This week on Top Chef, gelato-based sponsored content (#SponCon) gave way to an exploration of the African diaspora. It was sort of a classic “one for us, one for them” situation. This season has thus far been short on reality show drama but long on good-lookin’ food. Don’t get me wrong, I love a nice goat cheese ice cream but at this point, I think I’d trade my left matcha cream puff for at least one cheftestant who isn’t there to make friends.
This week’s episode began with the introduction of Carrie “Fancy Toast” Baird, and a flashback to the time she Mormonly built an oven in the snow to bake a cake (complete with a Chef Fati cameo, RIP). This turned out to be an incredibly roundabout way of introducing a “layered dessert” challenge, sponsored by Talenti Gelato and their new line of layered gelati (that’s the plural of gelato, you strunz’!). Because nothing conveys the value of a layered dessert like a snow-cake flashback (citation needed). Hey, this is basic cable, sometimes you have to awkwardly suck off a sponsor or two. After all, they put up $10 grand.
The chefs then had 45 minutes to make a dessert, with at least three layers. 45 minutes is longer than usual, but not really that long in the context of making a dessert — certainly not for anything you have to bake, set, or freeze. Which meant this one basically came down to which chefs didn’t have a frozen component. Honestly, how much of a time crunch are you guys on? Would it be so bad to give them like two hours? Who shows up at a restaurant and is like “Tick tock, dummy, feed me your best SPEED DESSERT.”
For the elimination challenge, Chef Kwame (along with Gregory) showed up in a giant grey suit looking like the love child of David Byrne and Lenny Kravitz to take the cheftestants on a field trip to taste some pan-African cuisine, from its roots in West Africa to the diaspora in South America and the Caribbean.
Kwame and Gregory took the chefs to various restaurants, including a Jamaican restaurant, which the editors chose to pair with reggae music, no doubt pulling every creativity muscle in the process. Bold choice, guys, better start clearing mantel space for that Emmy.
The chefs were supposed to take inspiration from the food and create their own African-inspired dishes, and you can probably imagine which chefs this challenge was the hardest for (*cough* BRITTANY *cough, cough*).
Sorry about that, keyboard must’ve gone down the wrong pipe.
This week’s results:
Quickfire Top: Byron, Avishar*, Sara. (*winner)
Quickfire Bottom: Brittany, Kiki, Maria.
Elimination Top: Dawn*, Jamie, Shota
Elimination Bottom: Brittany**, Kiki, Chris. (**Eliminated)
13. (-9) ((Eliminated)) Brittany Anderson
AKA: St. Pauli. Cartoon. Hot Chocolate. Stifler’s Mom.
Notable Critiques: “The red stew is bland.” “She muted it with the coconut milk.” “The main problem with your dish is that it’s kind of mild.”
Chef Brittany opened this episode in tears after her partner in the previous challenge, Sasha, went home for their team dish (whose bad components were all made by Sasha; suck it up, Brittany). Brittany said she had survivor’s guilt and seemed to spend the entire episode in a Derek Zoolander-esque identity crisis, pondering her reflection in bowls of consommé. She landed in the bottom of the quickfire for the sin of including a store-bought cookie in her dish (which otherwise looked good). She was then clearly out of her depth in the elimination challenge, on account of her low tolerance for spice. Excuse me, waiter? This ganache is too zesty.
Chef Brittany, as we know, cooks “modern Alpine” and thus curries and stews and hot peppers aren’t really her thing. A lot of you readers thought I had Brittany ranked too high last week, and you can take this as sweet vindication, but you should know that my placement was based on the extremely meticulous scientific calculation of “that mushroom toast looked bomb tho.”
Brittany may or may not have been there to make friends, but she was definitely there to discover herself. But this is Top Chef not Eat, Pray, Love so after a judge’s table that resembled a therapy sesh they sent her underseasoned ass home. Hopefully, she came to some valuable insights when Tom Colicchio, inspired by some bland cucumber slaw, demanded that she search her heart and know her true self. Never count out Tough Love Tommy! I was honestly still hoping to see some of that Alpine cuisine but I’ll be pouring out some fondue for my Swiss Miss this week.
12. (+1) Chris Viaud
AKA: Stretch. Butter. Kelso.
Notable Critique: “It’s, uh… really interesting.” -Carrie Baird, on Chris’s mushroom dessert.
I’m honestly not sure how Chef Chris, who has been on the bottom or near the bottom of every challenge and chose “butter” as his special ingredient in episode one, is still on this show. I think he has “Handsome Face,” which always makes him look confident and competent and tricks you into believing that his consistent pattern of mistakes and screwups are all just temporary setbacks.
Chris made a mushroom-flavored dessert. Amazingly, that didn’t land him in the bottom three. Then in the elimination challenge, he served a smorgasbord of Haitian ingredients that according to the judges was less than the sum of its parts. “He tried a little too hard.” “This is a collection of ingredients, not a dish,” said Tom, which is a Tupac’s “Hit ‘Em Up”-level chef diss.
Chef Chris looks like he’s on a fast track to be sent home next, but who knows how much longer he’ll be able to fool the judges with his symmetrical features and velvety baritone.
11. (-5) Kiki Louya
AKA: Aunt Sassy. Peppers.
Notable Critiques: “That fufu was a no-go.”
I love Chef Kiki. Damn near everything she says puts me in a good mood. My instinct tells me she’s a top-five chef this season, but the hard facts show us two straight bottom-three finishes this episode, so she tumbles down the rankings. Chef Kiki attempted a play on peach pie in the quickfire (hers was the dessert I would’ve ordered off the menu), but her crust didn’t set and it landed her in the bottom three.
With her background in West-Central African cuisine, the Pan-African food challenge seemed like a layup. But sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and Chef Kiki couldn’t wrestle her fufu into edibility in time for the judges, and it hurt her. This even though they all agreed her stew was great. As an Italian who has fucked up polenta plenty of times long after I should’ve had it mastered, I commiserate on trying to wrestle a finicky starch. Still, she probably should’ve tasted it and improvised, turned it into a croquette or a puree or a crumble or something.
Remember, chefs, the phrase “____-inspired” is your friend.
10. Nelson German (-3)
AKA: Papa Bear. Ol’ Faithful.
Notable Critiques: “This was tasty, but it tastes like a lot of the food we’ve had from him before.”
Papa Bear, who has arguably the most irresistible dad energy of any contestant this season, has thus far made his bones by staying on-brand. It could be that staying in his lane is finally starting to catch up to him or it could just be that this challenge wasn’t a great draw for him. As a Dominican chef this challenge was kinda-sorta the kind of food he’s been cooking all along, but because of that, it kind of seemed like he’d mailed it in when he did more or less what he always does.
It’s always more refreshing when you bring flavors to a challenge that feel unexpected.
9. (even) Maria Mazon
AKA: Gas Can. Backdraft.
Notable Critiques: “I just want to keep eating it.”
Like Chef Kiki, Chef Maria was initially undone by a dessert component that failed to congeal (whomst among us…). But then she had a lightbulb moment when she realized that West African “red stew” is actually a lot like mole. That’s kind of the fun of food, isn’t it? Every culture’s cuisine is at once completely distinct and exactly the same.
Anyway, Maria didn’t quite make top three in the elimination challenge but it seemed like she was on the cusp. Honestly, the 6-10 spots here are basically a pick-em.
8. (+4) Byron Gomez
AKA: Manolo. Burger King.
Notable Critiques: …
Costa Rican-bred Burger King veteran Byron finally scored himself a top-three finish this week in the quickfire, thanks to his bomb-ass goat cheese ice cream (probably the first and last time I will ever use that phrase). The entirety of my notes for Byron this week consist of “goat cheese ice cream…”
So far he’s winning the prize for “most obscure competitor.”
7. (+1) Jamie Tran
Aka: Splat. Police Academy.
Notable Critiques: “She took this challenge and owned it.”
The judges loved the way Chef Jamie brought Vietnamese flair to her Pan-African couscous dish this week and it landed her in the top three in the elimination challenge. This gives Jamie a pretty solid track record this far on the show thus far, even if she has the personality of someone I wouldn’t trust to be alone around sharp things.
6. (+4) Avishar Barua
AKA: Milhouse. Chillhouse. Thrillhouse. American Pie. The Carbonator.
Notable Critique: “It was just very smart.”
Nutty Professor Milhouse over here went crazy with the liquid nitrogen in the quickfire challenge in the process of making something he called a “Buckeye Bon-Bon.” Which included a component he described as “liquid cocoa graham cracker.”
Haha, cool, man. Avishar wondered if he’d over-frozen the whole thing, and when Padma made this face:
…it felt like it could go either way.
Luckily for Milhouse it turned out she liked it, so much so that he won the quickfire and made $10,000. Disappointingly, Padma didn’t make a single crack about loving the feel of Avishar’s frozen balls in her mouth. She’s really slipping.
5. (-2) Gabriel Pascuzzi
AKA: Patriarchy. Evil Gabe. Chad. Bluto. Mr. Mackie. The Noodge.
Notable Critique: “I’ll say what you guys are all thinking, this dish is too white.”
Evil Gabe wasn’t nearly so villainous this episode but as the only white American male (I think?) in the Pan-African challenge, he took his lumps anyway. He said he was making “red stew, Italian-style” which does sound kind of lame and went on to receive Tom’s most dismissive diss of the episode.
“The designer mashed potatoes? I’m kind of over it.”
4. (-2) Gabe Erales
AKA: Good Gabe. Canelo. Fozzy. The Foz. Masa Father.
Notable Critique: “I loved Gabe’s chicken, that crispiness.”
It was a relatively quiet episode for Gabe, who squirted through the non-superlative middle in both challenges, though his dishes seemed to be well received. He doesn’t seem to make a lot of mistakes.
3. (+8) Dawn Burrell
AKA: Hothead. ‘Sheed. Legs. Breaking Dawn. Milk Carton. Coco Chanel.
Notable Critiques: “She nailed the inspiration.”
Dawn had a rocky start, getting steamed at her teammates (Jamie, for wrong-siding a sauce; Evil Gabe for mansplaining ribs) and forgetting key components, but that’s two elimination challenge wins in a row now, thanks to some bomb ass goat curry. I don’t know if that’s enough to conclude that all her troubles are behind her, but it’s enough to shoot her into the top three.
2. (+3) Sara Hauman
AKA: Tails. Yogurt. Trapper Keeper. Manic Pixie Cream Sauce. Fiddlesticks.
Notable Critiques: “This is a dish I’d order again and again.”
A lot of readers said I had Sara ranked too low last week, and I want you to know that that’s only because I blame Sara for everything I like to rip on about Portland. Obviously, I’m exaggerating, but then again, Sara did make a “matcha-dusted cream puff” in the quickfire challenge, which also feels like a mean description of Sara’s personality. STOP IT, BRAIN, SARA SEEMS NICE!
Then, in the elimination challenge, Sara made “salt cod in the style of pork floss” which is bar none one of the weirdest descriptions of food that I’ve ever heard. That being said, the judges loved it, just as they’ve loved virtually everything that Sara has made so far. It’s just like Portland itself — as much as I want to rip on it for its almost painfully contrived quirks and Fruit Loop-covered donuts, it remains an infuriatingly pleasant city.
1. (even) Shota Nakajima
Notable Critique: “I was waiting for that spice and I got it.”
Shota, along with Avishar and Kiki, is easily among my top three favorite chefs this season. While he didn’t win either challenge this week, this chilled-out Japanese American chef with a personality like a human shaka sign chalked another top-three finish in the elimination challenge, with his black cod and cabbage. And this in a Pan-African challenge that should’ve been a huge stretch for Shota and his notably un-spicy Japanese food background.
Instead of tearing him down, the judges swooned once again. While he’s not exactly running away with this thing and winning in a rout every challenge like the ’92 Dream Team, it feels like he’s done enough to earn the top spot for the second week in a row.