‘Top Chef’ recap: Is giving bad food to volunteers still a good deed?

Things are heating up (that’s funny, because New Orleans is hotter than an armpit most of the time!) on “Top Chef: New Orleans,” as front runners are emerging, dark horses have reared their heads and whinnied and the lesser-thans are being picked off like teenagers in a cheap horror movie. While not all of the food looks entirely edible (and hey, with gumbo, it never really looks great, does it?), some of it sounds delicious, and that’s enough for me. Until someone invents Taste-o-Vision, this, and the snarky comments of our judges, will have to do.

The Quickfire Challenge is, yes, gumbo! Padma Lakshmi is letting them cook all night at the Chef’s House, then letting them finish up in the Top Chef kitchen the next morning. This should mean everyone cooks, then sleeps, then continues cooking. Unfortunately, for some of our frantic chefs, that means cooking, then cooking some more. Come on, people, it’s a marathon, not a sprint!

While everyone is working hard — and the challenge is to create a gumbo that includes elements of each chef’s culture or background or whatever — not everything looks entirely like, well, food. Some of it looks like it should be spat out of monsters or small children possessed by the devil. That being said, it probably tastes good.

Interestingly enough, I think Padma has told everybody that gumbo is just lots of good stuff thrown together in a stew, which isn’t technically true. If we’re talking real gumbo (and one of the chefs from Lousiana mentions this), there has to be “the holy trinity” of celery, bell peppers and onions. There should be a roux base. Meat and seafood should never be mixed. But, what do we get? Asian gumbo! Crab and tofu gumbo! New England chowder gumbo! Beet and potato gumbo! Stuff that pretty much isn’t gumbo gumbo! Patty makes something that looks like wet socks, and I really wouldn’t be surprised if those were her secret ingredient. I realize that “Top Chef” is all about putting your own spin on a dish, but maybe we shouldn’t be calling all of this gumbo, or Padma should explain “with gumbo as your INSPIRATION, throw any old crap in a Crock Pot and make sure it tastes good!”

Our guest judge is Leah Chase of Dooky Chase, who is old and sweet and looks like she’s just happy to be sitting down instead of stirring something in front of a hot stove. She smiles and tells the chefs she thought they did a wonderful job… except for Jason and his stinky beet soup, which she thinks he should have turned into a borscht. She also thinks Michael, who tossed out his gumbo at 1:30am and started over, should have stuck with his original dish. She also “didn’t get the grip” of Patty’s food. Is Patty going home soon? I ask because she cries a lot and the judges seem to be saying her food tastes like garbage.

On the bright side, Leah liked Aaron’s shrimp heads. She also liked Carrie’s gumbo, as she makes something similar every Thursday. She gave Shirley’s pork bellies a thumbs-up, too. But the winner is…Carrie! Ha! For her Iowa-Trinidadian gumbo, which she was so worried about because it looked like baby vomit! I am guessing it tasted REALLY good, as baby vomit-looking dishes are not usually a hit on “Top Chef.”

On to the elimination! It’s a food truck challenge. Shirley has a food truck, but not the right license for it, so it’s an enormous paperweight. The challenge is to dish out food for Habitat for Humanity. The organization is still fixing the damage from Hurricane Katrina. Crazy. Just a reminder — Katrina was EIGHT YEARS AGO. Gail Simmons mentions that there are still 50,000 houses damaged by Katrina that need repairs or need to just plain be rebuilt. This is embarrassing, America.

The chefs are working in teams, as I guess it’s not in the “Top Chef” budget to give every chef their own food truck (besides, that would be too hard to shoot and too easy on the chefs).
Yellow Team: Aaron, Carlos, Travis, Carrie & Brian.
Green Team: Louis, Sara, Shirley & Stephanie.
Red Team: Justin, Bene, Janine, Michael & Nina.
Blue Team: Jason, Patty, Nicholas & Bret

We see everyone prepping and running around, and the one team that absolutely stands out is the Red Team. This is not a good thing, because they stand out for treating Bene like he’s the slow kid the other chefs are only playing with because their moms told them they had to. The Blue Team also seems to have some problems, as Jason is MAKING HIS FOOD IN ADVANCE so he can be the charming host. Dude, these people are volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, not attending a Buy A Bachelor event.

Yellow Team
Travis & Brian – Dorado & shrimp ceviche with tomato
Carrie & Aaron – Beef & pork curry empanadas with watercress & mango
Carlos & Aaron – Tilapia tacos with chipotle aioli & cabbage
Padma thought the empanadas were crispy and flaky, which was impressive. Carlos’ tacos were also a hit. There seems to be nothing bad to say here, which is a good enough sign.

Blue Team
Jason – Salmon hand roll with quinoa, honey mustard miso & cucumber
Nicholas – Grilled shrimp with melon-sungold salad & crushed wasabi peas
Bret – Coconut ceviche with red snapper & bay scallops
Patty – Tuna slider with crispy pancetta, avocado & tomato
Judges Tom Colicchio and Gwen Simmons seem completely unimpressed with Jason’s hand rolls. Hasn’t he seen previous seasons, because someone ALWAYS tries to do stuff in advance, and they ALWAYS get caught and OFTEN they go home. Come on, Jason! Also, the slider was messy and the tomato was out of season, and the ceviche had hot plantains in it. We knew this wasn’t going to go well, though, because of the “elephants sneaking around sadly” music. Way to hint, Bravo.

Red Team
Janine – Green gazpacho with pickled shrimp
Justin – Lobster & crab fritters with corn puree & bacon jam
Nina & Bene – jerk chicken sandwich with mango & crispy plantains
Michael – Ricotta with burnt honey, stone fruit & toasted coconut
Gail and Tom aren’t impressed with Janine and Justin’s food, but Nina & Bene’s dish plus Michael’s dessert are hits. So, a mixed bag for Red.

Green Team
Stephanie – Crispy chickpeas with watercress & radish salad
Sara – Tuna burger with sprouts, avocado & watermelon rind pickles
Shirley – Spicy grilled lamb salad with cucumber & Asian pear
Louis helped with everything and created the amuse bouche. Huh. Padma loves the felafel, but the tuna burger needs salt. Still, Green Team seems to be safe.

So, how’d they do? Tom and Gail give yellow and green teams high marks. Yellow wins! And Carrie wins! She wins two challenges in a row, which is amazing! And she was feeling so insecure last week! Good for her! She also shared with all of us an important hint — use a cold bottle of wine to roll our dough. Everybody wins!

As for the losing team? Blue. Jason vows to “be rude back” if they’re mean to him. His teammates just seem befuddled. Bret tells the judges he thought it was a good sign they didn’t run out of food. Sigh. Padma looks at him like he’s stupid and explains that the other teams made such good food, people went back for more until they RAN OUT. Fortunately, the team mostly just nods grimly and sighs. When Jason is called out on his soggy rolls, he admits he didn’t think they’d get soggy if he pre-made them, then shuts up. No “being rude back” for him.

Blue Team is sent away, and the judges talk. Jason’s roll was soggy, Bret’s soup was too sweet, Patty’s tomato was awful and Nicholas’ garnish was not great. So many options, but they can only send one chef home1

And… Jason gets the boot. He thought he was going to be top five! He’s not the worst! He’s bitter and angry, but he’ll fight his way back to the top. I’m not sure bitterness and anger is the best approach to cooking (if you can taste the love, can you taste the hate, too?), so I’m not sure he’ll get that face-off with his old pal Nicholas that he so dearly wants. But hey, whatever puts fire in your belly (or your gumbo).

Were you surprised to see Jason go? Did you like the food truck challenge? Do you think Bene was being mistreated by his teammates?