Top Chef recap: Wok This Way
The chefs have to come up with the best "fast casual" concept — in other words, who can come up with the best Chipotle ripoff?
Karen, who always wanted to cook Asian even when a challenge didn’t call for it, must have been thinking, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” when she saw that the first Quickfire Challenge without her would be a wok challenge. Martin Yan of Yan Can Cook, the PBS show that taught me so much about Asian foods when I was a kid, was on hand to guest judge the Quickfire Challenge, which had the chefs creating the perfect chop suey using woks and incredibly high temperatures.
The chefs got incredibly sweaty, especially Isaac and Jeremy (which made me wonder, is there a correlation between profuse sweating and baldness?), as the flames leapt off the woks. It was genuinely scary. Almost as scary as Marjorie tearing live lobsters in half with her bare hands and letting the innards gush on the countertop. I would have run out of kitchen.
Landing in the bottom were Carl for a Sichuan-style dish with overcooked scallops (I was waiting for Martin to deliver his catchphrase, “Something fishy here!”), Kwame for his overly oily stir fry with crispy beef, and Isaac for his overly starchy General Tso’s chicken. Well, if Yan can cook, so can you, but you might not be able to work a wok like a master.
Jeremy did well with his Dungeness crab stir-fry and Amar with his pork, but Marjorie took the win — but no Immunity — for her lobster chop suey with ginger, Thai chili, and orange over rice. Martin said that the essence of Chinese cooking is control, and Marjorie was successful in not overdoing any of her flavors.
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Even though Marjorie didn’t win safety from elimination, Padma gave her an advantage: She got to strategically pair the remaining chefs with previously eliminated chefs for the Elimination Challenge. Marjorie was determined to make the most of it, so some of her decisions were really interesting. She chose Angelina for herself since Angelina is a “beast” with prep — if she hadn’t chosen her first, Angelina probably would have been most of the other chefs’ last choice. Nobody wanted Phillip, but Marjorie decided to place him with Kwame, who had had tension with him before. Well played, Marjorie. Well played.
Adam Fleischman, the founder of Umami Burger, showed up to introduce the challenge, which was to conceive of a “fast casual” restaurant that would be broad enough to have mass appeal. It’s the perfect challenge for San Francisco, which is teeming with startup restaurant ideas along the same lines, like my friend Hasnain’s Tava Indian Kitchen, which offers a delicious item called a “burroti.”
The chefs immediately began tossing out ideas, the least imaginative of which was Jeremy’s “Taco Dudes,” which would serve up tacos by a dude. Cool. I hope the place sells Bud Lime by the case.
Kwame came up with chicken and waffles, which at first sounded like an amazing idea. Imagine being able to hold a folded waffle with syrup and chicken in it like a falafel or burrito. It’d be delicious! But instead, Kwame committed the cardinal Top Chef sin, which was to buy frozen ingredients. He bought pre-made waffles from Whole Foods and kept playing up the fact that they were organic, but they really looked like Eggo Minis, only smaller. Isaac would be making gumbo, of course, and Marjorie decided to make pasta. At this point in a challenge, Marjorie always has some sort of crisis, but she ends up making it work somehow. She realized that she didn’t have any way of cooking her pasta, so she ended up boiling it in the deep fryers. Very resourceful.
When it came to service, the judges went from station to station while hearing the chefs’ pitches for their restaurants. I have to say, while I liked the concept of the challenge, I didn’t like the fact that the judges were critiquing these theoretical restaurants based on descriptions the chefs rattled off while they were sweatily serving up their dishes. I wish we’d actually been able to see the chefs make some pop-up version of the restaurants or at least design them in some way. I almost felt bad for Jeremy when he was describing Taco Dudes; he was just listing off a few ideas of what his restaurant would have, including hot chicks and a roof deck, and Tom was like, “HOT CHICKS AND A ROOF DECK?? YOU CAN’T HAVE HOT CHICKS AND A ROOF DECK!” I disagree, Tom; such a restaurant is indeed possible.
Isaac’s “Gumbo for Y’all” was predictable but hit the spot, as is often the case with his food. The judges liked that he described it as takeaway food for the whole family — instead of a “bucket of chicken,” it’d be a “gallon of gumbo.” Amar’s “Pio Pio” was all about Dominican-style rotisserie chicken, which was well executed but didn’t particularly wow the judges. These two were safe.
Placing in the top were Marjorie’s “Pasta Mama,” for which she served a sample spaghetti with olive oil-poached tuna. The judges ate it right up and even pictured Marjorie, who’s not in any way Italian, as the Pasta Mama herself. But the win went to Carl for his Chipotle-style Mediterranean bowls, which he called “Savory Med.” It really did sound like some drug…or maybe a coastal resort or rehab center. Tom noted that the dish, full of herbs and fresh vegetables, looked healthy and colorful and was full of flavors that were currently popular.
Jeremy landed near the bottom for his jumbled Taco Dudes concept. Sure, it was a bit unimaginative, but I don’t totally get why Tom was so baffled by it. Why can’t a taco joint with the word “dude” in the name be a gastropub and have a rooftop garden? He kept saying that no dudes would ever be caught dead in a gastropub, which is patently false — in fact, I think gastropubs are explicitly dude-ish. This is another case in which Tom was judging based on narrow precepts, like his belief that big pieces of meat shouldn’t come with microgreens. (Sorry, Chad).
But Kwame, I guess somewhat surprisingly if you think of his strong start to the season, was the one who got sent home. And it wasn’t even Phillip’s fault! Kwame’s decision to buy frozen waffles was such an obvious misstep, as was his concept that people would buy 40 of those tiny mini-waffles at a time to pass out at the office. Clearly Kwame has never worked in an office. Anyway, it was sad to see him go, and I hope he does well in Last Chance Kitchen, but I almost don’t want to see Jason end his winning streak!