The other day someone on Twitter pointed out that this season of Top Chef feels noticeably more enjoyable than the last few have. That seemed right to me. Maybe it’s because with the contestants not living in a house together, there isn’t even the possibility of “house drama” segments? Maybe shooting when restaurants weren’t doing indoor dining meant they had to get rid of any business-y industry stuff? Maybe the characters are just better? Discuss.
Anyway, this week began with an attempt to celebrate Oregon’s status as both a top producer of wild mushrooms and Portland’s unofficial designation as “Stumptown” — so named thanks to its status as the world’s top exporter of amputee porn. I’m kidding, they didn’t actually say why Portland is called Stumptown. I guess because of all of the stumps?
In any case, the quickfire challenge involved cooking a mushroom dish, because mushrooms; prepared on a stump, because Stumptown. And the winner would receive $10,000 because “Better Than Buillon” sponsored it. Was it just me or did this product placement seem much less shoehorned and awkward than all the rest? I may start using Better Than Buillon just because they seem like a chill sponsor.
Also, Padma wore her finest snake shirt for the occasion:
“My latest collection is inspired by Lorenzo Lamas’ acclaimed performance in the beloved afternoon motorcycle drama, Renegade.” -Jacobin Mugatu, Top Chef season 18 costume coordinator.
After the mushroom tree stump bouillon surprise challenge, it was time to take a trip out to the coast to get schooled on indigenous cuisine by the native Pacific Northwesterners. Snakeskin Padma was gone by then, replaced by Slouch Hat Tommy.
Damn, someone yoink that thing off before he starts writing sad French poetry. Amour… c’est le merde…
This was all for a SURF AND TURF challenge, in which the chefs drew knives, choosing either a fish or a… non-fish …and then having to pair up with someone who had the opposite protein. They were then to create one surf and turf dish. And as if that weren’t stressful enough, this was a DOUBLE ELIMINATION CHALLENGE!
Well… sort of. The losing team would both go home, but only until the end of an instant Last Chance Kitchen, at the end of which the winner would immediately return to the competition. Ah, the old Last Chance Kitchen tease! Classic!
Fun fact: I had to write these rankings before Last Chance Kitchen aired, so I’ll be SPECULATING WILDLY!
Quickfire Top: Gabriel*, Dawn, Gabe. (*Winner)
Quickfire Bottom: Chris, Nelson, Byron.
Elimination Top: Gabe/Dawn, Sara/Shota*.
10. (even) ((Eliminated?)) Nelson German
AKA: Papa Bear. Cardio. The Gipper.
Papa Bear apparently never recovered from having to run around an orchard two episodes ago, so he spent this episode alternately icing his war wounds and doped to the gills. In the elimination challenge, he did what no one else wanted to do and paired up with Gabriel. Gabriel, despite being the show’s villain, seems to be in the top side of most challenges, including winning the quickfire this week, so that seemed like solid reasoning on Papa Bear’s part. I was half expecting Gabriel to win one for the Gipper, as wounded Nelson smiled fondly from his hospital bed, or for Nelson to get shot up with cortisone and limp out of the chef’s dug out to hit a walk-off food home run like Kirk Gibson. Chef Kirk Gibson.
Instead, Nelson and Gabriel couldn’t get the salmon cook quite right and had to choose between serving slightly over salmon with crispy skin or perfectly cooked salmon with flabby skin. On an episode when the judges had to pick nits, they were probably f*cked either way.
Both Gabriel and Nelson went home, but based on pure speculation I’m going to assume that Gabriel won their head-to-head battle. Time will tell!
Notable Critique: “That steelhead was cooked too hard.”
Christ, if you can’t cook something called a “steelhead” hard, what can you?
9. (-2) Byron Gomez
AKA: Manolo. Burger King. Goldblum.
I worried Byron’s victory last week was a fluke and this week’s performance seemed to confirm it. First he served too-salty mushroom confit in the quickfire and landed in the bottom three. Then he teamed up with Maria in the elimination challenge. They made an elk with green mole with smoked fish on the top, that the judges seemed to like, except that they wanted more mole. Sadly, Byron had just finished telling Maria not to put more mole on the plate.
The big question is, was this a plating error or a naming error? Was there not enough mole on the plate, or should they just not have put mole in the title? That created false mole expectations. You can’t give a Top Chef mole blue balls, that’s a mole mortal sin.
Notable Critique: “I wish it had more green mole.”
8. (even) Chris Viaud
AKA: Stretch. Butter. Kelso.
Stretch also fell to Earth this week, having to stoop his big ass down to stump size in the quickfire, in which he landed in the bottom three for his worst-in-class hen of the woods chicken finger. Then in the elimination challenge, he teamed up with Avishar for sturgeon and a croquette. Have you noticed that sturgeons are weird-looking sea monsters? Scary as hell. I wouldn’t eat that thing if I didn’t know better.
They managed to please the judges just enough not to go home, but it sounded like Chris’s grilled sturgeon was the weaker component.
Notable Critique: “I’m not sure if I would’ve gone for grilling the sturgeon.”
7. (+2) Maria Mazon
AKA: Gas Can. Backdraft. James Brown. Holy Mole. Mole Maria.
Maria always seems like she’s just on the cusp of having a break-out week but never quite gets there. This week, it was an unforced mole error that did her in. A classic mole boner. If only Mole Maria had stuck to her Mole Guns, we wouldn’t be wondering what could’ve been.
Dammit, Maria! Next time someone tries to mansplain plating tell them to slurp your mole!
Notable Critique: “Yummy, I want to eat all of this.”
6. (-1) Avishar Barua
AKA: Milhouse. Chillhouse. Thrillhouse. American Pie. The Carbonator. Portmanteau. OH.
Avishar was barely in this episode. He’s also become the wild card of this season. Everyone else in the competition has fully solidified as either a favorite or an underdog except for Avishar. He’s the chameleon, slipping back and forth between the two depending on how much he talks about Ohio. If Avishar brings up Ohio it’s going to be a bad day for him. It just goes to show, no one wants to hear about Ohio.
This week, in true nerd fashion, Avishar chose his quickfire mushrooms based on size, reasoning that the smaller ones would cook the fastest (NERD!). He also said, “When I agreed to this show, I had no intention of making friends,” which is probably the nerdiest way that I’ve ever heard a reality show contestant say “I’m not here to make friends.”
Anyway, Avishar paired up with Chris and the judges liked his croquette, so.
Notable Critique: “That was awesome.”
5. (+1) ((Eliminated?)) Gabriel Pascuzzi
AKA: Patriarchy. Evil Gabe. Chad. Bluto. Mr. Mackie. The Noodge. Pascooch. The Cooch. Toni Coochkoc. The Forager.
Be honest, did this week evoke some sympathy for Gabe? Even after winning the quickfire, thanks to his childhood foraging experience and chanterelle fois gras dedicated to his dad, Gabriel basically got Forrest Gump’d in the elimination challenge. No one wanted to be his partner!
Poor Evil Gabe. What did he do wrong, anyway? Was it the name dropping? The mansplaining? The micromanaging? It’s sad to be living in a day and age when no one wants to be a guy’s partner solely because he has a bunch of annoying personality traits.
Evil Gabe finally found his Jenny in Nelson, who was unfortunately too doped up and injured to cook salmon properly. Technically they were both eliminated. I’m nonetheless putting Evil Gabe at number five, based on my assumption that he won the head-to-head Last Chance Kitchen challenge and will re-enter the competition next week.
Notable Critique: “I really like antelope the way he cooked it.”
4. (even) Sara Hauman
AKA: Tails. Yogurt. Portlandia. Trapper Keeper. Manic Pixie Cream Sauce. Fiddlesticks. The Queen Of Comedy.
Understand, I say this as a fellow nervous laugher, so it’s partly hypocritical: I don’t know how much longer I can watch Sara laugh her ass off at her own observations. She was absolutely CRUSHING with herself this week. Sara revealed that her dream job would be to open a “boutique cannery” and then laughed so damned hard at this thought that you’d have thought she’d turned into a one-woman Def Comedy Jam audience from the 90s. A boutique cannery?!?
Really cracking yourself up over there, huh? Her self-deprecating shtick got so stale this week that guest judge Dale Talde actually shouted “YOU’RE LYING!” at her when she tried to act fake flustered. Thank you! No one’s buying it, Sara.
Anyway, Sara paired up with Shota on “Team Tiny,” doing a smelt-crusted rabbit loin with a variety of smelt-flavored sides. You know what that smelt like? It smelt like victory. Based on the victory, should Sara rank higher on this list? Maybe. I may be too infuriated by Sara’s inability to deliver a single sentence confidently to see her for the talent that she is.
3. (-1) Shota Nakajima
Interestingly, neither Shota nor Sara landed in the top three in the quickfire, but once they joined forces they went straight to the top. It seemed like it was Shota’s bright idea to do smelt five different ways. That’s normally a recipe for disaster on Top Chef, where more components usually just means more things for Tom to bitch about. Yet surprisingly, the judges liked what Shota was smelting and Team Tiny went home with the win.
That’s a hell of an achievement, impressive stuff. Last time I coated a rabbit loin in smelt, a judge made me introduce myself to all the neighbors.
Notable Critiques: “I’m loving this dish.” “Yeah, I’m gonna go coat a rabbit in smelt.”
2. (+1) Dawn Burrell
AKA: Hothead. ‘Sheed. Legs. Breaking Dawn. Milk Carton.
Dawn starred in her very own episode of FRYER HOGS during the quickfire challenge, when the other chefs tried to muscle her out of all the deep fryers and the wood-fired oven. Here’s a wild idea for the producers: maybe throw a few more deep fryers in there, huh?
Even with that handicap, Dawn landed in the top three. She has been on an absolute tear lately. So much so that when Dawn teamed up with Gabe for a bison tenderloin and grilled catfish with a pumpkin seed mole dish, I thought for sure they were headed for the victory. It turned out that they simply couldn’t compete with Sara and Shota’s sheer volume of smelt. Still, I have to think Dawn is still a top one, two, or three competitor. Not many chefs could out-mole the mole queen.
Notable Critique: “That mole brought the two proteins together.”
1. (even) Gabe Erales
AKA: Good Gabe. Canelo. Fozzy. The Foz. Masa Father. Jamón.
Like Dawn, Good Gabe had a top finish in both challenges this episode. He proved himself the Masa Father yet again by going back to the tortilla well and busting out a bomb-ass taco in 20 minutes. I was slightly surprised that he and Dawn lost to Team Tiny Smelt, but Gabe is looking so strong in damn near every challenge that I can’t bring myself to peel him off the top spot. Ol’ Fozzy looks like he’s got what it takes.