Will Heather go down as one of the most reviled contestants in Top Chef history?

By Stephan Lee
December 15, 2011 at 07:00 AM EST
Vivian Zink
S9 E7
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Let me start off by acknowledging that these team double-eliminations are complete B.S. I’m all for whittling down the herd faster, especially in this already prolonged season, but the eliminations should be based on individual performance. There’s only so much you can do to control what your teammate does.

Having said that, the pairings really heightened the drama — this was the first truly riveting episode of this season. But first, a very quick rundown of the Quickfire Challenge co-presided by Tim Love, a Fort Worth-based Top Chef Master, and Padma, who made a couple of styling and fashion missteps (that Southwestern-themed blouse and Pocahontas hair was all a bit literal). The chefs had to prepare a dish to compliment a tequila of their choosing. Tim explained that a good tequila is meant to be sipped like a fine wine. Clearly, I’m drinking the wrong kind, ’cause whenever I’m sipping tequila, it’s never fine and I hardly taste the nachos I’m eating.

Once again, it was important for everyone to remember that Quickfires usually go to a chef-testant who hews closely to the theme of the challenge. In this case, your dish better make Padma and Tim tequila-drunk, which is the worst/best kind of drunk there is. Heather broke this rule by not pairing her rock shrimp with the reposado literally enough and landed in the bottom. Tim compared it to a “new special at a chain restaurant.” Ouch! Chris Jones’ chicken was too dry, and Tim thought Sarah undercooked her risotto. Upon hearing that, a defiant Sarah, who trained with risotto experts in Italy, refused to change her methods based on “somebody’s palate.” Whether reminding us that she’s from Texas or asserting her Italian training, much of what Sarah says comes across braggy.

In the top group, Chris Crary created a visually fascinating raw oyster dish with a tequila lime tapioca pearl and a bit of sea air. It looked like something a chic alien from a cosmopolitan, technologically advanced planet would eat. Tim liked that Lindsay really soaked her salmon and caramelized fennel puree in añejo. But the $5,000 win (no immunity) went to Ty-lör — who’s been on the bottom all too often lately — for his Thai-style steamed clams. Yay! Ty-lör’s growing on me. With his perfectly oval head and curiously mobile eyebrows and mustache, he reminds me so strongly of a Muppet, like a cross between Bert and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew.

NEXT: Heather vs. “Bev”: The rivalry continues, and my loyalties are fluctuating

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs had to pair off with whomever they were standing next to immediately after the Quickfire to prepare a game meat dinner for Tim and his chef-lebrity friends. There was another twist: In addition to the six esteemed guest judges, the chef-testants would have to decide amongst themselves which three pairs had to face the judges’ table. The competitors knew there would be potential for tempers flaring. Sarah said, “I would hope that people will not put personal relationships in the middle of judging, but karma’s a bitch.” That sounded vaguely like a threat. Had Heather and Sarah been on the same team, I’d have a team to root against — but this challenge was nerve-wracking, because each pair had at least one person I like or respect on some level.

Of course, Heather and Beverly were grouped into a team. Not for a minute did I believe their pairing was an accident. For a couple of weeks, Heather has been finding any opportunity to criticize Beverly while referring to her seemingly affectionately as “Bev.” But the tension hasn’t abated at all. Oh no, it’s only getting started. I was an early critic of Beverly’s — I thought she was overly emotional and I understand Heather’s point that she might be selfish in the kitchen — but any doubts have been erased: Heather is a big bully. She looked at Beverly with pure disdain when talking down to her, and she was so concerned that Beverly wouldn’t act like a team player that she ended up coming across as the worst team player of all. Before “Bev” could even speak, Heather said, “I just want to make sure, Bev, that the whole dish isn’t too Asian cause that’s not my style. I’m not going home, Bev.” Why was she assuming that Beverly’s Asian contributions would be what sends them home?

Later, when Beverly dared to question Heather’s judgment, she snapped, “This is my rustic style, Bev, so we’re gonna have to compromise.” In other words, Beverly would have to compromise. And I don’t mean to point out prejudice where it doesn’t exist, but why does Heather assume that her rustic American style is categorically superior to Beverly’s Asian cooking? I flinched a bit whenever Heather spat the world “Asian” as if it were a bad word. Even if Beverly only cooks Asian dishes, isn’t she just asserting her point of view? It seemed like Heather pounced on Beverly because she seems too meek to actually stand up for herself. There’s no way Heather would talk down to anyone else like that. Heather found a seemingly weak target, and she became the selfish, inflexible chef she accused Beverly of being.

Beverly’s disclosure that she had been in an abusive relationship was genuinely heartbreaking because she in some ways comes across as someone who would put up with mistreatment for too long. I don’t think Beverly’s the best chef in the competition, but Heather is making me want to root for her.

NEXT: It’s not just the Heather and Beverly show…

Lindsay and Chris Crary were first up with their roasted wild boar glazed with peach barbecue sauce (anyone notice peach is a big trend this year?) with kohlrabi slaw and faro fried rice. I loved that Tim stuck his nose right up to the meat and took a good long sniff. Tom called it a nice plate of food — just not exciting. That lack of excitement can sometimes be worse than something that’s plainly bad.

The battle-hardened duo of Heather and Beverly presented a five-spice duck breast with creamy polenta, pickled cherries, and fresh salad. Hugh — oh hey, Hugh — thought the duck was a bit rubbery and the whole dish was too safe. “If I were in their shoes, I’d push myself,” Hugh said. Maybe an Asian twist would have made the duck more exciting. Just sayin’. A jury of chef-testants voted Team Duck into the bottom three.

Oh God. Based on personality, I was most worried about losing my faves Grayson and Chris Jones in one blow. But Chris Jones seriously disappointed, and he revealed a weakness that may be more serious than a simple technical mistake: a lack of judgment. Weeks ago, he made a head-scratcher of a green cigar/doobie with nasty cumin ash coming out of it; this week, he tried to force a weird sweet potato chain-link fence into a dish that didn’t need it. When he couldn’t execute the potato-stunt, he settled for laying these sad-looking sweet potato Xs on top of the juniper-roasted elk. Grayson got so frustrated with Chris, snapping at him for sweating on the dishes (eww, how much of my restaurant food has chef-sweat on it?) and being overly honest with the judges. Chris wanted to own up to messing up the potatoes, but Grayson tried to put a positive spin on it, saying they were going for “height” on their dish. Because everyone wants really tall food. Grayson’s public relations strategy didn’t work, and Team Elk landed in the bottom.

Edward and Ty-lör both had a lot to prove this week, and they won soundly with their sorghum quail with pickled cherries and eggplant. While each of the other teams had some major drama, they plugged along and impressed Top Chef Master Anita Lo with the “earthy qualities” or their dish.

NEXT: Heather would rather screw herself over than pass up another opportunity to trash Beverly

Nyesha and Dakota’s roasted rack of venison with kabocha squash and beet gratin looked awfully pretty, but that venison was bright red. Nyesha knew Dakota wasn’t confident in taking care of the meat, but she let Dakota try to figure it out on her own. While it wasn’t Nyesha’s fault, she did bear some of the responsibility in making sure the most important element of the dish was coming along. The judges enjoyed the gratin and the flavor of the venison, but no one could deny that the meat was raw, which was enough to put them in the bottom three.

Sarah was a mad woman in the kitchen, absolutely freaking out about her squab sausage. It turned out she was just being a perfectionist, and from the sounds of it, she and Paul created a solid second-place dish. She talked about the pressure of taking a good chef down with her if she screwed up the dish. Tom didn’t like the rushed presentation of the dish, but he liked the plate of food.

The Judges’ Table this week got ugly, thanks to Heather. Tom thought the chef-testants did a great job choosing the three losing teams, but Heather cried conspiracy, implying the other chefs wanted her in the bottom since she won last week. It would have benefited Heather to refrain from bringing up Beverly’s faults, but she was relentless in dragging Beverly through the mud. Seriously, Heather, you don’t have to be a genius to realize that you’re hurting yourself by throwing your teammate under the bus. Maybe Heather is a rational person in real life, but when this competition gets tough, she seems to throw reason out the window — maybe blaming someone else is just too irresistible. Grayson, Dakota, and even Nyesha, who had problems with Beverly before, stuck up for her, and Heather literally sneered at them when they did. Again Heather brought up the whole Asian issue, which wasn’t the problem with their dish. I’m sure Heather is having a hard time watching this episode. I hope at the reunion, she gives Beverly a better apology than “I’m sorry if you think I hurt your feelings,” the most disingenuous, dismissive apology imaginable, one you only give to someone you have zero respect for. Gross, Heather.

In the end, Dakota and Nyesha ended up going home for Dakota’s raw venison. Dakota was absolutely destroyed by the fact that she was responsible for Nyesha’s elimination. I wish Nyesha the best in Last Chance Kitchen, and I hope Top Chef producers think twice before trying team eliminations again. They don’t make that much sense.

Foodies, again: Team Beverly or Team Heather? Did Nyesha deserve to get the boot for not looking out for her teammate? What did you think of Chris Jones’ failed potato stunt?

LAST CHANCE KITCHEN UPDATE: I absolutely believe Dakota felt worse than Nyesha did about the double-elimination — luckily, they got a second chance, facing off against Whitney in the first-ever three-way Last Chance Challenge. Nyesha was hungry for that win — we’ve never seen her smile so much! The three ladies had to make a dish using cactus, a tricky, “slimy” ingredient. All the previously ousted chefs came out to help Tom with the judging. Not surprisingly, Nyesha pulled out the win with her scallop dish, and the other two were weirdly all too happy to hand her the chef’s jacket. If anyone could go all the way in Last Chance Kitchen, it’s probably Nyesha!

Hugh Acheson blogs ‘Top Chef Texas’: Heather and Beverly duck it out

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