A deceptively simple fried chicken challenge throws talented chefs for a loop

By Stephan Lee
Updated January 24, 2013 at 07:01 AM EST
Top Chef Joshua Valentine
Credit: David Moir/Bravo
S10 E12
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  • Bravo

Not to belabor the issue, but I’m about to belabor the issue, just like Josie belabors her cooking process (zing). Last week’s elimination was such a travesty that it needs to be addressed again. Tom, Padma, and Gail took to Twitter and bravotv.com to explain the decision to send the clear front-runner packing and keep deadweight Josie around. While they all made reasonable points, I still think they had all the evidence they needed to make the right decision but ignored it.

Tom in particular keeps repeating the “You’re only as good as your last dish” rule, which we all know is not consistently enforced. (In fact, you could argue that it wasn’t enforced in this week’s episode, even though I agreed with the end result). The thing is, if the decision between two chef-testants is close, and their past performance is not close at all, it’s totally reasonable to take past performance into account. I understand that the “last dish” rule makes sense to a certain extent — if it didn’t exist, why even have new challenges week to week? — but clearly, Kristen didn’t screw up disastrously compared to Josie. Every judge confirmed that it took hours to make the decision. Gail made it clear that her vote was to send Josie home, so it wasn’t unanimous. If the judges thought Kristen and Josie were about equally deserving of going home for that particular week’s performance, it would make all the sense in the world to take past challenges into account, which would clearly favor Kristen. Sure, Kristen didn’t stand up for herself at the Judges’ Table, but there was still enough evidence that it made sending her home over Josie inexcusable. I wasn’t serious at all when I brought up conspiracy theories last week, but if Last Chance Kitchen didn’t exist, I really doubt the judges would have sent her home. Everyone but Gail, just admit it and we can move on: You screwed up.

At the beginning of this week’s episode, Brooke said about the decision, “If ever in a million years I thought it would go that way, I would have said something.” Hmm, but I bet it’s pretty convenient to be down one serious competitor (for now). Josie woke up crying and feeling about as guilty as Lance Armstrong, admitting that she “didn’t get here the pretty way.”

But as Stefan said, it’s a competition and it goes on. For the Quickfire Challenge, one of L.A.’s four Master Sushi Chefs, Katsuya Uechi, was on hand to judge a simple sushi-off. I loved Katsuya’s English (Sheldon did an amazing impression), and his easy way. He reminded me of Jiro from the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which convinced me that every sushi deluxe platter I’ve ever eaten has been complete garbage. Now I only want to eat one perfect sliver of sushi at a time by hand, with just a light paintbrush stroke of soy sauce.

NEXT: Everyone loves fried chicken … it’s an incontrovertible fact, according to Tom and friends

Katsuya advised the chefs to keep their dishes simple — just rice, fish, happiness — but of course not all of them listened. Josh brought up the whole borderline-jingoistic “I live in Oklahoma” excuse again and disrespected the challenge with his breakfast sandwich-like tempura bacon omelet with salmon belly. It hardly seemed like he tried. Lizzie failed to impress with her overly fussy sushi lobster with micro greens with a yuzu sake broth poured over it. Katsuya noted that the hot broth over cold fish made the whole thing too fishy.

Unsurprisingly, Josh thought Sheldon‘s Filipino heritage would somehow make him a shoo-in for a Japanese-style sushi challenge, but his hamachi sashimi with fresh ponzu and lemon charcoal didn’t impress Katsuya the most. He preferred the clean taste of Brooke‘s octopus with yuzu and grated wasabi, but he gave Stefan his first Quickfire win for his yellowtail with grilled shitake and raw lobster with seaweed and unagi.

I bet when Momofuku owner David Chang walked in the room, Josh thought, “Please don’t let this be another Asian food challenge.” Luckily for him, the Elimination Challenge was all about fried chicken, to be prepared for a bunch of Tom’s chef friends at a boozy dinner party.

A lot of unsurprising events ensued: Stefan made a bunch of double-entendres about chicken breasts and thighs (he needs to pick up a copy of Fifty Shades of Chicken); Posh Spice Brooke tried to make her chicken over-complicated; and Josh made more faintly arrogant and jingoistic comments about what qualified as fried chicken. Even though I wish Kuniko had been around to tell him that his McSalmon Biscuit was most definitely not sushi, Josh had a point: Some of the other chefs didn’t understand the simple goodness that is fried chicken. They should have taken a page from Minnie from The Help and just used Crisco. It would have been better than Brooke’s nasty Kashi granola crisp or whatever she plopped on those chicken breasts. Seriously, fried chicken with no skin??? Disaster.

There were a number of guest judges at Tom’s outdoor dinner party, including Michelle Bernstein, who played a hand in sending Josie home in her first season. Ever the great sport, Josie had absolutely taken it personally and didn’t even look Michelle in the eye. Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook from the L.A. meat hub Animal also had history with one of the chefs — Brooke had once interviewed them for line cook positions but didn’t give them the job. Awkward!

NEXT: Tom should have just held up a photo of fried chicken and said, “This. Make it.”

Sheldon served his fried chicken two ways: umami drumsticks and thighs, and wings with Usukuchi soy sauce, grapeseed oil, and vinegar. He didn’t make enough wings, but the judges agreed that he delivered on the chicken that actually made it to the plate.

Even though Lizzie didn’t seem to really understand fried chicken, she at least got to a close approximation and made a good dish. Her fried chicken was marinated in a ground coriander black pepper and brown sugar rub. Vinny and David liked the flavors, but Tom noted that if you’re given a whole chicken, the last thing you’d do is take just the breast and de-bone it.

Josie proclaimed (loudly) that her chicken was a traditional Southern recipe, but the result didn’t quite match her sales pitch. It might have been better if she’d just called it her own family recipe. The chicken came on top of a banana leaf and was served with a daikon salad. Wolfgang and others were amazed by how oily the skin was. Michelle, Josie’s arch nemesis, couldn’t even finish.

But no one had a harder time in the kitchen than Brooke. It’s characteristic — and kind of loveable — that she can execute extremely complex dishes so well but freaks out over fried chicken. She was all over the place in the kitchen and dipped her chicken in the fryer at the last minute to make the skin crispy again, which she knew was not a good sign. Her dukka (seriously?)-crusted chicken breast with wilted escarole and tomato salad looked ridiculously fussy and unappetizing. Wolfgang, a few dozen glasses of wine in, joked that the sad chicken looked more like The Apprentice than Top Chef, which either makes a ton of sense or no sense at all. Vinny cracked, “I’m glad I didn’t take the job,” which was a funny but complete a-hole thing to say.

Stefan took a total B.S. route in this challenge by making chicken Cordon Bleu. Vinny and Jon just found the choice hilarious. Emeril said, “I have the chicken Cordon Blues right now,” and tried to remember the last time he saw the dish on a menu — two flights ago. (Honestly, the only time I’ve had it was at a high school cafeteria).

As we all could have predicted, Josh won the challenge with his honest-to-goodness fried chicken. He may have been annoying throughout the episode, but I wanted to reach through my TV screen and grab one of those chicken legs. His smoked fried chicken with hot sauce and blue cheese and celery salad looked amazing. Tom and David both agreed that smoking fried chicken was an interesting move.

Judging from this one challenge alone — as it’s supposedly a rule to do so — both Stefan and especially Brooke were in serious danger of going home. But Josie was the one sent packing her knives, at long last. Weirdly, Padma defended her yet again, saying that the ridiculously oily chicken “was flavorful!” The flavor of a banana doused in a vat of grease? Oy, Padma, what are we going to do with you?

Josie’s exit was about as classy as expected. Stefan went in for a hug, but Josie side-stepped it and turned it into a weird handshake. Everyone seemed more than ready to part ways with her.

Did anyone feel less invested in this episode after last week? Let’s see how she does against Kristen in LCK!

Follow @EWStephanLee on Twitter.

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