Top Chef contestants try to make a name for themselves at a Boston institution.
Credit: David Moir/Bravo
S12 E4
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Why does a person go on Top Chef, anyway?

Sure, $125,000 is a pretty hefty chunk of change, but in the grand scheme of reality purses, it’s a fairly modest sum. The booth spot at Food & Wine in Aspen is nice, but there are plenty of other food festivals that don’t require months of your life away from home in order to gain a spot. And who reads magazines—even Food & Wine—these days anyway? (Aside from EW of course.)

The real reason more than 100 people have tested the sharpness of their knives and intellects on Top Chef over the past eight years is for recognition. Whether they have designs on becoming the next Guy Fieri or Gordon Ramsay, young chefs put themselves through reality TV’s proverbial meat grinder because it is their chance to make a name for themselves and/or publicity for their personal brand.

Top Chef is an interesting case, though, because some of its most recognizable alumni—Marcel, Spike, Carla, Casey, Fabio, and a host of others—didn’t make it to the finish line, cash the six-figure check furnished by the sponsors, or score that Food & Wine feature. That’s because on Top Chef, winning doesn’t matter as much as standing out. Mostly, you go on Top Chef because you want people to know your name.

There’s a place for that in Boston, and the Cheers bar is another perfect setting for a quickfire, and having George Wendt’s Norm sitting in his usual spot at the bar clinking glasses with Padma makes things even better. Elevated pub food was inevitable when Top Chef chose Boston, and given the city’s requirement that every bar serve food, it fits perfectly. Unfortunately in this case, the food coming out of the kitchen at 84 Beacon Street is far from the best stuff we’ve seen from this talented culinary cast. Rebecca’s “wicked hot” chicken wings with a spicy ponzu glaze, lime vinaigrette, and fresh herbs looked dry and lacked sufficient sauce. Stacy didn’t even know Cheers had food, and her arugula pesto, prosciutto chips, balsamic tomato jam, and burrata on crostini is unmemorable. And regardless of what Padma says, Aaron’s burger with peanut butter and mayo didn’t sound the least bit appetizing.

After sweeping things last week, Gregory emerged as the new frontrunner, and the other chefs seemed to be chafing uncomfortably at his winning streak. But for the quickfire, Gregory’s the one who seems unsettled (apparently due to thoughts of Woody Harrelson), and even if he’d managed to plate his complete dish, an uninspired burger, it wouldn’t have been a serious contender. Gregory’s fairly frazzled (even his hair is a mess), but George’s consolation lets him off the hook: Harrelson’s a vegan anyway.

The other dish on the bottom was James’ apple cider vinegar, Belgian wit, and coriander-pickled carrots and a red bean puree—a dish that, from the outset, made no sense. There was ample room to push the boundaries of “comfort” food, particularly in that setting, but James’ insistence on his choice, in spite of the fact that it was entirely unsuitable for the challenge, doomed him from the start. And hummus is not as common as chicken wings in any bar, James. Sorry.

George Wendt’s top two dishes—Katsuji’s and Keriann’s—makes me wonder about the decision to use non-expert judges: How capable of objective assessment are they? Or are they just picking what they think tastes good? (Existential side note: Isn’t that the whole point anyway?) Anyway, George admits he likes the taste of crab, so of course Keriann’s beer-battered onion ring with crab salad and spicy hollandaise was in the top, though it was a well-conceived dish and probably deserved to be there given the other offerings. The surprising winner, though, is Katsuji and his sashimi-esque “ceviche” of mahi mahi and tuna with a roasted tomato and jalapeño salsa. One of the few things Aaron has said that makes any sense is that Katsuji has been adeptly playing some mind games over the young season, rattling the other chefs and causing general chaos. And while Katsuji has yet to prove he’s capable of staying out of his own way and isn’t really looking like a contender yet, the surprise win and its immunity mean he’ll be back next week.

NEXT: Menu management

Chefs and viewers alike look forward to the late-season Restaurant Wars challenge because it tests the chefs on more than just cooking as they develop a restaurant concept in a few short hours. But generally speaking, the challenges all ask the same question: Who cooked the best food?

The elimination challenge this week, though, is one of the more interesting ones in recent memory because it tests an under-examined aspect of being a (Top) chef—menu-writing. Each team is tasked with crafting a traditional three-course Italian progression—antipasti, primi, and secondi—and whoever sells the most menus, regardless of how the food turns out, is safe from elimination.

Cooking is all about buzz words—”seasonal,” “gastronomy,” “local”—and adjective layering suggests expertise, uniqueness, and distinction. Who goes for “vanilla” when “Tahitian vanilla” is available? Why have regular scallops when you can trace their sourcing to a nearby bay? And I can’t remember the last time I ordered salmon that wasn’t roasted over a blend of cherry, pecan, and applewood chips.

This should’ve led to obvious choices—red meat being the absolute “must”—but Aaron, surprisingly, seizes on another key to the challenge by busting out an array of action verbs to drum up interest in the Purple Team’s dishes. (For the record, Katsuji and Aaron, macerated and marinated are actually two entirely different things, but these are cooks, not English majors.) Eventually, Tom repeats Aaron almost word-for-word at dinner—people care almost as much about what you do to their food as they do what the food actually is. Roast it, braise it, caramelize it. Or just serve scallops, because everybody likes scallops.

The diners’ choices, I think, gets at an anxiety that was teased out in a few different ways this episode—the difference between diners’ subjective tastes and those of the so-called experts. Diners look for ingredients they know and like; the judges look for dishes with flavor combinations they know will make sense. The diners and judges probably aren’t always in alignment about what dishes are the “best” because “best” means different things to different people.

On paper, the Purple Team looked like the “worst” bet for success, and as Aaron and Katsuji battled as service started, they looked doomed. Although he’s a mess in the kitchen, Aaron somehow plates a really stellar-looking dish that stands out appearance-wise, with seared scallops, picked ramps, crispy speck, and those macerated peaches. It’s traditional without being dated, and Tom calls it one of the evening’s best dishes.

Gregory’s dish—peppercorn-crusted strip loin (more solid word choice there) with a sweet onion compote, roasted tomato, and cured olives and herbs—also earns praise from the judges (and Schlow, who’s sneaking bites in during service), but Katsuji runs into trouble with his spring pea and goat cheese ravioli with pecorino, green chili, and mint. The pasta itself is dry, but one diner’s curveball really prompts a swing and miss from him.

I’ve railed about this before in the past, but something about Emmy Rossum’s presence leaves me pretty disappointed in the judges. Sure, dish adjustments due to dietary restrictions are a day-to-day necessity in the lives of these chefs, but the smarminess with which it was handled by the judges was inappropriate. Gluten allergies are, of course, a very real thing, but after the chefs worked all day on pasta dishes, handicapping them in this way seemed unnecessarily cruel. At the same time, the disappointment and outrage the judges’ table felt over less-than-stellar gluten-free substitutes was a huge turn-off. What did they expect? It just serves to confirm something we all think deep down: The worst kind of eater is a militant one.

NEXT: Low risks and no rewards

“Why do a salad when so much is on the line?” It’s a valid question that Doug(ie) asks himself as he plates his coleslaw-esque radicchio salad with warm pancetta, goat cheese vinaigrette, and hazelnuts. You have to feel for the Orange Team—they’ve made a menu that proved Mei wasn’t too far off in calling them underdog sous-chefs. Their lack of design experience showed, with far too active verbs and a menu that was fated to be ordered only by the most adventurous Top Chef guests.

Their saving grace, though, is that their cooking more than compensates, with Adam’s aggressively spiced bay scallops and fennel linguini with sun gold tomato gremolata sending Richard 30 years into his past and Mei’s crispy-skin branzino with lemon jam, salsa verde, and radishes prompting the table to invoke memories of Marea. Even Adam’s polenta looks good, and something tells me that if this had been a challenge based purely on cooking, the “underdogs” would’ve pulled the upset.

Poor James. Poor, poor sweet “’80s baby” James, who was having the time of his life on Top Chef, but he fell victim to one of the show’s typical takedowns—being a team player. Despite realizing immediately that diners would see (and order) red, he allowed Melissa and Keriann to pilot a three-by-sea menu. While Melissa and Keriann both prepare solid dishes (Melissa is approaching dark-horse status to make a deep run), land-locked James’ chilled wild shrimp, mussels, and clams with arugula, navel orange, and capers is a relic of a bygone era, “shrimp cocktail with orange juice,” as Tom says.

Stacy’s rib eye (and Rebecca’s scallops) almost carried a mediocre menu to safety through the sheer number of orders they received, but the Blue Team’s dinner, on the whole, seemed uninspired. Despite how proud Rebecca seems to be of her dish—seared scallop with charred fennel, orange, and arugula—the dish underdelivers on the char, overdelivers on the salt, and suggests that she’s out of touch with modern times. Katie’s still doing her thing with a hand-cut pappardelle with basil walnut pesto and confit cherry tomatoes and a gluten-free zucchini pasta option. The judges like it all, but even the most patient viewer has to be getting bored by this food.

At least once a year, Tom gets downright offended by a chef’s culinary choice, and it usually spells doom for the offending party. This time, Stacy’s sliced grilled rib eye with king trumpet mushrooms, asparagus, and Kalamata olive vinaigrette epitomized the choice many of these chefs made this week—rather than risking criticism for serving a piece that was too fatty, she took the guesswork out of it, artificially raising her own floor but lowering her ceiling. She stands by it, prompting another smart insight from the veteran Richard: There’s a difference between standing behind your dish and being honest about its shortcomings. Tom’s charge is even more clear—do what’s good for the food, even if it comes at a risk.

Ultimately, though, Rebecca’s snooze-inducing dish (Richard called it “mediocre room service”) means she joins James in the packing of the knives and going. Both seemed like fine people and cooks, and we know their names now, at least. But given their old-school technique, their food just wasn’t made for these culinary times. Neither was ever going to be a real threat.

While even Gregory showed his mortality this week and a few chefs impressed, for the most part, the group cooked unspectacular, safe food and worked to avoid mistakes rather than try to win. It’s still early enough that there are plenty of pretenders; hiding in the middle is a strategy while the fat gets trimmed. But isn’t the goal to make a name for yourself?

Episode Recaps

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