‘Top Chef’ Power Rankings: Pitch Your Fast Casual Restaurant Concept Without Saying ‘Chipotle’

This week on Top Chef, the producers went old school in the quickfire, introducing Martin Yan, of Yan Can Cook fame. If you never watched Yan Can Cook, I question your childhood. No one could hack things apart with a giant cleaver like that guy. Yan was there to judge a chop suey challenge, “chop suey” being a Chinese-American phrase that means “bits of chopped up sh*t over rice.” (Not exactly, but basically).

Everyone loves Yan Can Cook, and Chinese food in San Francisco is an obvious pairing, but did anyone really think this challenge through? Chop suey isn’t the most TV-ready of foods. Maybe something more visual would’ve been better? Egg rolls? Dim sum? I mean if we’re doing chop suey, why not a sloppy joe challenge? Anyway, the producers made up for this gulf in watchability by focusing on the other part of the challenge, the contestants having to cook on a wok station. The theme there being “wok stations are really hot.” Not exactly as informative as the historical periods challenge from last week, but it was worth at least a few minutes of contestants complaining and things catching on fire.

Quickfire Top: Jeremy (tasty crab!). Marjorie (balance!). Amar (correct elements!). Winner: Marjorie.

Quickfire Bottom: Carl (not enough vegetables). Kwame (oily eggplant). Isaac (starchy chicken).

The Elimination Challenge

After that, Umami Burger’s Adam Fleischman showed up to introduce the elimination challenge: Pitch a fast-casual restaurant concept that “can work in any city in America.”

Of course! Because what could be a more San Francisco-appropriate challenge these days than having to bullsh*t potential investors and try to dress up your centuries-old business model as a flashy new startup? To Top Chef‘s eternal credit, everyone made it through this entire episode without a single person uttering the words “disrupt” or “unicorn.” And that, people, is why I like writing about food. Could you imagine being a tech journalist? (*deep, full body shudder*)

Specifically, the challenge was to make one dish that reflected the concept, for 150 diners, along with a restaurant name and full menu. To help them in this task, the contestants would be paired with one of the eliminated contestants as their sous chef. Isn’t it a little early for the bring-back-the-eliminated-contestants show? I’m guessing there will be at least one more of these challenges.

Anyway, this naturally led to all the contestants begging not to get stuck with Phillip, who presumably would’ve put all their mise-en-place on top of dirty rocks and made unnecessary foams inspired by his neck tats. Trash talk him all you want, but Phillip owns this show. Even when he’s out he’s still a plot point. He’s like the Donald Trump of Top Chef season 13.

Power Rankings

1. Marjorie (+5)

Nickname(s): Mike Ms.abella, Sheyore

Quickfire Dish: Lobster chop suey with ginger, Thai chili, orange, and fresh vegetables over rice.

Quickfire Reviews: “The essence of Chinese cooking is about control. You seem to be able to manage not overdoing it. ”

With Karen out of the competition, it was up to Mike Ms. to represent for the ladaayys. She started strong, winning the chop suey challenge with her hand-dismembered lobster (wouldn’t it be so much more metal to call it what it actually is? It is pretty brutal just watching her tear a live lobster in half while making breezy small talk). The win gave Marj first choice of partners, at which point she chose… Angelina? “She’s a beast with prep,” explained Marjorie. Which was nice to say, but let’s not pretend like we didn’t all see Angelina come in last in the speed prep challenge back in episode one or two. Real nice, Marjorie, real nice.

While Marjorie didn’t end up winning the elimination challenge, the judges seemed to love her “Pasta Mama” concept, which was viable and pitched well, everyone agreed. This despite it consisting of… uh… pasta. And Marjorie was the “mama.” Okay. “Every store would have a pasta extruder,” Marjorie explained. Yeah, I guess that makes sense. Chalk it up as a victory for not overthinking things.

Also, was no one going to bust Marjorie’s balls for using Papyrus font on her menu?

What is this, Avatar? I feel like I’m back on Pandora, trying to ponytail f*ck a cat monkey. “Pasta Pandora,” it could’ve been called. “Yeah, could I get the porcini ravs with unobtanium oil, please? Hold the white savior sauce though, thanks.”

Anyway, Marjorie has come out of her shell and is looking tough to beat. She’ll probably remain near the top as long as she doesn’t get too ambitious with her bread plans. Remember the story of Icarus, Marjorie. He got too close to the sun and it killed his active yeast.

Concept: Pasta Mama

Dish: House-made spaghetti with olive oil-poached tuna, chili, garlic, and lemon bread crumb.

Notable Quote: “I’m not going to let this competition turn into some sausage party.”

2. Carl (+2)

Nickname(s): Whatshisface, Him?, Dr. Funky Fresh

Quickfire: Szechuan-style lobster with snow peas, ginger, chilies, and scallops.

Quickfire Reviews: “The scallop, you turned into rubber.”

Carl won the elimination challenge this week, everyone! Do you guys think Carl has a chance to win this? Is anyone a true Carl believer yet? Yes, Carl. Carl! You guys don’t remember Carl? He’s the guy who, uh… well. He’s… tall? But not that tall. And he’s always… always wearing T-shirts? Hmm, let’s circle back on Carl.

Concept: Savory Med (aka Middle Eastern Chipotle)

Dish: Lamb and piquillo pepper stew in a cous cous bowl.

Review(s): “Carl’s dish is really tasty.” It’s spicy but not too spicy.” “One problem I see with it is all these clean fresh herbs.”

3. Amar (-2)

Nickname(s): Big Sleazy, Crab Nachos, Ol’ Middle Of The Pack

Quickfire: Pork chop suey with vegetables and Szechuan peppercorn over fried rice.

Quickfire reviews: “Fried rice itself is a dish.” “It’s also very refreshing.”

Amar got paired with Karen this week (which he was stoked about) and chose a rotisserie chicken concept called “Pio Pio.” Which I could’ve sworn was already a concept. Also, there’s a chicken place down the street from my apartment that does this exact thing. It hasn’t gone out of business yet, so clearly this idea is reasonably viable. Anyway, after last week’s win and this week’s top three quickfire finish, I expected Amar to start making his run for the top that I keep expecting every week. Instead he hung around the middle of the pack yet again. The judges blasted him for “not really selling the concept,” which was yet another baffling Top Chef critique. I guess he needed a pasta extruder? Maybe tell the judges that the rotisserie concept will indeed be filled with actual rotisseries? Or to put himself in the title somehow? “Welcome to Pio Pio Pedro’s, I’m Pedro! Put a dollar on my plancha and I’ll sing you a song!”

Concept: Pio Pio.

Dish: Rotisserie chicken with Spanish yellow rice, four bean salad, and choice of sauce.

Reviews: “This sauce is great.” “He just didn’t do a really great job selling this.” “It feels authentic to me.”

4. Isaac (-2)

Nickname(s): Cornbread, Roux McClanahan

Quickfire: Spicy General Tso’s chicken with crackling, sambal, orange juice, and broccoli over rice.

Quickfire reviews: “I like the cracklins.” “The chicken seems to be a little starchy.”

Isaac partnered with Wesley (Chef Tomsula!) this week to do what Southerners do best: make some gumbo. (Note: everything I know about the South I learned from watching the Food Network.) He described his concept, “Gumbo For Y’all,” to Padma as “you can get a whole gallon of gumbo to bring back for your family!”

Which sounds suspiciously like something the semi-fictionalized Isaac from these power rankings would’ve said. If I didn’t know these episodes were shot months ago I’d think he was stealing from me. “Ooh wee, I think dey onto us now, Peppah! Start da fanboat ‘fore dese nice ol’ city folk realize dey been rob.” (*Peppah starts stuffing hushpuppies into his miniature, lizard-sized overalls*)

It was also a little disappointing that he didn’t just name the concept “Gallon O’Gumbo.” Anyway, Cornbread ended up finishing out of the top two, but above the bottom two in the elimination challenge, meaning it’s anyone’s guess how he’s really doing. Just the fact that Chef Wesley was on his team and the gumbo didn’t end up with a dip cup or Wesley’s car keys in it seems like a win.

Concept: Gumbo For Y’all

Dish: Gumbo Ya Ya with chicken and spicy sausage.

Review(s): “It’s a good gumbo.”

Notable Quote(s): “Anybody but Phillip, I’ll take anybody.” “I shoot a couple ideas to myself that I immediately shoot down because they’re stupid.”

5. Jeremy (even)

Nickname(s): Frat Dad, Totino, J-Rock

Quickfire: Dungeness crab stir fry with bok choy, red Thai chili, long beans, and onions over rice.

Another poor finish has left once-favorite Jeremy looking like he might be too chill for this world. Which is a shame, because I’m really starting to love me some J-Rock. Marjorie thought she’d sabotage notably bro-y J-Rock by sticking him with outspoken bro foe, Jason. This didn’t cause quite the friction (ebrosion?) Marjorie was probably hoping for, though I did enjoy Jason’s face when J-Rock attempted to explained his concept, “Taco Dudes.”

He elaborated, saying “I’m going outside your typical taco restaurant. I’m gonna do some funky, cool tacos.” Which gave me my second legitimate laugh out loud moment from Jeremy in as many episodes. Sadly, the judges weren’t loving it. Tom even put J-Rock on the spot, asking how he came up with the name. The subtext being “Why’d you come up with such a stupid name?”

“Uhhh, because I’m a dude, and I love tacos,” was the answer.

Tom kept making fun of it, and I’m not saying he’s wrong, but hey, isn’t that basically the same damn name as “Pasta Mama?” She’s a mama who likes pasta, he’s a dude who likes Tacos. This could be a dating show.

Anyway, I think the judges thought Jeremy was trying to be all things to all people, with his beachside taco stand that’s also a gastro pub with a rooftop bar and hot waitresses like a Hooters. But actually, Spicy J-Rock 305 never said anything about a beachside taco stand. That was just something Tom assumed from the name (not unfairly, mind you). J-Train’s idea was just a gastro pub (with hot waitresses) that served fancy tacos. I completely disagree with Tom’s assessment that “dudes” wouldn’t be caught dead in a gastropub, and speaking as a guy who still owns Less Than Jake T-shirts I think I would know.

In any case, Taco Dudes is sleeping with the Edsel now. Shame, though we’ll always have this menu:

Concept: Taco Dudes

Review(s): “You could do a great social media campaign out of all these terms.” “The execution’s not there.” “I’m not feelin’ this.”

Notable Quote: “I think I smoked too much when I came up with this concept.”

6. Kwame (-3) ((Eliminated))

Nickname(s): Wormser, The Prodigy

Quickfire Dish: Chop suey stir fry with crispy beef, eggplant, long beans, carrots, cabbage, and noodles.

Quickfire Reviews: “Wow, you used the oil-blanching technique. It’s a very Chinese way, but you’ve got to do it properly. You let it sit there too long and all the remaining oil will make it back into your dish.”

Poor Kwame was the loser of the having-to-work-with-Phillip sweepstakes this week, and what a surprise, he ended up going home. Coincidence? Okay, probably. The Phillip Factor paled in comparison to the Using Frozen Waffles Factor, which Kwame did in his “Waffle Me” fast casual concept.

I’m a little torn on this one. On the one hand, it seemed like the judges actually enjoyed Kwame’s dish, but just couldn’t get over the idea of him using frozen waffles, which is a little unfair. On the other, anyone who’s watched this show more than twice should’ve known that frozen waffles would be an automatic going-home offense at this stage of the game.

Actually, portion size may have been more of a factor than anything else. Basically, Kwame tried to sell a food truck concept as a fast casual restaurant concept. KWAME, YOU CHILD!

It was also hard to feel much sympathy for Kwame once he revealed on his way out the door that he’s ONLY BEEN COOKING FOR FOUR YEARS. That was shocking even to me, and I interviewed him yesterday. (I knew his story, I just hadn’t heard it put that way. It’s also embellishing slightly, since he started his catering company five or six years ago, by my math, which seems like it counts as “cooking.”) Anyway, it almost felt like Top Chef has been hiding Kwame’s awesome backstory, which seems like an even stranger strategy than Waffle Me’s tiny waffles. Maybe he’ll still win Last Chance Kitchen?

Concept: Waffle Me. (Mini fried chicken and waffles)

Dish: Whole wheat waffle topped with fried chicken, maple jus, mustard seeds, red onion, and scallions.

Review(s): “One of the more enjoyable chicken and waffle dishes that I had. If this is the actual size of it though, it’s a disaster of a business plan.”


Remember last week when I said I was surprised that they were in San Francisco and we hadn’t seen Chris Cosentino or Hubert Keller yet? Okay, so technically I said I was surprised we hadn’t seen Chris Cosentino or Thomas Keller yet, but in my defense, they’re both Bay Area chefs named “Keller” and I hadn’t realized they were different people. Anyway, pack up your snails, homie, because next week everyone gets Frenched.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.