After sourcing their ingredients from the forest floor, two past players face off in a battle for the culinary soul of Scandinavia.

By John Vilanova
Updated August 28, 2014 at 03:00 AM EDT
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CJ Jacobson occupies a strange space in the history of Top Chef. He’s always been a solid-if-unspectacular cook: he finished sixth during the show’s third season as he was undone by an infamous broccolini side that ranks among the show’s worst dishes. At 6’10”, Big Ceej is certified giant, but he maintains an everyman’s insecurity that endears him to viewers, even if his food never really endeared him to the judges in any significant way.

Stefan Richter is, on the surface, a more-known entity. He’s one of the show’s archetypal villains—a frosty Scandinavian who cooks cuisine that looks as if it were preserved in liquid nitrogen decades ago and reheated for service. He seemed the chef-to-beat throughout season 5 in New York—he took four elimination challenges (and a quartet of quickfires) before fading down the stretch and losing to surprise winner Hosea Rosenberg. He’s cocky. He’s European. He’s good television.

The two (along with Josie Smith-Malave—eugh) were linked forever when they somewhat-inextricably re-buttoned their chefs’ coats for season 10 in Seattle two years ago. Although the original cast definitely lacked some sizzle, the decision in hindsight stands as one of the stranger ones the show’s production team has made. It seemed to go against the show’s entire ethos: neither was the hungry, unknown striver looking to showcase their food and face for the viewing public. Instead, they were the awkward returnees, cracking jokes with the judges and hoping to assume their rightful places at the top of the competition.

But in both cases, their knives lacked the sharpness they’d once shown when they returned to the Top Chef kitchen. Stefan played it safe—winning no challenges on his way to a sixth place finish memorable only for his awkward flirtation with his “wifey” Kristen Kish. CJ was a train wreck, struggling through four weeks before reverse-psychologizing himself into serving Tom Colicchio a cheeseburger. In Tom’s words at the time, “How friggin’ original?”

But this week’s Top Chef Duels showed the evolutionary path both men have followed since they first appeared on the show. CJ’s burger-fueled early exit was obviously an embarrassment, but his online Last Chance Kitchen winning streak (six matches in total before bowing out to the eventual champion, Kristen) showed that he was still a solid chef, just not one who was ever going to threaten the top dogs. Opening his first restaurant—Girasol in Studio City, CA—seems to have lent him some confidence and the identity he had long lacked. And though Stefan’s disaffection has never waivered, he really seems to care less than ever this time. For once, though, it’s not just an affect, as he explains he’ll be “retiring” after the duel to return to Finland to care for his sick mother. It’s a real, human moment from a man who has somehow made us like him by trying so hard not to be likable.

NEXT: Stefan’s last stand

Before he strolls off into the Scandinavian sunset, though, Stefan’s brings a taste of Denmark to the Top Chef kitchen with a smoked-food challenge that is another successful use of the new quickfire format. His quick-cured smoked salmon with fingerling potatoes, egg mousse, and dill mustard is a pretty plate that oozes his personality. (I know I’ve said that a lot this year, but with many chefs making their third appearance on the show, I really do feel like I sometimes recognize them by their cuisine.) It’s subtly smoked, recalling a classicism as he explains that the dish is, in fact, one of his mother’s specialties. The problem, though, is that there’s a fine line between disaffection and not caring, and Stefan is downright sloppy, plating pin bones on two of the judges’ dishes. Unfortunately, just because there’s smoke doesn’t mean there’s fire.

I’m not sure what exactly CJ means when he describes the onion and potato “aspects” that are infusing his mussel broth, but despite his undercooked smoked pike-perch, the dish impresses guest judge Vinny Dotolo, one half of Top Chef favorite Animal in Los Angeles. It’s a more of-the-moment dish, with dill and Persian cucumber informing his aesthetic and vision far more than the weak pickles he served up alongside his bad burger two years ago. Though Curtis sides with Stefan, Gail is the deciding vote and CJ is $10,000 richer.

After reading four of these recaps you can probably tell by now that I love a good (bad) pun, but for the sake of maintaining some sense of authorial maturity, I am choosing to refrain from making “butt jokes” when discussing CJ’s quickfire challenge. The chefs make more than enough of them on their own. It’s a funny idea, and the battle to become “butt champion” is an interesting one, with Stefan’s Thai-(semi-)inspired coconut curry bisque with pork-and-potato dumplings and Kaffir lime drawing some approving slurps from the judges.

Again, though, I can’t help but conclude that CJ’s simply trying harder with his bird butt sauce (quail, chicken, and squab) and sliced pork with its BFFs morels and fava beans. Though the whole sorrel leaf is somewhat unappetizing, CJ goes on the offensive, criticizing Stefan’s unfocused cooking-without-conviction. It’s not particularly nice, but as Stefan notes, it’s not the first time we’ve seen this side of Big Ceej. Animal’s Jon Shook and Gail were probably leaning toward CJ’s butt sauce anyway, and CJ gets $10,000 more to pay for the time he spent at Noma.

Ah… yes. The epicenter of the contemporary culinary world. Throughout the years, trends in cuisine from foams to food trucks have all taken their turn on Top Chef, and this week, New Nordic cuisine and the foraged food movement take center stage. It’s an interesting meeting-in-the-middle for the dueling chefs: Stefan’s style is rooted in the same geographical region as the movement (though in an entirely different time period) and CJ’s has drank the found food Kool-Aid. Foraging for their three-course sea, air, and land duel is more than forced screen-time for the latest Lexus automobile—it’s an acknowledgment of a pervasive and powerful idea changing cuisine worldwide.

It certainly helps that the show has found a striking culinary ambassadress in Shailene Woodley, the neo-hippie starlet who can casually munch on Manzanita berries while planning a weekend rewilding trip. She and Los Angeles magazine’s Lesley Suter are a nice change-up from the boys’ club that the judges’ table often becomes.

NEXT: A “perfect” plate

Though Stefan is clearly in a funk, his lobster bisque with California fennel, morels, lobster stock, and Mormon Tea feels like a comfortable opening-round offering, though the idea of his cuisine ever “hugging” anyone is surprising. On the other hand, CJ’s dish—a black bass crudo “marinated” in foraged foliage and served on rocks—is, to me, inspiration to the point of caricature. Sure, the idea of the waves breaking on rocks is attractive, but simply put, it’s the ugliest plate we’ve seen so far this year. I can’t help but think CJ’s been spending entirely too much time with his Noma cookbook, which does, in fact include a recipe that provides detailed instructions on what to feed your snails before cooking them. As a wise man once said, “CJ… what’s wrong with a good burger?”

With round two, though, Ceej settles in better and presents a pan-roasted duck breast with currants, chickweed, grilled wild nettles, and a charred juniper berry sauce that wows the judges, who seem almost ready to pull chickweed from between the concrete blocks of Hollywood Boulevard. However, Stefan’s phucken (that’s pheasant-and-duck) galantine with mustard flowers, currants, and a cumberland is probably the prettiest dish of the duel and right in his classical culinary wheelhouse. You can almost feel the momentum shift despite Gail’s praise of his phucken texture. He’s as unapologetically skilled as ever, but his moment has passed. His food’s time is up.

Watching the judges wax rhapsodically about CJ’s “perfect” charred braised rabbit with wild mustard, leeched acorns, elderflower, and rabbit tobacco (which the show somehow neglects to mention can be smoked), it’s clear that his food wows them in a way that Stefan’s no longer can. At one point Curtis even concludes that CJ’s dish’s ingredients were the ones the rabbit might’ve eaten. For Stefan, goat loin with acorn mash, sage jus, and elderberry flowers is an appropriately “wild” effort. Despite Gail’s proclamations that this was the closest Top Chef battle she’d ever been a part of, it became obvious quickly that CJ would be the one moving on. He has grown immensely even in the two years since we saw him last. Although he’s not the progenitor of anything new, he’s enthusiastically devoted to the sensibilities that are defining this culinary moment. I’m excited to see what he’ll bring to the finale.

Stefan, on the other hand, makes food that is out of fashion. It’s that simple. In the past, he survived because of a killer instinct that pushed him forward despite his shortcomings. It’s an unfortunate reality of his time on Top Chef that as he has grown more likable, his food has suffered. But with his mother’s illness clearly impacting his performance, I can’t help but think of CJ’s words early in the episode: You do have to care about something to be a great chef. I think Stefan would agree.

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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