Unlikely returns and departures shake up the Top Chef kitchen.

By John Vilanova
December 11, 2014 at 04:15 AM EST
David Moir/Bravo
S12 E8
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  • TV Show
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These poor chefs don’t get a break, do they?

This week on Top Chef, the remaining seven cheftestants are still licking their wounds after Restaurant Wars, but the ranks are thinner than ever. With Keriann’s elimination last week, we’ve hit a point where there are few, if any, obvious candidates for elimination. At seven, there’s hardly a middle-ground left when it comes time for judges table—you’re either safely ensconced in the top tier or shifting awkwardly before Padma tells someone to pack up and go.

And as Katsuji slowly pours out his blurred-out-labeled beer for another conquered cook, we inch toward the final four and a change-of-scenery. But there’s change afoot—the first third’s frontrunners are sagging, dark horses are stepping into the light, and it’s becoming less and less clear who’s actually going to last the week.

The chefs are trying to go about things as if it’s business-as-usual. Dougie’s updating his résumé to add “Restaurant Wars winner.” Katie’s convincing herself one last time that Keriann would’ve been sent home even if her dish had been presented the way she wanted (she would’ve). Gregory’s trying to snap out of a funk that seems to be setting in at the worst possible time.

Look…Top Chef is a grind. The chefs have cooked more than a dozen times for the some of the most discerning palates on earth already. At this point, the judges know what they’re getting each week. There aren’t really going to be a ton of surprises in terms of flavor combinations or techniques anymore. Recipe books are dwindling, nerves are getting frayed. And there’s suddenly nowhere to hide.

Another obvious Boston-themed quickfire was a chowdah challenge. We all knew it had to be coming, but adding a sudden-death quickfire with immunity to the winner this late in the game was a bit of a surprise. Something’s afoot. Local legend Jasper White—who wrote the book on the stuff—is guesting, but he’s a man of few words, and the challenge has a weird vibe among the chefs, none of whom want to be sent home for a half hour’s work.

Doug’s taking shots at Gregory for cooking something curry-inspired. Adam’s wondering aloud why Katsuji’s chowder is green. And Mei snagged all of the littleneck clams, only to have Melissa swipe them from her station. Things are…off.

Jasper likes Gregory’s, Adam’s, and Melissa’s, but provides little information as to why. Adam had an interesting strategy, making his tomato-water-infused dish simple, delicate, and lighter than the heavier offerings his opponents plated. Melissa’s Thai-style cioppino with lemongrass, kaffir lime, and ginger looks nice, but it’s not really a chowder. And Gregory’s back into the swing of things with a dish he’d practiced before coming on the show—a razor clam and sweet potato chowder with bacon, dashi, and coconut milk broth. He gets the win and immunity. He’s still the chef-to-beat to me; now begins the slow process of re-convincing himself.

NEXT: Sudden death; sudden rebirth

For once, though, virtually every prediction the chefs make during prep comes true. Mei says the steamer clams she’s left with won’t have enough flavor compared to the stolen littlenecks, and Jasper affirms that, suggesting her clam and lobster chowder with yuzu aioli, celery, and fennel was the nicest to look at, but lacked seasoning. Doug’s worried about getting enough fish flavor in his dish but overlooks the key ingredient itself, so his soup is missing the requisite texture. Katsuji’s green chowder lacks balance, and his sauce overpowers his oysters.

And then there’s Katie. Weeks ago, Katie suggested that she didn’t come onto Top Chef to play it safe before plating another straightforward dish. Her idea of risk-taking was different from the rest of the chefs, but for her, I guess, it really was adventurous. Her off-the-wall chowder interpretation, with clams in black tea-infused lobster stock and raw sourdough, is definitely a risk. Jasper doesn’t like the sourdough, and Katie’s facing sudden death.

It would’ve been a tall task against any of her six remaining “family members,” but the producers throw another curveball at the beleaguered chefs, bringing back all of the previously eliminated chefs and allowing them to vote which among their ranks will challenge Katie for the right to her chef’s coat. To some extent, it’s a useful cross-promotion to remind viewers that Last Chance Kitchen is returning online, but bringing back the vanquished chefs was bound to happen at some point.

It’s fairly obvious to everyone who’s most deserving of another shot, with four of the eight votes going to George the Greek. Remember: George was slowest in the mise-en-place challenge in episode one, but he had a chance to save himself by beating any chef in the kitchen head-to-head. Knowing what we know now, the fact that he chose Gregory stands out as one of the cruelest of ironies for poor George. But now, his hair is greased, his knives are sharp, and he’s looking for redemption.

Tom accompanied the returning chefs back into the kitchen, and the sudden-death dish, rabbit, is one of his favorites. It’s funny watching the chefs try to figure out how they should feel about George’s potential return. He has a pedigree, and sometimes the threat you know is better than the one you don’t. Or, in Katsuji’s words, “At least we know Katie. She’s not the best.”

Katie’s braised rabbit leg with Moroccan tomato sauce looks fine, but the judges are more impressed with George’s roasted rabbit loin, barley risotto, glazed carrots, and mustard jus—even if, according to Adam, it does look like something out of a mid-’90s Culinary Institute of America cookbook. Jasper and Tom deem George’s dish the winner, he’s back in, and Katie’s departure is as unfortunately unceremonious as some of her food was.

Over its eight years and 11 seasons, Top Chef has grown exponentially in profile and prestige since its early years. It’s nice, though, that they are still willing to go back-to-basics with things like this week’s elimination challenge, which welcomes 75 super fans (out of 15,000 Twitter respondents, apparently) into the kitchen for a tasting event. Celebrity guests, restaurant kitchens, and elaborate challenges are nice, but this puts the food forward in a way that really works well.

The last twist of the episode is the best one, though—Gail, Padma, Richard, and Tom are doing the shopping. In a lot of ways, this is the best example of what we’ve been seeing all season, where the judges allow their personalities to come out more for the cameras. Making them the ones who have to haggle with Whole Foods butchers over the choicest cuts, wander the aisles looking for iceberg lettuce, and handle runaway shopping carts is great television.

The chefs draw knives to see which judge will be shopping for them: Adam and Doug draw Richard; Katsuji and Melissa get Gail; Mei has Tom; and George and Gregory have Padma, who admits she can barely park her car at Whole Foods in half an hour. Now that the judges know the chefs’ styles so well, it’s a really interesting challenge: What do the judges want to see the chefs cook?

The results are mixed, with Tom offering Mei a wide variety and Jedi-mind-tricking Richard into giving up the lamb he wants for Mei and Richard grabbing some agar-agar, versawhip, and other “playful molecular shit” for traditionalists Adam and Doug.

While the pantries aren’t perfect, the chefs get to work animating dishes from the judges’ offerings with no preparation, and the results, it seems, are receiving high marks. The kitchen is more crowded (and more messy) than it’s ever been, but watching the judges interact with the guests, children trying foods for the first time, and Gregory giving a jackfruit-cutting demonstration, it’s a warm scene. Getting people excited about cooking is sort of the point of any food TV show, right?

NEXT: The herd gets thinner

Despite her problems in Whole Foods, Padma prepares a pantry that produces two of the three top dogs, with Gregory and George joining Doug atop the standings. It’s nice to see George get some immediate recognition after his “raw deal” at the season’s beginning, though his beef lamb kebab with green lentils and cucumber mint yogurt isn’t the most inventive dish. The degree of difficulty is going to increase significantly soon. I hope he’s ready.

I would’ve bet anything that Gregory’s authentic-smelling coconut milk and chicken in madras curry with a jackfruit relish was going to be the winner, especially given Tom’s high praise of how Gregory cooked the chicken. But when Gail announces the winner, it turns out to be Dougie and his chorizo-marinated mussels with sweet pepper and cauliflower relish, lemon preserves, and bacon crumble. Every season there comes a chef who starts to peak as the going gets tougher, and with two straight wins, Doug is looking very strong with only two weeks to go until the final four. Gail seems smitten, at least, calling him “Dougie” about five times too many between the challenge and judges’ table.

While Katsuji, who might’ve made the first successful cocktail in competitive TV history, manages to land in the “middle” for the last episode that will have one, Adam, Mei, and Melissa wind up on the chopping block. Mei’s offense is simple—she served far-undercooked lamb—but she handles it well by playing dumb. To some extent, I think she might’ve been able to coast on her reputation thus far; the judges bought the idea that she wanted the lamb that (under)done even though it was obviously a mistake.

What’s strange about Melissa’s placement at the bottom is that the judges are hitting her for things we don’t always see: They criticize her for her sautéed shrimp, harissa yogurt, roasted fig, and a fennel, dill, mint, and artichoke salad, a dish that is far too simple considering she had two-and-a-half hours to make it. What’s worse (and even more surprising) is that they hammer her for the dish being too similar to a previous one she’d offered. I don’t really remember seeing that before, even when Jamie was offering scallops every week back in the day. Her knife cuts are impeccable; they always are. The time has come, though, for her to show her flavors.

But the bottom rung, unfortunately, is Adam, whose circuits might’ve been crossed after receiving Richard’s basket. Trying a new technique—a flash-cooked shrimp—sounds like something out of the Blais cookbook, and pairing it with mushroom conserva and sweet peppadews sounded promising, but little dings here and there put him in danger. His attempt at innovation—the risk he so desperately thought he needed to take to move out of the middle—proves to be his downfall.

He’s noticeably shaken, but his love of food shines through. Despite his immaturity, Adam seemed to be a good guy in a season that has plenty of bad ones, and his departure stings. But honestly, going forward, it’s going to get harder to say goodbye each week from here on out. I hope Katsuji pours out a whole can of beer this time.

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