This week, Vince is on vacation and I’m taking over his Top Chef Power Rankings. Having edited these articles for five seasons now, I’m very keyed up to pinch-hit and promise to be the cool sub.
**Turns chair backward and straddles it with all the confidence of Matthew McConaughey chewing a toothpick.**
“Today, class, we’re doing things a little bit different. If that freaks you out, don’t worry — Mr. Mancini will be back next week.”
Actually, I won’t be doing stuff too much differently. But I’m definitely not calculating how many spots each competitor rose or fell. Also, we may see some competitors’ rankings change drastically since this is the first episode of the season I’ve had the chance to actually watch. Vince will reset the odds upon his triumphant return.
Before we get into the food, the first half of this episode had me reflecting on the concept of coolness among chefs. Mostly because Kwame showed up wearing haute couture inspired by the Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic” video.
Having spoken to Kwame recently, witnessed and kept up-to-date on his success, and being in possession of working eyeballs that allow me to see his well-defined features, I can say with much certainty that the chef manages to pull this look off. But his contemplative staring into the middle distance found its natural counterpoint when Jamie returned to the show and started making squelches, squeaks, and a variety of other weird sounds — which spun me out wondering what the “cool chef” to “dorky chef” ratio is.
This thread seemed like it might be a theme for the episode when the whole opening segment was peppered with jokes by the cheftestants that absolutely didn’t land. For 15 solid minutes, the show was carried by charity chuckles and courtesy laughs. See, most of the chefs are still in their awkward-conversation-and-joke-making dork phase when the cameras are on. But the Hollywood events and private cheffing gigs that come from this exposure will bake their quirks in a fame oven and push them towards previously unfathomed levels of swag. When they reach a tipping point, they’ll get invited back as judges and hang with Kwame, Melissa King, Padma, Gail, and the rest of the varsity team.
Point being, Top Chef success has a coolifying effect. Just look at Tom, who definitely couldn’t pull off the leather jacket in the header photo before his own fame took hold. Or Amar Santana, who I knew in his pre-Top Chef days. Back then, he was already in the general vicinity of cool, but it took the show’s vibe incubator for him to make these flowered pants work:
Okay, Steve’s “coolness is just dorkiness that gets flambéed by fame” TED Talk is over now. Thanks for letting me shoehorn that theory into your weekly Top Chef programming. Regardless of whether you agree or not, the host city of Portland is definitely the right place to discuss the subject — because the line between dork chefs and cool chefs is razor-thin there.
Is it cool to obsess over sourdough starter and have a flour mill tattooed on your clavicle? Or is that peak dork? We may never fully know.
Anyyyyyyyway, Jamie is back. She’s dorky. She knows it. Her gesticulating and sound effects aren’t really even tied to a particular moment, they just seem to get yanked out of a grab bag. But taken all together, it’s kind of awesome and all the other chefs love her for it. They also seem to think of her as the most manageable threat to their own hopes of winning, so you’d better believe they clapped like hell when she returned to the fold.
The real story here is that Womp-Womp seems to have come back from Last Chance Kitchen with a clear focus on the food she wants to cook. Both her dishes inspired me to take a screenshot — which is saying something.
The quickfire was based on ugly food, overripe produce, and “scrap proteins.” This included beloved ingredients like fish collars, cheeks, and heads (which chefs have been embracing on Beard-award winning menus for years now), ugly carrots (which any chef worth their salt knows how to utilize), and bread crusts (which, again, are pretty easy to find a place for). Then there was some actually close-to-going-bad foods, like dried out ginger and mushy cucumbers, which… looked pretty damn mushy.
Maybe just use your cucumbers on time, Top Chef. Produce management is part of running a restaurant, too.
Still, it was a fun quickfire. The chefs pieced together their various scraps to make a dish they’d failed at before — whether on the show or in a different setting. And instead of being a concept that brought out a whole lot of mental gymnastics, every chef had a story about a dish they’d screwed up. No one had to reach at all. In fact, many of them remixed dishes from earlier this season.
In the elimination challenge, things got very EDITING PACKAGE EMOTIONAL — which I emphasize because the emotions were heavy, not because they were phony or forced. See, there’s been this thing called a pandemic going on and it has sucked horribly for everyone, very much including chefs, but most of all front-line workers at hospitals. So when globally beloved Chef José Andrés videoconferenced in, the tears started to flow (both on-screen and by those of us at home, who are all traumatized to some degree or another and will leap at any opportunity for emotional catharsis).
The food was delivered in batches to three different hospitals by Top Chef alums who were clearly told, “Don’t wear your flowered pants and keep bangles to a minimum. Try to look like the normies.” This gave us a Guggenheim-worthy image of Richard Blais’s gravity-defying hair fighting to lift a baseball cap off his head. I like to imagine it popping off like a champagne cork, somersaulting midair, and landing back in place between takes.
Each chef made 65 meals that were pre-packed and microwave-ready. They mostly all went for comfort food and food that wasn’t too heavy — which seemed like a great call and not one that was totally intuitive. If Vince, Zach, and I had this as one of our cooking challenges, I’m sure I would have made some pasta loaded with so much cheese that the whole hospital had to shut down for a 45 minute nap.
The main result of all the emotional resonance was that there wasn’t much burning or snark until the very end of the show. Then, as if the hosts were aware that everything had been sweet and flowery for too long, Padma led scathing takedowns of the bottom three, including the absolutely devastating blow: “What surprised me was the utter lack of flavor” while making this terribly anguished face:
CAN YOU CHEFS JUST SEASON YOUR FOOD AND KEEP PADMA HAPPY, PLEASE??? IT’S BEEN A ROUGH YEAR AND SHE DOESN’T NEED THIS.
Quickfire Top: Dawn, Shota*, Good Gabe (*Winner)
Quickfire Bottom: Avashar, Byron, Maria.
Elimination Top: Dawn, Jamie*, Sara
Eliminated: Avashar**, Maria, Chris (**Eliminated)
9. (ELIMINATED) Avishar Barua
AKA: Milhouse. Chillhouse. Thrillhouse. American Pie. The Carbonator. Portmanteau. OH.
Nothing Avishar did in this episode seemed to work. In the Quickfire, Melissa King didn’t like his Jing Du-style turkey chop with mashed cucumber salad at all. She gave it the 1-2 punch of “it came off dry” and “it didn’t need so many sauces.” Which is sort of like when an editor tells you your essay is both long and needs to be more thought out. At some point, thoughtful critique is just code for “this isn’t working. Like, at all.”
Then, in the elimination round, it was Avishar’s Benghali-style beef curry that drew the “utter lack of flavor” comment plus an explanation by Kwame to the young chef that you need to sear meat to keep the seasoning and flavors in. Everyone at the judges’ table clearly felt uncomfortable that this had to be explained, but Chillhouse’s food also obviously pained them.
Notable Critique: Tom’s face, below:
8. Chris Viaud
AKA: Stretch. Butter. Kelso.
In the Quickfire, Chris gets some credit for drawing this facetiously shocked expression out of Padma when he told her the tale of a failed vichyssoise.
His dish was otherwise unnotable.
In the Elimination, Stretch’s food was universally loathed by the judges to an Avishar-ian degree. For the same reasons, too — a lack of seasoning. He made a grilled chicken breast, finished in the oven, which looked lovely and was perfectly cooked but devoid of flavor. It sounds like this is a little bit his MO, but some blame has to be on his choice of protein. God, you’re on a chef show. They’re paying the food costs! You can do pork belly or venison or halibut cheeks, and you picked chicken breast?
I will never and have never ordered chicken breast off of a menu — its ceiling is so low. At its very best, it still makes you wish you had a thigh. Chicken breast is only really good when shredded. That’s my take and I’ll stick to it.
Anyway, it seemed like a toss-up to the judges at the end about which flavor-lacking chef to send packing, so I’m dropping Kelso to the second to last spot.
Gail: “It completely lacked soul.”
Padma: “It completely lacked salt.”
7. Maria Mazon
AKA: Gas Can. Backdraft. James Brown. Holy Mole. Mole Maria.
It seemed pretty clear with bottom finishes in both challenges that Maria didn’t cook well this episode. But she did have the most personal story because her wife is a firefighter, so her mistakes all seemed to be sort of re-contextualized within that framework.
That said, her final dish — a puerco verde with cabbage and avocado slaw — looked damn good to me, so she clearly wasn’t going to be booted when the two dishes with her in the bottom three seemed to have no redeeming qualities. The problem was that her handmade flour tortilla was half done because she cooked them in the pizza oven, so their undersides stayed moist and mushy (phrasing!).
With the door wide open to pin her failure on the fact that people were hogging the grill when she needed it, Maria just took her lumps stoically. And just like that, Backdraft became the underdog that I’m rooting for this season.
Padma: “I appreciate that she made her tortilla herself.”
Tom: “Unfortunately, it’s raw. Turn it over.”
Gail: “It’s quite raw.”
6. Byron Gomez
AKA: Manolo. Burger King. Goldblum.
Byron biffed the Quickfire by serving a mutton tartare that looked amazing but Melissa King called “gamey.” I am absolutely one of those “I’ll try anything” food people, the sort who even takes an obnoxious pride in it, but raw lamb? It’s not exactly mouthwatering. I’m sure there’s a way to make it amazing and our own Zach Johnston will regale me with stories of raw chopped mutton that changed his whole perspective on shit.
Still… can we agree that maybe a “scrap food” challenge isn’t the best time to try out a raw meat dish?
Then, in the Elimination Challenge, Manolo made Peruvian grilled chicken that looked amazing and was amazing by every account. If the food on the show had been a potluck, I would have clearly gone for that chicken among the top three dishes. In fact, I think he was only bumped from the top three by Sara’s homemade pita.
Padma: “Now here’s a way to do chicken legs.”
5. Shota Nakajima
AKA: Beavis. Big Gulps.
Shota was woefully lacking in nicknames and now I’m giving him one. Will Vince allow it? Will it carry over to week eight? Only time will tell — TUNE IN NEXT WEEK.
I’m calling Shota “big gulps” because he tried asking Avishar about which rice strains were common in Bangladeshi cuisine. But Avashar was coming straight off of having Kwame ask him about his intended meat texture, which was clearly a bad sign, and he seemed to sense that his time was up. So instead of doing his Chillhouse thing, Avishar said: “There’s a lot of different rices.”
And Shota threw him this look:
Which all felt like a close relative to this scene from Dumb and Dumber:
Anyway, as a big fan of miso glazes and marinades, I was hyped when Shota’s dish in the Quickfire was a fish collar, head, and lips with miso marinade. He won immunity with that dish.
Then, in the elimination challenge, he went back to the miso well with chicken legs that had wet, flabby skin and generally looked gray and disappointing. He’s obviously a hell of a chef because literally every judge buffered their comments with the fact that it was clearly a rare miss, but still… he put out a dish that looked god awful.
Sorry, Big Gulps — you’re taking a tumble.
Tom: “Shota, I just want to say, it’s a good thing you have immunity. The dish was just not there.”
4. Gabe Erales
AKA: Good Gabe. Canelo. Fozzy. The Foz. Masa Father. Jamón.
This might be really low for good Gabe (I guess the other Gabe is just gone? Was this something explained in Last Chance Kitchen?). Clearly, he can cook and his food looked great. His carrot mole in the Quickfire was the sort of dish you feel like you can smell through a TV screen. But also, he didn’t make a ton of noise this episode and it’s my ranking, dammit, so here we are.
For the Elimination Challenge, Fozzy did a tamale and more chicken. God, looking back there was a ton of chicken this episode. Maybe the Top Chef producers had their perceptions of Portland overly influenced by this sketch?
Anyway, Tom said his chicken was a little dry and Gail said she wanted more focus. Plus the best compliment was: “It actually carries very well” — as in, “it fits in its packaging”??? Not much of an endorsement.
3. Sara Hauman
AKA: Tails. Yogurt. Portlandia. Trapper Keeper. Manic Pixie Cream Sauce. Fiddlesticks. The Queen Of Comedy.
Vince influenced my own feelings about Sara so much these past six weeks, that I was surprised when I found myself liking my fellow Portlander. Like Jamie, she’s on the dorky end of the cool-dork chef spectrum, but it’s endearing. She’s also clearly a skilled chef, because she made falafel in the Elimination Challenge that Kwame adored. She also made a pita in the pizza oven that Padma raved about, so this feels like a good place for her.
Better still — Sara seems in on the joke about overusing yogurt, and yet she DID use yogurt. I have a sweet spot for that sort of self-referential cooking. I also got a kick out of imagining how far Vince’s eyes would roll back in his head if he heard her constant stream of positive self-talk: “Everything’s great. You’re okay. It’s all gonna be so good.”
Definitely dorky, but it worked for her.
2. Jamie Tran
Aka: Splat. Police Academy. Womp Womp.
As opposed to Sara, who wasn’t nearly as insufferable as Vince made her out to be, Jamie’s love for sound effects has not been exaggerated. It was a barrage. Also, there were multiple air guns. I’m not sure the situation air guns are really for, but none of the situations they were used in seemed to fit. Calm down, Charleton Heston, and put your six-shooters back in their holsters.
That said, Jamie’s dish in the Elimination challenge was so wildly beloved that I’m putting her waaaaaay up here so that Vince can have her ranking fall like a stone next week.
Seriously? If you were a frontline worker, isn’t that the dish you’d want? Kimchi tofu soup and bulgogi braised pork and eggplant? God, yes. Everyone raved about it and it won the Elimination Challenge, which led to finger guns and multiple bleeps, bops, and boops. I was obviously quite charmed by it all.
1. Dawn Burrell
AKA: Hothead. ‘Sheed. Legs. Breaking Dawn. Milk Carton.
Dawn’s Tamarind-Braised top sirloin in the Elimination Challenge was just as beloved as Jamie’s soup and got a half-smile out of the often straight faced Kwame:
“She’s not lacking in the flavor.”
Dawn also had a top-three finish in the Quickfire and both of her top three picks seemed like a no-brainer for the judges. So yeah, I get one chance to control these rankings and I’m picking Dawn as the winner. She seemed so confident and comfortable in the food she made. Her whole persona was more like one of the super confident judges than her fellow competitors.
Also, I found myself very moved by the editing package where she talked to her mom on the phone. It made me think of my own mom, up there in Portland, all alone during the pandemic and… yeah, Dawn’s winning this thing. That’s my call.
Scoot down, Blais, we’re gonna need another spot at the cool kids’ table next year.