While out in the real world we’re still in the doldrums of the two longest months of our lives, Top Chef, our blessed mental escape to the days of restaurants and social gathering, is just heading into playoff season. With most of the easy eliminations done, it’s time to separate the uni foam from the scallop ceviche broth.
This week’s episode began with a “telephone challenge,” (SPONSORED BY OUR FRIENDS AT METRO) in which the chefs had to try to recreate a dish from Osteria Mozza using only the description their family members (wife, husband, mother, sister) gave over the phone. We don’t deserve so many kooky Asian mothers. Also, what a brilliant way to start marital disputes. What’s next, a putting-together-IKEA-dressers challenge? (Tip your waiters, try the veal, etc).
The winner of that challenge received immunity in the elimination challenge and $10,000. Though really, I think this should’ve worked the opposite way. The worse your mother/sister/wife/husband is at describing food, the more of an advantage you should get in the elimination challenge. Think of it like financial aid, leveling the playing for the people who really had it hard. “Okay, yes, maybe I singed my souffle, but do you see where I came from? Not only am I the first person in my family to graduate from culinary school, I was raised in a chaotic household where my mother couldn’t even tell a yellowtail collar from a whole roast branzino! Frankly, I think I’ve made tremendous progress.”
In the elimination challenge, the gang all headed down to the Westfield Century City, which, if you’ve never been, is a wonderful food court trapped inside the world’s most nightmarish hell-mall from a Terry Gilliam movie, a human terrarium in the “spotlessly depressing late capitalism”-style (they love to hold press screenings there so I am unable to avoid it). They say that if you if walk through the stacked five-acre Escher painting of a parking garage late at night, you can hear the moans of people who starved to death looking for their cars four or five months ago.
Anyway, that challenge involved working with the family member to create a dish based around a food retail product idea — a spice rub, a pasta sauce, a very small baseball bat with which to bruise your uni, whatever. One of the moms even fainted! We all had a blast.
11. (-2) ((Eliminated)) Jennifer Carroll
AKA: Calamity Jenn.
Just as I feared, one of my favorite competitors ended up going home before we even got to truly enjoy her mercurial personality. After weeks of hiding in the middle of the pack, Calamity Jenn finally biffed one, attempting to sell the judges on unstrained ginger in her “Sunny Lemon Ginger Love Sauce.”
“Texture terrible,” said Tom.
“The dairy muddles the flavors,” said Gail.
“It didn’t taste very ‘sunny’ to me,” said guest judge Nancy Silverton.
“Aw, but I like unstrained ginger,” Jenn grumbled unconvincingly through a mouthful of root pulp.
It’s too bad Calamity Jenn never pointed out that “Sunny” referred to her sister, not to the actual sun. “This doesn’t taste very sunny to me.” “Oh yeah, well have you met my sister? She’s a real C-rag. Our relationship is both curdled and rocky.”
10. (-2) Stephanie Cmar
AKA: C-Monster. Aka Underdog. Aka C-Truffle.
The C-Monster won the humanitarian award this week: When Lee Anne’s mom keeled over from dough fever, C-Monster immediately donated her husband for dumpling duty.
That must’ve been what ultimately saved her, because this week Steph’s product was a “vegetarian chili base” — a confusing product for a dish I would never order. I love vegetarian food but some things just should not be vegetarian.
The C-Monster attempted to sex up her veggie chili a little with some homemade crackers but still ended up in the bottom three. I believe that makes flatbreads 0 for 3 this season? If she starts making pita next episode I’ll be screaming “SELL! SELL! SELL!” into my Top Chef stocks phone. (I don’t know if I am allowed to embed the “stonks” meme).
9. (+1) Brian Malarkey
AKA: Shenanigans. Aka Grandpa Fancy. Aka Squirrely. Aka The Imp.
Boy, that Lee Anne/Shenanigans beef was over before it started, huh? For as much as he can’t stop flailing his hands around while he talks I think I have to take Shenanigans’ side on this one. I think Lee Anne must’ve come to the same realization.
Anyway, Shenanigans’ wife showed up in this episode, and probably she should’ve gotten a trophy for sharing a house with this stretched out leprechaun for many years. She must be a Shaolin monk or something. I imagine he’s always doing pranks.
Lady Shenanigans must’ve failed as a food muse, however, because Malarkey’s big idea for a food product this week was… fennel relish… which I guess you’re meant to serve with fish or something? The judges called it “too greasy” and “confusing,” much like Shenanigans’ personality.
Did I mention he served it over swordfish? Does that make swordfish 0 for 1 or 0 for 2 this season? Swordfish isn’t good, people. High risk, low reward-ass fish.
8. (+3) Lee Anne Wong
AKA: Frazzle. Aka Loud Mom. Aka 911.
We discovered that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree this week when Lee Anne’s adorable mother nearly fainted over the dumpling table. You may recall that Lee Anne recieved a medical evac of her own on Top Chef Colorado, thanks to being very pregnant during an outdoor challenge at altitude. “Hello, 911? Yeah, put the ambulances on standby, the Wongs are cooking again, over.”
You have to give Lee Anne credit for managing to catch her mom before she hit the ground though, that was some speedy footwork. If I ever keel over while rolling out some dough I hope it’s within spitting distance of Lee Anne. I bet this wasn’t her first pass-out rodeo.
In fact, it was a pretty good week all around for Lee Anne, who has looked like a lock to go home early in basically every episode but this one. She landed in the top three of the quickfire, despite her mom confusing the balsamic reduction at an Italian restaurant for soy sauce. In addition, Lee Anne’s mom ignoring Lee Anne so she could take another bite of her steak was probably the best moment of the episode. Mom? Mom. Mom! Mom? Mom! Mom. Mom? MOM?!
In the elimination challenge, Lee Anne made mapo sauce, which the judges all agreed was a pretty good idea, and served it over shrimp dumplings, which I always think are a great idea. Dumplings are like the reverse swordfish/flatbread. Vince’s Law: If you’re ever eating a new cuisine and you don’t know what to order, go with dumplings. You know grandma probably made those in the back using every spice at her disposal and they’re going to be good as hell.
Lee Anne didn’t quite make it to the top three in the elimination challenge, but at least she didn’t end up at the judges table beefing over undersalted hummus. Massive comeback episode for Lee Anne.
7. (-2) Karen Akunowicz
AKA: Good Witch. Aka Glenda. Aka Aunt Kitty. Aka Rosie The Triveter
Karen was basically invisible this episode. Between Lee Anne’s mom’s fainting and Bryan Voltaggio’s baritone dad laughs there simply wasn’t time to showcase Karen’s utilitarian sauce mastery.
Karen’s product was a romesco sauce, which she served with pork belly and crispy potatoes. The meat and potatoes looked bomb, but Nancy Silverton said she “didn’t get the boldness” from Karen’s romesco. And can you blame her? Fuck man, I hate me a timid romesco. Get out of my face with that shit.
6. (+1) Eric Adjepong
AKA: Ghana. Aka Thesis. Aka Uncle Rico. Aka Kanye West Africa.
Eric is hard to place because after a slow start, he had another very good week this week. Eric’s wife showed up for the challenge and after he finished talking about how fine she was and how much he wanted to do sex to her (yeah yeah, stop bragging) he made a calypso hot sauce served with doubles. I didn’t know what doubles were, but last time I went to the Caribbean I brought back about five bottles of that yellow hot sauce so clearly that was a solid idea. The judges said Eric looked like he was in his “happy place” (probably thinking about all the sex he was going to have with his wife), Tom called his dish “pretty damn good” and Eric landed in the top three.
It turns out, “doubles” are curried chickpeas and spicy flatbread (Eric served his with pancetta). Dammit, does this mean I have to change my theory about flatbread?
5. (+1) Nini Nguyen
AKA: Broad City. Aka Quipz. Aka Bolo.
Nini’s mom wasn’t describing her dish to Nini very well (“Are the greens peppery?” “Not very peppery…”) but Nini cleverly copied off of Gregory who was next to her. Real veteran move, that.
That didn’t quite land her a top-three finish in the quickfire, but Nini made a nuoc mam barbecue sauce served with a pork sparerib in the elimination challenge which did. This result wasn’t especially surprising in a public-facing challenge. I mean who wouldn’t want to buy food from cute ass Nini and her cute ass mom?
“Here, just take my wallet and give back whatever you think is fair.”
4. (-1) Bryan Voltaggio
AKA: Flatbill Dad. Aka Bry Voltage. Aka Kyle Shanahan. Aka Linkin Clark Griswold.
Oh man, it’s too bad Bry-Voltage couldn’t bottle and sell his epic dad laugh, ha ha ha! It’s the medium-low register, hard stops between “ha”s, and breathiness that make it especially dadly, I think.
Bry bread was joined this week by his sister, the third Voltaggio sibling, apparently a pastry chef in Bry guy’s restaurant. Despite being a professional chef, She-Voltaggio would have us believe that she couldn’t tell a yellowtail collar from a whole roasted branzino. Damn, man, those aren’t even remotely the same shape. First his brother beats him in a Top Chef finale and now his sister tries to sabotage him. Sheesh, this guy’s own family tries to undercut him more than Tony Soprano! (Check out my smash hit Soprano’s podcast, Pod Yourself A Gun.)
This is what I meant in the beginning when I said the chefs whose family members were clearly a handicap should’ve received an advantage in the elimination challenge. For that one, Bry made a “calamari bolognese” sauce, which he described to Stephanie as “just like a sea truffle.”
Haha, sure, man. He went on to serve it with “kale and nori spaghetti,” cementing his spot outside the top three. Mmm, seaweed spaghetti, just like mom used to make.
It’s a testament to Linkin Clark Griswold’s cooking talent that he never seems to get dinged for these weird-ass seafood combinations, but I have to think that if he keeps going so obscure it’s going to hurt him. Right now it feels like even money whether he wins this competition or goes home early for serving braised seahorse clit agnolotti fried in monkfish sputum.
3. (+1) Kevin Gillespie
AKA: Hops. Aka Oops All Kevins. Aka Bachelor Fried Rice. Aka Thicc Kev.
Thicc Kev (apologies for explaining my half-joke, but in Australia in the late 90s there was a celebrity named “Big Kev” whose catchphrase was “I’m excited!” and I think everyone should know about this) landed in the top three with “Hotlanta Hot Salt” served with fried chicken and waffles this week — proving that you don’t lose any points for predictability in this competition. If there’s ever a tater tot nacho challenge Kevin’s going to win in a walk.
It was actually two top-three finishes in a row this episode for Kevin, which would probably make him the odds-on favorite — if only Gregory and Melissa weren’t dominating this season so hard. For a sous chef, Kevin had his wife, a lawyer. Excuse the bad screenshot here, but is it just me or does Kevin’s wife kind of look like Gideon from The Righteous Gemstones?
Same eyebrows, same cheekbones, same dimples. If Kevin doesn’t win this I guess he can always fall back on marrying into a family of wealthy southern pastors.
2. (-1) Melissa King
AKA: Zen Master. Aka Dimples. Aka Shutterstock.
Melissa continued her casual dominance of this season, steamrolling the competition with a smile and a shrug yet again. She landed in the top three in the telephone challenge, because of course she has a great relationship with her sister who she calls “bro.” Who would expect anything else from someone so obnoxiously well-adjusted? Then in the elimination challenge, Melissa made a kimchi peach vinaigrette served with fried chicken, which Padma said wasn’t spicy enough. Luckily, Padma always says that, and Melissa ended up selling the most of all the competitors. Padma said serving it with fried chicken was cheating, but then so is being Melissa. I imagine the sauce was secondary to people just wanting to soak up her inner chill.
1. (+1) Gregory Gourdet
AKA: Kravitz. Aka Hepcat. Aka Lids.
Gregory flip flops with Melissa in the rankings again this week in what is increasingly becoming a two-way race. This thanks to his Haitian pickliz — served with Creole braised chicken. Shit that looked good. Haitian food! Of course he won. Granted, Gregory hasn’t won every challenge this season, but I also don’t think he has broken a sweat.