Top Chef recap: Separating the Spam from the Ham
A Spam challenge brings out the saltiest flavors; the Last Chance Kitchen winner returns
Let’s hear it for Spam, ladies and gents — or Hawaiian steak, as I like to call it. I’ve always loved Spam. Spam with runny egg over rice and a dash of sesame oil and soy sauce is a little slab of heaven encased in a layer of gelatinous residue. I only gave up my favorite salty ham byproduct when I realized it looked exactly like my least favorite college English professor’s oddly pink forearm skin. (I also didn’t like that the meat-Jello that forms around it is called “aspic,” like the Russian delicacy that Mikhail Baryshnikov tried to get Carrie Bradshaw to eat at 3 a.m.). So I was pleased when Top Chef incorporated Spam — a local staple — for the first challenge taking place in Maui.
Our finalists Shirley, Nina, and Nicholas said “aloha” (or is it “alooooooha”?) in Hawaii. Since leaving New Orleans, Nicholas looked a bit plumper, Nina looked way thinner, and Shirley looked rested. The three headed to a luau, where the Spam-themed Quickfire Challenge would take place and the Last Chance Kitchen winner would be revealed.
But first, the three finalists judged the final LCK dishes themselves, which I thought was a little weird. By now, couldn’t they probably guess which dish belonged to each chef? And none of them seemed to like Carlos very much, so the process raised some suspicions.
Either way, the palm fronds parted and Louis was revealed to be the winner over Carlos! Louis didn’t exactly distinguish himself when he was part of the regular season, but he went on an eight-challenge winning street on LCK to claw his way back. The others were rightfully intimidated by Louis, who had no doubt gained a ton of confidence after surviving the LCK gauntlet.
On to the Quickfire, which local chef Sam Choy would be judging. At first, Nicholas appeared to be at a disadvantage because he hadn’t prepared to work with Spam, even though it was a fairly predictable ingredient given the setting. It was hilarious how inquisitive the Hawaiian spectators were being while the chefs were just trying to beat the clock. I wouldn’t be surprised if the producers put them up to it.
Shirley came up with a deconstructed Spam musubi, which was an inspired idea. Musubi is a Spam sushi-like snack that you can apparently find in 7-Elevens in Maui right next to the Big Gulps. (I feel like I know that from reading/reviewing the frankly rather boring Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell). Sam Choy liked the crunchiness of the Spam, and as someone who’d eaten thousands of musubis, he was still surprised by Shirley’s.
Nina made a breadfruit and teriyaki Spam croquette with a sour orange and mango slaw. Sam appreciated the dozens of flavors in each bite.
Louis, who’s used to winning 30-minute challenges by now, put out a Spam mousse with garlic, chives, scallions, snap peas, beech mushrooms, and togarashi. Padma said, “It’s very silky in my mouth.” Ugh, Padma, that’s-what-she-said slips are only funny if they’re truly accidental, and it’s obvious you’re just doing it for attention because you do it too often and you’re smiling at yourself before you make the comment. Poor delivery, not cute.
Nicholas whipped up a Spam broth with pancetta, a ton of seaweed, dried shrimp, clam juice, nori, and a cucumber slaw with a little bit of basil to open up the flavor. When I heard “Spam broth,” I initially thought Nicholas would be capturing the essence of Spam’s Jello-skin by boiling it to death — the words “hot dog-flavored water” (Limp Bizkit) came to mind — but apparently he pulled it out and managed to win the $10,000 prize. True to form, Nicholas made himself look desperate by offering to give back the 10 grand in exchange for immunity.
Right on to the Elimination Challenge! A bunch of loinclothed Polynesian men paddled onto the shore in outrigger canoes bearing local produce. For the challenge — which would be a DOUBLE ELIMINATION — the chefs had to use those Hawaiian ingredients for a Hawaii-themed dish.
During prep time, the skies opened up and rained all over the fryers. Nina made a mistake that actually warranted a tirade from Nicholas. I didn’t totally understand what happened, but apparently she started chopping up Nicholas’ fish instead of her own?
Nina and Shirley talked openly about being each other’s biggest competition and hoping to face each other in the finale. Were they being cocky? Yes, but I didn’t really care. I was rooting for that outcome as well. Nicholas didn’t appreciate it, though, and told Nina, “Sometimes keeping it real goes wrong.” Ugh, Nicholas. He’s literally worse than Spam-mucus.
For his semi-final dish, Louis served up grilled opah — a fish that Sam Choy apparently put on the map or invented, or something (btw, live opah are terrifying) — with sweet and sour potato and coconut and burnt onion sauce. Because it’s a thick and tricky meat, some judges got under-cooked pieces and some got over-cooked pieces. Everyone liked the cool purple sweet potato, but it was clear early on that Louis was in trouble.
After all that behind-the-scenes trouble, Nina turned out a grilled opah dish with a tarot root and coconut puree. The sauce was a sugar cane turmeric with jabanero chilies — a very elevated hot and sour sauce. Tom thought the fish was perfectly cooked, but the overly spicy sauce overpowered it.
Shirley went for Hawaii-sweet flavors with her honey-glazed pork bun with a sweet potato and turmeric puree. Shirley worried that her pork was overly sweet, and of course the judges picked up on it and pounced. It bothered me to a disproportionate degree that Tom used the phrase “it eats sweet.” The pork was cooked perfectly, though.
Once again, Nicholas was the clear winner based on the judges’ comments. His opakapaka with a jalapeno and crispy chicken skin went over very really well, save for minor quibbles about the overpowering jalapeno.
At the Judges Table, it bothered me how Nicholas acted like the “spokesperson” for the other chefs, and he’s such a blatant schmoozer. But of course, he sped through to the finale. Louis was the first chef cut, which was pretty obvious, although he looked incredibly, incredibly disappointed. He said that the idea of his son seeing him winning was very important to him, which was a tear-worthy moment.
But the most devastating moment for me was Shirley getting cut. She had a bumpy road, but I loved that she wore her heart on her sleeve.
Nina made the cut despite making some crazy mistakes recently, but in a way those mistakes showed her skill — she was able to finesse them. Even though she gave up her frontrunner status at certain points in the season, I guess she really was the most consistently strong chef all along. On to the finale!