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Top Chef Power Rankings, Week 11: Float Like A Buttermilk Fry Sting Like KFC


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This was a very exciting week on Top Chef, as last week we learned in the upcoming preview that the chefs would be tasked with “celebrating the legacy of Muhammad Ali through your dishes.” And I, for one, was dying to know how one would honor a boxing legend and civil rights hero through a crudo and/or ceviche. Can one win a congressional medallion of honor posthumously? (The medallion is made of veal and covered in a mustard-cream sauce).

But before that could go down, there was a quickfire challenge, based on another Kentucky legend: you guessed it, Colonel Sanders! Because what better way to honor Muhammad Ali than to make him share an episode with a guy who George Wallace once considered naming his running mate during his segregationist campaign for president in 1968? (That’s a fun fact for you.) Actually, no one knows whether Colonel Sanders was all that racist (despite dressing like a southern dandy and growing up in the Jim Crow era), though Papa John certainly tried to claim he was as a deflecting maneuver. Anyway, Muhammad Ali, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Bourbon… what other Kentucky things can Top Chef base a challenge on? All I know is that if there isn’t a Hunter S. Thompson or Jennifer Lawrence challenge I’m going to be flipping over tables.

In the KFC challenge, the contestants had to make fried chicken, but they were only allowed to use the herbs and spices that they could identify in a blind taste test — always one of Top Chef‘s best recurring challenges. Then they had 30 minutes to use their herbs and spices on some fried chicken. I think we can all agree that 30 minutes isn’t nearly enough time to butcher, bread, fry, and serve fried chicken. A couple of them even talked about their “brine.” Brine? You have 30 minutes. You can’t brine in 30 minutes, at best it’s going to be a dip.

Oh and almost all of them used the deep fryer. Laaaaaame. Half of fried chicken is getting the oil type and temperature right. If you’re all just going to use the same giant vats of vegetable oil there’s not much to differentiate you. Solid fats all day.

Then in the Muhammad Ali challenge, everyone was given a particular fight, and tasked with creating a dish based on that fight, to fit each course. Which was kind of disappointing, because it was more like “here’s an African dessert to represent the Rumble In The Jungle” instead of “here is why I believe this poached snapper with harissa aioli best represents the legacy of famed boxing hero Muhammad Ali.”

Also, the chefs all received information packets on the fight they were cooking for. Which just meant that each presentation turned into a fifth-grade book report on some Muhammad Ali facts they’d just read. “In conclusion, Muhammad Ali is a man of contrasts, just like this Southeast Asian inspired cured halibut…”

It would’ve been so much better if the chefs just had to work from memory and then got fact-checked during their presentations. “Jeff, I thought your pork belly was a little under-rendered, and also, Muhammad Ali never showed up overweight for his fight against a white bartender from Cleveland, you’re thinking of The Great White Hype, starring Peter Berg and Damon Wayans.”

Then the elimination was yet another heartbreak for a former favorite. It seems the best way to jinx yourself this season is to win a challenge.

Rankings

1. (+1) Eric Adjepong — AKA: Ghana. AKA: Sports.

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It’s taken him long enough, but Eric has finally turned into the favorite I thought he was in the first few episodes. Even so, he still landed in the bottom three in the fried chicken challenge (he named seven spices correctly, third place), despite winning last week’s challenge with a delicious-looking… you guessed it, fried chicken wing. I’m telling you, this season is weird as hell.

Luckily he got to do a dish for the Rumble In The Jungle, for which he cooked Fufu dumplings and red stew. I’ve never had those things but that’s probably the point: Tom can’t get pedantic about how al dente pasta should be or the proper looseness of risotto if you cook him something way outside his comfort zone. Knowing your brand is half of Top Chef and pretty much everyone could learn from Eric. He’s looking like a fufufavorite going into the home stretch.

2. (+4) Sara Bradley — AKA: Party Mom. AKA: One-Upper. AKA: Abe Fro-ma’am. AKA: Jiggle Juice. AKA: Kanye.

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Sara constantly says that she’s the best at things — chicken, biscuits, bourbon, throwing ragers — and this week she actually backed it up. First, she named 12 herbs and spices (first place) and then used them to spice a winning fried chicken dish. You’d think a person would take that as a sign and build on her brand, but instead she loudly and inexplicably declared her desire not to cook any more Kentucky food in the Muhammad Ali challenge. Luckily they ended up having to draw straws and Sara lost and had to take the Kentucky fight anyway, which she ended up almost winning (“I was reading that he was fast as lightning, so I made a dish called thunder and lightning”).

So even though Sara tried to pull another bonehead move — or pulling a boxed waffle, as I now like to call it — the universe intervened. It’s fitting that Sara landed in the top two of a Muhammad Ali challenge though because no other competitor so fully embodies the spirit of loudly declaring “I am the greatest!”

I have thus given her the new nickname of Kanye. At the very least, Sara is by far the most nicknameable contestant.

3. (even) Kelsey Barnard Clark — AKA: Wine Mom. AKA: Elle Woods. AKA: Roll Tide. AKA: Can I Speak To Your Manager? AKA: Bambi.

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Kelsey named 11 herbs and spices correctly, second best behind Sara, and proceeded to make fried chicken and pickles, another on-brand choice for the contestant who most loves salt (I’ve nicknamed her Bambi because she loves a salt lick). Sadly, she tried to use the damn deep fryer like everyone else and ended up with undercooked chicken and had to serve Art Smith a tiny sliver of fried chicken skin. If she hadn’t admitted that she served it that way because it was raw she would’ve had a much better chance.

For one thing, no one likes to hear the phrase “raw” while they’re eating chicken, and for another she could’ve just served up some delicious crunchy skin and called it “KFC, Cartman style” or something. If only Kelsey had Adrienne’s gift for branding.

After that, Kelsey served “unanimous bread pudding with corn three ways” in the elimination challenge, which the judges seemed to have some valid criticisms of, right up until Kelsey started crying because she missed her son at Judges’ Table. Is this the second challenge decided by weaponized white woman tears or the third? Jk, jk, that bread pudding looked delicious, but seriously, the crying chef has never gone home this season.

4. (even) Justin Sutherland — AKA: New Spike. AKA: Cheech. AKA: Slick. AKA The Weez. AKA: Bacon.

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Justin distinguished himself early in this week’s episode as the only contestant who couldn’t identify salt. In Justin’s defense, he was probably vaping some cotton candy-flavored CBD right before that so his palate was a little muddled.

Lacking salt, Justin had to use soy and shoyu for flavor, which led him to a Japanese fried chicken dish, in which he also revealed that he has a Japanese grandmother. Unfortunately, he used the dumb deep fryer which was too hot and his chicken ended up both too dark and overcooked and put him in the bottom three.

Then in the elimination challenge, he chose the fight in Lewiston, Maine so he could make a seafood soup at which point Tom pointed out that Lewiston, Maine is nowhere near the ocean. And yet — somehow — The Weez weaseled out of going home yet again. I think the soup course was actually a shrewd choice; no one expects that much from soup.

5. (even) Adrienne Wright — AKA: NPR. AKA: Dangles. AKA: Hollow Bones. AKA: Sniffles. AKA: The Apple-Cheeked Assassin.

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You know if I had to predict who was going to screw up this challenge by serving a flavorless chicken breast it would’ve been the apple-cheeked granola pixie from Connecticut up here. Adrienne managed to avoid that fate though she did prove herself the worst at identifying spices. Technically she tied for last along with Justin and Eddie, but it was still pretty classic when she guessed “dried thyme” for the first three spices (a lá the Price Is Right one dollar strategy) only to abandon the strategy on the fourth spice, which was actually thyme.

Thus Adrienne had cemented her spot as the season’s whitest contestant even before the elimination challenge, in which she boldly chose the Thrilla in Manila so that she could employ some Southeast Asian spices, until Tom and judge Nilou Multi-pass gently explained that Filipino food is a lot different from Vietnamese food.

Adrienne shrewdly pivoted from “Southeast Asian flavors because the Philippines” to “spicy dish because the Thrilla In Manila was very hot.”

Damn, mama, that’s some good pivoting, did you go to art school? As any of us art majors could’ve told you, just make what you want to make and figure out your bullshit spiel justifying it later. Adrienne did it like a pro. She deserves an honorary MFA after a stunt like that (disclaimer: MFAs contain no monetary value).

6. (-5)((Eliminated)) Eddie Konrad — AKA: Smiles. AKA: The Accountant. AKA: Seppuku. AKA: Sweaty Eddie. AKA: Calamity. AKA: Nice Guy Eddie.

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Oh how I’m going to miss Eddie, easily this season’s most entertaining competitor. Mainly for moments like this, in the blind taste testing segment:

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Shot.

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Chaser.

Before we get to the elimination challenge, I think Eddie deserves some credit for being the only competitor not to use the deep fryer in the fried chicken challenge. A man after my own heart, Eddie shallow-fried his “double-breaded” chicken thighs in duck fat using a cast iron pan — the only one who controlled his own temperature and frying oil.

But then in the elimination challenge, he drew the New York fight so he could make a duck breast, but the Whole Foods only had frozen duck, so he pivoted to chicken. “You gotta bob and weave,” he said, which was actually a pretty good justification, but we all knew Eddie wasn’t going to be able to articulate it that well in front of a roomful of people. This is after all the guy who said, “My wife doesn’t like fish so I cooked her fish.”

Eddie ended up losing, which was also thematically fitting, since he drew the only fight that Muhammad Ali lost. I’m torn on being sad that Eddie went home for a dish that even the judges admitted wasn’t that bad, or blaming Eddie for this loss because he made a chicken breast, and about the best you could say for any chicken breast dish is “not that bad.”

I’m bummed Eddie’s going home, both selfishly for Power Rankings-entertainment-value reasons, and because he seems like one of the best chefs. Still, if you get to the final six and serve a chicken breast dish, you probably deserve to go home.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.

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