes and performances. (And many—like Nimma Osman, Suyai Steinhauer, and Ken Lee—who have been forgotten altogether.)

With all these characters, it takes a lot for a chef to stand out purely on the strength of their cooking rather than how strong a camera edit they’re getting week-to-week. It’s an old crutch for reality TV personalities to say that the camera was their undoing, but Top Chef‘s production team does seek narratives, heroes, and villains to fill their 40-plus minutes of TV time each week. They want compelling television, and it’s all about the stories.

But this week’s Top Chef Duels is all about competency and redemption: Shirley Chung and Brooke Williamson are two chefs most memorable for being good cooks and progressing deep into the competition only to fall short. Despite the producers’ surprising claim that Brooke was the “favorite” in the Season 10 finale, she saw her hopes dashed by Last Chance Kitchen returnee Kristen Kish, who was clearly the best chef in the relatively weak Seattle class and had only been eliminated due to the vagaries of Restaurant Wars. Shirley, on the other hand bowed out in a surprising third place in New Orleans; at the time she seemed like the judges’ favorite and the apple of “Uncle Emeril’s” eye. For both, the pain of defeat is still fresh.

One of Top Chef‘s greatest exports has to be bringing geoduck into the popular consciousness. Once we’d gotten past the particulars—it’s not a duck, but it is gooey—the shellfish would usually rear its ugly, always-phallic head (or body, or whatever that part is) once a season, so it’s fitting to see it here for Shirley’s quickfire offering.

Although neither of these chefs strives for the culinary fireworks we saw last week, their geoduck salads (with or without bellies) do satisfy the stomachs of the trio of judges. It seems like this comes down to Shirley’s “aggressively salty” clam-belly croutons (yum) versus Brooke’s passionfruit vinaigrette, and despite Curtis’ strange assertion that the fruit seeds were a bad choice because it might make him think that he’s eating sand, he and Wolfie pick passionfruit, leaving Gail the croutons and Shirley the third straight chef to lose his or her own quickfire challenge.

NEXT: Save room for dessert

From the outset, I was worried that allowing chefs to pick their own quickfire stipulations might lead to some half-baked (or overcooked, as it were) schemes, so watching the first three all go against the chefs that created them was a bit of a surprise. My fears seemed more real, though, once Brooke revealed her vegan dessert challenge, which is a prime example of how dumb these have the potential to become. She admits she’s done the research, noting that classically trained Shirley doesn’t have a pastry background and further limiting her by preventing her from using butter, eggs, and all the stuff that makes dessert taste good.

Occasionally the show asks the chefs to cook vegetarian options, and I don’t mean to be insensitive to non-meat-eaters, but I don’t want to watch great chefs handicapped in this way. Assuming the produce is appropriately sourced (the show often makes a big deal of this, when it can), I want to see the chefs’ best dishes, and neither of these felt like particularly impressive plates of food, especially when the handicap comes purely in the interest of creating competitive advantage. Electing to go vegan typically leads to disasters like Jen Zavala’s seitan chile relleno in Las Vegas. But at least we remember her.

In the coming episodes, when Duels has weeks like this one, where competitors don’t have any history, it’ll be interesting to see if that unfamiliarity leads to more ruthless quickfires. Though they’re doing their best at awkward trash talk, Brooke and Shirley are strangers; neither has been an alumna of Top Chef long enough to gain a lot of familiarity with people outside of their respective seasons. So playing to your strengths (and your opponent’s weaknesses) to guarantee yourself $10,000 is a fair strategy, particularly in a competition with this many talented chefs, but it left a bittersweet taste in my mouth that even two kinds of tofu couldn’t fix.

But onto the results: Gail—who knows desserts—suggests that these are two of the best desserts the show has ever seen and Curtis’s suggests that he’s splitting his well-styled hairs to pick a winner after Gail and Wolfgang split the vote between Shirley and Brooke, respectively. Shirley puts up a good fight with her coconut tapioca, but Brooke (who makes sure to let us know that she “doesn’t eat excess animal products”) and her more-composed banana hazelnut chocolate pudding with hazelnut praline powder, pistachio brittle, (too much) Frangelico, and orange slices is the easy choice.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the most buzz-worthy moment from this episode, when Wolfgang makes an offhand comment about Gail Simmons’ breasts. I’m sure that by now the two are old friends, but in a show (and a business, for that matter) that has an at-times complicated relationship with its women—the camera has been unkind to many female chefs on the editing room floor—and where only two of the 11 winners have been women, it seems a little off-color.

NEXT: Let’s go to the circus

Top Chef loves a narrative, and Shirley’s coming-of-culinary-age-with-the-help-of-friendly-“Uncle”-Emeril was one of New Orleans’ lasting story lines. She’s still a storyteller, and the circus challenge—where the first dish is prepared tableside, the second inspired by three rings, and the third a high-wire act of sorts—does play to her strengths over Brooke’s more workwomanlike cuisine.

From the outset, though, Brooke acts defeated, complaining that “intricate, high-concept challenges” are not something she looks forward to, though if memory serves, she had a similar issue with chicken wings. Even the debut of her much-talked-about husband and business partner, Nick, and the most “babys” in a Top Chef kitchen since Michael Sichel left in New Orleans have her sweating in what seems to be quite a hot kitchen.

After last week’s trio of new guest judges, it’s nice to see familiar faces in Dana Cowin and Daniel Boulud. But the headline-grabbing name is P!nk, who acquits herself quite well at a top table while providing insight and laughs (Wolfie is at it again, calling her “spicy”)—and allowing for puns on her song names left and right.

Shirley the storyteller is at it again, with her lobster-and-spotted-prawn broth poured over glass noodles allegedly representing waves, or something. The guests eat the story and the food up, though. Brooke’s first course—Dungeness crab, fava beans, and poached mussels with fiery absinthe and mussel broth poured tableside—seems to underwhelm the judges because it’s lukewarm. (Kind of how I feel about Brooke, in general).

The Shirley story continues into round two, where she does three separate “fire phoenix” dishes: deviled egg aioli with chicken skin, milk-poached tandoori chicken breast, and gochujang chicken wings, which the judges see as disparate elements. But it’s Brooke’s second course that seems to win points with the judges Though I’m failing to see the difference between “turf” and “earth” in the crispy chicken skin, halibut cheeks, and roasted artichokes, morels, and sea beans, she deservedly takes that round.

And despite her earlier triumph, dessert becomes Brooke’s undoing when Shirley’s pastry chef blows a big-top sugar ball and fills it with Earl Grey ice cream and orange blossom honey panna cotta. Brooke’s rustic beet parfait appears to taste good, but execution-wise, she’s outmatched. It seems a little unfair for Shirley to rely so heavily on another chef’s work for the competition, but, like Brooke earlier, she’s just playing within the rules.

So Shirley moves on, and like last week, it’s not all that surprising (or undeserved) a victory. Top Chef loves redemption, and like a phoenix she rises from the ranks of the defeated for another chance. Who doesn’t love that story?

Follow me on Twitter: @JohnVilanova

Episode Recaps

Top Chef Duels
Celebrity chefs Curtis Stone and Gail Simmons decide the best chef as two past contestants go head-to-head in each episode.
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