Top Chefs battle head-to-head in Revolutionary War-themed challenges.

By John Vilanova
Updated November 13, 2014 at 04:01 AM EST
David Moir/Bravo

Top Chef

S12 E5
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  • Bravo

Last week, the judges (and I) took the chefs to task for plating food that felt uninspired. Four episodes in, there were still enough chefs remaining that middle-of-the-pack competitors could stay solidly there, eschewing risk and allowing other less-skilled chefs make errors that would ultimately lead to their demise. Everyone was focused on not standing out for the wrong reasons.

But with six of the 16 original chefs gone after a double elimination last week, there’s considerably less room for the chefs to hide, and the chefs are going to have to start cooking with more conviction. After last week’s relatively disappointing dishes, it’s nice to see the chefs going out and challenging themselves more and focusing on competing versus simply surviving. For the quickfire, chefs choose their competition, going head-to-head. In choosing their battle partners, rather than targeting the weakest remaining link, friends challenged friends of relatively similar skill level (Adam vs. Doug), the frontrunners (Mei and Gregory) were picked last for the first time in their lives, and rivals like Aaron and Katsuji renewed hostilities from last week… when they were on the same team and still managed to fight.

(Before going any further, we have to address the elephant in the recap—for those of you who don’t know, Aaron was arrested this past week on suspicion of domestic violence after an argument with his girlfriend. You can read about it here.)

Lauded guest judge Jamie Bissonnette is regarded for using unconventional cuts of meat and approaches (his Twitter bio says, “Eat offal”), so the dishes the chefs do battle with could’ve probably been a bit more unique if not for the Reynolds requirement. It’s the first really egregious sponsor product-placement task of the season—a necessary evil on Top Chef, usually—but in the grand scheme of things (remember when they had to use Truvia?), it could definitely be worse. And with $10,000 on the line for the best overall dish, the basic, recognizable dish requirements make it all about cooking skill.

Aaron and Katsuji have become fiery frenemies in recent weeks—neither takes the other seriously as a cook or a person—so smoking salmon seemed like a perfect choice. When Katsuji reached for the liquid nitrogen container and suggested that he was working on “layers of flavors,” it seemed like he was going to be repeating past mistakes and overwhelming the judges, but his sake-infused chipotle broth with smoked jalapeños and cold-smoked salmon sashimi was simple, elegant, and interesting. For Aaron, 30 minutes didn’t give him enough time to infuse enough smoke into his fish, and even though a tarragon crème fraiche sounds great, Katsuji emerged victorious.

Adam is kind of a weird guy—he walks a fine line between bold confidence and arrogant cockiness—but he’s got an unconventional approach and produces unique, interesting-sounding foods. His Vadouvan curry-spiced mussels with a Fresno chili broth and apples and toasted pumpkin seeds packs more flavor (how could it not?), but Doug does a better job of cooking his more conventional orange and saffron steamed mussels, and the cooking wins out.

One of the more unique approaches this week came from an unlikely source—Katie—who cooked pine nuts down like baked beans in a chili that impressed the judges, though I’m not quite sure how grilled chicken breast fit into their “smoked barbecue” category. Melissa’s smoked and seared scallop with charred corn, smoked bacon, and grilled fennel was definitely more classically refined, but also wasn’t very barbecue-y either. It’s funny, though—at one point Katie says she “didn’t come to Top Chef to play it simple and safe.” Could’ve fooled me!

Both Keriann and Stacy have been stuck squarely in the bottom of the middle most weeks so far, and both prepared solid—if unspectacular—takes on trout en papillote, though neither served her fish in paper. Keriann’s has more of everything (flavor, texture, and balance), and poor Stacy’s losing momentum fast as the ranks thin.

And finally, there’s Battle Dumpling, the first head-to-head meeting between Mei and Gregory. The other chefs are all engaged watching the two presumptive favorites duel, though Gregory has outpaced even Mei in recent weeks due to his strongest attribute: flavor. Mei’s been making dumplings since she was 7, Padma loves her black vinegar dipping sauce, and Jamie praises the folding of her pork dumplings, but flavor wins out and Gregory takes another victory and $10,000.

I wonder: Is it good that the season has such a clear frontrunner? Most years have three or so chefs who stand out, but Gregory seems to be on another level at this point, winning the last three elimination challenges and now two of the past three quickfires. Most recently, Paul Qui reeled off a similar dominance by the end of the Austin season (winning six of the final seven elimination challenges including the finale), but Gregory is in the driver’s seat even earlier this year. I’m sure there will be some bumps along the way (especially if Woody Harrelson gets involved), but does it already feel like everyone else is cooking for second place?

NEXT: Win the battle, lose the war?

Since the All-Stars did battle at Center Court at the US Open a few years ago, head-to-head team challenges have become an interesting way to break up a season and test the chefs directly against one another. While any war analogies should be handled sensitively—especially the day after Veterans’ Day—using the Revolutionary War battle sites to organize things is very Boston. The elimination challenge pits the quickfire winners versus the losers; winning three one-on-one battles wins the war. One small quibble: As the presumptive underdogs, the losers should’ve been in rebel blue rather than red(coat) aprons.

Despite the winners/losers dynamic, the teams are divided fairly evenly, skill-wise (though Mei is not pleased to be on the “losers team.” Since it’s a best-of-five contest, the best strategy is to trot out the team’s best chefs early, locking down the win as quickly as possible and saving the winning team from elimination. The teams both realize this, but there’s definitely a desire for revenge that impacts things. The Blue Team lines up Doug, Katsuji, Gregory, Keriann, Katie; Red counters with Adam, Melissa, Mei, Stacy, and Aaron.

In addition to the judges’ table battle, the chefs are required to plate 100 additional offerings for diners, and they’re on a rationed budget with only $2 to spend per plate at Whole Foods. This doesn’t seem to affect too many of the chefs (Keriann has to make a meatball instead of strip steak… alas), and it’s a nice concession to the fact that not everyone has limitless funds to construct dinner every week. The chefs will have to make do.

And on the whole, they do—the judges remark that the day’s meals are the best of the season to this point. Part of this comes as result of teamwork—Gregory takes a pseudo-executive chef role, tasting the team’s dishes and offering suggestions for his teammates. It’s selfless but smart—as long as the team wins, everyone’s safe. The Red Team is more of a group of individuals, which is purposive, too—as long as you cook a better dish than one of your teammates, you’re safe. Individuals versus collectivity.

Adam and Doug’s rematch is more of the same as the quickfire, with Adam’s flashy uniqueness battling Doug’s more-traditional flavors. While Jamie likes Doug’s sour beef tartare with fish sauce (I’m not sure if that sounds appetizing or not, honestly, and Tom says it’s underseasoned), Adam takes a traditional Top Chef risk by plating grits, which are right up there with risotto among the show’s most-scrutinized preparations. Adam’s simple salt-and-pepper grits are some of the best the show has ever seen, though, and he clean sweeps the judges to put the underdogs up 1-0.

Katsuji and Melissa’s dishes both have problems—too much richness in his tostada for the former and too little thickness in her white gazpacho for the latter—and a split decision awards the win to Katsuji, tying things up and setting the stage for the main event. Mei managed to fit New York strip into her budget, plating perfectly cooked Korean barbecue-style beef and a quick kimchi that earns high praise. Unfortunately for her, though, Tom suggests that Gregory has his seasoning down to the last grain of salt with his turmeric and ginger green curry broth with shiitake mushrooms and fresh dill. Judging by the judges, these were probably the two best dishes of the day, but, unfortunately for Mei, Gregory is the unanimous victor. Mei will have to bide her time, but maybe the third time will be the charm at some point.

Keriann has the chance to lock up the win for the Blue Team, but Tom takes her to task on her dish, finding fault with every component. Meanwhile, Stacy’s marinated beets, pecan-sage yogurt, and horseradish brittle is an abstract plate for her. The judges don’t think it’s all that great, but it’s better than Keriann’s and good enough to force a final sudden death battle between Aaron and Katie. As Tom muses, “I guess the war always comes down to the last battle, doesn’t it?”

It’s a rematch of the sudden-death quickfire from a few weeks ago, where Aaron barely saved his Top Chef life, leaving Katie surprisingly craving revenge. Aaron’s making seafood noodles again, and talking trash… again. Somehow dessert is a “cop-out,” but repeating the same preparation you used only a few weeks ago isn’t. It’s funny—even the judges seem a little tired of Aaron’s schtick at this point. Katie’s chocolate stout cake isn’t spectacular, but there were texture and taste issues with Aaron’s dish.

At judges’ table, Tom’s right in asserting that the more experienced chefs on Aaron’s team could’ve spoken up and helped out the junior competitor. Had he done a better dish, they all would’ve been safe. The brunt of the criticism seems to fall on Adam, who made a strategic decision (playing chess, as the judges put it, rather than Risk) and allowed his teammate to fail. Gregory volunteers that teamwork was the key and that he would’ve said something, but Adam’s hesitance raises a real point: Aaron (or most of the chefs, really) wouldn’t have listened anyway.

Though he’s surprisingly graceful in defeat, Aaron’s behavior throughout the first third of the season was inexcusable, and it seems no one (especially the producers) is sad to see him go.

Episode Recaps

Top Chef

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