From literature to laterals, this week's Top Chef has something for everyone.

By John Vilanova
December 18, 2014 at 04:00 AM EST
David Moir/Bravo
S12 E9
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“My softer side? I mean, I like to snuggle.”

So said 6-foot-6-inch, 265-pound New England Patriots Tight End and, now, Top Chef guest judge Rob Gronkowski this past week in ESPN the Magazine. In culinary TV, there’s only one Top Chef, and in football, there’s only one Rob Gronkowski.

To sports fans, the giant pass-catcher’s outsized personality is fairly well-known—he’s a hard-partying dance freak who loves spiking footballs, hanging with Justin Bieber, and taking off his shirt. In some order.

If there’s ever been a stranger guest appearance than watching Gronk pose in the Top Chef kitchen, then I don’t remember it, but it’s a necessary humor infusion into a kitchen where nerves are taut and stakes are high. We’re only a few weeks away from the finale, and after last week’s episode, the tension could use a little slack. There are fist-bumps, penis jokes, and trash-talking. Even Padma’s disarmed by his…uh…arms.

So Gronk (or “Rob,” to Padma) wants sausage, Padma agrees, apparently, and the chefs set to work. The double entendres are flying through the kitchen during prep—Mei and Melissa are stuck in a sausage party; Katsuji tells Gregory he’s “cocky.” How old are we, again?

Sausage from scratch seems really tricky—getting the casings correct is an art that few of the chefs seem to have mastered. Poor George can’t even assemble his mixer to stuff the darn things and has to assemble a pork and veal sausage “patty” instead, piling on a sunny side up egg and potato hash to appease the hungry behemoth. Surprisingly, Katsuji of all people seems to have the most refined approach, using liquid nitrogen to cool his meat to keep fats from breaking. So for all you home cooks out there—make sure you refill your nitro canister before the you cook sausage next.

I was tempted to let Gronk’s responses be all that was said about the dishes, as his to-the-point appraisals of the dishes, in some ways, are a fun change of pace. Doug’s pork sausage braised in beer and onions with mustard is “a good pregame meal for sure.” Melissa’s wild boar and pork sausage with lentils, and a crudite of cucumber, fennel, and pickled red onion is “fancy with this leaf [for garnish]. It’s beautiful.” And the yuzu aioli that accompanies Mei’s pork sausage with ginger, garlic, fish sauce, avocado, and coconut puree is “a good sauce.” Who said food criticism was only for the professionals?

Continuing the apparent changing of the guard we’ve seen over the past few weeks, Doug and George wind up on top; both of their dishes are “very delicious.” Doug has really shone the last few weeks because he has so ably fit his cuisine into the contours of the challenges, and this time, he gave Gronk what he asked for: a big sausage. But despite that, George winds up satisfying the giant’s appetite, even sans sausage and despite very unsuccessfully talking smack. I think George is too traditional a chef to win this thing, but he’s definitely making the most of his second chance and has thrown the kitchen into relative chaos. Immunity means he’s cooking next week no matter what.

Unsurprisingly, Melissa’s technical problems led to tiny sausages, the opposite of what the challenge called for, which weren’t enough for Rob and his big muscles (which he’s more than willing to flex). She winds up on the bottom, but unfortunately, she’s joined there by Gregory, who seemed to be breaking out of his funk last week but has now hit another snag. His pork and boar sausage with kaffir lime, chiles, and a lemongrass, garlic, cucumber, and carrot salad looked overwrought even to me, and it obviously was too much for Gronk.

In the early going, Gregory established himself as the favorite and looked to be starting off an almost unprecedented run, winning four of the first five elimination challenges. Even Paul Qui in Austin didn’t do that. But since Thanksgiving, Gregory’s been rattled, and Doug has won three of the last four elimination challenges. I’m not quite sure if we should be anointing him the new favorite, but the field is certainly more competitive than it seemed a month ago.

NEXT: From ball players to bibliophiles

Top Chef loves a good juxtaposition, and going from five-word Gronk growls over sausage to high-concept, high-minded New England literary legends is highbrow/lowbrow at its finest. The chefs are tasked with taking local lit and turning it into food and will be tested on how well their food can tell the story. One of my all-time favorite Top Chef challenges occurred right around this point during the Austin season, when chefs were tasked with emphasizing plating in creating “evil” dishes for Charlize Theron. Visuality is something the chefs think about every week when it comes time to place their ingredients on their plates, but this season, perhaps more than any previous one, has emphasized challenging the chefs about more than just cooking the best dish. So this week, cooking will matter, but so, too, will how well they conceptualize the written word through food. How can they bring page to plate?

The competition curve has gotten so steep by now that chefs have to embrace the challenge if they’re going to stick around; when all the food is good, you don’t want to be the one who went rogue and only loosely followed the prompts. Also, as we learned last week, recipe books are dwindling, and I firmly believe that the chefs’ nerves are so fried by now that they’re willing to take risks and get weird with the right inspiration.

It’s funny that proximity to the pantry often seems to provide advantages, and Gregory gets first choice, picking Poe’s “The Raven,” the most obviously ready-made culinary pairing, one would expect. Katsuji and his twisted mind would like Stephen King, and Carrie seems like it’ll also be easy to represent on a plate. George’s choice—Dr. Seuss’ One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish—should lead to whimsy, but I wonder if he (and his food) are capable of delivering it.

It’s a smart choice for Melissa to take Hawthorne and NOT try and cook The Scarlet Letter; choosing a more obscure novel, The Blithedale Romance, allows her to fudge the story as she sees fit. While Doug complains about last pick drawing Emily Dickinson (I assure you, Doug, she’s far more than a “depressed chick poet”), he manages to find a line, “sunset in a cup,” that should be easy to reproducible visually. And Mei has Henry David Thoreau, who was not a vegetarian, no matter how many times she says he was.

Once they get in the kitchen, though, it’s clear that these chefs know extremely little about the stories they’re looking to tell with their food. Watching them stumble over literature is good for a few laughs—it kind of feels like what it’d sound like if Gronk read the menu at a French restaurant—but the nuanced challenge seems to be earning positive press as Tom and guest judge Tony Maws pay the chefs a visit. The judges emphasize again that they want fairly literal literary re-envisioning, to “try and tell a story through another story.”

NEXT: The next chapter

And while the bookworm in me is a little dubious about how well that really was achieved, the chefs’ dishes seem to be climbing up the bestseller lists for the diners and judges. At one point Tom, in his superlative way, says it’s the best food they’ve had all season, and Padma, Gail, Tony, and returning favorite Francis Lam are all impressed. And while I’m sure they’re right, the dishes didn’t do a whole lot for me visually. And wasn’t that what the challenge was supposed to be all about?

The exceptions are the ones that ultimately land on top, with Mei’s roasted vegetables, charred onion soil, tom kha [Thai coconut] snow, radish and carrot top vinaigrette the clear winner in terms of pure visuals. Doing two powder-style components on the same plate has the potential to wind up in the too-much-technique zone, but the judges love it and she’s back in the top tier. Joining her are Melissa, who’s finally showing more than knife-skills with seared halibut with spring vegetables, morels, charred baby corn, and peas over a fall-esque mushroom broth, and Doug, whose intense grilled carrot bisque, with grilled carrots, orange, cumin vinaigrette, radish, and dandelion was indeed sunset in a cup.

Based on the judges’ commentary, I was convinced that Doug was going to win again, consolidating his takeover of frontrunner status as he continues to peak at the right time. But ultimately, Mei’s “close to flawless” dish prevails. I honestly can’t remember the last time I was this far into a Top Chef season and wasn’t sure who was going to win the whole thing.

The wheels are really coming off for Gregory, who is on the bottom again with a seared beef tenderloin, grilled hen, parsnip puree, beets, and crispy nori that is unevenly cooked for some and improperly framed for all. Surprisingly, the thing that seems to undo Gregory again is storytelling (and fowl, for what that’s worth): Remember over Thanksgiving, he wanted to complete the feast by adding a requisite bird, almost (over)cooking his own goose and leading to a premature exit. His neck is on the line again due to narrative: His explanation for his two-protein plate is correct (the manor and the raven are both important parts of the Poe poem), but it’s not literal enough for the judges. Just cook a bird, Greg!

While part of me still believes Gregory is the most talented chef in this contest, another part of me believes he should’ve been the one to go home after failing to deliver on what the challenge required. Katsuji, on the other hand, gave the judges exactly what they asked for, presenting a Stephen King-inspired fabada of Serrano ham, chorizo, short ribs, and veal osso bucco with white beans, red beet puree, and hot sauce. When Tom calls it “maybe the most unappetizing looking dish I’ve ever seen,” I figured Katsuji was in trouble, and ultimately some flaws in his preparation send him home.

With Adam’s departure last week and now Katsuji’s tearful goodbye, it seems like every week we’re saying goodbye to a passionate chef who has devoted his or her life to the craft. “There is no love sincerer than the love of food,” George Bernard Shaw once wrote, and these chefs have epitomized that. But for now, it’s on to the next chapter.

Episode Recaps

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