Top Chef recap: Quest for the Hot Tang
The chefs cook with "flavornocity of the highest order" and learn the art of boucherie
Hello there, food lovers. I’m filling in for your regularly flavorful recapper, Stephan Lee, this week; I hope I’ll prove as palatable. That’s it, those are the only food puns I have and they’re totally out of my system now. On to the good stuff: this episode’s theme was food that spans a wide realm of cultures and flavors, a.k.a. hot sauce makin’ and pig roastin’!
The contestants are busy recovering from their wins (Stephanie, in an unexpected twist) and losses (better luck remembering the chili threads next time, Patty) after their team challenge pot luck last week. Sara, who might want to borrow Rosie the Riveter’s can-do attitude in addition to her look, is convinced that she’s becoming a “gooch,” which she tells Shirley means “bad luck.” Sara, if you’re reading this: that is not what gooch means. Do not — I repeat — do not say that anymore.
After last week’s visit from Kermit Ruffins, the most charming charmer to ever charm, Top Chef: New Orleans had a pretty high personality quota to meet this week. Luckily, they had six-time Grammy winner Dr. John on deck, who is actually just a whole other species of human. Padma explains that Dr. John is there because he’s a New Orleans native and…no, that’s the only reason. When Padma asks him if he’s good, he responds, “I’m breathin’,” but it sounds like, “I’m breedin’,” which is a different kind of good entirely. This little exchange sets a precedent for Dr. John being awesome and Padma just pounding through to the finish line because she can’t understand a damn thing he says. It is delicious.
Cue the Quickfire Challenge: The contestants won’t be making a dish today, but a “complex sauce that’s common in the South but found all over the world.” More importantly, it’s Dr. John’s favorite condiment: hot sauce. Everyone immediately starts sweating, except Dr. John, who starts speaking in tongues. He encourages the contestants, telling them he knows they’re “gonna do a hip maneuver.” Everything Dr. John says sounds like he might be giving you all the wisdom of the world or he might be threatening to kill you. But he’s a simple man. He just wants a hot sauce with a “hip tang to it,” “flavornocity of the highest order,” and, of course, some “tangnocity that mixes in.”
Brian thinks it sounds easy enough to create the perfect hot sauce and bottle it in 45 minutes, but that might be because Brian is the head saucier at his restaurant back home. Stephanie, on the other hand, has never made hot sauce before and is wandering around the kitchen with a bottle of Sriracha, which feels illegal. Many of the chefs immediately latch on to bringing their own cultures and backgrounds into their hot sauces. Carlos feels the pressure of making a great Mexican sauce, but goes a more unique route, infusing his habaneros with mango and passion fruit. Carrie plans to use a recipe that her Trinidadian mother-in-law taught here, while Shirley makes a Chinese-Mexican fusion.
NEXT: Hmm…could use a pinch more hip tang
When presented with Brian’s lime and yuzu-infused green sauce, Padma asks Dr. John what he’s looking for in the hot sauces and he tells her what we would all tell her: the hip tang, Padma, duh. She very seriously says, “I understand,” and asks Brian if his hip tang comes from the yuzu. Indeed, it does. Nicholas’ sauce turns out too sweet and Nina and Carrie’s island flavors are too hot, but, according to Dr. John, other possible hip tang contenders include: Carlos’ “mango maneuver,” and possibly the closest to actually defining “hip tang,” Justin’s incorporation of fermented anchovies. But no hot sauce made Dr. John want to go home and use it “immediatably” as much as Brian’s, so it’s a second, slightly more deserved Quickfire win for the saucier.
Padma sends Dr. John back to the woodland fantasy forest he came from and tells the chefs, “it’s time to pig out.” A woman of her word, a pig is brought out on its back, its insides certainly more out than in. Artist/butcher/chef Toby Rodriguez, and guest judge, Exec. Chef and CEO of Link Restaurant Group, Donald Link, join Padma to tell the contestants about the craft of boucherie, a community coming together to break an animal down. The chefs’ Elimination Challenge is to butcher a 300 pound pig, using every part to create their own individual dishes.
Should be easy enough. “Now, let’s see, how should we go about butchering this pig? Alright, I guess Travis will just twist its head off like a new jar of pickles, then.” Yeesh, those noises were graphic. Travis, Louis and Nicholas go about butchering the pig while Sara backseat-butchers from the end of the table. It’s very possible she was edged out of the process by the boys, but giving instruction while you keep your hands clean is never a good look. Methinks the editors are setting Sara up for a villainous turn. Or, you know, she’ll just go home next week.
When it comes time to claim pig parts, Nina and Nicholas call dibs on the head so fast, you’d think that was the part bacon comes from (it’s not). Shirley gets the kidney and Carrie asks if she can see it, then immediately sticks it right up to her nose and takes a deep whiff, letting Shirley know it smells fresh. Uh, yeah girl, it came out of that headless pig literally 10 seconds ago.
With the hog divvied up, groceries purchased and last night’s dinner served by Toby Ramirez and his pack of traveling boucherie minstrels, the chefs take their fleet of Kias out to Bayou Barn to prepare a pork-filled feast for a group of partygoers and the judges. They’ll be cooking in the open air, using smokers, wood-fire grills and other more rustic accommodations than what most of them are used to. Speaking of getting used to things, Louis says that as a chef, he can be pretty anti-social, and, like every America’s Next Top Model contestant ever, he didn’t come here to make friends. But there’s a twist! He’s actually made more friends on Top Chef than he ever has in his life and it just makes him want to be there longer. Oh my goodness, that is so swee – uh oh, wait. I have a bad feeling about this.
NEXT: Nina and Justin eloquently handle a territory dispute (not)
Justin seems most at home cooking in the great outdoors and immediately builds a fire in one of the wood-burning grills to roast his pork on a low, constant heat. But he didn’t build the fire for other people to come mooch (Sara, that one is perfectly acceptable in everyday conversation) off of it, and goes a little nuclear when Nina also puts something on his grill. Nina says she’ll take it off when she sees the fiery look in Justin’s eye, but not before telling him to “suck a d—,” because that is a thing that she says to multiple people for multiple reasons. Chefs, you guys; They’re just like
us your rebellious 8th grade cousin.
Shirley is making dumplings because the pig roast reminds her of Chinese New Year with her grandparents; Travis is sweating more than ever while not making his own ramen; Stephanie is playing ISpy with alligators; and before I know it, there are four minutes left and Hugh Acheson is there with a fever, and the only prescription is pork, pork and more pork.
Tom thinks all of the food looks amazing, which is good to hear after a few lackluster Elimination Challenges. This is a talented group of chefs, but as a whole, they’re not entirely consistent. As the judges and guests sample the dishes, there really doesn’t seem to be much negativity to the critiques. Padma says she thinks every new dish she tries is her favorite. When they get back to the judging table, Tom, not one for hyperbole, goes so far as to say it’s collectively some of the most enjoyable food he’s had in 11 seasons. So, let’s just get right down to the best and worst:
Top three: Shirley’s “day after Chinese new year” Jiaozi dumpling with pork, grilled kidney and crispy pork fat salad was a big hit amongst the judges. Not only was she driven by a personal connection to the food, but she really incorporated the boucherie idea into her dish, using multiple parts of the pig. Carlos’ pozole verde with fried chorizo tacos also came from a place of emotional resonance, as well, gaining his inspiration from the pozole his mother used to make in Mexico that people would travel four hours to eat. Finally, Nina’s braised pig’s head ragu with roasted corn and mustard greens had a building heat to it that left all of the judges wanting more.
Bottom three: Justin’s wood-roasted pork breast taco with pork liver salsa verde proved inconsistent. Tom and Hugh Acheson had great cuts of pork breast, but Padma and Donald Link’s were bland and dry. Stephanie looks confused as she explains her own process of creating and cooking her pork brodo with braised pork belly and summer vegetable pickle. Tom thinks her confusion was clear in the execution of the dish, leaving it feeling unfinished. All judges agree that Louis’ pork was cooked perfectly, but his slow-grilled pork leg with spring onions, shitake mushrooms, melted corn and popcorn just had too much going on.
Carlos takes the win for his pozole and I can only assume his mother would be proud. Unfortunately, the judges agree that none of the worst dishes were bad dishes, they just had errors, and it was Louis’ dish that had the most fatal of errors in cooking, writing and fashion: not enough editing. Always take off one accessory before you leave the house, Louis. But keep making those friends when you head back home!