“Taste the soup. Didja taste the soup? Just taste the soup. Didja taste the soup? Ahaaa…”
This week was a landmark week in Top Chef history, showcasing, for perhaps the first time, guest judges whose resumes the contestants apparently didn’t know by heart. That’s in contrast to the normal format, where they introduce a judge and cut immediately to a cheftestant going, “NO WAY, Steve Barbasol? He’s like the original gangster of percussive Scandinavian gastronomy!”
It all started in the quickfire challenge, which was introduced by Dr. Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general of the United States. Who, before he was introduced, cheftestant Casey had confused with some kind of a steamboat captain. Seeing a man in uniform she immediately thought, “Oh jeez, not a ship challenge!”
Nope, sorry Casey, that’s just the surgeon general, come to tell folks to quit it with all the carbs. Actually, he said “Chefs can be the change makers.”
But wait, why is he dressed like that, anyway? Hey, Murthy, this is Top Chef not Top Gun. …Oh wait, surgeon general. Like it’s a general’s outfit? Dang, I just got that. Do you think the surgeon general gets to choose whether he wants to dress like a surgeon or a general? Are there other non-military professions that get generalships? Like the Sales Manager General or the Decorator General? Can I be the Blogger General, with a tricorner hat and cheetos-covered sweat pants? (I haven’t called myself a blogger in years, but no way was I going to pass up that joke. Still a blogger at heart, I guess).
Aaaanyway, your boy V-Murths was there to judge a challenge based on creating healthy versions of comfort food classics. Oh boy, fatless stroganoff, yum. As an added twist, the chefs also had to grab all tools and ingredients one at a time so that they’d have to run back and forth the whole time, because exercise. Oh good, that’s just why I sit on my fat ass watching food on the TV, so I can imagine for myself a more abstemious lifestyle. Ooh, and after the healthy foods, tell me about my tasteful houseware options!
And for another twist, Padma piled on, those healthy, one-ingredient-at-a-time dishes also had to be vegetarian. Aw, man, again? This has to be annoying for vegetarians, always combining the vegetarian dish challenge with the healthy dish challenge. Those are two different things, no need to go overboard. When you’re a vegetarian, restaurants are always trying to feed you undressed salad like you don’t have taste buds. Is there a no meat but don’t skimp on the fat, oil, and gluten option?
Another fun thing about Top Chef‘s healthy food challenges is that they never send the dishes to a food lab to see if anything is actually healthy, they just take your word for it so long as the description has a buzzword or two. If these contestants were smart they’d be dumping secret lard on everything (“…a Top Chef contestant was banned for life yesterday after secret lard bladder was discovered in his sleeve…”) But apparently no one cheats, not even Katsuji.
After that, a pair of new guest judges, chef Alexander Smalls and author Toni Tipton-Martin (A-Smalls and TTM, to me), introduced the elimination challenge. Which was to be based on none other than criminally under-lionized culinary legend Edna Lewis. This announcement was accompanied by the customary Top Chef resume-fluffing by way of the cut-to-the-confessional, in which Chef Jim aka Truman Compote, learned us up the fact that “Edna Lewis had a real impact on Southern food.”
BUT, in what I believe is a Top Chef first, that customary resume fluffing was quickly contradicted with a frank depiction of cheftestant ignorance:
This can’t possibly have been the first time the show introduced some random chef/cookbook author/restauranteur/bespoke hog butcher and had some of the contestants not know who it was. So it’s interesting that the show let them admit their blind spots for this one. Anyway.
At this point, elfin Jim was apoplectic to the point of near non-adorableness, sputtering “I can’t believe more chefs don’t know who Edna Lewis is, she has her own freakin’ postage stamp!” like an agitated songbird.
Anyway, the short version is that Edna Lewis was a famous chef who was also southern and black and the daughter of former slaves. “Edna Lewis was not just a chef, she was a beacon,” said Alexander Smalls.
The chefs’ job, then, was to create an homage to Edna Lewis, despite many of them not knowing who she even was five minutes before. Culminating in this perfect quote from Chef Jamie (aka Midnight Oil):
“I hadn’t heard of Edna Lewis, I’m ashamed to say, but I’m inspired to pay tribute to someone who hasn’t gotten the recognition that I feel she deserves.”
BRO I DIDN’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT HER BUT I JUST WATCHED AN INFORMATIONAL MINI-DOC AND NOW I’M PUUUUUUMPED TO REHABILITATE HER IMAGE! ED-NA! ED-NA! ED-NA!
Get woke, dog. Edna Lewis woke.
Stuff That Sounded Super Tasty This Week
– Jim’s South Carolina white shrimp with ham hock consomme. Ham hocks and shrimp? Consommake my day, you brilliant little bastard.
– John’s (aka Bangles’) pan-broiled chicken with sunchokes. Apparently “pan-broiling” involves letting the chicken slowly crisp up in butter. Sweet Jesus I love everything about that.
11. Chef Amanda Baumgarten (even) ((eliminated)), AKA Annoying Amanda, aka Shhh
Shhh nearly made me regret giving her such cruel nicknames by spending the majority of this episode being totally tolerable. Seemingly headed for sure elimination after last week, Amanda cooked a vegetarian stroganoff in the quickfire that was good enough not to land her in the bottom three. But then in the elimination challenge, she went to describe her dish (some kind of roasted duck over sweet potato situation) and immediately transformed into Buzzword Sally. “I wanted it to be ingredient forward, nothing fussy, I just wanted to showcase the ingredients, didn’t want to do too much…”
I remember rolling my eyes a little when a chef I interviewed gave me this same schpiel 10 years ago, so you can imagine how much more meaningless it sounds today. Everyone’s favorite mean girl, Padma, God love her, immediately stuck a pin in Amanda’s balloon. “Amanda? Why did you leave everything so chunky?”
Oh man, they’re totally going to make Amanda’s dish walk down the hall while they circle the chunky parts, jeering. From there it was a brutal pile on, with Hugh Acheson sneering, “It’s… food. I don’t know if it’s Southern food…” And then later, “the root of Southern food is pulling at heart strings, and this dish pulls at absolutely no heart strings.”
That collection of words manages to be so simultaneously bitchy, pompous, and sort of true that I don’t even know what to do with myself. Majestic Top Cheffery, Hugh, truly.
Amanda was all set to receive my sympathy vote on account of everyone being super mean to her in a kind of pretentious way until she got to the judges table and immediately yelled “I stand behind my dish!”
Oh jeez. If you’re keeping score at home, “standing by your dish” that the judges hated is number eight on my 10 ways to get kicked off Top Chef. Jesus Christ, people, what did you think was going to happen here? The judges were going to offer constructive criticism and then abruptly change their minds based on your blanket rebuttal? It always reminds me of Demi Moore in A Few Good Men.
I strenuously object.
Oh, well if you strenuously object…
Anyway, I doubt anyone strenuously objected to Amanda getting eliminated.
10. Chef Emily Hahn (-3), AKA Stormcloud, aka Problems, aka Avril Terrine
Oh, Emily. I don’t know that she deserves to be ranked all the way down at second to last, seeing as how she finished in the top three of this week’s quickfire and her crispy liver dish in the elimination challenge at least looked pretty good, but then the judges told her it wasn’t (Can you believe she deep fried it instead of pan frying? What an IDIOT) and she had a meltdown. Seems that the self-described attitude problem lady might be a bit of a head case. Wait, crying? Are you crying?! Come on, Bad Attitude Emily, there’s no crying in rebellion.
9. Chef Casey Thompson (-4), AKA Texas, aka Nerd Alert
Sometimes I wonder if Hot Casey didn’t do anything comically nerdy at least once per show whether they’d even show her at all. This week she was all, “Oh no, we’re going to be on a boat,”
SMASH CUT TO: Actually, this is the surgeon general.
By the way, why is Casey so bummed at the prospect of going on a boat? Did a boat captain hurt you?
Anyway, Casey landed in the bottom three during the quickfire for her “grainy” pot pie and then in the elimination challenge finished in the indistinct middle. I guess the judges mostly liked it? It seems like Casey disappeared, but I think that was just the producers trying to cut away from her before she cried again. There were already like four people crying this episode, Casey.
8. Katsuji Tanabe (-1), AKA Sooj Knight, aka Draymond, aka Professor Kats
I can’t believe Katsuji only tried to cheat once during the quickfire (by attempting to carry more than one ingredient at a time). Come on, Katsuji! What would your namesake Draymond do? He’d wang people in the ding dong, that’s what! If you ain’t wanging ding dongs you ain’t tryin. I’d also watch an entire episode of Katsuji trying to pronounce “xantham gum” (“zan tam gome”).
Katsuji washed out in the quickfire with his squash noodles with squash meatballs (note: TOO MUCH SQUASH), and caused some drama in the elimination by serving the judges, um, fried chicken and watermelon. Which sounds worse than it actually was (thank God for those buzzwords), but not before it horrified Sylva. “I would never present that dish to a table of Southern chefs.”
Conceptually he’s not wrong, but then Katsuji pickled some watermelon rinds and stole an old Edna trick of flavoring your chicken frying oil with ham and butter, which simply sounds far too damned delicious to offend anyone. Sure enough, it didn’t. That’s the thing, it’s hard to offend someone with delicious food. And anyway, what kind of stereotype is that? Who the hell doesn’t like fried chicken? My local Popeye’s is such a beautiful ethnic melting pot that it’s like a tiny America with no slavery or Native genocide.
Granted my opinion doesn’t count for much here because I’m a white guy from California, but I’d probably give up my right to vote for good enough fried chicken. And besides, Katsuji is a Japenese Jewish Kosher Mexican, so his minority cred is pretty firmly established. He’s at number eight because he can’t seem to stay out of the bottom three for more than two consecutive challenges.
7. Chef Jamie Lynch (-3), AKA Midnight Oil
Midnight Oil opened this episode discussing his vegetarian son, who helped Jamie win the quickfire with his tofu sloppy joe (“I can do all things through my vegetarian son, who strengthens me” -book of Top Chef 14:23). Were there no mushrooms around? Mushrooms make way better meat substitute than tofu (unless you bread it and fry it), but whatever.
That won Jamie immunity, which is a good thing, because he almost certainly would’ve gone home for not plating Padma’s dish in time (you let Padma starve, you idiot!) or for using sous vide to cook his beef (a part he seemed to conveniently leave out when explaining the dishes to the judges). Why sous vide for a soul food challenge? As Jamie explained during confessional, “I think if Edna had had sous vide, she would’ve used sous vide.”
Meaning Jamie went from “I am not familiar with this person” to “she would’ve wanted it this way” faster than anyone in history. Nice, bro.
6. Chef Shirley Chung (even), AKA Bowl of Hug, aka Peppercorns
Whither Shirley? The queen of pepper managed once again to finish in neither the top nor the bottom of either challenged, despite earning rave reviews for her chicken wing confit (“confit” is of course Spanish for “with feet”). Padma called her seasoning (pepper, obvi) “pronounced but spot on.”
The most notable thing Shirley did this episode was rave about Edna Lewis. “Everything I read of hers is like poetry,” said Shirley. I’ve seen a few restaurant menus that attempted this now, and let me be the first to say, dear chefs, please do not write poetry.
5. Chef Jim Smith (+3), AKA Truman Compote, aka Buddy Challah, aka Lil’ Jim
Considering this week was a Southern food challenge and Lil’ Jim is the official Southern food chef of the South, you could perhaps make the case that his top three finish wasn’t that impressive and that maybe he doesn’t deserve to be ranked this high. But F that noise, Truman’s shrimp and ham hock consomme looked goddamn delicious. Also, I reserve the right to play favorites, and I love Jim, and oh my god did you see his wedding pictures??!
Cutest wedding ever? I think they’re actually standing on top of the cake in that.
4. Chef Sylva Senat (+6), aka Fishbone
Fishbone got probably the most screen time this week on account of his Katsuji call out and one of Top Chef‘s more legitimately affecting backstory segments, in which Sylva revealed his father’s disappointment in his choice of profession, thanks to a history of African-Americans staying out of the kitchen to avoid being seen as “domestics.” Are these producers forgiven for the plantation thing yet? I don’t know, but I thought they did right by the history with the storytelling this week.
The key this week was apparently pulling at heartstrings, and Sylva’s tears felt the most earned. To cap it all off, he won the challenge with his non-greasy fried fish that tasted “like an angel fried that fish,” according to Art Smith. Jesus, settle down, Art, Oprah’s not here right now.
Sylva would be ranked higher if he hadn’t landed on the bottom of this week’s quickfire for his seitan and masa take on chicken and dumplings (“hard to chew,” according to Padma). Say no to seitan, man. The best vegetarian dishes are the ones that don’t pretend to be not vegetarian.
3. Chef Brooke Williamson (-2), aka Biscuits
I know, I know, Brooke damn near went home this week, for serving up some gross lemon curd concoction, and in a world where the judges were only judging the dish at hand (which they supposedly are but clearly aren’t), she probably would have. It’s good they cheated and let her stay though, because Brooke seems to win every other challenge.
And she knows how to play the game. Take the quickfire challenge, for instance. Did she go all health crazy trying to cook a raw kale quinoa biscuits? No. She was tasked with re-imagining lasagna, and she cooked zucchini lasagna, with bechemel and tomato sauce. If you’re removing the meat you might as well leave the bechemel, you’ve earned it. Smart. She finished in the top three.
Then later, when she landed in the bottom three for her chicken lemon curd disaster that was fussily plated and tasted like dessert, she simply hung back during the judges tribunal and let Amanda hang herself. While Amanda was “standing by her dish” and Emily was bawling in bafflement at being named to the bottom three, Brooke simply nodded at her criticisms and said “I think I was inspired by too many of Edna’s dishes.”
Now that’s failure management. Don’t deny the judges’ criticism, agree, and add backstory. Then, instead of wondering why you’re such a hard-headed, blame denying idiot, they can just nod sagely and walk away thinking they’ve taught you an important lesson. Don’t dig in, act like you’ve learned. My God, is Brooke the only contestant who’s had to make a fake apology before? It’s like these other ones never got in trouble as kids.
2. Sheldon Simeon (+1), AKA Cool Breeze, aka Shel Chillverstein, aka Hopalong
Good ol’ Shel Chillverstein was the source of another Top Chef first this week: the slow-motion falling down reel (complete with two different angles!). This came as injury-addled Sheldon took a tumble during the running-back-and-forth-based quickfire challenge. Luckily, “the doctors are taking care of me,” according to Sheldon, and being in a haze of opiates (presumably) these past two episodes hasn’t seemed to affect his cooking. Sheldon did what Sheldon does — hover near the top of the pack without winning. He cooked a pork and cabbage dish this week that reminded him of his grandma and got him all choked up. Remember, heartstrings (also, opiates).
Oh, and hey, did you guys know cooking simple food is actually more difficult? Strange, it feels almost like I’ve heard that somewhere before.
1. John Tesar (+1), AKA Bangles, aka Steve Douchemi
Holy hell, you guys, Bangles is on fire. What is happening here? I mean, technically he didn’t win any challenges this week, but almost every quickfire top finisher was an elimination challenge bottom dweller and vice versa this week, which means that John, with a quickfire win two weeks ago and two consecutive top threes leading up to this episode, in which he received rave reviews without landing in the top three, is on the hottest streak.
John played the my-mother-was-a-Civil-Rights-activist card again this week and oh shit, there’s actually a picture of her marching on Selma. Then John cooked that pan-broiled chicken that Tom called “really solid cooking” and the judges said “clearly channeled” Edna Lewis. Can you believe it? This guy might really have a chance to win this thing, as long as he doesn’t snag a bauble on something.