Two Top Chef complainants have their day in culinary court.
Credit: Nicole Wilder/Bravo

Swagger. Noun. “A way of behaving that shows confidence.”

During each Top Chef season, there is a customary sizing-up in the early episodes. “You worked where? For whom?” chefs ask. Over its 11 seasons, the brand has grown, attracting higher-caliber chefs looking for a big break and the cave-aged cash of celebrity chefdom. By the time they button their chef coats for the first time, some chefs boast Beard Award nominations. Others show stars courtesy of Michelin.

And some chefs just have swag.

Each year when the chefs arrive at the Top Chef house, exchanging stories and trading tartare and tortellini recipes, there is a feeling-out process whereby the true contenders are identified. In most cases (Kuniko aside), by the end of week one, the contenders have marked their territories at the table. The other chefs—and the discerning viewer—know who the favorites are going to be.

Tonight’s competitors—Jennifer Carroll and Nyesha Arrington—were presumptive top-tier talent on their respective seasons. Nyesha stood out quickly in the Austin field thanks to her association with a certain Monsieur Robuchon. She looked like one of the chefs-to-beat before being undone by a group challenge that forced her to pack her knives as a result of someone else’s muffed meat. Jen had a similar star connection, helming Eric Ripert’s Philly side project, 10 Arts, but her brash personality and considerable technical skill established her as Jenny-far-from-the-chopping-block. Her Las Vegas season was arguably the show’s most-credentialed group, with Mike Isabella, Kevin Gillespie, and the brothers Voltaggio all making their marks. Jen finished fourth and later returned for an ill-fated All-Stars appearance where she unraveled after only two weeks.

Despite their relatively modest final positions in the standings, Jen and Nyesha each—like George Clooney on ER or Justin Timberlake in *NSYNC—stood out, even among talented fields. We knew we’d be hearing from them again. It’s fitting that each gets a chance at a spin-off Duel where each gets the chance to be considered among the group they probably belonged all along.

Jen draws first choice on the quickfire, and her chosen cuisine, sea urchin, is as prickly as she is. She’s as chippy as ever, but with her eagerness to show off her Le Bernardin-honed skills comes the same maturity we’ve seen out of many of the chefs so far this season. Despite her haute cuisine background, Nyesha’s a little green with cutting open the crustacean, and Jen’s help prevents another unfair fight.

Jen didn’t reveal all the urchins’ dirty secrets, though, and despite her “ballet”-like approach to her “mental mise en place,” Nyesha and her raw uni aren’t quite on point—a few of the judges get gritty pieces of meat. Despite her green apple sorbet and kombu broth receiving high marks, she falls victim to perhaps the most strangely specific critique the show has ever seen from Wolfgang, who decides the dish could’ve used yuzu. Because why not?

Since it’s her challenge, Jen has a fully realized plate at the ready, serving Japanese-style urchin with scrambled eggs, salmon roe, and nori and bonito for that extra brine factor. Her urchin tongues are appropriately free of sand, seawater, and gonads, and despite the eggs being under-seasoned and Nyesha’s kombu broth being the best plated component of the round, Jen gets a clean sweep and takes the first quickfire.

NEXT: A return to the scene of the culinary crime

Few Top Chef moments have felt more surreal than Jen’s elimination from All-Stars. Fresh off a sleepless “night at the museum” at the American Museum of Natural History, Jen served a bland bacon-and-pork-belly plate to unanimous disapproval. At judges table, though, she was combative and insistent—no one before or since has responded to the all-knowing trio with such disdain and distrust.

It’s a bit of a blow beneath the apron for Nyesha to force Jen to cook bacon and eggs again, but, as Jen says, she’s thought about the dish more than anyone, so we’re in for another fair fight. Though for someone who’s been thinking about the dish for four years, slab maple bacon and soft-poached eggs feels a little uninspired, even if she’s pairing them with a spicy yuzu sabayon for Wolfie. She’s aiming for precision, but she again misses the art with hard soft-boiled eggs that don’t feel all that redemptive.

Nyesha was the one who came prepared for this challenge, with a six-minute egg dredged in flour and fried while wrapped in scallions and shredded potatoes and served with julienned pork and a bacon broth that the judges find “profound.” We didn’t get to see all that much of Nyesha’s style on her season, but the “creative but unrefined” works for her here, and she’s the one who takes the challenge.

A lot of times, themed Top Chef challenges can be overly gimmicky, but I found the Brooklyn Nine-Nine cop-themed duel—where the chefs were forced to commit culinary crime by pairing seafood and cheese, fuel a stakeout with steaks, and, of course, satisfy cops with donuts for dessert—to be a nice marriage of the two shows’ flavors.

A seafood and cheese pairing is a true crime in the culinary world: As Jen reminds us, “that doesn’t happen at Le Bernardin,” Ripert’s top-ranked New York seafood restaurant where she honed her knives. The intense flavor of the cheese simply overwhelms even the boldest fish.

So it’s strategic for Jen to go boring and give her lightly-cooked scallops a Parmesan crust—it’ll add nuttiness and not too much else. Pairing that with peas, fava beans, and Dungeness crab with a buttery lemon sauce creates a composed-looking dish that, while a bit bland-looking, has all the flavors in place. Though her claim that it’d be on the menu at a four-star restaurant is a little tenuous.

At the same time, for all the talk about Nyesha’s confidence, she’s cooking like someone who still has something to prove. And as arguably the lowest-profile (and, I think, earliest-eliminated) competitor asked back for Duels, she probably does. Her technique-driven approach to ahi tuna—fast cured in coriander and fennel seeds with black pepper and more fresh uni (properly cleaned this time, we assume) and a celery and blood orange reduction is an impressive-looking plate. The problem—and one that would recur for Nyesha throughout the duel—is that she’s trying too hard, creating a blue cheese mousse that I just cannot fathom dipping my tuna in. And neither can some of the judges.

Who knew that the most interesting judges-table fireworks we’ve seen in a while would come from the always-smiling Daniel Boulud? Particularly at this level, you seldom see a judge offer such explicitly negative critiques, yet despite Wolfgang’s protestations and the threat of an Austro-Franco conflict, Daniel unrelentingly “hated” the tuna and blue cheese combination.

While some of the Brooklyn Nine-Niners side with Wolfie, Gail is also unreserved in her anti-tuna sentiments. She’s really been the MVP of the judges so far this season taking on a more-central role than she’ll ever really get to play when Padma’s around on the main show. Between Curtis’ culinary musings and Wolfgang’s off-the-wall contributions (this week we learn about the time he spent a night in jail with hookers), Gail has been the most grounded of the trio, providing incisive criticism that has made the show better.

NEXT: A disorderly duel

But with Andy Samberg at the table, things spiral into silliness, with Daniel Boulud telling fart stories and the actors riffing as the wine flows. Gail’s taking shots at Brooklyn Nine-Nine executive producer Dan Goor, Wolfie’s wistfully recalling his night in the slammer, and the diners are needling Jen about her past indiscretions. Meanwhile back in the kitchen, Jen is agonizing over another pretty plate—30-day dry-aged rib eye seared on the grill then put into the pizza oven for some smoke, with smoked potatoes, a eye-catching raw radish and watermelon salad, and a rhubarb kimchi ketchup [Editor’s Note: Mmmmmm]. Again, it’s a “safe plate;” even on Jen’s deep run in Las Vegas, she seldom cooked too far outside of her comfort zone. She just did it better than everyone else.

Nyesha’s done two preparations of rib eye, and I think I see some potato on there, but she seems to have spent the most time on her black ash tuille—a combination of charcoal powder, dehydrated onion, and flour deep-fried against parchment paper. I’m all for chefs taking risks, but in this case, it’s ugly at best and unappetizing at worst. Who wants a fried charcoal web draped across steak, particularly when the plate’s most redeeming quality was that her meat was cooked better than Jen’s? Through two rounds, Nyesha is displaying a technical advantage, but she’s trying too hard, and the miscues are harming her case.

It’s donuts for dessert, and this time both chefs are guilty of underwhelming preparations that fail the field test at judges’ table. I worried the second Nyesha dropped her donut into her tres leches coffee sauce that it’d be soggy by the time the judges got to it; instead it’s an issue with frying that has created something more in the churro family. Personally, I wouldn’t be complaining about a coffee-soaked churro, but it’s not the finest final course.

On the other hand, Jen doesn’t even attempt the donut shape, opting instead to fry bits of dough and cover them with almond ice cream, cocoa nib streusel, cocoa powder, and a yogurt and almond whipped cream. It looks like it tastes better—and it probably does—but they’re not even attempting to be donuts.

Though the judges seemed split with Gail representing the deciding vote, this was a somewhat underwhelming battle with Jen emerging as the obvious winner. You have to feel for Nyesha—she was probably sharper, technically, but a desire to stand out led to some swings-and-misses. Force of personality is one thing, but you still have to cook good food, and to me it felt like we didn’t really see either chef’s best plates today. Instead, we got a rollicking dinner where the banter stood out more than the food and neither chef acquitted herself all that well. It’s not quite culinary crime, but I think it probably qualifies as a misdemeanor of a meal.

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.
  • TV Show
  • 1