Chefs attempt to master the art of French cooking in a Julia Child-inspired elimination challenge.

By John Vilanova
January 08, 2015 at 04:02 AM EST
David Moir/Bravo
S12 E10
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Post-Top Chef holiday break, we’re back with only five chefs remaining. Things are starting to approach boiling point in the Top Chef kitchen: It’s almost finale time.

Tonight, though, with college winter breaks around the country drawing to a close, it makes sense that the quickfire guest, Bravo bigwig Andy Cohen, is taking the chefs back to school. Joined by his college roommate, Dave, Andy’s his usual self—asking about hook-ups in the Top Chef house (when was the last time we saw one of those?) and poking fun at Padma the taskmistress. One of the things that has always made me like Andy Cohen is that, despite his celebrity, you can tell that he was at one point a “normal” person. So the thought of him eating ramen in a crummy dorm at Boston University is comprehensible.

The chefs’ assignment is to recreate that vision, using authentic college mises-en-place drawn from Emerson College students’ mini-fridges: half-full jars of salsa, leftover pizza, and “sushi shrimp.” Many a great college meal has started with less when the situation has called for it, though I’m surprised by the absence of alcohol, especially in Tim’s basket. It’s a funny quickfire, but the chefs’ faces during prep tell the real story—most of the food college students eat is really kind of gross.

Regardless, it’s interesting to watch the chefs work, because it’s clear that they’re coming up with dishes that go against their training and sensibilities. George and his hair gel (I laughed very hard when Andy commented on this) are the clearest example of this—ramen chili with hot dog, chicken wing chunks, crispy spam, and ketchup-glazed chicken wings (or meat-on-meat-on-meat SpaghettiOs, if you will) seems like a culinary sin. But in the end, they taste good, and like the chefs have been forced to learn throughout this season, that’s sometimes all that really matters.

Despite her breakout success in the previous elimination challenge, Mei still hasn’t won a quickfire, and this time her ramen in spicy tomato miso sauce with sushi shrimp and nori is too fishy and lacks a proper broth. She herself gives it a D-, but then suggests that that isn’t all that bad of a grade. Does the scoring work differently in culinary school or something?

Also at the bottom is Doug, who, judging from the heavy bags under his eyes and the slow response to Andy’s questions, seems like he’s pulled one too many all-nighters. His ramen in coconut pineapple water broth with ham, egg, grilled tofu, bell pepper, and sunflower seeds earns a few satisfactory slurps from Padma, but it ultimately fails to coalesce coherently.

Joining George at the top are Melissa’s roast chicken mac and cheese Carbonara with Frito crumb topping and Gregory’s ramen in bacon and pizza broth with string cheese, edamame, and Doritos. George’s dish sounds like straight-up college hangover food, but Melissa and Gregory impressively reconstitute their limited ingredients into recognizably sophisticated dishes. When Andy and Dave say that bacon makes everything better, it seems like Gregory’s going to reclaim the top spot, but Melissa’s soft and simple dish is a surprise winner. She really struggled a few weeks ago, but she seems to be settling down. $5,000 for making ramen certainly helps.

Going from dick jokes with Rob Gronkowski to literature last week seemed like the ultimate highbrow/lowbrow juxtaposition, but the producers one-upped themselves this week, following dorm-room dining with the most inspirational and aspirational American chef ever: Julia Child. Her televised mastery of French cooking introduced the nation to eating well, and though she moved on to the great dinner table in the sky 10 years ago, her legacy looms large. Without Julia, there would be no Top Chef.

Her old friend and TV companion Jacques Pépin is here in her stead, bringing wine and conversation to the awed chefs as they approach the hugely difficult task ahead of them—to recreate one of her iconic dishes. There’s a whole menu of famous Julia recipes, including beef bourguignon, coq au vin, and salade nicoise, all of which require a blend of immense patience, cooking knowledge, and technical skill. It’s a perfect challenge this late in the game.

NEXT: Mastering the art of French cooking.

All of the cheftestants are far more “modern” cooks than Julia Child, but each reveres her and speaks to her influence on the profession, even if they’re doing so in playfully mocking voices. Doug’s mispronouncing French words, Melissa’s braising meats for hours on end, and Gregory’s cooking with butter. It’s a fitting tribute.

The chefs set to cooking, and they’ll be serving a high-end table including old friends Dana Cowin and Hugh Acheson, Pépin, local chefs, and Julia Child’s nephew and collaborator, Alex Prud’homme. Top Chef has a musical cue that it busts out on the most special occasions each season, and we get flits of it as the judges sit down for dinner.

Back in the kitchen, the chefs seem even more intimidated by the culinary task at hand—even the four hours they’re given to prep doesn’t seem like enough time. Tom and Jacques’ pop-in even seems more tense than usual. The chefs’ issues seem to stem from a well-meaning place: they’re not sure how directly they should be following Julia’s estimable lead. George knows he won’t have enough time to braise veal, so he grabs some pressure cookers (a Julia no-no), whereas Melissa goes old-school with the braise on her short ribs, struggling to achieve an appropriate cook in the time provided. Gregory’s recreating coq au vin note-for-note, while Mei’s wondering if adding some five-spice to her duck a l’orange will upset her culinary karma. Which is the right way to go?

Despite the chefs’ concerns, they manage to go successfully back in time to a bygone culinary era. Vegetables are glazed, ingredients are separated, and sauces are creamy and thick. While none of these chefs ever intentionally cook like this anymore (George’s food is the closest, though he’s hardly a classicist to this level), each of them wants to show they can—that the tradition they were raised on still isn’t too far from their present.

The results are mixed, and a clear dividing line emerges—good cooking. Mei and Gregory are on the top because they’ve (unsurprisingly) cooked their food the best. Gregory’s coq au vin with glazed carrots, fava beans, snap peas, red wine, and pearl onions is a meticulous recreation of the classic and Mei’s duck a l’orange with turnip puree, orange puree, and glazed vegetables takes inspiration from the original and modernizes it, but both dishes succeed because the cooks cook well. That’s all.

Based on the challenge parameters, it seemed like Gregory’s recreation was going to reestablish him at the top going into the home stretch. Surprisingly, though, it’s Mei who is coming on now, with two straight wins at just the right time. Gregory got the better of Mei earlier this season, but she’s claimed round two and it seems like a rubber match is imminent.

On the other side, Doug, George, and Melissa wind up in danger because the opposite is true of their food—there are errors in cooking. All three have prepared garnishes and vegetables correctly, but their proteins have erred. The judges have probably all eaten these recipes dozens of times; with dishes this established and palates this refined, seemingly imperceptible flaws are immediately recognizable. George’s braised veal is underseasoned and undercooked; Melissa’s short ribs have taken on a nasty sear as a result of trying to coax them into a proper cook, and Doug’s foie gras is cooked so poorly that it’s almost inedible.

Foie gras is a quintessentially pre-modern menu item—its decadent fattiness makes it a high-end delicacy despite the savagery often required to produce it. Doug knows that cooking whole lobes of it is an incredibly difficult undertaking, but he embraces it in a way that is respectable, especially considering how well he’s been doing in recent weeks. All he really needs to do is land in the middle two more times and he’ll be through to the finale. But rather than rest on his laurels, he gives himself the greatest challenge on a “special” night, and he’s the one who winds up packing his knives.

I hate to disrespect the legend of Ms. Child, but my first memories of her didn’t come from flipping through the pages of Mastering the Art of French Cooking or watching her dress meat on The French Chef. Instead, it was watching Dan Aykroyd dressed as Child for an SNL sketch, shooting fake blood all over the set during a parody of her show. Even as the fake blood pooled around him, he exhorted viewers in Child’s warbly alto that, at all costs, home cooks needed to “save the liver.” Unfortunately, Doug couldn’t do that.

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