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Top Chef Power Rankings, Week 10: The Risotto Curse Strikes Again

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This week on Top Chef, the show carted the chefs off to the Stanley Hotel, filming location and alleged inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining, which we’re told King wrote after staying a night in room 217 while the hotel was otherwise completely empty. Was it for a red rum challenge? Nay, this was the setting for HORROR DESSERTS, in which the chefs were tasked to “visualize your worst nightmare.”

This allowed the show’s editors to indulge all their worst impulses, like adding “spooky” cuts and screeching violin music and kids laughing sound effects and Padma talking about spirits. Finally, a show on basic cable that mentions ghosts! Hey no, but really, guys, you can stop now. …Any time.

The challenge allowed the contestants to indulge their worst impulses too, whether it be making a dessert that was supposed to look like a dead hiker with his guts splattered on rocks (Cool Chris, see below) or invent a completely fictional childhood fear (of seeds!) to justify a sorta lame dessert (Bruce Bruce).

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(Chef Chris’s jagged rock cake with marzipan hiker and sour cream splattered guts)

After that it was the classic “Journey” challenge, where the chefs had to make a dish that represented their personal journey on Top Chef, from dew-faced ingenue to canny veteran who knows blueberries don’t go with bruschetta and how Tom Colicchio likes his peas. This one was guest judged by Colorado governor John Hickenlooper. Because if anyone’s going to judge aspiring chefs harshly on national TV it’s an elected politician, right? People love a critic, that’s why everyone’s always hassling Simon Cowell to run for office. During prep, Tom came in and gave everyone a shape up or ship out pep talk/ass chewing, after last week’s flaccid nacho/dry mac and cheese general debacle.

“I can always bring back two people from Last Chance Kitchen,” Tom warned, and everyone believed him, because they already did exactly that five episodes into the season. Would they really do that?! Of course they would. Nowadays it’s as hard to tell if someone is actually kicked off Top Chef as it is to determine if something is really a catch in the NFL.

Luckily, the food was better. Which was understandable… because… the chefs were cooking for like seven people this week. Last week they were cooking for 300. Do you know how much harder it is to cook for a large group of people? Is no one going to mention this as a factor? No? We’re just going to pretend it was Tom’s pep talk that did it, huh? And not the fact that they didn’t have to try to make 300 portions of nachos? Sure, fine, whatever, they all had independent epiphanies (cut to Bruce saying “I get it now” for the 12 trillionth time). Great job, Tom!

Likewise, did anyone else notice that yet again, all the bad food that got nitpicked to death was served at the end, after the judges were already full? Food always tastes better when you’re hungry! Is no one going to acknowledge this, either? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!

Anyway, read on for power rankings on this, the most on-brand week of Top Chef to date. (I thought I’d start with number one this week, since at this stage in the game, the climax is more about who gets kicked off than who’s on top.)

Power Rankings

1. (+4) Joe Sasto — AKA Mustache Joe, aka Joey Crystals, aka Rollie Fingerlings, aka Freddy Mercurioli, aka Joey Sauce, aka Stoney Whiplash, aka Star Trek Forager, aka Quartz

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Mustache Joe’s on-brand moment: “I don’t remember my dreams too often, I guess because I smoke too much weed?”

Wait, you?? The guy who keeps crystals in his pockets to absorb the universe’s energy, forages for food in Golden Gate Park, and has trouble with the concept of basketball? A weed smoker? Nooo…..

Anyway, there’s a traffic jam at the top of my rankings. I feel like the top three are a pick ’em. Mustache Joe looked like an obvious favorite early on in the competition, then stumbled hard in the last couple of episodes and probably should’ve been kicked off last week (#JUSTICE4FATI!). He came roaring back this week, with a top-three finish in the quickfire — an egg yolk ice cream dessert supposedly based on the fear of getting a bloody chicken embryo in your eggs. I like how Stoney Joe interpreted the fears challenge as specifically food based.

“My greatest fear is being buried alive.”

“Mine is dying with regrets.”

JOE: “Mine is getting a bloody egg. That’s why they always tell you to crack the eggs into a separate bowl.”

Luckily Mustache Joe was on a show with Bruce and Carrie, so his didn’t rank as the dumbest fear. Later he got a win in the elimination challenge, for his lamb agnolotti with beet-top pasta.

Honestly, when he started putting beet tops in the pasta I thought he’d gone too far (I like my beets like I like my women, with the tops already removed). What an adorable stoner, I thought, thinking he can put tough beet tops into nice soft pasta dough. But apparently it worked out, with the judges declaring it “spot on,” “shows restraint,” and “the kind of food we’ve been begging for all season.”

This season has mostly been simple comfort food beating chef-y fancy stuff, but if you look at past season’s winners (Kristen Kish, Brooke, the Voltaggios), a lot of them are very cheffy. Joe seems like the most naturally cheffy chef this season, which feels like it might give him an edge. Plus he’d be the first winner with a mustache.

2. (+1) Chris Scott — AKA Silky, aka Good Damone, aka Amish Soul Food, aka Creme Brulee, aka Reverend Sweets, aka The Creamy Brown Brother, aka Dr. Chocolate.

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Cool Chris’s most on-brand moment this week: When he recounted his past as a pastry chef and listed off the nicknames he said his friends gave him: Creme Brulee, Reverend Sweets, The Creamy Brown Brother, Dr. Chocolate…

Dr. Chocolate! That’s so good. They made me a little sad that I hadn’t come up with those nicknames. Then again I don’t think I could get away with calling someone “The Creamy Brown Brother.”

Anyway, Cool Chris had yet another up and down week this week. He won the quickfire with that buttermilk carnage cake, but then ended up in the bottom two during the elimination. He misguidedly interpreted the “journey” challenge as the inspiration he drew from his competitors this season and… kind of… tried to cook the food they would have?

In practice, that meant a lamb ravioli (I guess because of all the Bruce and Joe pasta dishes) over a crispy skin trout with cauliflower puree. It was his first time cooking raviolis, and it turned out dry and everyone hated it, but especially the guest judge in the yellow suit. “Never serve dry ravioli to a man in a yellow suit,” that’s an ancient Italian proverb.

Moreover… What are you doing, Cool Chris? Aren’t you the guy who makes Amish Soul Food? Aren’t you the guy who says he wants to have the first Michelin starred soul food restaurant? Aren’t you the guy who destroyed 10 cheffy dishes with lemonade-brined fried chicken with biscuits and hot sauce? I guess what I’m saying is, someone let me at Cool Chris, I could give him such a pep talk…

Luckily Chris didn’t get sent home, the judges seemed to realize his food wasn’t bad so much as busy, and The Creamy Brown Brother lives to see the finale. Phew. Without Cool Chris this show would be 50% less chill.

Every time Cool Chris says “my man” an angel gets his Ray-Bans.

3. (-2) Carrie Baird — AKA Tots, aka Chee-eese

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Carrie’s most on-brand moment this week: When she told us she always has vivid dreams and she can remember everything and then said last night she dreamt about tater-tots with pine nuts and jam in the middle. Look, I don’t want to toot my own horn here, but the fact that the contestant I nicknamed “Tots” had a dream about tater tots feels like a validation of everything I’ve ever done in life.

Anyway, I never know where the hell to put Chee-eese in these rankings and this week was a perfect example. In the quickfire, she had big plans for some kind of desert with a cookie, champagne grenita, a “black sesame and cayenne ice cream,” and a savory tahini panna cotta, but then time ran out and all she got on the plate were two sad discs of over gelatined panna cotta.

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Also, even if she’d finished in time, let’s be honest, that dessert sounded gross. There’s a reason Baskin and Robbins never used “double the sesame!” in a commercial.

But then Chee-eese roared back in the elimination challenge, cooking a Colorado elk in a blueberry poblano sauce, which sounds pretty weird, but was apparently “very flavorful,” and “the most intensely flavored dish I’ve had on this show” according to Padma, who to be fair uses a ridiculous superlative roughly every seven minutes or so. Nonetheless, Carrie damn near won, and considering she cooked a blueberry bruschetta disaster in episode 1, then found her stride staying in her wheelhouse (potatoes and cheese), and then came full circle with another weird blueberry thing that the judges actually loved this time, it seems like she nailed the “journey” requirement.

It’s hard to say whether Carrie is the favorite or the underdog heading into the finale. It depends whether we get the Carrie who builds a convection oven out of snow or the Carrie who gets lost inside her own car.

4. (+2) Adrienne Cheatham — AKA Fish, aka Halle Bearnaise, aka Le Bernadin, aka Salt, aka Salon, aka Tracy Flick

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Adrienne’s most on-brand moment this week: Adrienne showing the camera her notebook where she writes down her list of things she’s needs to improve on each week and sketches out the dishes she’s planning. NERD ALERT! Quick, get her lunch money!

See also: “Pastry is like an OCD person’s wet dream.”

*extremely Butthead voice* Huh-huh huh-huh, settle down, Adrienne.

It took 10 episodes for Adrienne to identify a consistent brand so that she could be “on” it, but it feels like she’s finally gotten there. Perhaps not coincidentally, she ended up in the top three for both challenges this week. First, she made a cocoa blood ice cream with Grand Marnier, and then she made a roasted monkfish with venison jus which, from where I was sitting, at least looked like the tastiest dish this week (monkfish is the king of fish, discuss). Maybe there really is something to this whole sketching out your dish beforehand business. Ha, just kidding, DORK, let’s get her!

Luckily one of the judges praised her monkfish for “the capriciousness of the flavors” and we all ran off to wedgy that guy, taking the heat off Adrienne.

Was Adrienne’s performance this week a fluke? Will she win by cooking some fluke? Will she apply what she learned at Le Bernadin? Time. Will. Tell.

4. (Even) ((Eliminated)) Bruce Kalman — AKA Arthouse Guy Fieri, aka BK the King, aka Gnocchis, aka The Dungeon Master, aka Bruce Bruce, aka Peter Pander, aka Captain Cavatelli’s Mandolin, aka Chris Barley

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Ah, poor Bruce. Bruce opened this week voicing all the fears we had about him — that for a guy who knows all the judges and was presumed a favorite, he isn’t doing that well; and that he seems a little lost when not cooking pasta. Ironically, despite being so self-aware and in touch with his own insecurities, he couldn’t come up with a real fear to base a Shining dessert on, so he just made one up! He told Padma that growing up, he had a fear of seeds.

This was her reaction:

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I can’t tell if she didn’t buy or if she bought it but just thought it was dumb. Also, that’s almost too good a reaction shot. She even has her head cocked to the side like my dog when I make bird sounds at him. This looks suspiciously like it was recorded later and slotted in.

I appreciate Bruce’s hustle. I’ve been a big advocate of the “just make some shit up” Top Chef strategy for years. Thing is, the story you make up should probably be… like… plausible. Or… interesting. Bruce’s was neither of those, and to make matters worse, he used it to justify a disastrous dessert that started as a pannacotta and then got over gelatined (that’s what you get for listening to Carrie) and was ultimately turned into a semifreddo via blowtorch. I have no idea how that works and I would’ve liked to see a diagram. Anyway, it had lots of seeds!

Then in the elimination challenge, Bruce knew he couldn’t cook pasta again, a revelation that was treated to a special montage of all the times Bruce has cooked pasta. Bruce tried to step out of the box, but as I’ve said, creativity will kill you on this show. Bruce should’ve just cooked meatballs and polenta. That was the real story of his journey on this show. He did bad, then Tom said “just cook your meatball and polenta,” and Bruce cooked meatballs and polenta and he won.

Instead Bruce decided to cook barley and farro risotto. NEVER COOK RISOTTO ON TOP CHEF. Joe Flamm already went home for cauliflower risotto, proving it doesn’t matter what the risotto is made out of. How’d that work out for him?

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One of these episodes they should just shoot entirely in Padma reaction shots.

Part of me is bummed that Bruce went home (for now) for having to serve barley that he knew was undercooked. The arbitrary time limit thing is usually the most annoying thing about these shows. Just cook the shit until it’s done. In a restaurant would he have to serve it or would he just wait the extra five minutes? Chefs cook food, they can’t change the physical properties of things.

The other part of me thinks Bruce absolutely should’ve gone home for being dumb enough to try to A. cook risotto B. with grains that take for goddamn ever to cook. You blew it, Bruce. You made your polenta, now you have to meatball in it.

Odds that Bruce comes back via Last Chance Kitchen?

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.

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