Top Chef recap: This Used to Be My Playhouse
The challenge? A gimmicky one inspired by a pseudo celebrity — nevertheless, I thought it a fun break from Texas-themed catering. Pee-wee Herman to the rescue!
Stacks of pancakes tottered like geological formations as the five remaining contestants filed into the Top Chef Kitchen. Padma, having learned from her lumberjack hairshirt fashion mishap from last week, told the cheftestants that pancakes were the favorite food of tonight’s guest judge. Grayson thought it had to be a kid, like Miley Cyrus (is she even A-list enough for Top Chef anymore?), and the only person I could think of who’s famous for liking pancakes was Nate the Great. Instead, in rode perpetual man-child Pee-wee Herman on a Schwinn bike. While the chefs looked more disturbed than excited to see Pee-wee, both Grayson and Lindsay had the exact same childhood memory of eating pancakes and watching Pee-wee’s Playhouse as a child. I wonder if they were as scarred as I was when they found out Pee-wee was actually a human man named Paul Reubens. Either way, Pee-wee was offering $5,000 in the Quickfire Challenge to the chef who could make the best pancake, and that was something Sarah, who hadn’t won any cash prizes yet, would never pass up.
Grayson made a ricotta buttermilk pancake shaped like Minnie Mouse and worried that it wouldn’t be “whimsical enough” for Pee-wee. Considering Pee-wee’s second-best friend is a recliner who wears mascara, no, a Disney-shaped pancake probably wouldn’t hold his attention. Yet Pee-wee made all kinds of faces, as if he were having a stroke or a challenging B.M., and proclaimed, “That’s the best pancake I’ve ever had!” Sarah made Funfetti-inspired pancakes, leading Pee-wee to once again shout, “That’s the best pancake I’ve ever had!” Also the best pancake ever: Paul’s rolled pancakes with champagne Dippin’ Dots and Lindsay’s ricotta pancake with creme fraiche. I think Pee-wee may be a pancake slut.
My first unwarranted Beverly mention of the night: How much do you want to bet that Beverly would have made a Korean scallion pancake (pajeon) for this challenge? I would literally bet my left pinky toenail that she would and that they’d be delicious.
But Pee-wee’s actual favorite pancakes ever were Ed’s buttermilk chips of sorts, which he made by isolating just the crispy edges of pancakes. That reminds me of the ugly, drippy scraps I used to peel from the edges of waffle irons and eat obsessively. I used to call them a made-up word, “scrogglins” — it fit somehow. Anyway, it was Ed’s first-ever Quickfire win, and it was well deserved for making something completely different, although the dish I’d be most curious to try would be Paul’s champagne Dippin’ Dots. That liquid nitrogen tank has been so neglected this season. I never thought I’d be so happy to see its return.
NEXT: Pee-wee wants you to mis-remember the Alamo…
Pee-wee’s connection to the Elimination Challenge was a bit of a stretch. In his hit 1985 film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Pee-wee searched the nation for his first-best friend, his red bike, which he was told was hidden in the basement of the Alamo Mission in San Antonio. When he finally found his way to the Alamo, he was disappointed to discover that the Alamo didn’t have a basement at all. For this challenge, the chefs had to create new, happy memories of the Alamo for Pee-wee by serving him a family-style lunch in the historic mission after riding their Schwinn bicycles throughout San Antonio in search of ingredients and random kitchens (which were no doubt vetted by producers in advance) to cook in. Thematically, this challenge was ridiculous — it reminded me of an overly elaborate mission from The Mole 2 (hi, Anderson!) — but I actually thought it made for some exciting moments and dishes. Well, at least more exciting than the many group barbecue challenges this season, all of which seem to run together.
At least it was amusing to watch a bunch of chefs who were ill-equipped for bicycling — or much physical activity at all, for that matter — pedal through the streets of San Antonio. Ed compared the group to a “biker gang,” although I’d say they more closely resembled the von Trapp children on their first-ever play outing cycling along bucolic paths of Salzburg. Paul shared yet another seriocomic anecdote from his misspent youth: After getting into a bike accident, he now suffers Asian flush on half of his face when he drinks. Please, someone get the man drunk so we can all witness this medical oddity.
After a brief shopping session at a farmer’s market, the chefs pumped their way to random restaurants hoping the owners would be nice enough (or had already signed on) to let them use their kitchens. Grayson, who explained that she comes from a super-competitive family, tailed Paul, her biggest competitor, to see what restaurant he chose. I gotta say, that’s a little shady, Grayson. That’s like swooping in on a slot machine after watching someone else play all night. When Paul closed in on Rosario’s, Grayson managed to enter the restaurant before Paul, forcing him to search for another restaurant. It ended up being a stroke of good luck for Paul. He found La Frite instead, which housed quality ingredients; Grayson wasn’t all that happy with the Mexican ingredients available in her kitchen.
Lindsay ended up having the least time to cook her meal due to some flip-flopping on her choice of kitchen. She first stopped at Mad Hatter’s Tea House, but she went on an ingredients run to Rosario’s, which was already ocupada by Grayson. When she returned to Mad Hatter’s, she found that Sarah had settled there while she was gone. I wished the two biggest a-holes of a season would have a turf war right then and there — you know if Beverly had done the exact same thing as Sarah, Lindsay would have pulled her out of that kitchen by the hair — but instead Lindsay quietly retreated to Frank’s Hog Stand, which had a tiny kitchen. Having lost so much time already, Lindsay had to defrost her beef cheeks in five or six minutes to even finish a dish.
NEXT: Don’t pop the egg yolks by popping a wheelie…After cooking their dishes, the chefs transported them to the Alamo via handlebar basket. All of the dishes, including Grayson’s delicate egg yolks, made it in one piece, and I have to say, at least visually, everyone’s work looked great.
Sarah prepared a summer vegetable egg salad with a chicken skin vinaigrette, which I thought was a great idea, although it made for the least healthy salad ever. Gail agreed that the chicken skin was genius. Padma loved the okra, although Tom noted that the eggs had no seasoning. Gail thought just a little coarse salt on each egg would have brought the dish to another level.
Grayson’s elaborate and fragile egg, spinach, and gorgonzola-stuffed chicken with an egg yolk-bacon vinaigrette impressed the judges, but Pee-wee confessed that he had childhood issues with runny yolks that he’d have to lay down to talk about. Tom, ever the comedian, asked, “Did it ever catch you?” Get it, because the yolk was running. How droll. He also noted that butternut squash and tomatoes don’t go well together. My palate isn’t nearly refined enough to have an opinion on the issue, so I’ll trust Tom on that one.
Lindsay’s stuffed zucchini with braised beef cheeks, rice, and goat cheese reminded Tom of the first dish he ever cooked as a thirteen-year-old boy. You totally pulled a Ratatouille on him, Lindsay — good job! Pee-wee liked that the zucchini looked like boats, while Gail thought the large amount of dressing on the salad wilted the leaves.
There were major problems with Ed’s chicken and grits with red-eye gravy — even Pee-wee picked up on the unusual texture of the chicken. Tom agreed that they were just on the edge of being undercooked, to which Pee-wee replied, “I bet you never saw yourself saying, ‘I agree with Pee-wee’ today.” Ed poached the chicken in oil, which was the reason it came out rubbery. Or maybe he was too busy acting as hired hand to the owners of the bed and breakfast he was cooking out of.
Once again, Paul doubted himself prematurely when it came to his roasted chicken with red curry gastrique and basil blossom oil. Tom thought the vegetables in combination with the vinegar and sweetness of the gastrique worked well, although Padma could have used more heat and less sweetness. Paul had added pickles to his dish at the last minute to counteract the sweetness, but it looks like he could have done even more.
NEXT: I appreciated Padma’s attempt at the line “I know you are but what am I?” Plus, what I thought was a surprise elimination…The Judges’ Table surprised me this week, in terms of both the winner and the loser. This week, the editors gave Lindsay the most airtime she had ever gotten so far, and it included some new backstory, like the revelation that her parents didn’t think chefdom was a career befitting a former prom queen. Her floundering when it came to looking for a restaurant to cook in also led me to believe she was struggling — but instead she won the challenge, her first individual win yet. Even though she’s never stood out as a frontrunner to me yet, Lindsay is actually the only chef remaining who’s never been in the bottom group.
While Paul was safe, Ed, Sarah, and Grayson were called into the bottom group. Pee-wee joked, “They all failed, and all their dishes needed ketchup,” eliciting the biggest laugh I think I’ve ever seen from Tom. In Sarah’s case, the lack of salt and pepper on her eggs became a big factor, especially in this point of the competition. Ed had a bigger problem with his undercooked chicken. Even looking at the chicken on the TV screen, it looked flesh-colored and obviously undercooked. Gail noted that there are faster, tastier ways to poach chicken than in beef fat. That’s why I thought Ed would go for his readily apparent technical error.
But in the end, Grayson had to pack her knives and go for more intangibles reasons. Padma and her ropy lady-arms brought up the fact that Grayson’s chicken breasts were enormous, just like the massive steaks she made for the Patti Labelle challenge. It’s not Grayson’s fault that she comes from hearty Midwestern stock, and I’m totally into huge, Outback-sized portions. It seemed like a silly reason to eliminate someone — perhaps Tom was feeling residual peevishness from her “Like a meatball?” quip from last week. (No, I don’t actually think that). Grayson is the first on-the-bubble contestant to go. I’ll miss her tomboyish humor. But maybe she’ll be back sooner than we think.
Speaking of which, the judges called the chefs back into the Judges’ Table to reveal a big secret: Last Chance Kitchen had been filming all along! It was as though they’d just learned their entire lives were a reality show. Minds. Blown.
What did you think of Pee-wee’s big challenge? Did Grayson deserve to go? Who will return from Last Chance Kitchen?