Top Chef Power Rankings, Week 12: Does Your Cheese Go Five Ways?

Can you believe it? We’re down to the final four. The final four chefs are exactly who I expected, basically from the second or third episode onward (well, the final three I expected, plus Jamie) but even without any huge shocks or twists, this has been a pretty damned good season of food TV.

This week the remaining Top Chef gang got together for the Oregon Trail challenge. The Oregon Trail has to be in the top five things the larger country recognizes Oregon for, so it must’ve taken a lot of restraint to save it for the twelfth episode. In the finale, I hope the chefs have to find DB Cooper.


Introduced by guest judge Vitaly Paley, a “Portland Pioneer” (get it? consider this tie-in explained!), the cheftestants were tasked with creating a modern dish using only the kinds of ingredients the Oregon Trail settlers would’ve had — flour, lard, coffee, molasses, dried fruits, meat, and herbs (the pioneers f*cking loved herbs). As judge Gregory Gourdet explained it, “I’m sure you all remember the Oregon Trail video game, dying of dysentery and all that…”

At this point, I wondered if Vitaly Paley realized what he was agreeing to when he signed up to be on this show. “Okay, so I’m going to show up for five minutes, and immediately after I’m introduced they’re going to talk about people dying of dysentery? Cool, cool. See if you can get a mention of my restaurant as close to the word ‘dysentery’ as possible, thanks.”

In order to introduce the challenge, Gregory had to agree to only wear neckties they would’ve had in pioneer times:


After that, it was time for the gang to take the “Oregon Trail” down to the coast (double tie-in!) to the Tillamook Creamery, where, in a challenge introduced by Signore Molto Italiano a-guy Massimo Bottura, who showed up wearing a big medallion and a speedo waving a rolling pin (not really), the chefs would have to create a dish using cheddar cheese five ways. This to honor Bottura’s world-famous five-way Parmigiano food-bang.

A FIVE-WAY CHEDDAR ROYALE! Many cut-the-cheese puns ensued.

This was one of the more sadistic Top Chef challenges I can remember. With four chefs remaining, this challenge was the biggest curveball all season. If you asked me to use cheddar five ways I think I’d be like “Uhhh… so it’s uh, a cheeseburger, with… uh… a cheese patty, a cheese bun, and, uh… some cheese fries.”

“What’s the fifth way?”

(*hurriedly attempting to make a soda straw out of cheddar cheese*)

No big deal, right? In order to stay in this competition, all you have to do is make the best version of a dish that no one has ever attempted before. Don’t screw it up, idiots! And this for a group where two of the chefs are focused on Asian cuisine and don’t even really cook with cheese. Poor Chef Brittany, the alpine fondue queen. All she had to do was stay in the competition for nine more episodes and she would’ve been on easy street.


Quickfire Top: Gabe, Jamie* (*winner)

Elimination Challenge Winner: Shota

Eliminated: Jamie


4. (Even) ((Eliminated)) Jamie Tran

NBC Universal

Aka: Splat. Police Academy. Womp Womp. Hello Kitty.

I’ll admit it: Jamie has grown on me the most of any competitor this season. My reaction was a bit like Padma’s when I first encountered her:


I wondered if she’d been dropped on her head as a child or something. But this episode seemed to get to the root of Jamie’s personality, and what makes her such an inherently endearing human. It’s telling that she cried her eyes out when Maria got eliminated but when she got eliminated herself she sort of shrugged and chuckled about it. She seems to be someone who’s used to putting others before herself. I’m very curious to see what coolifying effect the chef-star-making machine that is national television will have on Jamie.

This was the expected outcome, but a little harsh for someone who had just won a quickfire challenge. Jamie’s winning pan-seared salmon in walnut pepper sauce bought her an extra 30 minutes to cook with, but maybe that was a bad thing. Maybe that extra 30 minutes meant Jamie had time to talk herself into pairing seabass with cheddar cheese and tahini. Woof, does that ever sound bad. She also put some bok choi on there, and call me crazy but I kind of hate bok choi. It’s not that it tastes bad, it’s fine, it’s just that using it means putting a big ol’ miniature celery stalk on a dish, that always takes up at least three times the physical space it adds in actual flavor.

Anyway, with so little margin for error, Jamie’s cheddar sesame seabass disaster sent her (*sound effect*)ing on down the dusty (Oregon) trail. Happy trails, Jamie. That banh xeo looked bomb xeo, you ask me.

Notable Critiques:

“The crispy cheese bits on top of the fish is absolutely delicious.” “You don’t need a protein, that was a big mistake.”

3. (-2) Dawn Burrell

NBC Universal

AKA: Legs. Breaking Dawn. Coco Chanel. Milk Carton. The Sphynx. Zeus. Flamethrower.

It hurts to drop Dawn down in the rankings, trust me. But after successive poor performances in the quickfire and in the elimination challenge — in which she forgot a gougère! unacceptable! — and two consecutive elimination challenges in which she left a component off at least one plate, I feel like I have to do it. Circumstances forced my hand. The Coco Chanel nickname is back, baby!

Still, the way Ed Lee describes Dawn’s food — “her food gives me a hug” — makes me think I’d like Dawn’s food (I would’ve also accepted “her food gives me a happy ending”). Even when Dawn screws up, her food still sounds like the thing I’d order if the chef’s dishes were on a menu. There are a few dysfunctional restaurants that I still go to despite the fact that they mess up at least one order at the table 50% of the time I go there, that I can’t quit because the food is just too good. (Sometimes you just want to be dommed by a tasty restaurant like some kind of culinary piss pig). Dawn seems to be approaching that status these past few episodes. Another way to look at it is that this competition is basically Dawn’s to lose. Because when she doesn’t forget a component, she’s damn near unbeatable.

The most confusing part of this week’s episode was when they created some drama out of Dawn’s water baths — which she was using to sous vide some ribeyes in whey — being too hot. Come again? Isn’t that the entire point of sous vide? That you can set the temperature exactly at the level you want? How does a digitally operated water circulator with a thermostat on top end up too hot? I need an explanation on this one.

I did enjoy how pissed Dale Talde got about Dawn forgetting another component though. Chefs are such a fun combination of OCD obsessives and frazzled artists (occasionally trapped inside the same person, not that I would know anything about that).

Notable Critiques:

“How do you miss another ingredient on a plate AGAIN!?” “This needed to taste as good as a Philly cheesesteak and it fell short of that.” “Her food gives me a hug.”

2. (+1) Shota Nakajima

NBC Universal

AKA: Beavis. Big Gulps.

It was a very tough decision whether to put Shota at number one or number two this week (not a decision with high stakes, sure, but a tough one nonetheless). It’s hard to overstate how big a win it was for the Japanese chef to win a challenge cooking cheddar cheese five ways. How many cheddar cheese dishes have you had a Japanese restaurant? And yet Shota took it and made a five-cheese Japanese dish with it. He also received, for his tofu cheddar manjū, aged cheddar dashi with cheddar tuile, one of the highest compliments I’ve heard anyone get this season: “Give this challenge to 100 different chefs and you’ll never get this dish.”

Still, Shota did land at the bottom of the quickfire for dry salmon, and it’s hard to forget that grey chicken from a few weeks back. On any given week, Shota definitely can win. Will he? He’s got some momentum going into the final few episodes, which is all the more impressive given that he’s very small.

Notable Critiques:

“Wow.” “It’s delicious.” “I’ve never had anything like it.”

1. (+1) Gabe Erales

NBC Universal

AKA: Good Gabe. Canelo. Fozzy. The Foz. The Masa Father. Jamón. Steady Eddie. Susan Lucci.

This episode was perfectly representative of Gabe this season: narrowly losing his last chance at a quickfire win, while also taking a close second in the elimination challenge. Gabe says he’s trying to become the first Mexican-American Top Chef winner and also revealed his background in engineering, in which he has his master’s degree.

He put it to use in the elimination challenge, using some kind of chemical treatment to stiffen the pectins and keep his apple from disintegrating when he roasted it in cheddar oil. That sounds pretty cool, but I tend to think fancy molecular stuff mostly tends to hurt you in Top Chef finales. When’s the last time the “sciencey” guy won it all on this show? No one likes intellectual food.

Not that Gabe falls into that trap very often. Mostly he sticks to tasty-sounding stuff like “masa-breaded cheese curds.” That sounds so good I want to shove it in my ass like anal beads.

The top three of this competition is basically a pick ’em at this point. You have Dawn, who seems to be the best of the three when she’s on her game, but who is also the most mistake-prone. Shota seems to have the most unique skill set, and Gabe is the most consistently solid, but has a tendency to get edged out by whoever is having a good day that day.

Basically it depends on who shows up that day. WHO’S IT GONNA BE?? I suppose, as they say, time will tell, America is a land of contrasts, etc. The only things certain in this world are death, taxes, and that someone is going to be declared Top Chef.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.