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Top Chef Power Rankings, Week 7: The Olympics Of Awkwardness

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This week on Top Chef, there were no Vine Stars, social media challenges, personal brands or thinkfluencing. The show went back to the basics — namely, trick challenges judged capriciously, and interpersonal DRAMA.

It all started with a breakfast Nutella challenge, in which the NINE cheftestants had to try to cook in their rental house’s kitchen for some reason (were none of the local chefs out of town that weekend? “Dangit, I guess we have to party in Dave’s basement again…”). That was guest judged by 2015 winner Brooke Williamson, and it was followed by an Olympics team challenge, judged by some Olympians (including an obnoxiously handsome freestyle skier) and Gail Simmons.

Brooke AND Gail? Why, it musht be my lucky day.

Or at least… it would’ve been, if the judges table hadn’t been a nightmarish tangle of passive aggression and hurt feelings. Remember watching old episodes of Lost, and there’d be two characters having a big argument and you’d be screaming at the TV JUST TELL THEM THE TRUTH ABOUT WHAT HAPPPENED, because if they’d only offer a one-sentence explanation of all the stuff we’d just seen it would resolve the entire conflict?

Well, this was kind of like that, only real life, with two people getting pre-defensive with each other and making the conflict worse and worse out of hurt — like one of those trains that goes super fast using polarized magnets. In fact the last 10 minutes of the show was basically two characters sniping in front of the judges, intercut with a carnival of reaction shots by the other contestants as they tried to jump out of their skin to avoid watching the utter meltdown happening in front of them.

I did really appreciate the cringey reaction shots editing package, though. They really sold the unwatchableness! It was kind of the television equivalent of “Oh my god, you have to taste this, it’s TERRIBLE.”

Food Words Introduced But Never Explained

Brunoise, Batonnet, Urfa Biber.

I know what a brunoise is (very small squares!), because I’m very wise in the ways of food, and I think I can guess what a batonnet is. “Baton” means a stick, so I assume a batonnet means to cut things into little sticks?

But come on, “urfa biber?” What the f*ck is an urfa biber? Educate your audience, Top Chef. By which I mean me, the ignorant layperson.

Anyway, the great thing about this episode was that it gave every chef a quantitative score in the elimination challenge, which makes my job as a Professional Top Chef Handicapper (*polishes monocle, adjusts green visor*) a lot easier. The competition seems to have coelesced into three distinct tranches of competitor — the bubble, middle of the pack, and contenders.

9. (-5) ((Eliminated)) Tanya Holland — AKA The Professor, aka Waffles, aka Icebox

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(Chef Tanya, celebrating a Bear Den victory)

Poor Tanya. Tanya clearly had a terrible no good very bad week this week, and the fascinating thing about it was the almost perfect 50/50 split between “I can understand exactly why she’s annoyed” and “she’s making this so much worse for herself.”

The editors seem to really play up the “Tanya being kind of a pill” angle this week, starting with her pedantic pep talk to Mustache Joe (coming off her win and his bottom three finish last week): “Yeah, when I was your age I did lots of dumb sh*t too. Put too much on the plate, tried to eat paste, pooped in my pants and spit up milk on mommy. Don’t worry though, stud, you won’t suck this bad forever. …Probably. (*looks around for high five*)”

Later she told Carrie to “get woke” in a situation that didn’t seem to have anything to do with wokeness, and told the “bears den” to stop monopolizing the conversation. Actually she was kind of right about that last one. I was sick of the bear den shit three episodes ago and I don’t even have to live there.

Like I said, a lot of her annoyance was understandable. She’s probably too experienced and established to really want to live in a house with a bunch of young kids and then have her cooking nitpicked to death by fashion models. Let’s remember, Tanya’s week involved being:

1. Forced to wake up early and cook breakfast in a cramped kitchen and then be judged on it all before the first coffee.

2. Being quizzed on what temperature her lamb should be, and then graded on the difference between her answer and what she actually cooked. Even though the lamb that she did cook was, according to Tom, “cooked perfectly.” Like what’s more “Top Chef” behavior in the grand scheme of things, cooking the food perfectly by feel or knowing the exact temperature of rare lamb off the top of your head? That second one I can do. First one might take some practice.

That gulf between what she said (145, which is off, but not drastically) and what she cooked was then used as a deduction, meaning that even if she cooked a perfect dish, the six judges could only give her a maximum score of 4 each. Her eventual score, 18.5, was just a hair more than half of the next lowest competitor (Carrie, at 35, on a full 10 scale), whose dish, according to Tom, was “maybe the worst thing I’ve eaten this season.”

Which really took the shine off the “bronze medal” they presented her for getting third out of three.

3. Judged based on whether her dish “showcased the proper knife cuts,” because God knows that’s what we all look for when eating.

4. Dissed by a handsome skier. “Her chiffonade was chiffo-not there.”

Paul Trantow/Bravo

I have to admit, that was a pretty good burn. But maybe stick to the skiing and save the wordplay for us ugly folk next time, eh, Trent? I hope you smolder too hard and melt the snow.

5. Backstabbed by Claudette during the judge’s table, who blamed Tanya’s attitude for her (Claudette’s) dish lacking acid. Did Tanya have a bad attitude? Absolutely. But she was already pissed at not being able to cook in the speed round like she wanted. …Which was kind of her fault for not being assertive enough when they were choosing roles.

Like I said, it was almost a perfect 50/50.

8. (-1) Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins — AKA Frames, aka Young Susan Feniger, aka Pepper Pot, aka Shaggy (“it wasn’t me…”)

Tommy Garcia/Bravo Media

Claudette got it almost as bad from the editors this week as Tanya, mostly on account of she was the one fighting with Tanya. ARE YOU #TEAMTANYA OR #TEAMCLAUDETTE, BRO?! It’s a rivalry that has split families, ruined marriages, pit brother against brother. For my money, it kind of seemed like Tanya was crabby about not getting the speed leg of the challenge, and took it out on Claudette by muttering and getting huffy when Claudette kept asking for help.

It seemed fairly understandable for Claudette to expect help and be put off by Tanya’s ‘tude, but then she tried to blame Tanya for a missing component during judges table, which felt a little… thin… and petty. Hence the new nickname, Shaggy, because she’s always saying “It wasn’t me.” (What? Screw you, I thought that was clever.) Mostly it just made everyone want to run away, including me.

Aaaaaaaaanyway. Claudette’s food looks great but she’s not coming across as super likable so far. She landed in the top three of the quickfire but then had the fourth-lowest score (41) in the elimination round, for her yellow corn grits and crispy pork belly with pipian. Despite Claudette’s occasional flirtations with greatness I feel comfortable putting her on “the bubble.” Especially since she’s already gone home once.

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

Tommy Garcia/Bravo Media

Adrienne opened the episode forgetting the syrup for her breakfast dish, a baguette cooked in the waffle iron. About which she commented “that’s a hard $5,000 to lose.” Which seemed a little presumptuous, assuming she might win this challenge when she hasn’t won any other ones yet. Also, she was one of three competitors to cook some form of waffle. Just sayin, I doubt it was going to happen for her either way. Maybe this was her Jim Carrey moment, writing a million dollar check to herself and promising to cash it someday. Only the check is for $5,000, because she’s a chef.

Adrienne got the “precision” round, and seemed to get high marks for knife skills, which makes sense considering she’s a culinary instructor and has worked at Le Bernadin (pronounced with italics). She got decent comments on her beef tenderloin, but still had the third lowest score of the competition, at 40.5. I’m calling Adrienne top of the bubble, the cream of the crap.

She still has great hair though. Such wonderful hair. I bet it even smells good.

6. (+2) Joseph Flamm — AKA Joey Cheeks, aka C-Pap, aka Chicago Beef, aka Bob’s Big Boy, aka Flamm Bae, aka InFlammable, aka Cliff Clavin

Tommy Garcia/Bravo Media

Joey Cheeks attempted to make “Nutella banana stock” for his oatmeal in the quickfire, oatmeal that was later deemed “too salty.” Pretty much everything about that combination of ingredients and words sounds like a complete disaster and he probably should’ve gone home right there. He landed in the bottom three.

But then he came roaring back in the Elimination Challenge, winning the gold for his round (precision) by predicting a 165 for his whole roast chicken and cooking it to a 158. Which is pretty damned impressive. It’s way harder to cook a whole chicken by feel than it is a rack of lamb. Also he managed to wow the judges with a boring old roast chicken, earning a 42.5 even in the deduction round.

Which is basically the story of Joey Cheeks on this show. He’s up, he’s down, he’s oversalting his oatmeal. He seems done with the whole bear den joke one minute and he’s running it into the ground the next. I’m calling Joey Cheeks middle of the middle of the pack, the big pale nipple on this bell curve.

Anyone else notice Gail calling him “Babyface Joe?” That’s awful close to my nickname. This was clearly shot months ago though, so great minds, etc. etc. I guess what I’m saying is, call me, Gail.

Also, I made this Bear’s Den Venn Diagram:

Vince Mancini

I’m rushing this out to hit my deadline, but I only realized after the fact that I need to add a third circle for “Being Named Joe.”

5. (+1) Carrie Baird — AKA Tots, aka Chee-eese

Tommy Garcia/Bravo Media

Carrie is such a giant dork, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. Is there a nice version of “dork?” Discuss.

Anyway, this was a sadly typical Carrie episode, going from winning $5,000 during the quickfire for her nutella strawberry habanero jam with prosciutto eggs benny, to the bottom during the elimination challenge.

That she won with something so weird in the first half of the show was just about the worst thing that could’ve happened to her, fueling all of her worst impulses, believing she can just stick a bunch of things that sound weird together and it will work out fine. That almost never works out fine.

Memories of Carrie’s blueberry bruschetta disaster came rushing back when she made a short rib pasta with a bleu cheese sauce, which apparently tasted no better than it sounds. Tom called it possibly the worst dish of the season and “an amateurish attempt at making pasta.”

Ooh, that’s a good chef burn. She got the second worst score of the evening — 35 — which was really the worst score since Tanya could only get a maximum of 24. Luckily Carrie’s NUTELLA IMMUNITY medallion kept her in the game.

It was a bad night for Carrie, and yet, perfectly on brand, for Chee-eese to get dinged for too much chee-eese. If she goes down, at least she’ll go down swingin’ at cheese. She’ll die on this hill of cheese. She’s going to give it 110%, leave it all on the field, and go out on her cheese wheel.

4. (+1) Bruce Kalman — AKA Arthouse Guy Fieri, aka Gnocchis, aka The Dungeon Master, aka Bruce Bruce, aka Peter Pander, aka Captain Cavatelli’s Mandolin

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Bruce found out he’s about to be a dad at the beginning of the episode, and got so caught up in baby fever that when Padma and Brooke showed up early the next morning he thought it might be to congratulate him. Haha, sorry, bro. This is Top Chef — no quarter, no sympathy, no duos.

My favorite thing about Top Chef is how little it cares about your kids. I mean, in comparison to other shows anyway. Like, sure we got probably five minutes too many of Bruce wondering if he should go home to be with his baby (answer: no. It will still be a baby when you get home, I promise), but have you seen other shows? Like Fixer Upper is a show about house flipping, but every episode has five pointless minutes of screen time dedicated to Chip and Joanna pretending to love their dumb wiener kids. NOBODY CARES, GUYS. Now do the backsplash dance, shiplap monkey.

Right… so… Bruce. He won the gold for his team this week, cooking up some mushroom polenta that we were led to believe he’s cooked thousands of times before, earning him a score of 50, the third highest of the show. He got all choked up upon receiving the gold, “receiving a gold medal from an actual Olympian is my finest moment on this show.”

Which makes me think he’s going to be a great dad. Get the guy a “world’s greatest pee paw” mug and he’ll act like he just won a congressional medal of honor. Anyway, I still can’t bring myself to see Bruce as a real favorite. He cooked his go-to dish and still got third. He had the baby bump and friend boost working for him in the quickfire and still didn’t make top three.

Bruce is staying middle of the pack unless we find out the next challenge is to shred tasty Van Halen licks or is some kind of overworked leather wristwear competition.

3. (-2) Chris Scott — AKA Silky, aka Good Damone, aka Amish Soul Food

Tommy Garcia/Bravo Media

I’m more sure of the fact that Cool Chris is in the top three than I am of the order of the top three. Chris risked getting pulled into some team drama this week working with Tanya and Claudette’s passive-aggressive road show, but if you thought that was going to touch Cool Chris, you don’t know Cool Chris. He drew inspiration from the Olympic venue in Korea and his wife’s Korean roots (of course Cool Chris has a super cool multi-cultural family) to make a short ribs and kim chi dish that got the second highest score of the competition, 51.

He got dinged a little for his superfluous tofu sauce, but hey, big deal. You don’t like the sauce, don’t eat the sauce. I can’t quite call him the outright favorite, but he’s the most experienced of the top three and by far the coolest. That can only help him in this competition.

2. (+1) Fatima Ali — AKA Chokers, aka Ally Shadidi, aka Reaction Shot

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Fatima continues to be the most watchable competitor and a clear favorite, getting all the good reaction inserts, and landing in the top three in the quickfire. How good was Fatima? She beat the waffle queen of Oakland at waffles. For the second time this season.

Fatima also claimed to be “fangirling” over Meryl Davis, which felt a little contrived. Come on, Fatima, no one fangirls over ice dancing. You Meryl Davis stan, you.

Anyway, Chokers went on to cook a well-received scallop in the speed round, along with “the lightest papadum I’ve ever had in my life,” according to Tom. I don’t know if I’d bet the house on her winning, but she feels like a stone-cold lock to end up in the finale.

1. (+1) Joe Sasto — AKA Mustache Joey, aka Rollie Fingerlings, aka Freddy Mercurioli, aka Joey Sauce

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Joe Sauce got one of my all-time favorite chef pep-talks this week, when Joey Cheeks told him “I don’t think anyone in this competition can plate with you, bro.”

God I love a good chef pump up. OOH RAH! NOW SHOW ME YOUR BRUNOISE FACE!

Team Bear Den stuck Joe in round three, creativity, which challenged the chefs to show off all their tricks. Since we know Joe “has so much in his bag of tricks that he can barely lift it” or whatever his critique was in the last episode, that seemed to play to his strengths. He made a tricolore Italian dumpling that used every part of the carrot or whatever that he apparently nailed so hard that the judges barely even talked about it. “Sometimes you just know you nailed it” was the gist of Tom’s comment. He scored a 51.5, edging out Cool Chris by half a point and getting the highest score of the episode.

That makes Mustache Joe (who Gail actually called Mustache Joe this ep) the leader in the clubhouse. I feel comfortable calling him the favorite at this stage of the game, but he’s also only 26 or something like that. If my experience of being 26 is any guide, the only thing that can really stop him is, like, binge drinking.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.

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