The chefs cook from the heart in the nostalgia challenge

By Stephan Lee
Updated December 12, 2013 at 07:01 AM EST
Credit: David Moir/Bravo
S11 E10
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If Starbucks is your drinking coffee, it might make sense that Dunkin’ Donuts would be your cooking coffee. For the Quickfire Challenge this week, Hubert Keller instructed the chefs to make a dish using the Dunkin’ Donuts grind. Does the cooking heat burn away the caffeine? For Shirley’s sake, let’s hope so.

Brian took a chance with a risotto — rarely a good idea during a Quickfire — with Andouille sausage and sugar snap peas. “Gotta put your balls out there,” he said. “Let ’em swing.” Ah, what a character. Unfortunately, it was a swing and a miss, and the risk didn’t pay off; Hubert couldn’t taste enough of the coffee. Nicholas also landed in the bottom with his roasted sockeye salmon with hazelnut coffee caramel and hon-shimeji mushrooms. Padma noted that there was too much coffee, while Keller thought the texture of the paste was “unpleasant.” Do all these dishes sound terrible to anyone else? I typically hate when chocolate or coffee is incorporated into savory dishes, unless there’s bacon involved.

In the top group, Carrie satisfied Keller with her coffee custard with candied coffee beans and cocoa nibs. Despite all her apparent self-doubt, Stephanie came close to the win with her sweet potato and goat cheese sauce with a coffee crepe with ham, bacon, and coffee jam. Seriously, she was acting like she’d be asked to leave for her dish, and she had obvious disbelief on her face when Keller said he liked it — who knows, maybe Keller would have given her the win if she’d projected a little more confidence. But instead, Shirley won for her dish that combined chocolate and garlic. She also reminded the judges that she’s Asian. This was a critical win — not only did she win what’s probably one of the last Immunities, but she won $10,000 in cash from Dunkin’ Donuts, which she vowed to use on an A/C unit for her family. I’d prefer $10,000 worth of donuts.

Hurt Locker star and New Orleans local Anthony Mackie entered the kitchen to announce the Elimination Challenge — it was funny but fitting, for some reason, that Stephanie instantly recognized him from 8 Mile. This would be the tearjerker challenge of the season, to make a dish that reminds you of home. The chefs delved into their home lives — Brian was dealing with a very ill father back home, and Nicholas had been working so much that he missed much of his daughter’s first year. Travis talked about having to hunt with his father as a child, which honestly is hell for most gay boys. I hereby take back every mean thing I’ve written about Travis this year. (Well, maybe not all. See: Captain Vietnam).

Ever since the amazing All-Star season, this challenge has never failed to bring out the waterworks, making all of the dishes just a little bit saltier. The one to really break down this time was Nicholas, who started crying directly into his gnudi right before service, which can happen when you put your heart into the cooking.

NEXT: The chefs cry, make us cry, everyone cries

Leah Chase, owner of the Dooky Chase, was back on hand to taste the dishes. I must say, between Leah and Kermit, New Orleans has produced some of the best characters in Top Chef history.

Carlos started things off and continued his hot streak with a cochinita pibil, which never fails to remind me of Top Chef Texas (ugh, Sarah and Heather) and Rick Bayless. Brian came up with a fine Korean BBQ New York strip to honor his grillmaster father and a Korean-style potato salad to honor his mother. Sadly, Dooky Chase wasn’t equipped with a charcoal grill, so the meat lacked the woody, smokey flavor.

Travis wanted to make the perfect biscuit, but as he said, “I might have put too much butter in my biscuit.” (That’s what she said?) He decided to put his gravy over the raw part (well, I never!) on the off chance that the judges wouldn’t notice. Everyone liked the flavors, but as Travis must have expected, the judges noticed the raw biscuits. Personally, I think raw biscuits sound delicious. Anthony Mackie seriously couldn’t get over the fact that you could put gravy and jam on the same biscuit. Seriously blowing his mind right now.

Nicholas can barely make it through describing his dish for the judges because he’s overcome with emotion. I’m not just saying this because the man was bawling, but his ricotta gnudi with pancetta, peas, lemon, and parmesan looked absolutely delicious, even through the TV screen. Those gnudi looked so tender, and the on-site judges confirmed it.

Shirley re-created a taste of her home with zhajiangmian, an extremely unhealthy but extremely delicious Chinese comfort food. I sort of can’t imagine what she could do to change up zhajiangmian, but maybe enough of the tasters had never had it before. Stephanie made mussels with spicy pickled peppers and and tomatoes, which made her think of summers with her husband. Justin served up rice with a chicken thigh gravy — as native New Orleaners, Leah Chase’s family was particularly nit-picky. Anthony in particular thought it could use more gravy.

Carrie‘s creamed asparagus over toast with a poached egg looked so good. Basically anything with toast and an egg and something like avocado makes the perfect, quick, anytime meal. Nina also succeeded with curry chicken with fried bakes, a Saint Lucian specialty.

Overall, it seemed the whole meal was excellent, and nobody made a bad dish, so it’d come down to the small mistakes. (Aside: I completely didn’t understand Tom’s joke where he compared Padma to a “shaker.” Did I miss something or was it just not funny?)

Nicholas, Stephanie, and Carlos landed in the top, but Nicholas was obviously winning this one. Anthony said he’d wanted to be Nicholas’ daughter if this is what he fed her. He said, “It made me happy as a little girl.” Hilarious and creepy. Anthony, a wise man, told Nicholas, “You’re the most stressed person I know” — and he knows Jeremy Renner — “Relax.”

Travis, Brian, and Justin landed in the bottom, and suddenly Anthony turned into a hardass, accusing Justin of trying to make a dish he had no business making. Travis ended up taking the fall for his over-buttered biscuits, even though Anthony was still obsessed with the damn jam.

Doesn’t it feel like now we’re down to the really good chefs? What do you crave when you go home? Mine would be: dwenjiang jjigae with a ton of tofu and my mom’s chicken-potato stir fry.

Episode Recaps

Top Chef

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