Top Chef recap: 'The Curse of the Bambino'
It’s a fortuitous coincidence that this particular episode of Top Chef aired tonight while the Royals and Giants were battling in Game 7 of the World Series. As one season comes to an end and another just begins, no matter what the competition is, the thrill of victory and the pain of defeat keep us watching week after week.
Over the course of a baseball’s lengthy 162-game season, we get to know the players, learning what it took for them to get to the big leagues. Parents play catch with sons in their backyards and drive them to Little League practice. Young children develop batting stances and throwing motions. Each swing of the bat or smack of the ball against the glove builds up to tonight.
In that same way, a lot happens before a young chef first puts food to plate. Family recipes, specialties, and favorites become the early signatures of young cooks, and where and how they’re raised creates the story of their food. Life before Top Chef made the chefs on Bravo each week who they are today: Melissa wants to prove she made the right choice to her conservative parents. Keriann wants to “have it all.” Even Aaron takes a sympathetic turn, explaining how a difficult childhood and persistent sense of insecurity fuel his competitive fire.
But, the one thing about Top Chef that does make it different from baseball is that we jump straight to the playoffs. Chefs don’t have 162 games to refine their rosters, make trades, or work out the kinks in a swing or pitching motion. Defeat is elimination. Every week is a Game 7.
The addition of the “sudden death” quickfires has added an interesting wrinkle, increasing the stakes for the episode-beginning cooking that often feels like a throwaway. Sure, immunity is an appealing prize, but the chef who wins the quickfire is fairly likely not to be among the bottom come judges table-time. Later in the season, more cash, cars, advantages, and other prizes will incentivize things, but for now, being on the bottom becomes more than a self-esteem knock. It could be curtains.
NEXT: Not Padma’s cup of tea
The Boston Tea Party was another obvious call for this season, and the challenge—to incorporate tea flavors into a savory dish—is straightforward and well-put-together. Ming Tsai and his Teflon smile are guesting, and the chefs wind up grabbing teas at random in a mad dash. Something tells me that the varieties some of them wound up with—Melissa gets lemongrass pomegranate ginger rooibos and Ron’s working with herbal chocolate salt tea—weren’t getting dumped off the ships in Boston Harbor. Aaron’s gunpowder spearmint variety is right up his alley though, as he continues to use the taped interviews as his own personal recorded Burn Book to take shots at the other chefs.
Perhaps he should’ve been focusing more on his own dish as the seared monkfish cheeks with Asian pear, tarragon, and mint salad wind up on the bottom because the fish has been extremely overcooked (“hammered,” as those in-the-know say). It’s funny—the (flat) brim of his hat seems to get more and more askew as he grows more nervous. And who doesn’t enjoy watching him spin?
For what it’s worth, though, some of Aaron’s snarky criticisms are spot-on, as James and his old-school beurre blanc over crispy skin trout, quinoa, and an orange, arugula, and pear salad join him on the bottom. Rebecca, who we still know little about, is the third of the ignominious trio due to her dry, basic tea-infused cake with strawberries and apples. But Aaron is the (biggest) loser here, (un)fortunately, and he’s facing quickfire overtime to save his Top Chef life.
The fact that he chooses Katie gets at every problematic thing he’s represented so far on the show. Of course he chooses a woman, and of course she’s a soft-spoken teacher who he thinks he can push around. Katie hasn’t really cooked anything of note so far on the show and the “easy prey” choice is his right, but it’s kind of cowardly. At least George the Greek went down fighting against Gregory two weeks ago.
Continuing the nautical theme, for the sudden death challenge, the mismatched pair only get to use boiling water to cook their food. Neither dish looks all that inspiring, but Aaron’s pureed shrimp-as-spring-roll-wrapper is more interesting than Katie’s generic-seeming hand-cut pasta. And so he lives to fight (and, as Katsuji says, “talk s—) another round.
Katsuji’s brown-rice-crusted tuna with toasted green tea rice and pralines is a surprisingly elegant offering that earns extra umami-points from Ming; and Adam, utilizing egregious food pun-nery, prepares a pretty tea-viche plate; but top dish honors go to Gregory, Melissa, and Ron. Padma hates the tea Ron is tasked with, but “doesn’t hate” his tea-crusted duck breast, crème fraîche polenta, and balsamic-glazed mushrooms. High praise, indeed.
Melissa’s seared duck breast with lemongrass pomegranate ginger rooibos tea-infused jasmine rice, and a roasted corn and snow pea vinaigrette is a strong dish (she’s starting to build some momentum), but it’s not enough to overtake Gregory’s simple tuna crudo with strawberry white tea and young coconut. It’s simple and composed, and even though it’s not the best-looking plate of the round, it’s enough to earn him immunity.
NEXT: Take me out to the bowl game
No Boston locale more symbolizes the city’s old-school vibe than Fenway Park, and with legendary closer Dennis Eckersley and journalist and historian Dan Shaughnessy joining Tom, Padma, Richard, and Hugh for dinner under the Green Monster, Top Chef has really hit one out of the park. (I guess former Red Sox player Wade Boggs, who famously ate chicken before every game, was unavailable.) All things considered, the challenge is simple: craft fine-dining style dishes by transforming ballpark ingredients like hot dogs, pretzels, and popcorn. It’s oxymoronic, but it leaves the chefs plenty of room to play ball. This should be like batting practice.
On the whole, though, the dishes disappoint here as chefs make a host of typical Top Chef errors that recur year after year. Mei didn’t cut her pork into small-enough portions, prompting overcooking and acknowledgment of the fact that she is human. Adam cooks his fish beforehand, promising a reheat “hammering” when it’s time for service. Keriann doesn’t leave enough time for her short ribs to braise appropriately, producing chewy portions, which the judges immediately criticize. Katsuji adds far too many ingredients, layering item on top of item. And poor Katie makes a crème brûlée that doesn’t set, forcing a last-minute repurposing.
I don’t want to pile on (Aaron did that enough earlier in the episode), but Katie is a bit of an enigma through the season’s first few weeks. She doesn’t seem to want to take any real risks, contentedly plating simplistic offerings. Part of it is probably an attempt to get her feet under her, but like many of the chefs over the years who worry they don’t have what it takes to win, it seems like she’s cooking not to lose.
Surprisingly, though, her dessert plate of creme brûlée-turned-mousse with popcorn mousse, blue cornmeal salted shortbread, beer caramel, pomegranate molasses cherry, puffed sorghum, and honeycomb impresses the judges even as she breaks down in tears at the table. Tom handles the word-painting for us, explaining that, like Fenway, simplicity of vision is what creates the most appealing dishes when executed properly. Somehow, despite herself, Katie achieves this.
Joining her at the top is Melissa, whose surprising corn and ramp soup with pickled ramps, fried calamari, truffle butter, and bacon popcorn is an attractive dish that takes the judges aback with its complexity. She’d have preferred it to be greener, but it’s a nice-looking offering that offers ingredients that pair well together. It’s smart cooking.
Speaking of smart, Richard praises Gregory for “moneyball,” a baseball strategy over the past few years that emphasized exploiting efficiencies to make the best of what you were given. In this case, the balance, brightness and precision of Gregory’s roasted duck, peanut nam prik pao (Thai chili jam), peanut brittle, crispy shallots, and fresh herb salad impress everyone, and he executes a clean sweep. Given this hot streak, if there were a Top Chef play-off bracket, maybe he’d be the top seed after all.
In baseball, too much tinkering can cause finicky hitters to develop hitches in their swing thereby overcomplicating something that’s supposed to come naturally. Katsuji’s bread pudding, mushrooms, bacon, and deep-fried braised pork belly is overworked in all the wrong ways, but at least he knows why he keeps winding up on the bottom. Keriann’s problem is more concerning—her under-seasoned, beer braised short-rib, horseradish parsnip pure, crispy pretzel shallots, and lager-infused fondue is a bad dish, but she doesn’t even seem to realize it.
Unfortunately, though, Ron’s softball-sized croquette is the fish meat ball right over the heart of the plate that prompts the judges to send him to the showers on a day when Tom was clearly disappointed with what the chefs produced. Ron takes the loss, though, with a soup that was too rich, a croquette that was too large, and a dish that on the whole lacked the fine-dining sophistication the challenge called for. He seemed like a good guy, but in this case, he struck out. There’s always next season.