Top Chef recap: 'Make Cornbread, Not War'
A kitchen war between Tom Colicchio and Emeril Lagasse leads to one talented chef's untimely elimination
This episode ended with disappointment when we lost a promising chef. But it began on an amazing note, as the chef-testants worked with one of the best foods in existence.
Dumplings for world peace! It’s been said that every culture has some form of dumpling, which this week’s Quickfire Challenge demonstrated. The chefs rushed a map of the world marked by 17 knives labeled with a unique species of dumpling, each from a different country, to see what kind of dough-wrapped food-ball they’d be working with. Some chefs snagged better-known dumplings, like Josie’s Korean mandu — in my humble opinion, the best dumpling in the world — and others got more exotic kinds, like Carla’s Nigerian fufu and Micah’s Kazakh manti. Food & Wine editor Dana Cowin, who’s eaten thousands of dumplings in her day, was on hand to judge, and the chefs had just five minutes to Wikipedia their international dumplings on a unsubtly product-placed tablet device.
Carla’s demise in this challenge came early in the research and development phase. She couldn’t keep up with all the mobile-savvy kids and typed “FUBU” — a line of stylish urbanwear — instead of fufu into her Kindle Fire. To be fair, typing on a tablet sucks (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), but anyone who’s read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe could have told her what fufu is. She ended up “walking into the unknown not knowing” by just inventing a random dumpling that looked more like a giant ravioli. Dana was on to her, saying that her dumpling tasted like it “came to Africa via Italy.”
Also landing on the bottom was Kuniko, who never even put her dish to plate. Brooke also more or less defaulted, since she didn’t have any flour to give her flavorful but naked Indonesian siomay a wrapping.
Micah, despite never having cooked Kazakh cuisine before, rose to the top with a bold manti containing lamb, dates, curry, and cinnamon. Stefan didn’t have to venture into unfamiliar territory to pull off a great ground lamb klopse from his native Germany. (We were also treated to photos of Stefan in his youth — who could have guessed he was a ginger before he lost his hair?) But the win went to Josie for the mandu, which had pork, tofu, shitake mushrooms, scallions, ginger, and kimchi. I’m not sure if Josie’s mandu was especially awesome or if she was simply a conduit for mandu’s inherent awesomeness.
NEXT: Tom and Emeril face off in what Josie called a “Civil War of Thanksgiving”
That gave Josie immunity going into this week’s Elimination Challenge, which divided the chefs into two teams to prepare a Thanksgiving meal for FareStart, an organization that feeds the homeless in Seattle. Padma did a mortifying Scarface impression, calling Tom and Emeril into the kitchen to lead each of the teams in making dueling turkey feasts. For clarity’s sake, here are the team breakdowns:
GRAY TEAM: Emeril, Danyele, John, Kristen, Tyler, Kuniko, Sheldon, Brooke, Chrissy, Josie
RED TEAM: Tom, CJ, Carla, Bart, Josh, Micah, Lizzie, Stefan, Eliza
Leading his team, Emeril made the wild guess that Tom would go in a strongly Italian direction with his Thanksgiving meal; to counter that, Emeril decided the Gray Team would go Creole. Another shocker. It was nice to see Emeril come alive in the kitchen. As a judge, he’s surprisingly restrained, although I’m glad he more or less rebuffed Chrissy’s attempts to make him shout, “BAM!” Here’s how the Gray Team fared:
In an attempt to do justice to Emeril’s famous turkey, slathered with a triple-spice glaze, Josie captured the worst of both worlds — the bird looked overcooked on the outside and bright pink on the inside. Danyele did Emeril’s mother proud by pulling off her bread stuffing with chorizo and cayenne recipe, and John nailed the cornbread stuffing.
The judges were neither displeased nor wowed by Kristen‘s assiette of root vegetables, parsnip, truffle puree and creme fraiche, which Tom didn’t think the dish needed. Tyler‘s gumbo with Andouille and shrimp was a misstep; Emeril could tell he hadn’t added the Worcestershire and hot sauce at the end. Kuniko failed as well with her completely raw and under-seasoned potato pave — she’d been too busy helping everybody else to work on her own dish. Didn’t she say she’d learned her lesson about time management in the Quickfire? Sheldon also disappointed with his braised greens with ham hocks, which looked more like a warm salad than braised greens.
Brooke turned things around with her sweet potato buttermilk pancakes, which Dana called “sweet and tender.” The judges all enjoyed Chrissy‘s bread pudding with pecan and white chocolate but were mixed on John’s spiced pumpkin and goat cheese ricotta torte, which even he admitted was “grainy.”
NEXT: You know it’s Thanksgiving when people are screaming at each other in the kitchen
Even though the Gray Team’s meal came across as somewhat of a disaster, the judges at least said they liked it, probably to heighten the suspense for the Red Team‘s service. Like Emeril, Tom was being a lot of fun in the kitchen, keeping up a healthy competitive banter with the opposing team. Micah said, “Chef Tom is giving us the freedom to express ourselves within his own sort of plan.” Translation: Tom was being kind of a bossypants.
But when Tom was away from the kitchen, the Red Team devolved into a war zone. Carla, you may call yourself a strong woman, but you should realize something by now: You are the problem. She began spewing invectives at CJ and Stefan for calling her “sweetie” and “honey” and bringing down the team’s morale. Where was this fire when it was actually appropriate, when Wolfgang Puck was saying legitimately misogynistic things to her in the first episode? Despite the drama, the Red Team produced clearly superior dishes.
First of all, the turkey was infinitely better. CJ had packed three pounds of butter under the bird’s skin, giving it great moisture. Carla managed to keep her finger blood out of her creamy carrot soup with perfect turkey meatballs. Bart the Knight impressed the judges with his fennel, Gorgonzola, orange, and pumpkin seed salad, although Padma thought it could use more refinement.
Josh presented the first misstep for the Red Team with his sweet potato ravioli with pecans — Emeril and Tom both agreed that the dough was too tough. I thought Micah‘s roasted Brussels sprouts with cranberries, bacon, and shallots looked delicious because, like guest judge Thierry Rautureau, I love Brussels sprouts. While Thierry wanted seconds, Dana thought it was all too greasy. Lizzie put things back on track with her half-butter, half-potato mashed potatoes. It’s almost unfair — anything with that much butter would be delicious.
Neither of the desserts satisfied the judges. Stefan‘s panna cotta with orange cardamom crisp and candied pecans had too much cardamom, and Eliza‘s chocolate tart with white chocolate and mint syrup was a bit hard.
When it came to the Judges Table, it was clear that the Red Team won unanimously, and Carla beat out CJ and Lizzie with her carrot soup, proving that you can be difficult in the kitchen and still produce an uncomplicated dish. As for the Gray Team, it came down to Tyler, Kuniko, and Sheldon. The judges threw Josie into the bottom as well, blaming her undercooked turkey for the team’s loss. But of course, she had immunity, so she was safe.
Sheldon clearly wasn’t going home for his well-flavored greens, but I honestly thought they’d get rid of Tyler. First of all, they gave us his backstory — of fighting alcoholism in his past — and any time they give a contestant a fluff reel, there’s a good chance that person’s going home. Plus, the judges all hated his dish and he hadn’t distinguished himself all that much in the first two episodes, whereas Kuniko had won twice last week. But Top Chef stuck to its policy of only considering the current week’s performance, and Kuniko — whose name the judges keep pronouncing like a gas station — did exhibit a lack of focus in the kitchen, like when she let her chili oil burn last week and not finishing either dish this week. Too bad, though, because she was fun to root for.
Your turn: Do you think Tyler should have packed his knives instead? Do you hope Kuniko comes back from LCK? Were John Tesar’s comments about Kuniko out of line? Is Carla out of control? Sound off below in the comments!
Follow @EWStephanLee on Twitter.