This week on Top Chef, we got an entire episode dedicated to legendary LA restaurant critic Jonathan Gold. Gold was the subject of the 2015 documentary City Of Gold and was the leading cheerleader of food culture in LA, which is now considered one of the best food cities in the US after being widely thought of as something of a cultural backwater for decades. Gold just died in 2018 and this season of Top Chef is set in LA, so you had to know a Jonathan Gold challenge was coming.
Even knowing that, was it just me or was the tribute a little… over the top? Everyone loves Jonathan Gold but I think when you have multiple restaurant owners weeping over their memories of Jonathan Gold and multiple contestants sitting around trying to imagine what Jonathan Gold would’ve eaten if he were here… it comes off a little… I don’t know… Jesus-y? I mean, one of the contestants literally referred to him as “miraculous.” WHAT WOULD JONATHAN GOLD DO. HE WOULD WEAR A FUNNY HAT AND EAT THIS SICHUAN BEEF TARTARE, FOREVER AND EVER LET’S EAT.
Sorry. Oh, and before we get any further I also have a bone to pick with something Gail Simmons said. Simmons (who I otherwise love and is an absolute delight) said of Jonathan Gold: “He was the first food critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for restaurant criticism — which sort of sounds funny when you think about it, because he wasn’t critical. Jonathan wrote about what he loved.”
Excuse me, but writing about what you love is being critical! Loving something is an inherent critique! Also, Jonathan Gold did write “negative” reviews. Hell, he even wrote one of David Chang (or at least a review that a few people interpreted as negative). Even if Gold had never written negative reviews (something that’s far more plausible in restaurant reviews, when you have hundreds of options from which to choose), a positive review is still a critical judgment. There’s a reason “critical” and “negative” are two different words. Without critical thinking, you wouldn’t be able to write about the things that you love, because you wouldn’t be able to separate them from things that you don’t love. They’d just be things. And thus not worth writing about. To put it another way, there is no love without not-love.
So when you say something like “this critic is great because he wasn’t critical,” that is plainly an oxymoron. What you’re really saying is, “critics generally suck but I like this one.” To which I say both “I agree” and “welcome, fellow critic.”
I still remember where I was when I received a press release for Kevin Smith’s “anti-movie review show,” which Smith went on to describe: “we don’t review movies, we revere movies.” That was eight years ago and I still haven’t stopped puking. If that’s the mainstream conception of what criticism is then it only proves how much we desperately need criticism. We’ve so lost the capacity for critical thinking that we don’t even understand the concept. Also, when you say dumb shit like this, you lessen the chances of the publishing world ever being able to produce another Jonathan Gold or Roger Ebert, or any of the other “not critic” critics it’s acceptable to love. It’s clear here that everyone’s bending over backwards to act like Jonathan Gold was a saint to avoid admitting that people liked him because he wrote good, fair criticism — and that can be an act of love just like any art form.
Okay sorry, rant over. Thank you for going on this journey with me.
After the Gold tribute, the chefs all piled into BMW X-7 LUXURY VEHICLES (definitely not a sponsor) to head around LA checking out some of Jonathan Gold’s favorite restaurants. Which was very exciting for me, because one of the restaurants they went to was Jitlada, which was where my podcast co-host and I saw Oliver Stone one time. He was sweaty and ranting about Russia-gate to some younger women loud enough for the whole place to hear, which was very on-brand. Anyway, the food was great.
The idea was for the chefs to take inspiration from “the unique taquerias, food trucks, mom-and-pop cafes, upscale eateries and ethnic cuisine” of Los Angeles and use it to create a dish to serve 200 friends and family of Gold at Union Station. Oh hell yeah, cultural appropriation challenge! Jk, jk. Honestly, though, this shows how talented these chefs really are. Because if I had to feed 200 people, my main inspiration would be “hmm, what can I cook in a giant fucking pot?”
Whereas if you’re these fancy chefs, mostly you ask yourself, “how am I going to chop all this crudo?”
Out of 14 dishes there were two beef tartares and at least two crudos. To paraphrase Amar Santana: Is this Top Chef or Top Crudo?
14. (even) ((Eliminated)) Angelo Sosa
AKA: Handsome Dan. Aka Two Tone. Aka Phlegmy Kilmister. Aka 2 Fast Tomb Eric. Aka Angelo So-sorry You’re Going Home So-searly.
After a not-great showing last week, Handsome Dan signed his own walking papers with a too-sweet tuna crudo this week that guest judge Ruth Reichl said was a disgrace to Angelo, his family, and tuna everywhere. We should’ve known things weren’t going well for Angelo when he was inspired by a whole fried turmeric fish but repeatedly pronounced turmeric “Tomb Eric.” Mmm, tomb eric. It’s the most ubiquitous yet widely mispronounced food word since “chipotle.”
Angelo also said he was “inspired by the humility and grace” of Jitlada, which mostly reminded me of that Seinfeld episode where Elaine is trying to bullshit her way through a discussion of “poise.” He also touched his heart while he was talking as if to indicate earnestness, one of those casual gestures that just screams “we should never hang out.”
For his part, Tom treated this pronouncement with his patented “eye roll of eternal scorn,” which really got a workout in this episode. Tom never lets a contestant get away with some airy-fairy bullshit, God bless him. Another judge called Angelo’s dish “twee.” Needless to say, it was not a good night for our man. Was it because he couldn’t find annatto? I think annatto really would’ve tied the Tomb together.
13. (-9) Stephanie Cmar
AKA: C-Monster. Aka Underdog.
The C-Monster fell like a rock this week when she made the dubious decision to cook Indian food, for the first time ever, to serve to noted Indian food connoisseur Padma Lakshmi. To make matters worse, it appeared she spent most of her time cooking up a flatbread. The flatbread curse strikes again?
Stephanie ended up serving a dry combination of random things atop grilled flatbread (is a grill really the best way to cook flatbread? put that shit on a flat top in some oil or something), an abomination that Padma dubbed “an Indian nacho.” I’m shocked Padma didn’t taste it then immediately spit it out and yell “Why is this so dry? I said I wanted you to fill my mouth with something wet!”
Has anyone else been disappointed by the notable lack of sexualized Padma double entendres this season? Talk dirty to us, Padma.
12. (even) Lisa Fernandes
AKA: Salty. Aka Grimes.
Lisa saying “all right, let me grab all the breasts” (so important that the editors subtitled it!) almost makes up for the lack of Padma entendres up until this point. Though I think the editors included it so that they could imply that Lisa hosed Eric by buying up all of the duck. Later when Lisa said, “I want to highlight the chilis as opposed to the duck” they cut in a shot of Eric looking unamused and a loud cymbal shimmer. Cymbal shimmers are generally Top Chef editor code for “OH NO THEY DIDN’T!”
Grimes’ dish went almost entirely uncommented upon this episode, which seems bad.
11. (+2) Lee Anne Wong
AKA: Loud Mom. Aka Queasy. Aka Lee Anne Tigertelli.
TV’s feistiest Hawaiian™, the islands’ answer to Carla Tortelli, roared back into the middle of the pack this week with a very strange dish that involved gelée, fish, crab sauce, and mozzarella cheese. It must’ve been halfway decent because holy shit that sounds terrible. Still, it’s not going to move her very far up these rankings.
10. (-1) Eric Adjepong
AKA: Ghana. Aka Thesis. Aka Uncle Rico. Aka Kanye West Africa.
The cocky Ghanaian grad student was talking up his West African bona fides this week when he accidentally bumbled into a Kanye-esque delusion of grandeur, saying, “not a lot of people can do what I do.” To which Tom instantly blew his head out of the clouds with a 12-gauge rejoinder: “I mean yeah, other than the entire continent of Africa.”
Ouch, dat’s gotta hoit. Lisa also stole Eric’s duck, forcing him into kitfo-spiced scallop that his heart just wasn’t in. Though the bigger issue was that he’d undercooked his cabbage. IDIOT! Are you not aware that Tom gets all farty and bloated from an al-dente cabbage??
Eric ended up in the bottom three. I still think he’s better than that, but he’d better turn it around quick.
9. (-1) Jamie Lynch
AKA: Midnight Olive Oil. Aka Gravel. Aka Suicidal Ten-dad-cies.
Gravel bashed the judges faces in with a chugging power chord of duck mole taco, served atop the most adorable little silver dollar tortilla you’ve ever seen. It was so cute! That thing was smaller than Steve’s mom’s nipples (Steve is my editor and he’s reading this before all of you). The judges scored it middle of the pack, which sounds about right for our favorite cigarette-voiced punk rock dad chef.
8. (+3) Brian Malarkey
AKA: Grandpa Fancy. Aka Shenanigans. Aka Squirrelly Bird. Aka The Emperor.
Our favorite dangerously wired dandy was like the Dunning Kruger Effect in action this week when he appeared for all the world like he had this thing totally in the bag — “this is what I do, man” — before serving an extremely busy (busy is Shenanigans’ brand) tartare that Ruth Reichl called “the kind of showoff dish that a lot of people who hate restaurants hate about restaurants.”
Ouch. Hey, but at least it had lots of stuff in it! Like fermented egg yolks! Exactly the kind of tartare you might expect from a guy who looks like he starts his day by color coordinating his beaded wrist bangles. Then again it couldn’t have been that bad because he didn’t land in the bottom three. Anyway, I hope this fancy lad stays on the show forever, improvising extemporaneous songs about coriander paste, to the chagrin of all within earshot.
7. (-2) Jennifer Carroll
AKA: Calamity Jenn
Calamity Jenn kept it pretty low key this episode, looking surprisingly nerd hot for someone so damned ornery (it’s the orneriness I love). She cooked a vegetarian hominy stew that was generally well-loved and that Ruth Reichl said, “honored this challenge.”
Amazingly, we got through an entire episode without anyone pointing out that she used to work with Eric Ripert. Seems like no one ever mentions it these days, but it’s true.
6. (+4) Nini Nguyen
AKA: Broad City. Aka Quipz. Aka Bolo.
I honestly thought our favorite permanently smiling, unlikely bolo tie proponent was headed for disaster when she said she was making an Asian/Jewish/Mexican fusion dish called “masa ball soup” (not to mention intruding on Katsuji’s turf, the Kosher Japanese Mexican from Top Chef Charleston). But it turned out to be the kind of adorable pun the judges couldn’t resist, just as Nini is like an adorable pun you can’t resist in human form. It landed her in the top three. I’m sandbagging Nini a bit at the six slot, but only because she’s the youngest and because it’s hard to associate killer instinct with that smile, which is like a human cartoon mascot.
5. (+2) Karen Akunowicz
AKA: Good Witch. Aka Aunt Kitty. Aka Rosie The Triveter
This season’s kooky astrology aunt made dumplings for 200 people this week, which is a hell of a feat in itself, but they also looked like some of the tastiest food of the episode. Oh, Karen, you pan-fried my heart. Somehow she landed outside the top three, but if this was episode was a menu with pictures, Karen’s dish would’ve been the first or second thing I ordered.
4. (-2) Melissa King
AKA: Zen Master. Aka Dimples. Aka Shutterstock.
You ever see someone so calm and well adjusted and well put together that it’s kind of annoying? That’s Melissa, who is pulling off that damned haircut better than anyone I’ve ever seen.
Kind of like how they say that you don’t have to be faster than the bear to avoid being eaten by the bear, you just have to be faster than the slowest person on the trail, so it is with tartares on Top Chef. In order to stay on the show, Melissa just had to be better than its worst beef tartare, an honor that went to Shenanigans. The editors tried to manufacture some drama with Tom biting into a hot pepper in Melissa’s dish, but we all knew she wasn’t going in the bottom three.
Basically everything about Melissa’s essence screams casual competence, so even if she wasn’t a favorite her relaxed confidence would trick me into believing that she is. I pray she never becomes a cult leader.
3. (+3) Kevin Gillespie
AKA: Hops. Aka Oops All Kevins.
In retrospect, Kevin getting an inspirational cancer montage should’ve been a tell. Yes, of course, the human interest package guy won. Not that I can quibble with the outcome. Kevin once again had one of, if not the best look/sounding dishes — a deep-fried pork terrine with apple butter. Only this time around the dish actually delivered on the facade. And believe me, this is the first time I’ve ever raved about the possibility of a terrine. Amazing what a little deep frying can do. We’ve had a rough go of it these past few years with friends and Top Chefs and cancer, so I’m wishing Kevin all the best, even he does look like the kind of guy who’s way too into IPAs and craft butchery.
2. Gregory Gourdet
AKA: Kravitz. Aka Hepcat. Aka Lids.
Gregory made a halibut in spicy broth (essentially the dish Angelo was going for but didn’t pull off) which was well-received but didn’t land him in the top three. So why am I still handicapping him so high? I guess because he’s kind of like the male Melissa, with that preternatural relaxed confidence combined with a successful, highly-curated “look” that I associate with competent artistry.
In short, he’s a relaxing presence, like human ASMR.
1. (+2) Bryan Voltaggio
AKA: Flatbill Dad. Aka Kyle Shanahan. Aka Linkin Clark Griswold. Aka Chortles.
Top Chef‘s chillest dad once again pulled off a successful, elegant and refined dish with his shortrib and fermented radish, landing in the top three while attempting a cuisine (Filipino) that he’d have you believe he’d never tried before. Voltaggio didn’t win this episode, but he once again landed himself on the leaderboard and he just has that Peyton Manning-esque energy of a true dork savant. I can’t help but be persuaded by it. As Tom said, the best food is the food that inspires you, and Linkin Clark Griswold seems like the kind of guy who has mastered the dad jokes that make him chuckle. Big, hearty, repressed chuckles.
Ha ha ha, we’re having fun, aren’t we?