This week brought us easily this season’s best episode of Top Chef. The tone was set right off the bat when Padma Lakshmi judged a quickfire while half in the bag. “Champagne Padma,” as she was dubbed, demanded ice for her champagne, chuckled at her own asides, and complained about the help — all for an airplane food challenge judged by her and Chef Jonathan Waxman. Waxman is a goofball ex-bassist from Sonoma County who I once watched shatter his own watch while smashing garlic for a cooking demo, so it all contributed to the wild and woolly atmosphere. Food: it’s fun!
Not only was a plowed Padma a joy to watch (note to producers: always get Padma drunk), it seemed like her natural form — sauntering in gesturing wildly, snickering to herself, flirting with the help to finagle more drinks. It’s also fitting for a chef show. Honestly, when’s the last time you dropped 100 bucks or more on a meal when you weren’t at least medium buzzed? This is how the show should always be, not only for entertainment but for accuracy’s sake. Top Chef judges should have a three-drink minimum. (*frat guy voice*) C’mon, bro, do it for art!
Oh, also Kevin was back. For this season’s Last Chance Kitchen twist, Kevin not only had to beat all the previously eliminated contestants but also defeat two out of three remaining ones, in a head-to-head challenge judged by Tom. And so he did! Kevin rejoined the show and immediately told a story about how his grandfather was an airline executive so he always flies first class. Kevin is a real “plane diva,” according to Kevin, which might be the least relatable anecdote in the history of this show. Well la di da, Mr. Aristocrat, what’s it like owning a bed frame?
For the elimination challenge, the chefs were tasked with serving a dish inspired by classic dishes from Michael’s Santa Monica, “a pioneer of California Cuisine.” They brought back the chefs who invented said dishes, like Waxman, Sang Yoon, Roy Yamaguchi, and Brooke Williamson. Again, it was a great challenge that highlighted all the things people (or at least I) find appealing about the food business — that it’s kind of a pirate ship/island of misfit toys filled with slightly eccentric, slightly rebellious types; and that there’s a sense of history to it. “California Cuisine” as a food trend is boring, but as a trip down memory lane where you can see an evolution of craft and a greatest hits reel it’s fascinating. It’s like a band reunion. It’s kind of gets at why I like watching music documentaries about groups I never cared about or listened to. I don’t know, maybe that’s just a “me” thing.
Oh, and also this week had BIG DRAMA. It basically came down to competing Top Chef curses: the risotto curse vs. the dreaded duo. On top of that, it was the top-seeded chef who blew it this week vs. the lower-seed who almost went home a bunch of times but seemed to do okay this week. AND there was a deus ex machina (or at least, a waitress ex machina). We’ll discuss that below!
Finally, the show teased next week’s pre-finale in Italy, where the chefs will all be cooking for Italians, the most culinarily pedantic motherf*ckers on planet Earth. I cannot wait for that.
6 (-2) ((Eliminated)) Brian Malarkey
AKA: Shenanigans. Aka Grandpa Fancy. Aka Squirrely. Aka The Imp. Aka Leprechón.
One of my favorite moments this week was when Tom asked Malarkey about his dish and then immediately wished he hadn’t:
That being said, I never imagined when this season began that I’d eventually be demanding Justice For Grandpa Fancy. But this week he totally got screwed! It started in the quickfire, when Shenanigans had to cut the nice crust off his pork chop to make it adhere to the challenge’s height requirement, only to watch the judges praise Kevin’s Illegal Meatballs. Clearly, they were too high, but it was allowed, because “you can just mush them down.”
Oh, can you? Then why doesn’t he have to serve them pre-mushed? This is a miscarriage of meatball justice!
Champagne Padma is a fickle mistress. And drunk too.
It also helped me be sympathetic when Malarkey called his twins on their birthday and managed to talk about it without crying. You rarely see that in a reality show. People are always crying about their dumb wiener kids. And not because they have, like, an incurable disease or anything. Just because they’ve been away from home for three weeks and the kid did something cute on Skype. Yeah yeah, you love your kids we get it.
Later in the elimination challenge, he drew the veal loin/sweetbread dish with truffles. That’s a solid draw, I always order the sweetbreads. Fry me them glands, baby. Then he decided to make a duo, which was, yes, a completely unforced error, because the original dish wasn’t even a duo. Shenanigans claimed this was because he saw all the nice fruit at Whole Foods, but realized it doesn’t play nice with truffles. Jesus Christ, man, focus! No one said you had to use the fruit!
So he made the duo, two solid dishes, about which the worst the judges could say was that they had a lot of ingredients and didn’t go great together. Sorry, I’m with Malarkey on this one: if they don’t go great together, just eat them one at a time. No one’s forcing you to double dip, Tom. To make matters worse, half the judges didn’t even get Malarkey’s dish because the servers brought a bunch to the wrong tables. Oh no, server error! The dreaded 403!
After that, Grandpa Fancy nearly stormed off the show. He heard their critique and saw the writing on the wall, and knew they were going to boot him on a technicality to keep from having to send home Gregory, the clear presumptive favorite most of the season. This after Malarkey kind of got hosed twice in row, first by arbitrary rules, then by server error out of his control.
Shenanigans should’ve quit. He was going to go home anyway. And he could’ve done it without making a big self-righteous speech about moral rectitude like Kevin did after Restaurant Wars. I suppose there was an off chance that if he just played nice guy instead of getting pissed the judges might’ve actually had to decide whether to send home Malarkey, the underdog, over two good dishes, or Gregory, the favorite, over one mediocre one. He may have given them an out. Though that’s also kind of like when you get fired and tell off your boss on the way out and then they’re like “see, this is why we fired you.”
Not that that’s ever happened to me or anything…
Anyway, we’ll be pouring out some Adderall for Shenanigans. Dress code for the funeral is bright colors, bare ankles, and extensive bangles.
5. (even) Stephanie Cmar
AKA: C-Monster. Aka Underdog. Aka C-Truffle.
I’m proud of nicknaming C-Monster “Underdog” early on, because here she is, going on to the finale in Italy. As the only chef who’d never been to Italy before, you have to be rooting for her a little. Not to mention, she also coined “Champagne Padma,” which was some spot-on, downright Fati-esque commentary. You trying to take my job, C-Monster? Trust me, girl, you don’t want this life.
This week C-Monster made asparagus agnolotti with scallops, and… well, what can you say, it looked really good. She only narrowly didn’t get the win and now she’s-a going to-a Italy. Right during Corona season. Shit, has anyone checked on these chefs since they filmed the show?
4. (N/A) Kevin Gillespie
AKA: Hops. Aka Oops All Kevins. Aka Thicc Kev. Aka Foghorn Kevhorn.
Kev had to beat two out of three remaining contestants to get back on the show, and for his first two picks he chose to take on Malarkey (smart) and Voltaggio (less smart?). He split those contests (defeating Malarkey and losing to Voltaggio), and then asked for volunteers for the third. None other than Gregory stepped up, and Kev, fool that he is, chose Gregory.
At this point, I admit, I was shouting at the TV. “You idiot! Can it with the nice guy act, don’t you want to get back in this?” I thought he was screwed.
But Thicc Kev did it. He beat Gregory and got back in the show. Then he immediately dropped his anecdote about being a plane diva who only flies first class. Dang, first plantation food and now he reveals that he’s the scion of airline royalty? Well ah do declayah, it looks like it looks we got owahselves a fine southuhn gentleman before us. Get Foghorn Kevhorn here a ribbon tie, a long pipe, and a grand porch.
For the Michael’s challenge, Kev served up a wild rice croquette with duck confit that had all the judges crooning over his juicy balls. “These are the balls that keep on giving,” gushed Gail.
I have to admit, Kev’s was the only dish that made me say “mmm” out loud to my TV. So why is he still ranked so low? Well, I thought about putting him as high as number two, but I’m giving Gregory the benefit of a momentary lapse, and as for Voltaggio, he just beat Kev in a head-to-head contest. And going into the finale, I have to think that Voltaggio’s fancy-pants be-tweezer’d snootery is going to play better with the Italians than Thicc Kev’s deep-fried aw-shucks potato salad bullshit. Ay, skifozo, why you puttem uppa di pig feet inna mama pasta? Va fongool!
3. (even) Bryan Voltaggio
I’ve been thinking Linkin Clark was a favorite by reputation alone, but he blew his last chance at winning a quickfire this week when he tried to make lentils in 30 minutes. Lentils? You fool! Rookie move.
But again, these white tablecloth challenges seem to play right into Bry Guy’s artfully tattooed hands. He cooked a lamb saddle (my favorite sex move) and breezed right into the finals. Beating Big Kev in a one-on-one challenge was impressive, but I can’t quite see Family Bry winning it all at this point based on this season’s performance. Runner up, maybe. I’m just hoping for some solid, Italy-based dad humor.
Whoa, Vespas, huh? Well alriiiiight!
2. (-1) Gregory Gourdet
AKA: Kravitz. Aka Hepcat. Aka Lids. Aka Pollos Hermanos.
Damn, Gregory sure fell back to Earth this week. First, he lost a head-to-head to Kevin, then seemed uninspired in the elimination challenge. He drew Brooke’s dish, a prosciutto-wrapped monkfish over beet risotto, which to be fair does sound pretty weird. Even Brooke apologized for it.
To make matters worse, Gregory’s prosciutto “got lost in the shuffle” and so he ended up serving pork fat-braised monkfish over beet risotto with pickled veg that was desperately crying out for prosciutto. Ay, where’s the prosciutto?
He ended up in the bottom two alongside Malarkey who, luckily for Gregory, was practically begging to go home.
There are a few ways to look at this: either Gregory had a subpar week, losing to Kev and then turning in an uninspired dish with a silly mistake; or he took it easy on Kev because he’s nice and was risking nothing, and then was one dumb prosciutto accident away from a solid dish that the judges probably would’ve loved. He even seemed to talk Malarkey out of quitting at the last minute.
Sorry, I have no predictions. Gregory seems chill as hell though. And I can’t wait to see what a guy who pulls off a fringed leather vest as casual wear is going to dress like in Italy.
1. (+1) Melissa King
AKA: Zen Master. Aka Dimples. Aka Shutterstock.
I’ve had Melissa ranked behind Gregory these past few weeks but after this week Melissa was undeniable. Cool as a cucumber dip, this one. She managed to win the quickfire challenge with a “tofu salad,” aka a block of tofu right out of the package with some pickles on top with dressing. That is some sorcery. How are you going to compete with someone who wins with an uncooked block of tofu?
She breezed into the elimination challenge and immediately won again, with quail. Those tiny, easy-to-overcook little birds seem high risk, low reward to me, but I guess that’s why I’m here writing about TV shows in my underpants.
Melissa is looking like the clear favorite at this point. I can only hope she pisses off some Italians by pairing the wrong meat with the wrong pasta shape. That’ll get you ostracized for life over there. Serving seafood with orecchiette to Italians is like wearing white after labor day to WASPs. Then the hand gestures start up and before you know it you’ve got the evil eye.
Be careful out there, that’s all I’m saying.
That’s top drawer Italianing. pic.twitter.com/NuIG3R7JpR
— David Paxton (@DavidDPaxton) May 7, 2020
Vince Mancini is on Twitter. Read more of his cooking commentary in UPROXX’s Cooking Battles and Viral Cooking. For past Top Chef Power Rankings, go here.