Sometimes I love “Top Chef” for the same reason I hate “Top Chef.” And what’s that reason? Crazy ass challenges. This week, though, I love “Top Chef,” because the Quickfire Challenge is so bizarre it’s actually brilliant. Yes, it’s shameless product placement, but for once it doesn’t feel entirely arbitrary. It doesn’t make me want to create a foil frying pan, either, but hey, this one’s a winner.
Everyone lines up for the Quickfire. Joining our weary cheftestants today will be season 4 winner Stephanie Izard, who owns Girl & the Goat. That might be a better name for a children’s book than a restaurant, although it would make me very sad if the only female winner of “Top Chef” (momentary aside – whywhywhy has there only ever been one female winner? Whywhy?) appeared on the show just to say she owns a children’s book. That’s like going on Letterman to say you bought a bag of organic pears.
But Stephanie is hardly the draw in this exceedingly brilliant challenge. The chefs have thirty minutes to make a dish. The catch? They can use anything they find in the pantry or the fridge — the catch is, EVERYTHING IS WRAPPED IN REYNOLDS WRAP. And they can’t just unwrap things willy-nilly, mind you — whatever you unwrap has to go into your dish. You unwrap radishes and chocolate? You’re using radishes and chocolate.
If that’s not enough, they don’t have pans. If they want to cook something, they have to “get creative” with Reynolds Wrap (plug, plug, plug). Everyone spins into a frenzy making little foil pans with little foil handles. It’s like watching an episode of children’s television that involves high heat. Yes, little foil frying pans tend to flop all over the stove and send sauces dribbling over the cooktop, but still, this is good fun. It does not make me want to use foil in my kitchen, but it makes me think I should definitely put it in my earthquake emergency kit.
In many respects, this is an entirely sadistic challenge, and too many elements (make your own containers, mystery ingredients) seem orchestrated to trip up good chefs instead of eliminate bad ones. But I can’t help it — this is just a fun challenge. Not fair, but fun.
Finally, after much unwrapping and moaning and making funny shapes with foil, it’s time for the judges (Stephanie and Padma) to check out what everyone has made. Though some of the food looks passable, a lot of it just looks odd, so let’s concentrate on judge reactions. I don’t think anyone is going to be lining up for these recipes.
Danyelle made a bean stew but was thrown off by her tomatillo. Stephanie assures her that the tomatillo actually helped matters. C’mon, Danyelle, you don’t have to actually be confident; just shut your mouth when you’re riddled with insecurity!
Micah made lamb, and Padma declares it rare… very rare. Stefan does a smoked salmon and offers a little champagne as an aperitif. Stephanie likes the champagne. I’m wondering if Stefan unwrapped the booze by accident, but I would think that champagne would be one of the few items that, when wrapped in foil, is pretty obviously what it is.
Dallas John does an Asian-pineapple thing, and Stephanie likes the combination of pineapple and beef. Brooke makes bacon roasted yams, but Padma and Stephanie practically choke on the raw onion. Brooke, come on! Raw onion?
Josh (whom one smart reader has dubbed Snidely, as in Whiplash — from now on, let us all refer to him as Snidely Josh!) makes chicken with poblano chile, and Stephanie likes the chiles. Kristen makes an almond and chocolate sponge cake, which is pretty amazing in that she made a FOIL BOWL to stir up her ingredients. Stephanie is impressed by the texture of the cake. I’m amazed she was able to bake a cake in a fake foil pan.
Bart makes beer poached cod. Stephanie thinks the fish is cooked perfectly. Sheldon makes scallops, and Stephanie likes the smokiness. Overall, the food does not seem as exceptionally bad as one might expect.
Time for hits and misses. First, the misses. Stephanie thinks Brooke’s dish isn’t seasoned enough (and, you know, raw onion), and she notes that Micah’s lamb was raw. She also thinks Snidely Josh’s food was uninspired. He had great ingredients and he didn’t do anything interesting.
Sheldon, Kristen, Josie, Bart, Stefan and Danyele all did well, but Danyele, Kristen and Sheldon had the best dishes. Stephanie thought Danyele’s stew was a hit, she loved the texture of Kristen’s cake, and she liked Sheldon’s smokiness. She gives the win to… Kristen. Yay, Kristen! She has really been shaping up as a threat this season, and given that we’ve all been reminded that this show has only had one female winner, I’m rooting for Kristen or Brooke to win it.
Next, the chefs must head to Remlinger Farms Berry Festival for head-tohead battles during the farm’s berry festival. Snidely Josh was a wrestler in high school, so he’s excited to go head-to-head with anyone. I hope someone lets him know he doesn’t get to toss anyone on to the floor, just cook against them. The top five chefs from the Quickfire (the winner, Kristen, cooks alone) get to pick who they’ll go up against in the head-to-head battles.
Sheldon picks Micah
Danyele goes against Josh
Stefan takes Dallas John
Josie picks Lizzie
Bart gets Brooke
Padma tells the chefs that 150 guests will pick the winners of each battle, and the ultimate winner gets $10,000. Oh, and they have to use the berries that are waiting for them under the table. I would have no idea what to do with a gooseberries or tayberries, but everyone seems happy enough with what they get. I actually had to look up what a tayberry is, as they don’t seem to pop up at Trader Joe’s, but it’s a cross between a blackberry and a red raspberry. I now really want to try a tayberry. And maybe someday my spell check will stop changing the word to bayberry.
At the store, Stefan buys frozen fish. What? What? Stefan feels justified, because it’s saku block tuna, which is the best grade of tuna in Japan. It’s not crappy frozen fish; it’s really good frozen fish! Still, Dallas John is sure he’s secured the win. No one wins with frozen fish on this show!
At the farm, there’s no space to cook. Okay, not enough space. You would think it’s a huge farm; they could squeeze in another damn table. But no, it’s more fun if blenders blow up in people’s faces and the chefs get cranky. Mo’ fights means mo’ drama, honey!
Lizzie wants to highlight the femininity of the raspberry. I was unaware that raspberries were feminine, but I admire Lizzie’s love for fruit. Josie will be using raspberries in sushi, which sounds disgusting.
Bart fights with Dallas John about a blender. They swear at one another. Dallas John makes another friend! Not really! “Jackass is a jackass,” growls Bart.
Even though she’s safe, Kristen still wants to win because she wants $10,000 to go to Korea. Why Korea? She was abandoned by her mother, named by the police, then adopted out to America. She needs to see where she came from. Okay, now I can’t help but root for Kristen to win, even though she has immunity and could just get by.
As everyone frantically cooks and trips over one another, Tom stops by to chat with the chefs. This is friendly right up until the moment Dallas John tattles that Stefan has frozen tuna. Of course, this isn’t throwing another chef under the bus, oh no! It’s not that it’s frozen, it’s the fact it’s not sustainable. He was simply making a political statement! Yes, if we know anything about Dallas John, it’s that he’s a fish loving environmentalist with high moral standards. Or something.
Micah’s daughters are named Sage and Saffron. I’m impressed that he was able to find two seasonings that aren’t entirely weird as girls’ names and yet don’t conjure up stripper thoughts.
The hungry masses pour into the festival, and our judges aren’t far behind. Gail Simmons, Stephanie Izard, Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi will be in da house.
Let the battles begin!
Danyele – Chicken pine nut terrine with a blueberry mostarda
Josh – Savory goat cheese mousse with blueberry compote
Stephanie thinks the terrine is crunchy. Tom thinks it’s rubbery. Tom likes Josh’s blueberries. Gail wishes there was more crunch, but thinks it’s balanced.
Josie – rock n’ raspberry roll: sockeye salmon, dungeness crab & raspberry aioli
Lizzie – raspberry steamed cabbage roll with heritage pork & bacon stuffing
Both of these sound revolting to me, but Padma loves Lizzie’s pork. Stephanie thinks it’s a good direction to go in. Tom thinks it would e a great dish if it were seasoned. Gail doesn’t taste raspberries in Josie’s dish. Tom is upset that Josie seems to think putting on a show is more important than cooking good food. He hates her mayonnaise, too. Lizzie knows she’s going to win this challenge.
Sheldon – ahí summer roll: ahi poke, strawberries & sweet chili sauce
Micah – strawberry fried chicken with strawberry & bacon biscuit
Tom likes Micah’s chicken but thinks the biscuit is dense. Gail thinks it’s a pretty good fried chicken. Stephanie thinks Sheldon’s dish has an odd consistency, but his use of radish made it work. Gail thinks it had an interesting strawberry flavor.
John – white gazpacho with Spanish chorizo, gooseberries & sweet grapes
Stefan – cali crudo with radishes, gooseberries & spiced vinaigrette
Gail thinks Stefan did a great job on his crudo, but she didn’t get gooseberry. Tom agrees. Stephanie thinks John’s chorizo overpowered the dish, and Padma feels he has two dishes going on in the same cup. No one says word one about Stefan’s frozen fish.
Brooke – spicy smoked chocolate pudding with blackberry tapioca
Bart – blackberry soup with salmon & rhubarb yogurt
Tom thinks Bart’s soup is delicious but the salmon is as bland as it gets. Stephanie didn’t need the salmon. Gail thinks Brooke’s dessert is really smart, and Tom agrees.
Kristen – matcha goat milk custard with macerated tayberries
Tom loves the custard. Stephanie thinks the tayberries were one of her favorite things of the day.
In the stew room, Dallas John and Stefan continue sniping at one another. Stefan asks everyone else if they’ve ever used saku block tuna. Everyone has, so Stefan tells John to, um, sexually pleasure him. This is not a loving moment, as you might guess. I also think Stefan might have actually found the one time when frozen fish doesn’t bother the judges at all. Amazing.
John, Josie, Bart, Micah and Danyele are called before the judges. Padma tells them that they lost the guests’ vote, and Tom adds that the judges were in concurrence. Micah isn’t surprised his food didn’t make the cut, and neither is Josie. But Bart seems surprised. Gail tells Bart his soup was excellent, but the salmon was terrible. Bart realizes he should have gone with crab meat. Danyele admits her crostini was too crunchy. Tom tells her her concept only went halfway.
Ah, but then there’s Dallas John. He thinks he did a great job. He represented gooseberries very well! Hmm, but everyone disliked the chorizo. He wishes he’d given them more gazpacho! And, he isn’t one to make excuses, but the kitchen was a little crazy. But, you know, no excuses. Oh, Dallas John.
Everyone else is called back to be praised — and the winner is… Kristen! Yay! Back-to-back wins for her! Someone’s going to Korea!
Enough with the good news. It’s time to send someone home. And that person is… Danyele. She admits she’s ready to go. I think this is for the best, because I’ve been thinking Danyele might have a total nervous breakdown at any moment, and this might give her a chance to figure something out with her hair.
Back in the stew room, a gloating Stefan wants to hear what the judges said to John. Josie tells him to shut up. Stefan tells her she’s skating by. Josie tells Stefan he’s acting like a three-year-old. Suddenly, for no particularly good reason, Josie and Stefan are in a full-blown fight. WTH? The other chefs decide it’s time to get out of the stew room before someone gets hit. Darn. I was hoping to see Josie and Stefan wrestle. Snidely Josh could judge!
Do you think Dallas John threw Stefan under the bus? Do you think another woman might finally win “Top Chef”? What did you think of the foil challenge?