Weird bagel accidents, Padma on a horse, a surprise last-minute challenge.... Now THIS feels like 'Top Chef' at its best

By Stephan Lee
Updated November 24, 2011 at 07:00 AM EST
Virginia Sherwood/Bravo

After two semi-unnecessary qualifying rounds and a top 16 challenge that seemed to plod along, we finally got a Top Chef episode worth its sea salt. It had everything: characters, conflict, solid challenges, Padma on a horse, and a very on-fire Gail Simmons.

But first, we saw the fallout from last week’s tense Judges’ Table. The cheftestants were left rattled by Keith’s departure and suspicious of Sarah and Lindsay’s two-timing ways, although I think the other chefs were being a bit unfair. I’m way more suspicious of Chris Crary painting Sarah as this huge conniver when really, he bore more responsibility for Keith buying pre-cooked shrimp than she did. He’s revealing himself to be a tremendous douche. If he wore a black sleeveless t-shirt, he’d be a bully from an ’80s teen movie.

QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE

Top Chef Masters Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken presided over this week’s Quickfire, which involved some very hot peppers and gambling. The cheftestants had to choose a pepper to work with, and the spicier the fruit (that’s right, I called it a fruit; please argue heatedly in the comments…I personally subscribe to the botanical classification as opposed to the nutritional) — or the higher on the Scoville scale, which ranges from 2000 to the millions — the more money he or she stood to win. The legendary ghost peppers, which look like shriveled bags of pain, were the hottest ones available and worth $20,000 in winnings. By the way, how awesome would it be to have a hotness scale named after you? You’re a lucky man, Wilbur Scoville.

As you may have predicted, some chefs played it way safe, and others chose the hotter peppers. I’m not sure why certain chefs still believe that playing it safe is actually playing it safe — it’s been proven time and time again that the Quickfire Challenge is the place to take a big risk. Did Beverly really think she was going to win a hot pepper challenge by cooking with a mild chile? No question, her dish this week was less spicy than her nakji bokkum from two weeks ago.

NEXT: Anyone notice Milliken licking her lips and winking at Chris Crary? Whoa, he’s not that good-looking.

LEAST FAVES

Speaking of which, Beverly landed in the bottom with her Anaheim chile crudité, which only would have won her $500 — Feniger and Milliken must have lost respect for her before even tasting her dish. I’m familiar with the “crudité” she came up with — a raw, mild pepper served with a salty soy paste dip — because it’s something that comes for free at most Korean barbecue restaurants. The whole strategy of chopping a heatless chile and throwing it next to a skidmark of Asian sauce struck me as lazy, as if to say, “My food is ethnic, that makes it special!”

Richie, not a fan of spicy foods, opted for the middle-of-the-road Fresno chile for $3,000 and made a slaw with pineapple curd with seared bay scallops and a sweet-hot glaze. The judges loved the poppin’ presentation, but they thought the sweetness was too much.

Chuy may have led his team to victory last week, but he stumbled in the Quickfire when he used a canned tomato sauce to make a sautéed scallop with achiote. It looked tasty, at least, like a delicious gumbo. He needed the $12,500 cash prize more than anyone else — he repeatedly mentioned owing the IRS — but the canned tomato was his downfall. When will you get the message about pre-prepared food, y’all? And pay your taxes, Chuy!

FAVES

Feniger liked that Heather didn’t wimp out in her use of $10,000 Thai chili. Heather had a lot of vibrant colors on her couscous dish, although that disc of couscous seemed rather mountainous.

Grayson also used habanero peppers, cooking them in syrup to stifle some of the heat. She went really accessible by frying up a cheddar cheese-filled popper. I totally would have eaten it, but it looked like something you could get at Church’s Chicken.

WINNER

Wanting to prove himself after last week, Paul wowed the judges by being the only one to brave the ghost pepper. He offset his hot-hot relish with a cool coconut soup with kaffir lime. He went big and won big!

NEXT: Tax-evader Chuy shows us his “spicy personality.” Also, Beverly shrieks, “Don’t touch my breast milk!”

ELIMINATION CHALLENGE PREP

The chefs split off into five teams of three to compete in a big Texas chili cook-off serving 200 hungry cowpeople. Their votes would decide the winner of the challenge. While Heather was glad to be grouped with Paul and Edward, some of the other chefs weren’t too pleased with their teams. Chris Crary was apprehensive about working with Sarah, because, you know, she’s a woman and might have a different opinion from him about cornbread, and that’s dangerous. Nyesha wasn’t thrilled to be cooking with Richie, who’s been on the bottom a couple of times (lest anyone forget, Nyesha was on the bottom in last week’s Quickfire), and Beverly, whom Nyesha deems “meek.” Beverly might be a lot of things, including crazy, but I don’t know about meek. Have you ever seen her yelling at a butcher?

The trios were allowed to cook through the night at the Top Chef Manse, and it’s a good thing, because as Chris Jones let us know, good chili should simmer through the night. Due to the chefs’ lack of sleep and the drinking of cooking beer, we were treated to the first all-nighter freakout montage of the season. Chuy revealed himself to be a stone-cold weirdo and possible compulsive liar. Nyesha loosened up enough to cannonball into the pool.

SERVICE

In the morning, the chefs moseyed on over to Tejas Rodeo. Sarah will have us know that she’s a Texas cowgirl through and through, and as proof, she put on a cowboy hat. Comically, Edward seemed afraid of cowboys, as if they were a foreign, shrieking, abnormally hungry species. Chuy informed him of the proper cowboy mating call: “Cowboys don’t scream, they whoop.”

GREEN TEAM: Chris Crary, Chuy, Sarah. It mattered a whole lot to the cowboys and girls that Sarah was “born and raised” in Texas, and she sure made it known. I actually wrote down as I was watching, “Given the crowd, Sarah’s Texan-ness alone could decide this.” But their bean-free chile con carne garnished with corn, onion, avocado, and cilantro did look mouth-watering albeit a bit soupy. Tom said the chili grew on him the more he ate, and Milliken commented on the depth of flavor. Gail thought it was a little thin and wished there was something to soak up the juice. Gail, we missed you! The bad mono-browed man scared us last week.

NEXT: Never insult a Texan, and never put beans in his chili!

RED TEAM: Chris Jones, Dakota, Whitney. Can I just reiterate how much Chris Jones rocks? He quotes Star Wars, loves his sous chef Richie like a brother, and generally acts like a big, loveable kid with A.D.D. I was rooting for his team, but some of the younger cowboys complained about the spice of the chili and the texture of the braised brisket and short rib. The more mature palates appreciated the sophistication of the dish, although Milliken agreed that the meat was a little stringy. One cowgirl approved of the lack of beans in the chili and offered these words to live by: “Anyone who knows beans about chili knows chili ain’t got no beans.”

BLUE TEAM: Edward, Heather, Paul. The blue team thought outside the box and may have redefined how to eat chili. They concocted a smoked brisket chili with summer pickles, peaches, and pork rinds on top. Sounds weird but good — weirdly good! Gail went as far as to say that pickled peaches are now her favorite thing to eat with chili. Tom said they did well with the vegetables and the hot sauce but may not have with the chili stock itself.

BLACK TEAM: Beverly, Nyesha, Richie. How do you instantly alienate a crowd of 200 Texans? By being a snooty west coast elitist who condescends to them. That’s sort of what Nyesha did by worrying that the black team’s dish would be too complex for their unrefined palates. I may be an east coast liberal, but I, like many of the Texan tasters, thought their mole-inspired chili with bittersweet chocolate and cinnamon looked and sounded pretty fussy and unnecessarily complicated. Milliken wished the chili had more focus, and it generally fell flat with the judges. The black team’s cornbread, however, looked buttery and cake-y, which is the best kind of cornbread there is.

NEXT: Coming up, a quote even better than this one: “I don’t have any feeling in that finger. Weird bagel accident, don’t ask.”

WHITE TEAM: Grayson, Lindsay, Ty-lör. Uh-oh, are those beans I see? Not a good sign for these three, all of whom have been extremely close to getting cut in the past. They came up with a three-bean chili with pickled vegetables and poblano cornbread on the side. Gail wished the vegetables had been better integrated with the chili, but Feniger loved the acid of the pickled stuff.

It was time for the decision, but not before the chefs sat down to watch the rodeo cowboys in action. Once again, Beverly started crying for no reason. It was kind of funny to see ice queen Nyesha go through the motions of comforting her teammate while her face clearly said, “B—-, why are you crying this time?” Seriously, Beverly, you need to toughen up. First a quinceañera made you cry, now the sight of a cowboy straddling a pissed-off bull brings you to tears? I agree with Nyesha: “There’s no crying in cooking.”

Padma took to the center of the pit on a horse, prompting Chris Crary to deliver the quote of the night. He said, “Seeing Padma on a horse is like seeing Fabio on the cover of one of his romance novels with his hair blowing in the wind. It’s just pure beauty.” WHAT??!!

Padma then announced that the green team had won — Texan Sarah really did pull through! — and the black team, unsurprisingly, scored the worst. Instead of the judges choosing a loser, the team had to compete against each other by creating a winning dish out of their losing chili in 30 minutes. Nyesha and Beverly were totally crushed, but Richie remained optimistic about his chances. I prefer this last-minute challenge to the judges just choosing a member of the losing team to go — those decisions always seem based on hearsay than actual performance.

The black team rallied to the kitchen again to make one more dish. Beverly crusted seared tuna in some spices from the chili and served it with pineapple salsa on top. Nyesha and Richie both used crushed Fritos in their dishes. Surprisingly, the judges all agreed that Beverly had the best, most imaginative dish of the three. Nyesha left some of the chili sauces off her tiger shrimp, and Richie tried to do too much. In the end, Richie was sent packing his knives, which absolutely devastated Chris Jones. The chef vs. sous chef drama this season ended prematurely as Jones and Richie shared a touching yet awkwardly intense goodbye.

So foodies, tell us: Did this episode finally whet your appetite for more Top Chef this season? Are you sad to see Chris Jones and Richie torn apart? Does Padma remind you of Fabio (and I don’t mean the Top Chef All-Star who says “hamboorger)? Is Gail Simmons the best judge ever? Are you disappointed that Tom couldn’t open Gail’s beer but Padma could? (Don’t forget, Padma does have freakishly strong cyborg arms).

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