A self-proclaimed Vietnamese "expert" fails the Vietnamese food challenge

By Stephan Lee
Updated October 24, 2013 at 06:01 AM EDT
David Moir/Bravo

Who better to start off a very Asian-themed episode than badass BaoHaus proprietor Eddie Huang? (Sorry, Travis, but I’m afraid Eddie Huang is indeed way more Asian than you are. Much more on this later). Eddie and Emeril magically appeared in the Top Chef house, making Nina believe there was a secret guest room just for the judges. Hint: Look in the cupboard under the stairs.

The judges announced the cancellation of this week’s Quickfire Challenge, which sucks, because the Quickfire is one of the most entertaining parts of Top Chef. Instead of skipping the Quickfire for the second time, why not have more Elimination Quickfires to thin out the herd? But the Elimination Challenge this week is a good one: to make a Vietnamese meal for a Vietnamese crowd, and to highlight prawns in at least one dish, paying tribute to New Orleans’ large Vietnamese population, who originally immigrated in the 1950s to get involved in the shrimping business. As a crash course in the cuisine, Eddie and Emeril would take the chefs to various Vietnamese landmarks in NOLA, including a bakery and a shrimping dock. Some of the chefs, like Carlos, had never eaten Vietnamese food in their lives, whereas Travis, who dubbed himself “Captain Vietnam,” thought he should be the one giving Eddie and Emeril a crash course in Vietnam. After all, he’s BEEN TO VIETNAM to taste all the flavors, and he’s even cooked for the family of the Vietnamese boy he’s dating.

[Please feel free to skip over this bit of editorializing, but I rarely get a chance to talk about this: As a gaysian myself, I took some offense at Travis’ whole attitude about being the Asian expert. I’ve met guys like this who learn about all things Asian and even take lengthy pleasure-trips to Southeast Asia to help them meet Asian guys, and then later think they can “school” us on our own culture. It’s an arrogant and kind of colonialist attitude. I definitely believe that Travis has a genuine interest in Vietnamese cuisine — because it’s awesome — but the fact that he thought he knew better than a roomful of Vietnamese Americans who didn’t like his Vietnamese food indicates a bit of cultural cluelessness.]

Shirley was humble enough to realize that she didn’t know all things Vietnamese, and took the time to talk to the fishermen and, more importantly, their wives, to learn how they actually like to prepare their shrimp. Michael continued to impress upon everyone else the fact that he lives in New Orleans, much to Nina’s annoyance. She called him, “Faker than Pamela Anderson’s breasts.” Not very original, but I applaud any attempt at throwing tasteful amounts of shade on Top Chef.

NEXT: Is Lemongrass-Gate the next Pea-Puree-Gate?

The Green Team — consisting of Travis, Janine, Sarah, Stephanie, and Bene — had lots of chefs who had an interest in Asian food, but Travis, to the team’s detriment, took the lead, suggesting that Janine and Bene work on a tomato-based sauce. Sarah challenged Travis on his knowledge of Vietnamese food, including the use of romaine lettuce. (I consulted a Vietnamese friend on some of these points. Romaine lettuce: Often used in Vietnamese American restaurants, but not exactly authentic. Tomato sauce: Fresh tomatoes, tomato soups, and tomato fried rice are found in Vietnamese cooking, but hell no to anything resembling marinara). #TeamSarah, except that it looked like it was her fault that the lemongrass was left behind. Oops.

When Eddie came around the kitchen, Travis offered up the info that his team didn’t know where the lemongrass was. Sarah wished he could keep his mouth shut so Eddie wouldn’t even know about the missing lemongrass in the first place. Travis did a poor job explaining away the mistake, saying the lemongrass was “lost in translation.” I don’t blame Eddie for being hard on Travis after that — in part because the joke was racially based. Eddie got Travis to admit that he was “not fully an expert” on the cuisine, but later, Travis said, “Eddie’s Taiwanese-Chinese. He only knows a little bit of what he knows. Sorry, Eddie, you’re kind of a douchebag.” Wow, if only he had the nerve to say that directly to Eddie’s face. If you’ve read Eddie Huang’s excellent book Fresh Off the Boat, you’d know he wouldn’t take that comment lightly. This is the point where I stopped cutting Travis any slack.

Janine didn’t feel confident about her shrimp marinara. She made the fatal error of dipping the shrimp in hot oil one last time before plating. Justin was about to tell her it was a bad idea, but he got all Machiavellian, misquoting Napoleon (close enough): “Brilliance is winning but also not telling your opponent when they’re losing.” He also neglected to share his bounty of lemongrass with the Green Team. Dastardly, yet cunning.

NEXT: What’s worse, Hooters-grade shrimp or inedible rice?

First up was the Orange Team. The judges didn’t like Nicholas‘ under-seasoned black pepper squid with cabbage and peanuts at all; Emeril wanted more fish sauce to wake it up. Best of the lot was Brian‘s gulf shrimp and pork belly spring roll, which Tom said was the only thing that saved the team. Everyone thought Carlos‘ fish head soup needed more acid; Tom thought it tasted like a dessert. And Louis, who hasn’t had a single shining moment to date, failed the Vietnamese food experts as well as the judges with his pho, which was “weak in the flavor department.” After the Orange Team’s presentation, Tom still had a craving for Vietnamese, because this wasn’t doing it.

Luckily, the Red Team satisfied that craving. Justin‘s pho was “light years ahead of Louis’,” according to Eddie. Tom didn’t like the texture of Nina and Carrie‘s raw beef salad — the beef should have been shaved — but the flavors saved it. Shirley won the challenge, though, with her Vietnamese BBQ shrimp with creole spice butter. Unlike some of the other chefs, Shirley managed to stay true to Vietnamese cuisine while adding some of her own elements and some NOLA spice to her dish. Oh, and Patty just kind of sous-chefed for everyone else.

Now for the arrogant but losing Green Team. Travis‘ grilled pork sausage with lettuce wraps and pineapple shrimp paste split the judges. Gail thought the shrimp sauce just smacked you in the face, but Padma said, “I was happy to be smacked in the face by something.” Nice try, Padma. Stephanie and Sarah made a dim sum duo that confused the judges with its texture, but the biggest fail of the night was Janine and Bene‘s shrimp dish, which was conceived by Travis. Not only was Janine’s shrimp terrible, but the rice was downright unfit to be served. Stephanie‘s macaroon with Vietnamese coffee was totally blah, but compared to everything else from this team, it was practically an edible orgasm.

There was a case to eliminate any of the members of the Green Team except for Stephanie. I personally thought Travis deserved to be sent home since his vision inspired each of the failing dishes — and he kept insisting that the roomful of Vietnamese experts “didn’t get” his food… after all, he’s been to Central Vietnam THREE TIMES — but ultimately, it came down to Bene for the crappy rice and Janine for the “twice-fried” shrimp. Janine ended up getting eliminated, which I thought was the wrong decision. It’s sad that there are still so many non-starters sticking around, like Louis, Bene, and Patty. At least Janine, and even the insufferable Jason, showed promise in the early episodes. What have Bene, Louis, or Patty done yet? I mean, Louis stuck cold watermelon on some sticks two episodes ago, but still.

Am I being too hard on Travis, or did he deserve to go? Was Janine the right choice to leave? Did anyone else think the judges seemed to hate the Orange Team’s food more than the Green Team’s?