This week on Top Chef, the chefs got the chance to cook for “an arena full of Kentucky fans,” as Padma put it. Which most of us probably assumed meant that the contestants would be cooking at the half time of a Kentucky game. As it turned out, nope, there was no game, just an entire arena full of fans in full Kentucky regalia — cheerleaders, face painters, the whole nine — who had turned out to watch a live episode of Top Chef. This was a challenge designed to celebrate another of Kentucky’s natural resources: an abundance of free time.
Let’s be honest, this season of Top Chef has lacked some of the memorable characters of past seasons. In fairness, there are only so many Chef Fatis in the world (and now there are none, this world is a trash can), but whatever this season has lacked in lovable characters and Gail Simmonses it has attempted to make up for in fickleness and cruelty (don’t try it at home!).
This week was the second time this season that the winner of the previous episode was eliminated. In this case, the competitor in question had only just revealed the hearfelt story of overcoming her father’s suicide. Amazingly, that wasn’t even the cruelest part.
No, that would come when one character, a die-hard Kentucky basketball fan, would be publicly shamed for using “boxed waffle mix” in front of Kentucky coach John Calipari and an arena full of fans, complete with 5,000 people chanting “HOME MADE” until she broke down in tears.
JESUS CHRIST, TOP CHEF. Even as a connoisseur of this show’s bitchiest nitpicks, and as someone who runs a feature here that essentially consists of brutally roasting each other over cooking choices… that was still one of the meanest things I’ve seen on TV. And the fact is, I probably would’ve roasted her for pre-made waffle mix too. So not only was it cruel, I felt complicit. …I’m telling you, this episode was quite a journey.
1. (+1) Eddie Konrad — AKA: Smiles. AKA: The Accountant. AKA: Seppuku. AKA: Sweaty Eddie. AKA: Calamity. AKA: Nice Guy Eddie.
Sweaty Eddie was coming off his double-bottom finish in last week’s episode where he almost got sent home, but ended up winning the quickfire. Which was a boullion challenge in honor of the gold bullion in Fort Knox, in which the chefs had to cook a dish using only boullion cubes as seasoning. Eddie made a gold caponata with scallops, and for his win received easily the biggest prize of the season — he didn’t even have to cook in the elimination challenge. He just kind of got to hang around, chillin’.
The subplot of this week’s episode was basically Eddie Bueller’s Day Off, where the other contestants ran around the grocery store or kitchen freaking out about what to cook while Eddie just sat there with a glazed look on his face eating an apple, or noodles, or drinking tea. The editors cranked the volume on Eddie’s eating sounds to highlight the contrast which was a nice choice.
But the best part was Eddie hanging out at the press table, happily munching his messy chicken wings, completely oblivious to the fact that he was on the jumbotron.
He never noticed either. The entire crowd probably would’ve had to cheer “ED-DIE, ED-DIE” for 20 minutes before he noticed what was happening outside his little bubble. “Oh… ha-ha, guys, real funny,” he’d say, sheepishly flashing his gummy smile. Eddie is the most entertaining person on this show and it’s not close.
2. (+1) Eric Adjepong — AKA: Ghana. AKA: Sports.
Did anyone else want to hear more about Eric’s thesis about the uses of boullion cubes in Ghanaian cooking? Subject for another time, I suppose. All I know is that if this competition were being judged by the number of times each contestant had made me say “mmmm” at the screen, Eric would be winning in a landslide. This week he made a chicken lollipop by Frenching a drummette, removing the tendons and pulling the skin up over the meat.
Eric described doing this so that the “meat would be encased in the skin” and forgive me if I’m wrong but doesn’t the skin generally go on the outside of the meat? Explanations aside, that looked good as hell and I’m definitely going to try to make that. Eric was finally rewarded for his amazing looking food with a win this week. He only narrowly lost the quickfire as well. He’s on a hot streak, but knowing this season that probably just means he’ll be eliminated in the next episode.
3. (+4) Kelsey Barnard Clark — AKA: Wine Mom. AKA: Elle Woods. AKA: Roll Tide. AKA: Can I Speak To Your Manager?
Kelsey and Eric seem to be discovering their own strengths at the same time. Whereas Eric’s strengths are yummy-sounding food and a unique background and set of influences, Kelsey’s strength is creating elegant, adorable little party favors for a party to which the riff raff are definitely NOT invited.
After revealing that she had been a cheerleader this week (torn on whether this reveal is more or less predictable than Justin revealing that he’d been a music promoter last week), Kelsey made a “Kentucky pride” chicken dumpling this week. She served it with those most Kentucky of ingredients, pistou and ponzu. (“Hey, y’all, come an git yer ponzu!” mammy used to yell, her shouts echoing through the holler).
Fine, so Kelsey isn’t so great at geography. Or trivia. In fact this week she shouted “Lamb!” as an answer to a type of food whose name doubles as a synonym for currency. But your girl sure excels at handicrafts. Judge Ed Lee said her dumplings were made as well as his Korean grandma’s, and they did look so perfect that it was hard to believe they didn’t come from a machine.
Oh, also, this week Kelsey revealed that she likes to add an extra boullion cube to her ramen. No wonder she can’t tell when food is too salty! Which reminded me of one of my own Southern friends, a Georgian who I first heard about from his now wife, when she told us how the guy she was dating would take spray butter, spray it on his tongue, and then eat a cube of boullion as a snack. I will never tire of hearing about Southerners’ weird food things.
4. (+1) Justin Sutherland — AKA: New Spike. AKA: Cheech. AKA: Slick. AKA The Weez. AKA: Bacon.
Justin probably didn’t get enough credit for correctly answering all of this week’s boullion riddles. He proceeded to lose the ensuing challenge thanks to clams that were so salty they made Padma gag. It’s weird, I’ve always wanted to see Padma gag on a salty clam (*tries to nudge ribs, falls off barstool, emits phlegmy laugh that turns into a hacking cough*).
Then Justin led the waffle box lynch mob, whipping the crowd into a frenzy of indignation and leading them in a chant of “Home made!” when Sara revealed that she’d bought pre-made waffle mix. Sara should’ve known better and anyone else would’ve gotten razzed under the same circumstances, but Justin refusing to acknowledge that getting food shamed in front of 5,000 people and the coach of your favorite basketball team might be traumatic was a bit much. Come on, man, is there not a vape flavor that enhances empathy?
I kid, I kid. Justin nearly won the elimination thanks to his bun-less take on the Juicy Lucy, which Justin explained was a Minnesotan invention, a burger patty filled with cheese. Which leads me to my next point: Every food tradition from the upper Midwest is absolute trash. “Here, I made ya da food a my faaamily, it’s a balla prawcessed cheese covered in caanned chili, invented right here in Wiscaansin. Traditionally, we eat it over da trash can wit a spork.”
5. (+1) Adrienne Wright — AKA: NPR. AKA: Dangles. AKA: Hollow Bones. AKA: Sniffles.
Adrienne went full “not here to make friends” mode this week, dropping the dime on Sara’s waffle mix to Tom. Which arguably wasn’t as bad a crime as Tom exposing it in front of 5,000 people. But Sara was hurt, and blamed Adrienne, and I do like the idea of Caesar bleeding out on the floor of the Senate and looking up to see this apple-cheeked granola fairy in costume jewelry holding the bloody knife. Imagine getting stabbed in the back by someone who needs help opening jars!
Can we really blame Adrienne? If I was in a waffle-making challenge and I knew the other chef used pre-made waffle mix you better believe I’d be shouting about it. I also enjoyed Adrienne’s curious placation strategy of calling Sara “Mama” to calm her down. This… did not work.
Lost in all this was the fact that the judges said Sara’s fried chicken was better than Adrienne’s. And isn’t that the important thing? For me, the fried chicken is the draw of a chicken and waffles dish. The waffle is more like a disk that the chicken sits on to keep the plate from getting greasy. More of an “eat in an emergency” kind of a thing. The only reason I’m putting Adrienne ahead in these rankings is that I think she’s in Sara’s head now.
6. (-2) Sara Bradley — AKA: Party Mom. AKA: One-Upper. AKA: Abe Fro-ma’am. AKA: Jiggle Juice.
My God. This was brutal. One thing we know about Sara is that she’s a super chill good time gal EXCEPT when she feels like she has to represent for Kentucky. At which point the pressure gets to her and she gets reeeal uptight. Girl, or should I say Mama, it is NOT your job to legitimize your region. Trust me on this, I’m from Fresno County.
So this challenge, on the hardwood… at Rupp Arena… in front of 5,000 Kentuckians… with John Calipari, the coach of Sara’s favorite basketball team, as guest judge — was perfectly calibrated to hit Sara’s pressure points. There absolutely could not have been a more humiliating time or method for Sara to get shamed for using pre-made waffle mix.
Pre-made waffle mix?? …Get a rope.
Now, Sara should’ve known better, as a person who has ever watched Top Chef before, let alone a Kentuckian, than to use pre-made waffle mix. I’ve been to Kentucky a handful of times in the past few years and I saw chicken and waffles on virtually every menu, sometimes more than once. To be honest, Kentucky, you people should probably branch out more.
That being said, Sara’s “sin” was compounded by her complete lack of an adequate defense. She sort of hinted at the fact that she just used the pre-made mix as a base to which she added other ingredients — which would’ve been a perfectly acceptable response. But she only brought it up after the fact, not while she was getting reamed for it. Not to mention, when Tom pointedly asked if she’d made a “boxed waffle,” Sara immediately caved, saying “yeah, we got the boxed stuff.”
…Foolishly neglecting to point out that THERE WAS NO BOX INVOLVED AT ANY STAGE! Your honor, I give you exhibit A:
Now, I may be just a simple country lawyah, but I do believe that I can tell the difference between a BOX and a BAG. Yo honah I have no foithah questions.
All that drama and for what? If only Sara had had adequate counsel. Her brutal public humiliation overshadowed the fact that her chicken was a big hit. She’s still as in this competition as anyone, but she seems rattled.
7. (-6)((Eliminated)) Michelle Minori — AKA: Screen Time. AKA: Who? AKA: Trivia. AKA: Pixar.
As I said at the top, Michelle managed to get eliminated despite winning the last episode with a heartfelt story about overcoming her dad’s suicide. But hey, I guess that’s what she gets for serving ribs without enough char on them. Nice going, IDIOT.
As with Sara, I wonder if something got lost in translation here. Because Michelle talked about how her ribs didn’t seem like they got enough char on them, and then she just served them and the judges complained about the lack of char. I don’t get it, what was stopping her from getting some char? Were there no broilers handy? No blowtorches? Because char is not a problem that takes hours to fix. You got ribs, you got a decent heat source — boom, you got char (Please imagine that I’m using the telestrator to diagram this on screen, like John Madden). Instead, Michelle went home, seemingly because no else committed any particularly egregious food sins.
Whereas most of the rest of the contestants seemed to have trouble when they’d overthink dishes, Michelle’s troubles seemed to happen when she shot from the hip. Michelle is a homework doer, not an improviser. She benefits from preparation. She tried to fly by the seat of her pants twice this episode, making a breezy fried smelt in the quickfire and some blasé ribs in the elimination round, landing in the bottom with both. Turns out Michelle is just not a fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants kinda gal. Some of us just have to stay in and study while the cool kids (JUSTIN) are out playing grabass at a swim party. It’s a cruel world.
Good luck on Last Chance Kitchen, Michelle. I can’t wait to see what the next few episodes bring. Mostly because the preview of next week’s show included the soundbite “You will be celebrating the life and career of Muhammad Ali through your dishes” and I absolutely cannot wait to see how the contestants pay homage to a civil rights hero and boxing legend through a zesty crudo. Until next week, folks.
Top: Eric, Sara, Eddie*.
Bottom: Michelle, Justin.
Top: Justin, Adrienne, Eric*.
Bottom: Sara, Kelsey, Michelle*.