To celebrate Top Chef’s decade on the air — let that sink in for a sec: a decade — tonight’s episode’s theme was all about the mid-2000s, when Tom Cruise was still “excited” about Katie Holmes and MySpace reigned supreme over the Internet. But how could you celebrate Top Chef’s 10th birthday without a very special person? A person formerly known as Katie Lee Joel, now just Katie Lee, who was the first host to ask chefs to please pack up their knives and go? I kept waiting for her to make an appearance, beep out a few pre-programmed words, and go. Katie Lee Joel may have been one of the worst hosts to ever grace reality television…or television, period — she made Padma look as animated as Melissa McCarthy and Leslie Jones combined — but we shouldn’t ignore this dark year in Top Chef lore, so this is why I’m starting off this week’s recap with this fitting remembrance.
But that’s enough about Katie Lee. On to the present, where we got another blast from the past. Antonia Lofaso from season 4 came back to judge the Quickfire. Phillip couldn’t help but mention his connection to Antonia, a fellow L.A. chef, and nobody cared. The Quickfire this week was as fun as it was 10-themed: Each of the 10 chefs would have 20 seconds (couldn’t it have been 10?) to pick one ingredient; then they’d only have those 10 ingredients to present their dishes. Isaac caused a little stir by choosing chicken, even though someone had already picked a protein, steak, but of course the group had the biggest beef with Jason’s choice, which was celery, which actually turned out to be hugely useful. So eat that, Karen. Carl hoarded an entire basket of tomatoes, which raised a tomato-colored flag for Jeremy, who couldn’t see why Carl would need that many.
Antonia’s least favorite dishes were Isaac’s unappetizing and unacidic beef carpaccio (Marjorie threw some major shade at him earlier, wondering if he was capable of sophist acted cooking) and Carl’s pan-roasted New York strip, which, gasp, had too much tomato. Amar had one of her favorites with his chicken breast with roasted tomato CELERY vinaigrette, but the winner was Jeremy with his beef carpaccio, another in a long line of successful raw dishes for him.
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The Elimination Challenge was one of those personal challenges that marks the moment in every season of Top Chef when we know there are few enough contestants left in the game to start caring about them. I LOVED the photos of Jeremy with his long rocker hair, which is obviously now long gone. Tom and Amar shared a sweet moment about the late great chef Gerry Hayden, whom Amar worked under and whom he’d dedicated his dish to. Kwame got weirdly heavy with this challenge as he thought to the moment when he fell out with his dad — I wondered if he was going to make a “Sad Dad Salad,” which would have been better than what he actually ended up making.
For the tasting, Michael Voltaggio, Antonia, Nancy Silverton, Zach Pollack, and other respected L.A. chefs showed up — but still no Katie Lee.
The top dishes ended up being Chad’s shrimp ceviche, Carl’s fricassee of Cali veggies and Burgundy snails, and Marjorie, who ended up winning for her green curry, which reflected what a “green” chef she was fresh out of culinary school. It was cool to see her fix her ingredient problem by using a cool method that actually worked (roasted lemon instead of lemongrass) because usually ingredient problems are a kiss of death.
The bottom group included some surprises — or at least one. Phillip wasn’t a huge surprise because he’s still blaming the judges for his lack of success in the competition. Tom told him, “We just want good food,” and Padma urged him to go back to his roots instead of trying to guess what the judges want. Kwame put out a shockingly bad dish — you could tell just from looking at it that it was uninspired. He called his jerk broccoli on cornbread pudding “the worst plate he’s ever plated.” Tom was totally confused by the dish, and Michael pinpointed the problem by telling him he let emotions — bad emotions — get in the way of his dish’s inspiration. But Jason got the boot for another odd, poorly executed dish. He made a trout dish that he used to yell at his cooks for messing up 10 years ago (somehow it’s not hard imagining Jason as a mean boss) that was under-seasoned. I felt a lot of unexpected sympathy for Jason, though, as he talked about not feeling much joy in cooking and letting uncertainty about a transition in his career crowd out his passion.
Phew, that episode was as heavy as Isaac’s banannaise. And it also mixed up my perceptions of who the frontrunners are. Any new favorites?