Top Chef recap: 'The First Thanksgiving'
Top Chef does Thanksgiving—17th century style.
To some extent, each season of Top Chef functions like a three-act drama. At the outset, contestants spar over non-food nonsense as the personalities carry the day and earn the screen time, no matter how their food turns out. The third act, of course, is the finale—where the final four congregate at a foreign locale for a battle royale. But the middle act is a different space in and of itself where cooking takes center stage. Once a third of the chefs are cut, non-contenders still remain, but the drama changes—everyone’s more interested in their own dishes than what everyone else is doing.
With Aaron’s departure, we’ve officially entered Act II, where the remaining chefs, for the most part, respect and admire one another. Though it’s obvious that a few chefs probably aren’t going to factor into the final decision, each chef has a recognizable culinary vision; the people who remain chefs, not cooks. Tolerance becomes begrudging respect, and each week Katsuji pours out a little more Pabst for the departed.
Coming into this week’s episode, the chefs seem to have sorted themselves into a few groups. After soundly beating Mei twice head-to-head last week, Gregory is the clear frontrunner, though Mei is definitely 1A in the rankings. After that, Adam and Doug have the look of potential finals contestants, but their respective flaws (Adam’s instability and Doug’s… uh… stability) could cut either down before the final four. Melissa is the full-on dark horse (I believe one of the other chefs even said it), but she’s not going to be able to sneak up on people much longer. Katsuji and Katie are wild cards in totally different ways, and Stacy and Keriann are, it seems, bringing up the rear.
Bostonian and Season 1 alumna Tiffani Faison is hosting a fun pre-quickfire challenge this week as the chefs go knee deep into the Ocean Spray cooperative’s cranberry bogs, wading for their produce for the quickfire back at the kitchen. The four chefs who fill cranberry baskets back on shore first win an advantage in the quickfire. Physical challenges are always somewhat dubious (the late-season Pee Wee Herman-themed bike ride to the Alamo during the Austin season being the most egregious example), but this one is for significantly lower stakes. Katie is the surprising winner, though she looks like she could’ve been a former athlete. Gregory and Adam’s long legs help them join her and Doug in the top four.
It sometimes seems like the chefs have access to almost anything they want in the Top Chef pantry, so playing with the proteins and produce chefs get—as has happened a few times already this season—is a welcome wrinkle. For the quickfire, the chefs have to use their cranberry harvest and other Ocean Spray products (sponsor shoutout!), and the top four gain access to a premium pantry, while Mei, Melissa, Katsuji, Keriann, and Stacy are forced to pick from lower-quality options.
NEXT: Cranberry borsht?
It seems like Katsuji’s still a bit wiped from the cranberry bog, and his choice to tartare skirt steak lands him in the bottom, though chile de arbol mayonnaise and cranberry hot sauce both sound pretty darn interesting. Adam joins him after “begging the judges to hate his dish” after burning a component of his bourbon cranberry barbecue sauce-glazed NY strip with mushroom fricassee. While Padma criticized the dish for lacking sufficient sauce, the wizened veteran Tiffani passes on some words of wisdom (“Don’t be forthcoming”) to the young hotshot—even if your dish does stink, you have to own it.
The third unfortunate bottom-dweller is Stacy, whose curried cauliflower soup with smoky pepper-cranberry relish was executed the way she wanted but still met criticism for being underseasoned and clunky. In the early episodes, chefs often disagree with the judges’ assessments to mask their own insecurities. Earlier this year, Michael even went as far as to question Tom’s palate. But the biggest blow to the middle-round competitors’ confidence comes here, when even the dishes they are pleased with aren’t landing where they want.
Meanwhile, Doug doesn’t quite follow the cranberry curve ball the challenge called for, but his bourbon and cranberry glazed pork tenderloin with Brussels sprouts and cranberry mustard is fall on a plate and the judges love it (I wonder, though, when this episode was actually filmed). Mei’s back to her contending ways with a sweet and sour pork with pickled mustard seeds and apple salad that is craveable and elegant to the judges and “f–king great” to her. It’s good to see her rebound.
Gregory’s streak is broken, though, by the unlikeliest of giant-topplers: Katie. In spite of the other chefs’ usually quizzical treatment of her, Katie has remained unapologetically herself so far throughout the competition, and her traditional style pays off with an unbelievably unconventional plate—cranberry borscht with crème fraiche, charred Brussels sprouts, and pancetta. The other chefs are shocked (someone says her dish “looks disgusting”), but she’s the one who dethrones Gregory and earns immunity in the process.
Cranberries are great on their own, but most people eat them at Thanksgiving, so it was only fitting that the elimination challenge would require the chefs to prepare the rest of the traditional feast. So the chefs head 40 miles south (and 400 years back) to Plimoth Plantation, a wrinkle in time where the chefs will be forced to use period-appropriate cooking techniques and foodstuffs to create a 17th-century-style meal.
Thanksgiving has a complicated colonial history, but I have to say that the producers handled things quite well, honoring the Wamapanoag people as well as the descendents of the pilgrims with a dinner that felt culturally conversant in all the best ways. Bostonian Ken Oringer is guesting, Gail is lamenting her Canadian ancestry, and Tom’s telling stories of Thanksgiving lasagna. It’s a nice table to be at.
Meanwhile, with little more than fires and iron, the chefs are sweating over the fire as they seek to prepare dishes that are rustic and earthy. On the whole, they do extremely well given the difficulty of this challenge. With 13th generation Americans and Natives whose lines go back even further around the table, the family-style service leads to a convivial vibe. What’s bittersweet, though, is that the judges seem to like every single dish. Sure, you want the chefs to cook their best, but it’s still early, and it’s a lot easier to see a chef go home for a mistake they’ve made rather than trying to take consolation in their dish being the “least great” of the day.
NEXT: A changing of the culinary guard
Tiffani’s early words of warning ring true when a couple of chefs overshare to their own detriment when it comes time to eat. Keriann’s quick pivot from blueberry pie to venison caught the judging chefs by surprise when they did their rounds, so whether or not her sauce was too savory, the judges’ palates had already been primed. Similarly, Stacy takes pride in plating her ramp-smoked clams with butternut squash, lobster, and more ramps on the ground, leading the judges to conclude (rightly or wrongly) that a strange taste they couldn’t identify in her “dirty” dish was dirt itself.
Keriann avoids the bottom because Melissa’s roasted parsnips, green beans, and zucchini with a ramp and onion vinaigrette are underseasoned and too simple, despite how nicely the veggies are cooked. She and Stacy are joined by an unlikely third squeaky wheel—Gregory. Yes, Gregory’s on the bottom , and it’s due to his own idealistic thinking—he firmly believed that a Thanksgiving dinner should have a bird on the table. It’s commendable (as is his desire to push himself, describing his goal to “push the walls to see how big the room can get”), but the goose that Gail generously calls “toothsome” was far too much of a risk for him to take as the ranks thin. The only thing worse than watching a chef run up against the boundaries of their own ability is watching a skilled chef go home due to a mistake, and a premature elimination for Gregory would’ve hurt the show. Ultimately, though, it’s Stacy’s time. Everyone’s sad to see her go, but at least she represented herself—and her city—well.
While Katie definitely earned points from the judges for her immunity-inspired risky blueberry stuffing with blue cornmeal cornbread and sautéed lobster, the top three features some familiar faces, with Mei and Doug back on top. Joining them is Katsuji, whose roller coaster ride isn’t ending this week. Doug’s spit-roasted rabbit with garlic, hazelnuts, chestnuts, radish, and ramps (the produce of the day, apparently) is period-perfect, and Mei’s duck fat-roasted cabbage with trout vinaigrette is the most innovative dish of the round, but Katsuji climbs to the top with a roasted butternut squash dish with poached lobster, chestnuts, and ancho chile butter that is described as sticky, gooey, and savory. That’s a winning three-word combination, and with a changing of the guard on top, I can’t think of a better way to start Act II.