Top Chef recap: Stale Chefs Reheated
A twist marks the return of season 5 villain Stefan Richter and other returning chefs!
Top Chef just pulled a Survivor and brought three returning players to the Emerald City: Josie Smith-Malave from season 2, CJ Jacobsen from season 3, and of course, Scandinavian Bond villain Stefan Richter from season 5. This maneuver struck me mostly as a ploy to give Stefan a chance at redemption after Hosea Zimmerman’s travesty of a win in their original season. Chrissy summed Stefan up best: “He has an accent, he looks like a thumb, and he’s an evil villain.” What are your thoughts on the veteran chefs’ return? I think it spices things up nicely, although there are a number of chefs I’d rather have seen return before CJ.
But before we knew the veterans were here to compete, they sneakily posed as guest judges for the first Quickfire Challenge. The newbies filed into the sleek Seattle Top Chef kitchen, and I was shocked by the tastefully small amount of GE product placement porn we were subjected to — Jack Donaghy would be furious. Padma asked everyone to divide into groups of three by picking different colored aprons. John chose a blue apron after seeing Kuniko picking one because “She’s Japanese — maybe she has incredible knife skills.” Poor Kuniko. Last week she was labeled “origami” and this week she was assumed to have Hibachi-worthy Ginsu skills. Padma showed a rare sign of life when she raised her voice to say, “Excuse me, I’m not finished,” when John was speaking out of turn. Show them who’s boss, Padbot.
The chefs only had 20 minutes to dig different types of local shellfish out of tanks of muck and cook up a simple dish. Everyone scrambled for the geoduck, as it’s the fasted to cook. Every season of Top Chef, I look forward to the introduction of the geoduck (pronounced “gooey duck”), which is nature’s dick joke. I mean, come on. It’s the funniest bivalve around. Thank God the Pacific Northwest is geoduck central.
Drama erupted immediately on the orange team because of Carla, who reminds me of an Italian Elaine Stritch, only (slightly) younger. She just talked too much and created a sense of chaos for her teammates, making everyone else glad they didn’t have to work with her. I do have to admit that she’s entertaining — she spouted off a bunch of catchphrases that couldn’t have been anything other than Real Housewives opening credits voice-overs. “I am a chef but I am also a woman.” “When I’m cooking, I like to look good.” “I want to be a James Beard and I wanna have a nice ass.” Carla, if you want to be a Beard to a guy named James, I have a gay friend whose parents are Mormon and conservative.
NEXT: A great quote from Bart the Knight: “Belgian food is amazing because we’ve been conquered so many times that we keep all the best ingredients from everybody who conquered us. I mean, that’s a lot of them.”
GRAY TEAM: Bart, Jeffrey, and Brooke
The first trio presented their Pacific Northwest crawfish with pickled red chili, fennel, and cream. Stefan though the crawfish was cooked well. Aside from a little too much dill, the plate was good.
ORANGE TEAM: Lizzie, Carla, and Chrissy
Despite the discord in the kitchen, Josie gave the all-ladies team “two thumbs up.” All of that noise during preparation resulted in an elegant dish of oven-roasted crawfish and a fennel and herb salad with chili drizzle.
GREEN TEAM: Micah, Kristen, and Tyler
These guys created an interesting dish of geoduck two ways — fried and sashimi — with a bok choy salad and a Yuzu chili vinaigrette. CJ would have loved if the sashimi geoduck were cut a little thinner.
YELLOW TEAM: Eliza, Danyele, and Josh
Their razor clam and grilled corn chowder with Fresno chili and grilled lime sounded awesome, but the judges all agreed that it was the worst dish. Stefan thought the whole thing was watered down. Josh, who seems to me like a bit of a hothead, got angry at Stefan, but Eliza learned a Top Chef lesson and laid it out for us eloquently: “You can burn something and call it Cajun, you can undercook something and call it mid-rare, but you cannot underseason. That’s the kiss of death.”
BLUE TEAM: Sheldon, Kuniko, and John
Perhaps John’s instinct to take advantage of Kuniko’s Japanese-ness paid off. Their geoduck sashimi with Ponzu, apple, and cucumber beat out all the other dishes. You go, Kuniko! Traditionally, winning the first Quickfire has been a decent indicator of the winner of the competition overall, so this season it’s interesting because now there are three winners. Only one can hold immunity, however, and John won it in a knife-draw. I wish they’d decided it in a more interesting way, like a blindfolded taste test or a cook-off, but there wasn’t any time — we had to reveal the twist.
The veteran chefs picked up aprons and became the sixth team of three for the Elimination Challenge. Understandably, nobody was happy about suddenly gaining three new competitors, though Stefan shrugged off all the hemming and hawing. “I have nothing to prove,” he said. “I drive a f—ing GT3 Porsche, okay? And I have eight restaurants.” That entire monologue could have come directly from Anchorman 2 — soon he’d be bragging about all the leather-bound books he owns.
After all the hectic, multi-step catering challenges of Top Chef: Texas, I’m so glad all the challenges this season so far have been relatively bare-bones. For the Elimination Challenge, the same teams from the Quickfire had to make a dish, using ingredients local to Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, for famous Seattle chef Tom Douglas in the Sky City Restaurant atop the Seattle Space Needle. Here’s how the teams fared:
NEXT: Another Carla freakout! It’s only been two episodes, but I already live for Carla freakouts.
ORANGE TEAM: Lizzie, Carla, and Chrissy
Seriously, was Carla drunk? The way she was shouting, you’d think she forgot her mantra about staying pretty in the kitchen. But again, despite the chaos in the kitchen, the ladies’ wild salmon poached with beurre blanc over fava beans, baby carrots, and fennel — very simple — succeeded. Tom Douglas liked the translucency at the center of the salmon, and Padma liked the flavor of the beurre blanc. Of course, the drama wasn’t over yet. Afterwards Carla cut her hand in her knife bag and made a huge deal about it. She’s insane but I love her (for now).
BLUE TEAM: Kuniko, Sheldon, and John
Kuniko came up with the odd idea of poaching cod in chili oil, which John thought was crazy but brilliant. I’m loving this unlikely John-Kuniko duo — it warms my heart. The plan immediately hit a snag when Kuniko lost control of the chili oil and let it burn, worrying John and Sheldon. But the final result — the cod with a dashi and shabu shabu of dot prawns — was nearly perfect. Everyone loved the fish and the subtle chili, and Gail Simmons said about the spot prawns, “For the first thing to put in my mouth in Seattle, not bad. That came out wrong.” Welcome back, Gail!
RED TEAM: Stefan, CJ, and Josie
For all the bluster and swagger the returning chefs brought, none of it translated into an amazing dish. The over-confident CJ had the last-minute idea to change their dish to incorporate quail to set themselves apart from all the fish dishes. Stefan kept bringing up the fact that the quail breasts were tiny and that he was “used to bigger breasts, normally.” Har har har. CJ noted that the cherry emulsion he made wasn’t “super-rad,” and proceeded to say the word “super” 400 more times. The resulting quail over porcini and smashed potatoes with spot prawns failed to impress the judges — except for Tom Douglas, who was surprised by how tough the judges were.
GRAY TEAM: Jeffrey, Brooke, and Bart
Jeffrey was one of my favorites coming into this episode, but he played a role in ruining the team’s pan-roasted halibut by searing the fish on both sides. Padma compared her fish to a “hockey puck.”
YELLOW TEAM: Danyele, Josh, and Eliza
Things looked bad for the Yellow Team when they couldn’t identify what kind of fish they were using at first, but apparently they did some Wikipedia-ing at their Cheftestant loft and figured it out. The judges quibbled over some parts of their pan-roasted cod over a sautee of mushrooms, sea beans, green apple, and parsley pea stew, but what saved them was the perfectly cooked fish.
GREEN TEAM: Micah, Kristen, and Tyler
This team worked together well from the beginning. Their crispy seared salmon similar to the orange team’s, but other aspects of their dish were superior, like their spot prawn butter sauce.
Now for the Judges’ Table. When the Blue Team got called in first, it was clear that they were the winners. Kuniko took the win for her perfectly cooked fish and the chili oil idea. She’s my early favorite — such an odd but likeable character. She said that as the first winner, the other chefs would now take notice of her … and the thought of that seemed to absolutely terrify her. The veteran team and the Gray Team were at the bottom. Clearly it pained the judges to eliminate Jeffrey Jew — another one of my favorites — but his overcooked fish really gave them no choice. But you know what? He’s a winner in another way. The man is 34 years old and looks 24.
What did you think of the return of Stefan, CJ, and Josie? Any past contestant you would have liked to see instead? Is Carla the craziest cheftestant in history? Were you sad to see Jeffrey go?
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