Top Chef Power Rankings, Week 14: The Stinky Fruit You Love To Hate

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This week’s final pre-finale Top Chef episode celebrated two things: the notoriously stinky fruit known as durian, and the mothers who produced these contestants, the notorious fruit of their stinky wombs (sorry, moms, I just really needed a play on words there).

Hey, does anyone actually like durian fruit? Watching this episode I get the feeling the answer is “no.” I mean sure, guest judge Abe Conlon said he loved durian, but not while he was actually eating it. The contestants all sampled it and about the best they could muster was “gee, it’s not as bad as it smells!”

I get the feeling durian is just Southern China’s vegemite. Every culture has one. It’s the food that locals tolerate while pretending to love mainly to see the look on outsiders’ faces when they try it. In San Francisco we made people take shots of Fernet Branca. You pretend it’s a “delicacy” but really it’s a hazing device. It’s fun! But maybe instead of having to cook with it, the chefs should’ve had to try to eat a bunch of it without making a face. Just go full Fear Factor with this challenge.

Instead Abe Conlon (my brain did an uncanny valley thing when I found out the chef from Chicago named Abe was not Abe Froman, the sausage king) chided everyone for their lack of real durian flavors and awarded the victory to the chef whose dish made Padma look like she’d just gotten a frozen lemon juice enema when she took the first bite. Now that’s what I call cookin’!

After that, the chefs’ moms (and sister, in Eric’s case) showed up, and it was cute, but like almost everything else this season, slightly disappointing in its lack of drama. The chefs were challenged to “fuse your own heritage with Chinese ingredients,” and just to put a bow on this very “special” season, the chef who’d won the quickfire ended up eliminated at the end of the episode. What I wouldn’t give for a stolen pea puree.


1. (+3) Sara Bradley — AKA: Party Mom. AKA: One-Upper. AKA: Abe Fro-ma’am. AKA: Jiggle Juice. AKA: Waffle Box. AKA: Kanye.


To add to this season’s general inconsistency, Party Mom hasn’t even really been partying. Though she has been winning. She cooked a “crispy skin bass, vadouvan and durian curry with dinosaur plum” in the durian challenge, which landed her in the top two but I guess wasn’t gross-tasting enough for Abe Not Frohman, the Macanese-cooking king of Chicago.

After that, Sara’s mom showed up and they talked about being Jewish in Paducah, Kentucky, where they serve squirrel at your bat mitzvah or whatever. I did enjoy the line “you’ll always have friends when you say you’re a Jew.”

In the end, she cooked “chicken thigh with matzoh balls and a savory mushroom consomme” (is there such thing as a sweet mushroom consomme?). Partly thanks to her mom’s special tip — putting soda water in the matzoh mix — Sara took home the victory. I’ve never made matzoh but that sounds like a pretty obvious tip that most matzoh makers would know. I have no evidence for this, but “put some soda water in there” just sounds like it would be the secret to all Jewish food, from matzoh balls to egg cream. Or maybe I just associate any food popular in the tri-state area with someone saying “you know why it’s so good, it’s cuzza da watah.” Come try dis pizza bagel egg cream papaya dog, it’s good cuzza da water.

Sara had a good episode and I think she has about the same chance of winning this as everyone else still in the competition. If I were her manager I’d tell her to keep reminding the judges she’s a Kentucky Jew. (*chomps cigar*) I’m tellin’ ya, dat story’s gawt legs, kid. It’s good cuzza da watah.

2. (+2) Eric Adjepong — AKA: Ghana. AKA: Sports. AKA: Thesis.


Chef Eric seemed like he was trying to atone for last week’s ill-advised curry argument during the quickfire challenge this week. He made “tomato and celery salad with durian vinaigrette and pickled seabass,” and when Abe Not Froman told him that the watery ingredients washed out the durian flavor (god forbid!) Eric was all like “oh my gosh chef you are so right I can’t believe I never thought about that before what can I do to make it up to you here take my pinky I’ve just cut it off thank you so much for this most erudite constructive criticism.”

Next, Eric’s sister showed up and I think I’m going to need an infographic to explain how Bronx-born Eric has a sister with a full Ghanaian accent. She doesn’t look that much older than him. Also, how was it the Top Chef producers couldn’t get their hands on the alleged photo of young Eric in tighty whities with a chef’s hat on?

Anyway, Eric almost went full Babu Bhat from Seinfeld this week. After being encouraged all season to cook his Ghanaian cuisine, this week he made egusi stew (egusi stew with panko fried fufu dumpling and shrimp) which apparently involves ground up un-shelled pumpkin seeds. Whoa, buddy, maybe not that authentic. Pumpkin seeds are my favorite car ride snack and when I meet people who just eat them whole with the shells on it’s like seeing people eat untoasted bagels. Like, I always thought “do you want that bagel toasted” was the dumbest question in the world but here we are.

Eric always seems like he has the most well-conceived, delicious sounding dish, but always seems to screw up one point of execution.

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


Gosh, who would’ve thought the girl who double-season packets her ramen noodles would make a soup broth that was too intense? Kelsey’s chances to win basically come down to whether she’ll be able to control her natural deer’s palate.

But first, Kelsey basically forfeited the durian challenge, admitting “You cannot make a dish you love out of an ingredient you hate” which actually… yeah, that sounds right. She made a “breakfast parfait with durian and fruit,” which was not durian-forward enough for old Abe. Parfait, more like Barfait, am I right?

After that Kelsey’s mom showed up, and Sara said she was exactly like Kelsey. Reba Kelsentyre, I like to call her.


Reba Kelsentyre accidentally misplaced half Kelsey’s groceries, which almost became a pea puree moment, with mom running through the supermarket yelling at people who probably didn’t speak English. She eventually found her cart though as we kind of always knew she would.

Kelsey decided to make a low-country boil, which sounds awesome. More restaurants should do shrimp boils, I feel. Princess Padma thought the bwoth was too stwong though, and could bawely finish hew whole bowl! Poor Padma.

Or maybe Padma was right. Kelsey’s move lately seems to be bragging about how many ingredients she put in her broth. Last episode it was 27, this episode it was 33… Stay for the finale, when Kelsey makes a 60 ingredient broth! Just one slurp will send the judges to the hospital for an IV drip!

“Dang yankees,” Kelsey will mutter, casually licking a tube of salt crystal deodorant like a lollipop.

4. (Eliminated) Michelle Minori — AKA: Screen Time. AKA: Who? AKA: Trivia. AKA: Pixar. AKA: Meesh. AKA: The Quiet Storm.


Poor Michelle. This episode denied us the possibility of Top Chef‘s shyest ever Top Chef. Michelle was sitting pretty too, after winning the quickfire with her “espuma of chilled durian, ice, and coconut cream; with shrimp ceviche and molho cru.”

It made Padma wince like she’d just been roundhouse kicked in the torso, saying “boy, you can really taste the durian fruit” through a puckered face. That landed Michelle the win, thanks to Abe “Just Let Me Durian, Bro” Conlon, the midwest’s foremost durian apologist.

Then Michelle’s mom showed up and Michelle blew it by trying to cook a cioppino with beans in it. Now, if I could defend Michelle for a second… the judges clearly said, “fuse your own heritage with Chinese ingredients.”

Then she made a beanie cioppino with bok choi and Macau seafood and the judges dinged her because there weren’t enough “Chinese flavors.” That wasn’t the challenge! Don’t you guys even remember your own instructions? The challenge was Chinese ingredients, not flavors. She did that. Not to mention, this challenge sort of favors the chef with the least complicated heritage, doesn’t it? If I had to cook my dinner guests Italian-Armenian-Norwegian-Chinese fusion cuisine I’m pretty sure they’d never speak to me again, and rightly so.

Now, if I could just dance on Michelle’s grave for a minute… Cioppino kind of sucks (my grandfather was an Italian guy who grew up in San Francisco so I know what I’m talking about here). It’s like the most pain in the ass thing to eat ever. A giant pot of tomato sauce filled with clam shells and shrimp feet and crab claws. OH BOY, A GIANT POT OF SCALDING HOT EXOSKELETONS! I have enough trouble burning my mouth and hands on hot food as it is (I know I’m supposed to wait but daddy’s hungry) without having to dig through a giant bowl of unshelled, unpeeled seafood.

Sorry. I’m sorry. Aaaaaannnyway, beans have never improved a stew and they didn’t here. Regardless, Michelle seems nice and like a great chef and I hope this show taught her how to talk to strangers without preemptively wincing. Everyone wins!

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.