This week's flashback challenge shows what all the cool cats were eating in the '50s

By Stephan Lee
Updated November 29, 2012 at 07:01 AM EST
Top Chef Seattle
Credit: David Moir/Bravo
S10 E4
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Last season, drama overpowered the food as Heather and Sarah gave the whole competition a stanky flavor; I’m a little worried that this season, which has gotten off to a much better start overall, might be veering in the same direction. This time, though, the men are the culprits, and I think the worst one is actually Oklahoma Josh. He comes across as an angry, defensive little man who’s constantly looking for a reason to fight — insecurity and perceived slights are what give his mustache its starchy curl — and there are always instigators like John and Stefan around to push his buttons.

At the top of the episode, John was acting like a real b-hole, trashing his former muse Kuniko’s chef cred in front of the cameras, causing Josh to explode, calling him a “prick” (sounded like “prig”) and accusing him of starting and failing restaurants in Dallas; John retaliated by insulting Oklahomans. It took so little to turn that awkward little pissing contest into full-blown personal attacks. Stefan said it best: “I feel like the Real Housewives of Seattle.” But it’s all so boring.

What wasn’t boring was the Quickfire Challenge, which tested the chefs’ butchering skills — they had to hack off a primal cut of beef and use it in a dish for guest judge and Top Chef: Masters alum Naomi Pomeroy, who knows her way around a steak and possesses a knack for fierce nostril-flaring. As they attacked the skinned cattle, not all the chefs knew what they were doing. Carla and Chrissy struggled getting the carcass back on the meat hook, which reminded me of an unwatchable scene in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake starring Jessica Biel.

Lizzie didn’t make the cut with her braised foreshank with turnips and dill. You could tell how tendon-y and tough it was just by looking at it. Eliza failed to impress Naomi as well with her flank steak marinated in soy and spices, served with cherry cognac reduction, asparagus, and potato cake. Naomi thought the steak was cooked well but asparagus and cherry apparently don’t go well together. There goes my business plan for an artisanal candied asparagus food truck. Tyler, who fell short last week as well, looked completely dejected as he made a Hispanic bottom round crudo with charred tomato sauce, and his attitude showed up in his food. “I can’t do anything right,” he said pitifully, practically doing an Eeyore impression. Not a great look for a grown man.

NEXT: Do you think Betty’s cooking on Mad Men looks good? No? Well, here’s the gourmet version of that, for what it’s worth.

Now for the good column: CJ, who’s been incredibly jumpy and visibly desperate to win this season, talked up his top round tartare, proclaiming himself to be the best chef in the competition. Luckily, his dish lived up to all the talk — Naomi called his knife cuts “exact” and “perfect.” Josh’s meatball with polenta also won Naomi’s compliments, but it was his nemesis John who took the win for his braised oxtail with potato gnocchi, causing CJ’s face to spasm in displeasure.

So John had immunity going into the Elimination Challenge, which was a cool, retro throwback. Two well-dressed brothers, Mark and Brian Canlis of the popular Seattle restaurant Canlis, came by to explain the challenge. The chefs had to revive Canlis’ first menu from back in 1950. A lot of pop-culture representations of 50s cuisine center on tuna-noodle casserole, congealed gravy, and TV dinners, so it’s interesting to see fine dining from the era. I apologize in advance for the forthcoming 50s slang terms, all misused.

The Canlis kitchen got pretty heated during the challenge. I sympathized with Carla more than I did last episode when she blew up at Stefan for calling her “sweetie” and “honey,” which seemed like an overreaction. But now I see her point because the men did seem to to be talking down to her — Stefan barked at Carla to take the squab dish seemingly against her wishes. I was surprised she didn’t fire back. Other drama: John was being super passive-aggressive to Josh about making French onion soup, and Stefan’s schoolboy crush on Kristen was getting a little too obvious. John took up expediting duties in the kitchen, which no one seemed to appreciate.

Yet the appetizers went out on time, more or less. First up was Tyler‘s crab cocktail, which looked like a delicious, shiny dessert. Mark Canlis appreciated that Tyler kept it simple and let the Dungeness crab shine. Next came Lizzie‘s marinated herring, which couldn’t look more 50s. Tom said it was nicely marinated and liked that it had a ton of acid.

Josh broke the winning streak with his French onion soup, which the judges trashed, calling it salty, cold, and hard to eat. His rival John did better with the steamed clam bordelaise, but Chrissy stopped the dinner in its tracks with her totally grody Canlis Special Salad, which is the only dish that’s on Canlis’ current menu, which allowed everyone to draw comparisons. Judging just from appearance, it looked like an average, wilted Caesar with too much pungent dressing. Emeril thought the whole thing was way over-dressed and the croutons were soggy. Brooke washed the bad salad taste out of the judges’ mouths with seafood salad a la Louis — a known palate cleanser (not really) — which was voluptuous and juicy.

NEXT: A question is raised about how pigeon meat should be cooked. I question whether pigeon meat should be ingested at all.

Before the main courses went out, Carla had a squab conundrum. The non-judge guests sent a bunch of the dishes back, saying the meat was too red. But as Tim Riggins of Friday Night Lights discovered the hard way, squab is supposed to be served quite rare, and Carla unfortunately over-corrected and served well-done squab (aka pigeon meat) to the judges, who knew better. Padma actually loved the dish, but the others noted that it was too hard to eat with all the bones still in it.

Sheldon impressed with fresh Hawaiian mahi-mahi with beurre blanc, and Micah got a mixed reaction for his mixed vegetables. Hugh said the carrots were underdone and the turnips overdone, but Naomi thought the choice in vegetables was so very 50s. I’m sorry, I don’t have it out for Micah, but what is so hard about choosing a decade-appropriate collection of vegetables? It looked like any cafeteria mixed veggies side, and if they weren’t cooked right, there’s nothing impressive about the dish.

Dream team Stefan and Kristen did a good job with the liver and fried onions, respectively. Unlike Micah, Kristen seemed to take her simple vegetable dishes to another level. Clearly she had a strategy for her mushroom dish, and she accomplished her goal of wowing the judges with dishes that could have been boring. Naomi was not impressed with Bart‘s double-cut New York steak because he cut with the grain rather than across — Bart the Knight, even I know that’s a cardinal sin of butchering! Josie couldn’t do for tubers what Kristen did for mushrooms. Her gargantuan Idaho baked potato lived up to its name in size but not in taste. For all CJ‘s swagger and downright frenetic desire to win, his lamb shish kebab with pilaf turned out under-seasoned and mealy — Tom could tell that he had sous-vide the meat, which a chef wouldn’t have done in the 50s.

Danyele and Eliza split the desserts, which all looked as though they came off a cart in a diner (perfect); Danyele’s vanilla ice cream with salty peanut brittle was the biggest hit, and Brian Canlis also loved Eliza’s mint sherbert. Overall the desserts were neither disasters nor huge winners.

NEXT: Excuses, excuses, excuses

At the Judges’ Table, the judges mulled over the best dishes, which were all the simplest — that makes sense for a 50s challenge, but it seems to be a theme so far in the season as a whole that simplest is always best. That might be true most of the time in cooking, but I don’t see anybody being rewarded for doing anything crazily ambitious and wonderful yet. In fact, there doesn’t even seem to be a front-runner. Just take a look at the words the judges used to describe the top group, which included Lizzie, Tyler, Kristen, and Stefan: “straightforward,” “respectful,” “traditional,” “simple,” “clean.” Kristen won for her very simple, clean, and straightforward side dishes. Again, that makes sense for a challenge that’s about no-frills food, but in general, I hope future elimination challenges push the chefs to make outré, visually exciting dishes — and soon. The testosterone-fueled arguments are already getting boring.

Speaking of which, the firing squad for the bottom group got pretty nasty. Everyone made absurd excuses for their dishes except for Carla, and I respected her for staying quiet (for once!). Josh, whose French onion soup was inedibly salty and cold, directed attention to John’s expediting job, calling him a “monkey.” Far be it from me to defend John, but he had nothing to do with Josh’s soup being salty, and it looked as though Josh took way too much pleasure in throwing another dig at John behind his back. His ‘stache just got a little bit curlier. In the end, both Chrissy and Carla were eliminated, which is sort of a shame. I find Carla as annoying as the next person, but some of the judges liked her squab, and it was much more difficult to prepare than a bunch of unevenly cooked carrots and turnips (Micah) and a by-the-numbers French onion soup. I also liked her final, teary quotable: “I don’t play games. I don’t even play cards.”

Cool challenge in theory, but it didn’t produce many “wow” dishes. (I’m sure the food at the Canlis of today is much more interesting). Who are you rooting for in Last Chance Kitchen? Do you think Carla deserved to get cut? Who’s more insufferable, Josh or John? And what’s with the cranky dudes this season? Sound off in the comments below and tweet me at @EWStephanLee!

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Tom, Padma, and Gail tell the cheftestants to pack their knives and go.
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