Actor-cum-restauranteur Danny Trejo completed his transformation into the vato Paul Newman this week, with an appearance on Top Chef. The grizzled actor, who has a tattoo of your mom on his chest, was there to judge quickfire challenge based on, what else, tacos.
It did cheer me a bit to see that even these wildly experienced white tablecloth microgreen huffers still mostly couldn’t make tortillas worth a damn. That’s relatable content, baby! Don’t try to copy the abuelitas pumping them out one after another with their little tortilla presses, man. If you’re not over 50 and born south of the Rio Grande that shit never works. Only way I’ve ever made decent tortillas is one-by-one, with a straight rolling pin (no press). You can really taste that five minutes of elbow grease. So go ahead and add the lard, they’ll have to be filling just to replace the calories you burnt making them.
Aaaanyway, the twist for this challenge was that the only utensils the chefs were allowed to use were, that’s right, machetes, as an homage to the famous Danny Trejo movie, Machete. Clever fun, or patronizing? If Paul Newman was alive do you think he’d have to judge an egg-eating challenge or something? Oh yeah, and Karen came back from Last Chance Kitchen after getting eliminated last episode. I guess that means it’s over for Nini and Calamity Jenn. Oh well.
With a blank taco canvas, all but two of the chefs made fish or seafood tacos. Which is a little boring, but least most of the fish tacos were fried. You can fuck all the way off with a non-fried fish taco. It would’ve been nice to see some carne asada, some carnitas, some shredded beef, some al pastor, some barbacoa — but most taco fillings take at least six hours to do right and these chefs only had 30 minutes. Not really enough time to steam off a cow’s face underground, even though we all know steamed cow face makes the best tacos.
Instead, as I said, they mostly made fried fish. A couple did add caviar on top which seems like the epitome of pointless cheffy touches. Caviar on a taco is like when people put gold leaf on food. Oh wow, I can spend an additional $20 for something that tastes exactly the same? Where do I sign up?
This week’s elimination challenge was build-up for next week’s Restaurant Wars. The challenge? Pitch your restaurant concept to the judges and guest judges, along with a “mood board” and a few sample dishes. Wow, a mood board, so analog. This was like Shark Tank meets freshman dorm room. Sadly there were no eighties bro chefs there to pitch “Lamborghini Countach Bistro” or “Trattoria Kathy Ireland.”
9 (-3) ((Eliminated)) Eric Adjepong
AKA: Ghana. Aka Thesis. Aka Uncle Rico. Aka Kanye West Africa.
Wow, shitty week for Eric. He opened this week’s episode by making a flour tortilla — I like flour tortillas better than corn, there, I said it — but left it underfilled and landed in the bottom three. C’mon, man, everyone knows Danny Trejo likes a thicc taco, just ask your mom.
It didn’t help that Eric made his taco with un-fried fish. For which he compensated by adding chorizo (decent idea) and then ruined again by adding caviar. Honestly, how the hell are you gonna taste caviar in a taco that has chorizo?
Then in the elimination challenge, Eric once again pitched Middle Passage, his restaurant concept based on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Just like last season when he pitched it, he ended up going home at the end of the episode. Now, the producers and judges would have us believe that this was a result of Eric being in the weeds, overcooking his duck, dropping sausages on the floor, and delivering a confusing pitch that called for a restaurant that was, “casual but still formal.”
Or… maybe white people just can’t handle being reminded of slavery. (Not me though, I’m one of the good ones. Please keep this in mind when the revolution comes.) Anyway, I hope Eric makes it through Last Chance Kitchen.
8. (-1) Lee Anne Wong
AKA: Frazzle. Aka Loud Mom. Aka 911. Aka The Teflon Wong.
I know Top Chef likes to fluff the resumes of every guest judge by immediately cutting to interviews with the contestants gushing about that guest judge, but when Danny Trejo came out, they cut away to Lee Anne saying “I’m a huge fan, I’ve seen all of his movies.”
I don’t want to be the fan police here, but there is absolutely no way that is true. Did she see Cross 3? Did she see Slayer: The Repentless Killogy? Did she see Acceleration? Black Licorice? Big Kill? Bare Knuckle Brawler? 3 From Hell? Bullets of Justice? Madness in the Method? The Margarita Man? The Outsider? Every 9 Hours? The Short history of the Long Road?
Because those are just the movies Danny Trejo made in 2019. Danny Trejo works more than Eric Roberts. I doubt there’s a person alive who has seen all of Danny Trejo’s movies, even Danny Trejo.
Anyway, Lee Anne’s pandering actually paid off when she landed in the top three with a masa fried rockfish taco. Then she pulled a Lee Anne in the elimination challenge by getting behind, putting up food the judges didn’t like, and somehow still not going home yet again. Her pitch was for “Hanai Mama,” an upscale casual Hawaiian concept — which is not exactly novel, but I’d probably still eat there — with dishes Tom described as “oversalted veg and a bowl of cold pork.”
Ouch. And yet… she’s still here!
The Teflon Wong strikes again! Somehow none of her bad food sticks to her. Is it possible that Lee Anne proves me wrong in the end? As they say, revenge is a dish best porked cold.
7. (-2) Stephanie Cmar
AKA: C-Monster. Aka Underdog. Aka C-Truffle.
The last remaining member of Padma’s Angels (note to producers, stop trying to make Padma’s Angels happen), Steph went very un-C-Monster by doing a non-seafood taco. The C-Monster’s ground lamb was a solid choice, the closest you can get to underground steamed lamb face in 30 minutes. Danny Trejo awarded her both the win, immunity, and su respeto.
After Danny jumped her into his gang, Steph pitched Lucy, a “modern elevated comfort food contemporary American cuisine” concept. Which is like, word salad of every restaurant concept of the last 10 years. She pled ignorance to the pitching process on account of working as private chef for most of her career. Wait, but you do eat at restaurants, right? I’d like to think she took her immunity as an opportunity to completely mail one in. Again, relatable.
She went on to get ripped by the judges for a “non-concept concept,” bad schnitzel, and guest judge Kevin Boehm slayed the other judges saying “She should’ve called her restaurant ‘Immunity.'”
“They’re laughing really hard so they must not have liked it,” said Steph, watching the judges. Points for perceptiveness, I guess.
6. (+3) Karen Akunowicz
AKA: Good Witch. Aka Glenda. Aka Aunt Kitty. Aka Rosie The Triveter
The Good Witch conjured up a resurrection spell this week that brought her back from elimination, with a fresh pink stripe on her head to boot. Damn if she isn’t totally pulling that off.
She served up a well-received fried rockfish with kimchi (“I love kimchi,” said Danny Trejo, who must be pretty worldly by now from having traveled the world making 27 movies a year) in the quickfire. Then, in the elimination, she pitched Three Black Crowes — a dim sum concept that the judges lazily described as “not very Chinese.”
Tom said she should’ve leaned into the Italian-Chinese fusion that seemed to be suggested by her focaccia scallion pancake, though I guarantee they would’ve ripped her just as hard for that. The Spaghetti Dragon? Mustache Panda? Three Crows In Speedos? I have lots of name ideas for that concept if she ever gets a do-over. Anyway, Karen hung around the middle of the pack once again.
5. (+3) Brian Malarkey
AKA: Shenanigans. Aka Grandpa Fancy. Aka Squirrely. Aka The Imp. Aka Leprechón.
Big week for Shenanigans, who may be a total spaz but has opened the most restaurants of any of the contestants. This week his experience showed at least as much as his ADD.
Shenanigans is from San Diego, so in the quickfire, he naturally he served up the kind of taco that San Diego is famous for… that’s right, I’m talking about “shrimp tempura with baby Asian mole.”
Unpredictable to the end, that Malarkey. I bet his whole family has PTSD. He then rolled his taco concept into his restaurant pitch — D2, a “Baja Asian Street” concept highlighting Baja California’s Asian community (sure?). It was a restaurant he promised would “entice millennials,” which he illustrated with a mood board that looked like it had a 10x model of his own wrist beads stapled to it.
His dishes included a hamachi aguachile (that’s a crudo by another name, chug your drink) and a braised oxtail with gojujang and date mole. All of which he pitched as being inspired by the “great love story from the movie Shrek, between the donkey and the dragon.”
Hey, it’s not racist if it’s an obscure reference from Shrek. The judges… loved it. Incredible. How does Malarkey do it? My explanation: leprechauns have magical powers. Lotta people forget that.
4. (even) Bryan Voltaggio
AKA: Flatbill Dad. Aka Bry Voltage. Aka Kyle Shanahan. Aka Linkin Clark Griswold. Aka Family Bry
This week was yet another sub-par performance from Family Bry, the only contestant to have also been on Top Chef Masters. You might be wondering why I still have him locked at number four? Well, it’s true, Bry Guy’s stock keeps falling, but who am I supposed to put above him? Steph just had a sub-par week, Lee Anne is always on the bottom, Karen got sent home last week, and Malarkey is… you know… Malarkey.
As much as I love his dad laugh of quiet desperation, Bry Guy probably should’ve gone home for his taco. The man served Danny Trejo a wood-roasted salmon taco with salmon eggs on top. Salmon eggs! I can never get past having used salmon eggs as fish bait, which is maybe a personal problem, but can we at least agree to keep them off tacos? Keep the salmon eggs in your salmon womb, imo.
Bry Voltage then pitched “Thatcher and Rye,” while revealing that his kid is named “Thatcher” which is maybe the whitest thing I’ve ever heard on this show with the possible exception of salmon eggs on tacos. He tried to pitch it as a more casual, more entry-level version of his usual food. Because when I think “Thatcher,” I think working-class salt-of-the-Earth. Needless to say, the judges just weren’t having it. Voltaggios can’t pull off fast-casual, their birthing table had a white tablecloth.
3. (even) Kevin Gillespie
AKA: Hops. Aka Oops All Kevins. Aka Bachelor Fried Rice. Aka Thicc Kev.
My man Thicc Kev keeps bringing the heat. That’s two wins in a row (both shared). Still, I just can’t bring myself to put him ahead of Gregory or Melissa.
Amazingly, Kevin was the only chef to put pork in his taco — delivering a mojo-roasted pork. That didn’t quite get him a top-three finish, but his restaurant pitch, Country Captain, pitching the South as an under-appreciated stop on the world spice trade, was a winner. You gotta respect a dish where the chicken breast actually looks tasty and not like semi-edible drywall filler.
Woke Devil’s Advocate Guy Says: Oh sure, the judges love the plantation south concept better than the slave trade one, what a surprise.
Kevin’s food always looks smart, logical, and well-conceived, but he’s competing against Gregory and Melissa’s wow factor. I know I’m going out on a pretty big limb here when I say this, but I think only time will tell.
2. (even) Melissa King
AKA: Zen Master. Aka Dimples. Aka Shutterstock.
It’s true, Melissa didn’t make the top three with her fried mahi taco and she shared her top finish in the elimination challenge with Gregory, Kevin, and Malarkey. But that corn agnolotti looked incredible (for Sabrina, her modern Asian Californian concept).
If this show was a menu that’s the first thing I’m ordering.
What can you say about Melissa? She’s as calm as a Hindu cow, as put together as a catalog spread, and never seems to make mistakes. She’s hyper-competent and almost boringly likable. It’s hard to imagine how anyone beats her.
1. (even) Gregory Gourdet
AKA: Kravitz. Aka Hepcat. Aka Lids. Aka Pollos Hermanos.
And then there’s Gregory, the male version of Melissa. Gregory had an uncharacteristically off quickfire challenge, struggling with his tortilla (didn’t I tell you them shits are hard?) and turning in a fish taco that was too salty. Damn, you know it’s pretty salty if Danny Trejo comments on it, the man was born with deep facial crevices and a michelada in one hand.
But then, in an extremely Gregory move, he stormed back to win the elimination challenge, with his pitch for Kann, a wood-fired Haitian food concept featuring whole fish, braised oxtail, and ripe plantains. I don’t think I’ve ever had whole fried fish that tasted as good as it looked, but Gregory’s was roasted in the wood-fired oven so it only looked fried. Nicely done. And ripe plantains? Yes please, just put them directly in my butt.
I don’t know that I’ve seen someone who looked like such a wire-to-wire favorite on this show since… well, since Gregory’s original season, which he somehow didn’t win. Does he find redemption this season or become Top Chef‘s Buffalo Bills?