Top Chef recap: Spines and Vines
The cheftestants head to Santa Barbara for a challenge with a last minute twist
For the past two episodes, our Top Chef contestants have been battling it out in Los Angeles, but Padma thinks it’s time for a change of scenery: We’re off to Santa Barbara! The cheftestants seem pretty pumped about this little road trip up north. It gives them time to bond outside of the kitchen and us time to learn things, like the fact that Hot Dad Jeremy named his daughter after madeleine cookies. Stop being so perfect, Hot Dad!
One mediocre rap from Kwame and Giselle later, the chefs pull up to a marina and meet one of the ingredients they’ll be using in their Quickfire Challenge: sea urchin. It’s prickly on the outside but delicious on the inside — just like Tom! But they won’t be cooking uni (the edible part of the urchin) alone, so they head over to meet Padma and Top Chef stalwart, Dana Cowin from Food & Wine magazine at Sanford Winery (of course Padma would choose the winery over the marina; she’s a pro, you guys).
For this Quickfire Challenge, each chef will have 25 minutes to cook a knockout sea urchin dish and pair it with the perfect wine. But this is no ordinary quickfire, people — this is a Sudden Death Quickfire Challenge. Padma and I love these. Why? Because they always bring the drama. The winner will be granted immunity for the elimination challenge, while the chef with the losing dish will have to choose one fellow chef to face in a head-to-head battle. If that chef wins the battle, both the chef and her competitor stay, but if that chef loses — she goes home immediately. See what I mean about the drama? We’re all going to need a glass of wine for this one.
After 25 minutes of uni-ing their hearts out, the chefs line up to hear which dishes Padma and Dana couldn’t get enough of. The top three spots go to Wesley and his creamed corn with flavors that wouldn’t quit (also known as: uni, fennel, roe and scallop), paired with a chardonnay; Carl, who made an insanely delicious-looking sea urchin omelet with herbs and green chili (also paired with chardonnay); and Grayson with her crab salad full of cucumber, grapefruit, and uni that she paired with a viognier. Dana and Padma love that this dish was simple and really let the uni sing — so Grayson takes this challenge and the immunity.
The bottom three are Angelina, whose uni butter pasta was all kinds of salty; Giselle, who served up uni on a potato that wasn’t fully cooked, alongside an over-powering onion jam; and Karen, whose attempt at making a hot-and-sour soup with whipped uni went awry when the bowls she was left with completely melted the star ingredient.
In the end, Giselle’s confusing potato dish gets her sent into sudden death and she selects Angelina as her opponent. Angelina is pretty low-hanging fruit, so this is an obvious choice. The ladies have 25 minutes to whip up an ostrich egg dish. Giselle is excited since all she wanted to do in the Quickfire was cook with eggs but couldn’t seem to locate them (although two other chefs had these elusive eggs in their dishes). Angelina’s goal, since she can’t go home, is to win and send some of her competition home. Too bad Angelina is just so in over her head here. Both Giselle and Angelina serve up versions of egg scrambles, but this is an easy win for Giselle. Alas, the sudden-death drama was all a tease.
Thankfully, no one can evade the threat of going home in the Elimination Challenge. Padma tells the chefs to pair up because tonight they’re making surf and turf. More important than picking a partner, though, is picking a winning combination of fish and meat, so the chefs bolt over to the proteins to ensure they have a perfect pairing. But let’s forget the food for one minute — I’m seriously in love with some of these budding friendships. You have Jason and Frances calling themselves long-lost twins, Kwame and Chad entering into what I have to believe is an everlasting bromance, and Angelina and Giselle…oh, wait, they just competed against one another and now they’re a team? That’s awkward.
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Regardless, the teams put their heads together to come up with some inventive surf and turf dishes and then hit the aisles of Whole Foods. But this challenge is way too straightforward for Top Chef, so that beautiful bald eagle, Tom Colicchio, arrives while the chefs are unpacking in the kitchen to let them know that there is, indeed, a twist. Instead of making one dish as a team, each pair will be competing against one another in a head-to-head battle, one person with the surf protein and one with the turf. Oh, and they have to split the groceries they just bought. TOP CHEF, YOU EVIL GENIUS.
You’d think this split would cause an uproar and there’d be pieces of halibut and ribeye being strewn across the kitchen, but you’d be wrong. I guess these chef bromances are eternal. Almost every pair seems pretty civil when deciding who gets the surf and who gets the turf in the divorce. Although, at one point Carl, who was psyched to be partnered with Isaac, laments that knowing what he knows now, he “should’ve picked Giselle.” Giselle’s having a rough night, guys.
NEXT: It’s surf vs. turf at the dinner table
It’ll be up to the judges to see if acrimonious was the way to go here. To help them make this decision, Tom, Padma, and Dana, who’s riding this one out, have brought along a dinner table full of friends, who also happen to own restaurants, including: Cat Cora (Cat Cora’s Kitchen), Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo from Animal, Suzanne Goin (Lucques), David Lentz (The Hungry Cat), and Michael Cimarusti (Providence). But the most exciting face at that table — Richard Blais. The Blais is back, y’all!
The judges will taste both the surf and turf options in the matchup and vote on which dish is best. The losing chef will be up for elimination. Let’s take a quick look at how each head-to-head went down at the table:
Wesley vs. Amar vs. Grayson
During prep, Grayson points out how much time Wesley and Amar seem to have to goof around. Unfortunately, that wasted time does both of the guys in. Wesley serves up a ribeye that he calls sous-vide but is just a mess, and Amar passes out an olive oil-poached halibut that Tom finds overcooked. Grayson, who is completely redeeming herself after two stints in the bottom three, easily wins this matchup with a bright, flavorful lacquered pork belly that she’s paired with what Blais calls a “dynamic” carrot purée.
Phillip vs. Jeremy
Phillip and Jeremy know they’re in for a tough round of cooking. They originally chose each other as partners because they’re both such strong cooks. Well, the guys are right — the judges enjoy both Phillip’s perfectly cooked ribeye and Jeremy’s pan-roasted Santa Barbara spot prawns with gnocchi. Phillip slips up with his beurre blanc sauce (rather, his beurre brown sauce), which means he’ll cede this round to Hot Dad Jeremy.
Angelina vs. Giselle
So, the ladies meet again. They might be the only two chefs who were actually excited by tonight’s challenge twist. Again, Giselle is the clear winner. In this round, she beats out Angelina’s tasteless mussels with her quail, served with a cucumber and radish salad and tamarind sauce. Tom thought the whole dish had a nice balance of sweet and spicy. If you’re keeping track, that’s Giselle: 2, Angelina: 0. Angelina is not happy about it.
Kwame vs. Chad
You guys, this bromance knows no bounds. During prep, Kwame steps away from his dish to help Chad butcher his lamb. Kwame’s right: This one’s a “gentleman’s duel.” And honestly, either of these gents could take this one. The judges are completely split between Kwame’s rock crab salad with turmeric, asparagus, and radish, and Chad’s spicy bean, honey-and-orange-lacquered roasted lamb. It comes down to Tom’s vote, and he goes with Kwame’s “playful” surf dish.
Isaac vs. Carl
Isaac and Carl offer up another great pairing. Isaac presents a fennel-crusted halibut with English peas and brown butter that Dana finds a little overcooked, but Tom commends the great hollandaise sauce. Carl serves a roasted chicken thigh with prosciutto and English peas that reminds Cat of her mom’s home cooking. Although Isaac puts up a great fight, Carl ultimately wins over the judges.
Karen vs. Marjorie
Karen, like Wesley and Amar, is having a bit of a time-management problem. She fears overcooking her fish, so she waits until the last minute possible to cook and plate it. Unfortunately, that means she’s so frantic at the end that she forgets a piece of fish. Of course the plate with the missing fish ends up in front of Padma. Sister isn’t happy about it, but everyone else at the table loves Karen’s seared rock cod with carrot-orange purée, blood orange vinaigrette, and roasted carrots. Marjorie doesn’t offer up much of a challenge, even considering the plating mishap, and her roasted pork loin misses the mark completely. Karen and her missing fish win!
Jason vs. Frances
A lesson to be learned: Pulling apart long-lost twins makes for two disastrous dishes. The challenge ends on a sour note when both Jason’s grilled pork loin, which is seriously lacking flavor, and Frances’ ginger-glazed black cod, or a “hodge-podge” of ingredients, as Tom calls it; both fall flat. The judges are really choosing the lesser of two evils when they select Jason as the winner.
Back at Judges’ Table, Padma, Tom, Blais, and Michael pick their top three dishes from the winners of each matchup: Jeremy, Kwame, and Karen. Thanks to the missing fish, Karen can’t really win (although I suspect she would’ve in other circumstances), and the night’s best dish goes to Kwame. Along with this week’s bragging rights, Kwame, who I think won all of our hearts during his pep talk with Wesley (I mean, THE HUG), also wins his own barrel of wine from Sanford Winery, complete with his own label. Is a barrel of wine the best prize in Top Chef challenge history? Debate amongst yourselves.
Now for the tough stuff. The three worst dishes of the night belong to Frances, Angelina, and Wesley. Wesley really takes it hard, especially because he’s recently become the new executive chef at Richard Blais’ old restaurant. He’s embarrassed and harsher on himself than any of the judges end up being. Frances suffered from overthinking her dish, and the judges chide her for trying to do too much without any cohesiveness. And Angelina, well, she’s just showing her lack of experience again. How she survives yet another cut, I just don’t understand. Padma instead asks Frances to pack her knives and get the heck out of Santa Barbara.
The other chefs are sincerely sad to watch Frances, a favorite in the group, walk down that lonely path with her knives but then immediately forget about her once Padma announces they’re hitting the road again. Next stop: Palm Springs!