Mystery Ingredients & Endless Tears
If measured by total ccs of tears shed, this week’s Top Chef was the greatest Top Chef episode of all time. The crying, my God, the crying. If crying was bread, this episode would’ve been a Panzanella. And all of it because of what the contestants discovered about themselves while trying to please a persnickety supermodel with their elaborate fricassees. HAS THE CRUDO DISPLEASED YOU, MY QUEEN? SPARE MY LIFE AND I SHALL REDEEM YOU!
I don’t think that I’ve ever seen so many people crying without feeling at all moved to cry myself — maybe footage from a North Korean funeral procession. That being said, this had to be one of the most entertaining Top Chef episodes of all time. There have been times in the past few years when I wondered whether this show (now in its 18th season) and this column along with it needed to continue existing. But at some point during this week’s episode it dawned on me that Top Chef really is the only cooking competition show in existence that offers exciting action but doesn’t make me feel like an idiot for watching it.
Maybe it’s because they’re not trying to whip up the studio audience into a frenzy. Top Chef never feels like it’s playing to the cheap seats. It’s ridiculous and absurd at times, because how could a cooking contest not be? And all the people in it — both contestants and judges — know full well how silly it is, but they’re all food people at heart so they can’t help but buy-in. Anyway, this episode, for all its unnecessary tears, kind of reminded me why I still love this dumb show.
Byron defeated Sara in Last Chance Kitchen, saving us from being subjected to any more of Sara’s increasingly desperate-sounding nervous laugh. That thing has really kicked into overdrive on Last Chance Kitchen. I get an awkwardness contact high just from watching it. Then Jamie beat Byron in a head-to-head battle to keep him from returning to the show (and to some extent, nullifying Last Chance Kitchen‘s entire reason for existence in the process). Okay, you’re caught up.
The episode began with a Quickfire Challenge, employing a gimmick apparently borrowed from the French version of Top Chef. It was called a “black box challenge,” where the contestants split into teams of two (judge Brooke Williamson had to be on one team since there were only five competitors left) and had to go taste a dish inside a completely dark room. One chef had to taste the dish in the dark, then start cooking. Then when their time was up, they had to stop cooking while a teammate got to go into the box to taste the dish and continue cooking — and they couldn’t communicate. In the last five minutes, they got to see the dish and work together. The goal was to replicate the same dish.
Turns out those snail-eating Jerry Lewis lovers have some good TV ideas from time to time — because this challenge turned out to be entertaining as hell. It was also a bit of a chef flex, because, holy shit, how many people on Earth could identify a carrot-mustard puree on the bottom of a plate in the dark like Dawn did? Insane. Gabe even correctly identified a sauce gribiche, which is some kind of hard-boiled egg thing. Biche, what? This was wizardry.
After that, the contestants got together to open care packages from their families. Now, there are few stock reality show moments that I’m more tired of seeing than the de rigueur person-cries-while-thinking-about-their-family scene. At a certain point, TV producers decided that the best way to humanize their characters was to show them caring (or pretending to care) about their families. Maybe this makes me a monster, but I don’t really care about these people being human. Fixer Upper dedicates at least four minutes of screen time every episode to Chip and Joanna performatively parenting and it’s always like, hey, cut to the shiplap reveal, freaks, no one watches this show for your dumb wiener kids.
Thankfully, Top Chef is an extremely minor offender in this regard. Yes, everyone had to have a good cry (you get emotional when stuck in a reality show petri dish, I get it) but the idea was that everyone’s family sent them a care package, and they’d have to incorporate some of the ingredients into a dish. This led to, yes, boo hoo I love my family-wamily, but also some odd and funny reveals. Like finding out that Jamie’s Vietnamese family loves Jewish food. And Shota’s amazing commentary on his care package. “My note is very short. My family is Asian, so.”
Meanwhile, judge Ed Lee showed up dressed as his take on Carmen Sandiego:
Look at him back there, trying to be sly. You can’t fool us, bro. You’re in Portland.
The wildest thing was that this episode was incredibly entertaining despite turning out exactly the way I imagined. This season has been the easiest rankings I’ve ever done.
Quickfire Winner: Dawn.
Elimination Challenge Top Three: Shota, Dawn, Gabe*. (*winner)
5. (even) ((Eliminated)) Maria Mazon
AKA: Gas Can. Backdraft. James Brown. Mole Maria. Mexican Hot Sauce.
Maria has been a gritty competitor all season, lunchpaling her way all the way to the final five (how many Wes Welker clichés can I use here?). But her journey finally came to an end this week. The quickfire challenge seemed to foreshadow Maria’s exit when she incorrectly imagined some kind of eastern spice on the squab (it was actually squab with roasted carrots, grilled pears, carrot-mustard puree, pistachios, and sauce gribiche) and attempted to recreate it with butter and cream then dunking the whole already-cooked squab in it. The audience was confused.
She also forgot how to butcher a squab. This seemed to mark Maria as out of her depth, but reality check: do I care if my Mexican chef knows how to butcher a squab? Absolutely not. Honestly, it’d probably make me trust them a little less.
Maria’s Care Package:
- Chicken Wings
- Coconut Milk
- Fideos (angel hair pasta broken up into smaller pieces)
- Mexican Hot Sauce* (how the hell didn’t I think of this as a nickname?)
- Pho Noodles
- Potato Chips
Out of this random as hell basket, Maria made a saucy chicken wing over a bean sprout salad. It ended up being the bean sprouts that did her in, probably on account of bean sprouts are, along with jicama and water chestnuts, one of those ingredients that don’t taste like anything. They don’t shoot or score many points, but they’re the Dennis Rodmans of being crunchy. (Except without the defense… or the flair… you know what, fine, this analogy sucks but I’m leaving it anyway).
Gail Simmons even accused Maria of serving “boiled chicken wings,” which was bizarre because you could clearly see the char on them, but the injustice of the criticism didn’t really register because we all sort of knew that either Maria or Jamie was going home this episode. Maria had a nice cry about learning to believe in herself and calling Gabe her mentor, and it was very sweet until Jamie tried to muscle in on the crying action and attempted to self-sacrifice to keep Maria in the competition. That went on a little too long, but God bless Maria for doing her best to try to get Jamie to stop carrying on.
Pour a little sauce out for Maria as she hits the dusty trail back to taco town.
Notable Critique: “There’s no acid at all in this salad.”
4. (even) Jamie Tran
Aka: Splat. Police Academy. Womp Womp. Hello Kitty.
Oh, Jamie. She means well. Jamie got so caught up in all the crying and the journeying of self-discovery this week that when the judges eliminated Maria, Jamie begged them to take her instead. It was a sweet gesture, sort of, but also… What? That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.
It brought us all back to Padma’s initial reaction to Jamie in the first episode:
Jamie was on the chopping block on account of serving her tasty brisket with shitty rice and a few dots of half-assed sauce. For Maria to get eliminated before Jamie, that must’ve been some bomb-ass brisket. (Food hot take: for as much as we love to fetishize hipster grill masters and 18-hour smoked bbq brisket, is brisket actually better braised? Discuss).
- Challah Bread
- Chicken Wings
- Corned Beef Hash (!!!)
- English Muffins
- Jasmine Rice
- Matzo Ball Soup
- Thai Chilis
To be fair to Jamie, this was an incredibly strange basket.
Notable Critique: “The rice was like Jamie’s salad.”
3. (even) Shota Nakajima
AKA: Beavis. Big Gulps.
At this point I think Shota would be on my Mount Rushmore of most likable Top Chef competitors, up there with Sheldon “Shel Chillverstein” Simeon, Isaac “Peppah!” Toups, Chris “Silky” Scott, and Fatima Ali (RIP). His chillbro positivity pairs perfectly with the rigid perfectionism of Japanese cuisine. Once again this week, Shota created a dish that looked good as hell: a wagyu steak with matsutake puree and bonito flakes. Simple, refined, delicious.
And yet again, he was overshadowed by Gabe and Dawn. With his consistent competence you can’t count Shota out, but it does seem like Gabe and Dawn have higher ceilings.
- Black Cod
- Bonito Flakes
- Lotus Root
- Matsutake Mushrooms
This was probably the best basket.
Notable Critique: “I think it showed him beautifully.”
2. (even) Gabe Erales
AKA: Good Gabe. Canelo. Fozzy. The Foz. The Masa Father. Jamón.
There was some stiff competition from Dawn and Shota this episode, but Gabe’s panucho was so good that I thought they were going to have to send out a PA with a mop bucket to clean up Dale Talde’s cum. (Too gross for food show rankings? maybe). The judges ran out of superlatives for Gabe in this episode. He also managed to correctly identify sauce gribiche in the quickfire challenge and smartly overruled Shota’s incorrect identification of multiple proteins. I don’t know if Gabe’s best is as good as Dawn’s best, but he definitely seems to be peaking at the right time.
- Bay Leaves
- Chile Ancho
- Corn Masa
- Pork Shoulder
- Pork Skin
Okay, I take it back, this basket is every bit as consistent as Shota’s.
Notable Critique: “I think this was Gabe’s best dish this season.”
1. (even) Dawn Burrell
AKA: Hothead. ‘Sheed. Legs. Breaking Dawn. Milk Carton. The Sphynx. Zeus. Flamethrower.
Do I need to justify Dawn as my number one after being edged out by Gabe in the elimination challenge this episode? Well, she made the top three even while handicapping herself by forgetting the red-eye gravy on three of her plates, and she was the only competitor to correctly identify a carrot-mustard puree in a dish with five or six other components in the quickfire, which is so good it deserves another mention. Also, her pork belly with yams and pecans looked incredible.
Forgetting a component of her dish at a climactic moment was a bit concerning, given her history with this kind of thing in the first few episodes. Still, Dawn has the most wins this season and seems unbeatable when she’s at her best. But will she be at her best??? I can’t wait to find out.
- Black-Eyed Peas
- Collard Greens
- Pork Belly
- Texas Pecans
What makes a “Texas pecan” different from a regular pecan? I imagine that they’re bigger and can never shut the fuck up about it.