This week, we officially entered the bittersweet portion of the Top Chef season. This was the second-to-last episode and the show is more compelling than ever, but it’s impossible to experience without acknowledging that we only have one more week of this.
What will I do?? Talk to my family or some crap? Ugh!
This episode began with host Padma Lakshmi coming to the cheftestants’ doors before dawn for a surprise wake-up call. As Dawn opened the door, Padma cooed “that’s a very nice caftan,” in that perfect mean girl way, where it’s impossible to tell whether she means it or she’s actually snickering to herself about how lame you are and making a mental note to ridicule you with her friends later. As if the cooking part wasn’t hard enough, now they have supermodels coming to your door at 5 am and critiquing your sleep outfit!? I would’ve stormed off the set.
The wake up turned out to be the introduction for a clam dig challenge because of course, anyone who knows anything about clams knows you have to wake up very early, to catch them while they’re still sluggish and groggy from the night before (something like that, I wasn’t really paying attention).
One thing this otherwise great season of Top Chef has been notably short on is double entendres. Padma loves ’em. She loves to talk about mouthfeel and having your greasy meat in her mouth and whatnot while making direct eye contact and just daring you to acknowledge it. Anyway, there haven’t been many this season, but it seemed like they finally tried to compensate this episode by packing all of them into a single challenge. The first thing Brooke Williamson, who was acting as clam sherpa for the day, said on camera was “Gapers are the largest, you’ll see a large hole and then you’re gonna have to dig down like three feet,” which was so sexual-sounding that the “your mom” was basically implied.
Gapers, butter clams — by the time they started talking about cockles it didn’t even register. Shota won that challenge partly on the basis of his “fried outer rims.” It was glorious.
After that, it was time for a Dungeness crab challenge, inspired by James Beard, who was apparently both a Portlander and a crab lover. Alice Waters, a close friend of Beard’s, came on for a brief pep talk via Zoom. Holy hell is there any universally acknowledged food authority as mysterious as Alice Waters? The ratio of times I’ve heard her name or her referenced vs. how many times I’ve seen her cook or even eat or judge on one of these shows has to be like a thousand to one at this point. She’s the Wizard Of Oz of California Cuisine. My favorite line of her Wikipedia entry: “She claims, enigmatically, that food is a way of life and not just something to eat.”
Anyway, the challenge was to cook Dungeness crab two ways, hot and cold, for like 15 people. And boy, if you thought the cheddar cheese five ways challenge from last week was hard, I’d love to introduce you to the Dungeness crab. As someone who lived in San Francisco for 10 years, I’ve eaten lots of Dungeness crab. We used to go to Scoma’s on the wharf for garlic roasted crab every time my dad came to visit.
Dungeness crabs are delicious (when they’re very fresh, anyway, less-than-fresh ones are basically inedible) but they’re probably the most pain-in-the-ass food to clean of all time. They don’t just have a big pocket of lump meat in the middle like a blue crab. My favorite way to eat them is whole in the shell (which isn’t very cheffy) and the best-case scenario there is you finish the night just barely full and fully covered in butter grease from your fingertips to your elbows (I contend that the effort makes them taste better). The very idea of having to de-shell enough Dungeness crabs to feed 15 people and make two dishes gives me anxiety.
Anyway, on to the rankings. Now, the reality is, I think this show is very close to a pick ’em at this point. That’s part of why it’s been so exciting. In my heart of hearts I’d love to rank the remaining three in a tie for the lead, but… that would be the coward’s ranking. I’m no coward. I rate Top Chef contestants come rain, snow, sleet, or hail. I’m going to put some numbers by these contestants because that’s my calling.
But just know that I know that they’re probably going to turn out wrong.
3. (even) Dawn Burrell
AKA: Legs. Breaking Dawn. Coco Chanel. Milk Carton. The Sphynx. Zeus. Flamethrower.
Notable Critiques: “She has a bad habit of these whimsical garnishes that don’t add anything to the dish.” “James Beard would love this dish.” “This is a delicious, delicious bowl of food.” “I want something else to sop it up with.”
Yes, Dawn once again left a component off a dish, this time the “showstopper” potatoes that she intended to go in her “Pacific Northwest-style crab boil.” But then, so did everyone else this week. Like I said, Dungeness is hard.
The milk carton potatoes led to a bit of a conundrum for Dawn. Would she be able to stay silent through all the complaints about “I wish I had something to sop up this broth with” to avoid the inevitable criticisms about forgetting another component? Or would she be compelled to defend her conceptualizing skills and point out, no, I’m not an idiot, of course I wanted you to have something to sop it up with.
In the end, she chose the latter, and it worked out, just barely, in that she didn’t get sent home, missing potatoes and unnecessary garnishes notwithstanding. The judges just couldn’t bear it. They loved her cashew crab soup and Pacific Northwest-style crab boil too much for that.
By the way, I’m pretty sure “Pacific Northwest-style crab boil” is called Cioppino, and this episode illustrated exactly why I kind of hate it. You’re gonna serve me delicious crab inside a delicious, boiling-hot, tomato-based soup that I have to reach my whole hands into in order to dig out the meat? That’s not a delicacy it’s a practical joke.
2. (-1) Gabe Erales
AKA: Good Gabe. Canelo. Fozzy. The Foz. The Masa Father. Jamón. Steady Eddie. Susan Lucci.
Notable Critiques: “I think he did a great job here.” “I could not love this dish any more.” “The sauce for me would’ve been delicious if it wasn’t so Jerusalem artichoke-forward.”
Even though last week’s episode led me to believe that it would be the last quickfire challenge, it was nice to see Big Fozzy finally win a quickfire in this episode, for his “sopa de mariscos with gently-poached gapers.” Hee hee! Sorry, if you can see or hear the word “gaper” and not giggle about it you’re a better person than I. I always like to spit in a gaper before I eat it. Sorry, sorry, I’ll stop.
So Gabe served up a Dungeness crab and lobster mushroom soup dish for his “cold” component, which the judges loved. Despite the fact that it wasn’t, you know, actually cold. Then he served up some crab fat tortillas with mole coloradito, which the judges also loved, though they were split on whether it had too much Jerusalem artichoke flavor or just the right amount. (Honestly, in this day and age, who can say?)
All the while, Gabe’s prep was full of drama — about whether he could get his tortillas finished in time, about whether he could do it without a rolling pin, etc. In the end, he used the wine bottle method and it turned out fine, except that he left his tortillas too close to the stove and the linen melted into one of them, leaving him exactly one tortilla short. Which made the judges’ table a battle between Gabe’s missing tortilla and too much artichoke vs. Dawn’s missing potatoes and too much garnish. How do you choose??
The judges punted, and I can’t say I blame them. Gabe certainly could win, as evidenced by his quickfire win in this very episode, but I get the sense that things like his crab fat tortilla might be more “clever” and neat-sounding than straight-up delicious. Hence why he seems to finish second so often. Gabe certainly has a shot to win, but based on past performance the odds have to be on him coming in second again.
1. (+1) Shota Nakajima
AKA: Beavis. Big Gulps.
Notable Critiques: “I thought it was perfect, I just wanted more.” “To put sushi two ways on a menu and only serve one, I don’t think that that’s acceptable.” “Did you taste how much crab flavor Shota got into this braised daikon?”
Shota seemed to realize that embracing rather than soft-pedaling his Japanese techniques would be the more likely path to victory and it seems to have served him well. True, he didn’t win the quickfire, for his sake yuzu poached butter clams with fried outer rims, but he also was cooking while injured from a shucking injury. Don’t shuck angry, bro.
A non-injured Shota then ran away with the elimination challenge, despite advertising a sushi two ways that transformed into a sushi one way before service, thanks to the magic of over-vinegared rice that Shota refused to serve. This seemed like a canny, veteran move on Shota’s part. He correctly surmised that just leaving out a promised component rather than serve it would force the judges to critique him on the grounds of “delicious but not enough,” rather than “here’s a cooking skill you screwed up.” And that would make them sound too bitchy and nitpicking for even Top Chef judges to tolerate of themselves.
It worked beautifully, though it seemed to help that Shota’s braised daikon dish was a home run. How can you nitpick a missing sushi with your mouth full of some bomb-ass braised daikon? Can’t do it, bro, not gonna happen.
And so, Shota took home the win in the last episode before the finale. Does that mean Shota will have the momentum? I don’t know if momentum is even a thing with this show, but I did notice that the tease for the next episode promised a four-course tasting menu challenge. That’s nothing unexpected or particularly new, but you have to think that with his kaiseki background the format would benefit Shota.
Either way, I can’t wait. If you’ve read these rankings before you know that I’m not a pure shill, but I have to say: this season has been wonderful. I had to get up to do stuff in the middle of this week’s watch and it was hard to pull myself away. I was too damn riveted!
Anyway, until next week — keep diggin’ those clams and be sure to keep the sand out of your gapers.