Top Chef recap: Creole Lady Cream Cheese
One chef continues a winning streak; other chefs bring out Tom's wrath with bad vegetables
We all know Nina is the front-runner, but nobody knows it better than Nina herself. After Michael got eliminated, Nina accused Michael of slacking off because he knew she’d pick up the slack — that doesn’t make sense, because Michael knew they were being judged individually. Nina went on to tell the camera, “Michael, suck my d—,” and “Sorry, booboo, you’re a douche.” She’s suddenly making it harder to hate Michael.
Even though Nina is cleaning up in the challenges, she shouldn’t get too comfortable. In each season that I’ve been recapping Top Chef, the judges always sacrifice one of the best chefs around this point in the competition, perhaps to garner some extra attention for Last Chance Kitchen. As Tom and Padma always say — and only sometimes enforce — “You’re only as good as your last dish” (i.e., “Chefs who take chances get punished, and boring chefs who consistently skate by can make it to the finale”). Will they get rid of Nina as a stunt elimination? I think it’s more likely they’ll get rid of Shirley as the attention-getting elimination, so we can see her fight her way back from LCK.
For this week’s Quickfire Challenge, Padma brought in the dashing John Besh, a Top Chef favorite. Past contestants have gushed about Besh’s looks as if he were hotter than Ryan Gosling — two seasons ago, Heather even said she’d turn down thousands of dollars for one night with him, a terrifying thought — but this year we just got one tasteful mention of Besh’s glorious locks, which is the perfect amount.
Padma and John drove the chefs to an idyllic farm, where they’d have only 20 minutes to make a dish that showcases the Creole tomato, a thin-skinned, meaty breed in which locals take pride. Travis struggled because of the heat. Stephanie, for some reason, had trouble thinking of a dish. But Bene, on the other hand, had plenty of experience this season with tomatoes, since he used them even when not advised. (See: “Captain Vietnam”).
NEXT: Attack of the creole tomato…
Landing in the bottom was Patty, whose chilled watermelon tomato soup with jalapeno was a bit of a mess. Besh didn’t see any imagination in Stephanie‘s creole tomato steaks in vinaigrette with olive oil, which were no better than the tomato-basil-mozzarella skewers you take to a potluck when you totally don’t have time to make something people actually want to eat. (You’ve all been there). Travis failed to impress with a rare steak with some tomato next to it; Besh said he didn’t “elevate” the tomato, and Padma took issue with the near-raw meat under the beating sun.
As for the top dishes, Louis finally stood out with his tomato seed bouillion with marinated tomato and shaved zucchini. Carlos, who’s emerging lately as a real contender, won the judges over with his gorgeous-looking poached tomatoes with a marinated, raw flower. But once again, Nina pulled ahead of everyone else with a watermelon soup that was colder and bolder than Patty’s.
On to the Elimination Challenge, which was sponsored by Philadelphia Cream Cheese, which seemed odd because it so explicitly had nothing to do with New Orleans. The chefs all had to sneak the cream cheese into each dish.
Just the thought of this challenge had me reaching for the Lactaid. All these challenges centering on a single ingredient remind me of the “theme” days that the office cafeteria here at EW has from time to time. Sometimes the theme will be “Strawberry Festival,” which means every dish in the hot line has little bits of strawberry in it: chicken breasts with little bits of strawberry; asparagus with little bits of strawberry; dirty rice… with little bits of strawberry. What can you do with so much cream cheese? Expect a ton of cream-based sauces and a gassy Tom massaging his chest.
The chefs climbed all over each other in a cramped kitchen stocked with limited ingredients to put together a giant meal for the judges, John Besh, and a bunch of Besh’s associates. Patty started the appetizers off with a snapper crudo with cream cheese vinaigrette and a ginger-carrot sauce. Matt Regan of the Lüke restaurant said there wasn’t enough sauce, but Gail liked the floral note to the carrots. Brian highlighted local garden veggies with his summer squash tagliatelle with poached oysters. The judges liked the oysters but didn’t think a po’ boy was quite inventive enough. Carlos impressed Besh with his poached beets with pickled carrots and peaches, and so did Nina with her crispy zucchini blossoms stuffed with eggplant. Sara, who’s been having a tough time lately, made island spiced lamb chops with nearly raw meat.
NEXT: Who knew vegetables could be such a disaster?
On to the main courses, which included about a gallon of cream cheese. Bene served up a roasted chicken breast with bland steamed “family dinner” veggies that the judges absolutely railed on. Gail called Carrie‘s vinegar-braised chicken in cream sauce “gloopy and soupy.” Travis ran into problems when he cut his lamb unevenly; Besh was disappointed in both the meat and vegetables. (Later, when watching the judges’ comments, Travis looked remarkably like a 6-year-old when he whined, “I wanted it that way!” — even though he admitted early to having trouble chopping his ingredients. Shirley noted that Travis gets defensive when it comes to criticism). Justin‘s roasted duck breast with eggplant vinaigrette was the best entree by far, even though you had to look hard for the cream cheese.
Given that it was a cream cheese challenge, dessert would seem like the easiest course, given the ingredients (except for the lack of other dairy products). Even though Louis stood out in the Quickfire, he disappointed this time around with a soggy graham cracker bar. Nicholas couldn’t find any yeast for his beignets, so he decided on a “cheeky” funnel cake instead, and it turned out to be a good gamble. Gail said it “stood out, far and beyond.” For the first time in the competition, Shirley fell flat with her egg custard, which Padma said tasted scrambled, and Stephanie‘s cream cheese and dough dessert completely missed the mark.
Overall, the judges seemed unimpressed by the meal as a whole, but Nina, Nicholas, and Justin landed in the top, with Nina taking home the $10,000. There’s no stopping her, booboo!
The judges were extremely harsh with the bottom group this week. Tom looked as though he were personally affronted by some of the dishes, and Padma looked as though she’d been lactose intolerant all along. Sara, Travis, and Bene made basic cooking errors, and the judges especially criticized Travis and Bene’s veggies (Padma called them a “Travis-ty.”) But Bene ended up getting cut for his cafeteria-like steamed vegetables. It’s all about the damn veggies.
Does anyone love Carlos as much as I do? Does Nina have this season in the doggy bag — or do some of the other ladies, like Shirley, Carrie, and Stephanie, have a good shot, too?