Top Chef honors Boston's first-responders, but one chef burns with a fire that can't be put out.

Top Chef Recap
Credit: David Moir/Bravo
S12 E2
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In the 1989 “classic” Road House, Patrick Swayze plays James Dalton, a bouncer at a roadside bar whose goal is to keep the peace. He’s a badass, but, like any good muscle, he’s supposed to remain in the background until the situation calls for him to assert himself.

It’s certainly a stretch (if not downright sacrilege to some) to compare Top Chef‘s bespectacled, shaved-headed James to the ’80s icon, but when you sport ink of the Soviet invasion-stopping surfer crime-fighter, there’s automatically more to you at first glance. Heck… I called him celeriac last week, but I promise I meant that in the best way possible.

James says he admires Swayze’s “craftsmanship and commitment to excellence” (one wonders if he’s talking about “that scene” in Ghost), and those words, it seems, are ones that these chefs brought to the kitchen in a competitive premiere episode. As the chefs pick up the pieces from last week’s first elimination challenge, the positions within the kitchen crystallize further as the personalities who are going to get the most screen time emerge. Mei’s the chef-to-beat, who’s “so good she beats you with rice porridge.” Katsuji’s 20-component “taco” was fun, but it almost got him sent home, and he knows it. And Aaron and Keriann are about to try to rip out each other’s throats with their bare hands à la Swayze.

From the outset, Aaron had “villain” written all over him. But unlike in past years, which gave us Robin’s off-kilter snarliness in Las Vegas and Josie’s agonizing performance art (and that laugh) in Seattle, Aaron’s not unlikable because he’s annoying, unstable, or clearly inferior. He’s all three—and he’s an a–hole. After 12 seasons and nearly 200 chefs, I can’t recall another person who has set out to offend so deeply on so many levels.

Once Boston was announced as the location for the season, a few destinations, stories, and ideas were always going to wind up prompting culinary correlatives. Stone-faced Todd English is among the cobblestone streets for this quickfire, which incorporates Paul Revere’s ride toward the Old North Church with a “one if by land, two if by sea” dynamic. The challenge is to create a surf-and-turf dish, where each time the lamps light, a new item (either by land or sea) must be added to the in-progress dish. It’s a fairly clumsy integration of the theme, but any chance to watch the chefs scramble toward the tables or stand awkwardly waiting for the lamps to light is easy comedy.

Over the years, America’s general food awareness has increased thanks to programs like Top Chef, and the pool of ingredients, which includes uni, ramps, boar bacon, and hen of the woods mushrooms, seems to epitomize the high-cuisine knowledge of the audience. On menus and in cookbooks, the degrees of specificity suggest a higher literacy, but also beget the snobbishness these chefs have been displaying during this young season. Thankfully, though, there’s also Cap’n Crunch, pretzels, and something called dried crab snack waiting for the chefs who are so self-serious about their food that they miss the lights going on.

NEXT: The cheftestants’ wild quickfire ride

It’s early enough that “no immunity” is a surprising wrinkle, but there might be a grander plan afoot here involving team challenges and elimination status after a controversial result last year. A quick recap: After Nicholas (who has generated more hate in these comments than he’s due, honestly) won immunity during a quickfire, he prepared a dish during a team challenge that caused his team to lose. The judges asked him to give up his immunity, he refused, and everyone got mad about it. It’d be interesting if the producers have learned their lesson and will prevent this from happening again.

Instead, $5,000 is up for grabs, and there are surprisingly few ingredient fights as the land lamp lights for the first time. As they wait for more parameters to be laid out, it’s interesting to watch the chefs building flexible flavors to pair with whatever they’ll wind up with next. Some of the choices seem odd—Katsuji’s working with sweetbreads on a short time limit—and some come out of necessity, as Adam’s lack of awareness earns him the aforementioned dried crab snack and pretzels.

For the most part, the dishes put before the judges are really stellar-looking creations. There are plenty of reasons to gripe about the preestablished chops among these cheftestants, but they are serving some seriously impressive plates. And with three “land” lights and one “sea” item, creating the potential for four disparate additions, it’s not the easiest of quickfires.

Unfortunately, Joy somehow winds up with veal and steak, a combination that even the beefy guest Todd English can’t get behind, to say nothing of the fact that the “surf” portion of her dish appears to be sea salt. Stacy’s grilled pork chop with sea bean and horned melon garnish plus fried skate cheeks with radish and arugula salad covers both bases, but the meat is overcooked and underseasoned. That’s a bad combination.

Gregory plates a pretty offering of grilled lamb chops with soy dressing and a blue foot mushroom salad, but Padma’s fairly critical of the dish. It sometimes seems like she judges the presumed contenders more harshly than the also-rans. Despite his odd ingredients, Adam’s shoyu-marinated flank steak, white coconut and vegetable soubise, dried crab snack, and pretzel dashi sounds the most interesting, though James and Katsuji are the surprising top toques of the day. After surviving judges’ table last week, Katsuji’s restraint pays off with milk-poached sweetbreads, sunny-side up quail egg, uni, and caviar over a hot pepper jelly with Guajillo peppers. It’s still a bit noisy, but the uni/egg combo scores points with Todd. The winner, though, is James, whose sautéed mussels with boar bacon broth, sautéed fiddlehead ferns, sauerkraut, and tosaka seaweed are handled deftly.

NEXT: Boston’s bravest, finest, and nastiest

It’s been a year and a half since the Boston Marathon bombing, but it’s never too late to honor firefighters and police officers—the men and women who selflessly put their lives at risk on that day and every day. Top Chef usually does a fine job paying homage to groups like this, but this week’s episode really hit the ball out of Fenway Park.

For all the fancy schmancy quickfire ingredients, the boxes the teams have to choose from are more in-line with the eating habits of the first responders, albeit lacking in the doughnuts everyone seems to be joking about. It’s going to be a hearty meal, with veal, filet, chicken, and various other proteins all available. It would’ve been pretty funny if someone had tried to do a foam or something, though.

The team breakdown spreads the talent fairly evenly, with Mei, Katsuji, and Katie wearing red and serving first; Gregory, Adam, and Rebecca second in blue; Doug and James in grey and serving third; the self-declared “team soulful” of Joy, Ron, and Melissa fourth and yellow, and the audience-declared “team uh-oh” of Aaron, Keriann, and Stacy in green serving last. Mei’s concerned that both of her teammates were on the bottom last week, but cooking first means they have first choice of mystery baskets. Randomness happens a lot on Top Chef, but this time, the Green Team is certainly in the weeds from the outset with a weak box and full stomachs by the time their food will be tasted.

The judges seem pretty happy with the Red Team’s sautéed halibut with pea coconut puree, picked rhubarb, cherry, and grilled fennel slaw, and even though it’s not the best-looking plate, it has a cohesion that is the key to surviving a team challenge. Despite including less than 17 ingredients, Katsuji’s sauce earns high marks from the judges (and Mei’s begrudging respect), and he and Katie seem to have redeemed themselves after landing on the bottom last week (though Katie hasn’t “cooked” a single thing yet, serving salads each of the first two challenges). Mei’s fish is perfect, and she, Tom, and all of the other judges know it.

After such praise for the first course (it seemed like they’d already won this thing), the Blue Team was going to have a tough act to follow. Their wood-fired filet with parsnip puree, a ragu of chanterelles, and pan-seared scallops with a Marcona almond vinaigrette, though, is a worthy offering that lands right where it needs to for the firefighters and police officers—it’s traditional, straightforward cookery that still feels elevated without trying too hard. Tom calls it restaurant-ready, and he and Gregory even share a few laughs over the almond and leek vinaigrette. Who said these judges were supposed to be scary?

Doug and James’ pork chop with a grilled apricot and stone fruit salad, morels, and walnuts is another dish with no real problems (who knew that “apricot” had a Boston-ized pronounciation?), but the latter two courses draw the ire of the judges and end the mutual admiration society. First is Joy, Melissa, and Ron’s maple-and-vanilla-roasted veal chop with citrus kale sauce and a celery root puree infused with even more vanilla. Joy’s veal chops are a disturbing shade of pink, and the vanilla-on-vanilla (Ron’s idea, though he avoids taking blame for it) has the judges rightly thinking “sweet” at the wrong time. All three of these chefs seem like nice people, but their teamwork doesn’t work here, as everyone’s desire to be amenable creates a dish that needed someone to say “no” at various stages throughout its conception.

By the time the Green Team is plating their fifth course, there’s a five-alarm firefight in the kitchen, with Aaron and Keriann fanning the flames. There was even a commercial break to build anticipation. But rather than address their own disaster dishes, Aaron and Keriann obsess over Stacy’s chicken (She’s right… it is “just chicken!”) as the clock ticks down. Aaron serves a bourbon onion jam-marmalade agar-goo thing that disgusts the table, while Keriann’s fresh corn salad with Serrano chiles (and raw onion—a big no-no on Top Chef, traditionally) doesn’t fare much better.

While there are always two sides to every story, and the Top Chef editors love a good bad guy and could’ve edited the footage to emphasize Aaron’s jacka–ery even more, it’s hard to find fault with his teammates when he’s being so miserable. Calling a woman a “b—h” with the invective he spews would be a problem under any circumstances, but the constant jawing at other competitors, particularly ones he sees as below him (which is everyone, really) is disgusting.

It’s a pretty fascinating change to gather the chefs all at once in front of the judges. When you’ve failed and the judges are cutting into you, your peers look on in pity. At the same time, though, the targets on the contenders’ backs grow. Though Mei’s fish and Katsuji’s sauce seemed like the standouts, it winds up being Gregory’s vinaigrette and Adam’s filet that earn the win. Given the diners, it makes sense, but I hope the other chefs are ready to watch the same people praised week after week.

The post-marathon Boston story is one of teamwork and togetherness—a coming together for things bigger than individual self-interest and pride. Even while serving such a set of inspiring guests, ego ruled the day for Aaron, and his demeanor ran the risk of ruining the night for everyone. Among a slew of bad dishes, he clearly deserved to be sent home. But as the chefs all gather around judges’ table, he’s saved by—of all things—a woman, as Stacy’s chicken saved the team from elimination consideration. Instead, it was poor, well-meaning Joy who goes home for two unforgivable mistakes: undercooking veal and lacking the confidence she needed to compete. Aaron survives… for now.

Episode Recaps


Top Chef

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