Top Chef Power Rankings, Week 9: The Gathering Of The Karens

Top Chef All-Stars LA was back this week, taking the chefs to the mountains “a few hours outside of Los Angeles” (was it Big Bear? why can’t we just say Big Bear?) for a Summer Camp challenge. That meant ziplines, tents, campfires, and Padma wearing some hilariously fashion-y boots inspired by some abstract idea of rustic life.

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Hold up, are those side pockets? Dammit, mom, I told you not to throw out my cargo pants!

But before they got to play horseshoes and make s’mores, the chefs were forced to roll that beautiful bean footage, for a bean-based challenge sponsored by, who else, Bush’s baked beans. Last season’s winner, Kelsey Barnard Clark was there to guest judge. Apparently the talking golden retriever had a prior engagement. On the one hand, ugh, another product placement-driven challenge. On the other, creating a dish where beans are the main course in 30 minutes using canned beans is hard as shit.

This challenge also dredged up some painful memories for yours truly, as last week my fiancée and I got into a heated argument over whether the correct lyrics were “beans beans the musical fruit… (me)” or “beans beans the magical fruit… (her).” It’s true, I can often sound like a know-it-all in arguments (making it not especially fun to argue with me), but in my defense, it’s hard not to sound like a know-it-all when you are clearly correct. It’s musical fruit, because the more you eat, the more you toot. As in, the sound a horn makes. Ie, music. If it was magical fruit, the more you ate, the more you’d… I dunno, pull rabbits out of hats or grow magical beanstalks and cuckold giants or whatever. Am I in the wrong here?! I FEEL LIKE I’M TAKING CRAZY PILLS!

Anyway, the contestants did some impressive bean work, though I couldn’t believe no one pointed out the flaw in eating seven bean dishes the same day you travel from sea level to the mountains. Poor Padma was probably all farty and bloated that entire weekend.

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Maybe they were trying to amp up the drama by filling the contestants full of beans, taking them to the mountains, and sticking them in a small room together. Magical Elves? More like Machiavellian Elves! (Magical Elves is the production company that makes Top Chef, FYI). Anyway, say what you will about beans, it kept anyone from making another crudo.

Incredibly, not a single second of fart-based drama made the final cut. Maybe that was part of Bush’s product placement rider. Instead, the contestants packed off for a day of Summer camp fun followed by an early morning challenge of every chef’s nightmare scenario: Cooking brunch for 400 hungover moms. To make matters worse, it was to be served buffet-style, with two dishes per chef, using only whatever ingredients the camp actually had available (to be guest judged by season 15 winner Brooke Williamson, aka Biscuits).

Before the chefs set off on their goof-off tour, Padma urged them “don’t break a thumb” in a way that sounded suspiciously more like a hex than a word of caution. “Nice opposable digits you got there. Be a shame if something happened to them.”

After a night in which 400 drunken Karens singing karaoke downstairs kept the chefs from getting much sleep, it came time to divvy up ingredients and plan a menu. Only then did the chefs find out how few ingredients there actually were. They only had enough eggs for two of the chefs to plan eggs as a main, but halfway through prep both of those chefs abandoned the egg component of their dishes. (Admittedly there are few things harder than trying to make eggs to order for 400 people).

No egg dishes at a buffet brunch?!? Damn, I would’ve burned that place to the ground. Incredibly, the karaoke Karens didn’t say a thing. Maybe we’ve been wrong about Karens? Or we were right all along, and all you have to do is distract them with a mimosa and a Voltaggio sighting.


7. (even) ((Eliminated)) Lee Anne Wong

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AKA: Frazzle. Aka Loud Mom. Aka 911. Aka The Teflon Wong. Aka Chefzilla. Aka Steamy Ray Vaughn.

I have a slightly softer spot for Lee Anne after eating her food and being very impressed, but what we all assumed was inevitable from episode one or two on this season finally happened: Lee Anne has been eliminated. RIP Teflon Wong, some bad food finally stuck to her.

Not right away though. First, Lee Anne made a bean empanada that actually won her the quickfire. She received $10 grand but no immunity. She also had a top-three finish in the last quickfire, believe it or not, in the episode before last. But as they say, that and 99 cents will get you two tacos at Jack in the Box. For the brunch, Lee Anne planned a Cinnamon Roll donut and a berry clafoutis — which I’ve since learned is basically a giant baked pancake-cum-coffee cake. This was designed to save Lee Anne the hassle of trying to serve pancakes to order. The ol’ casserole dodge.

Those dishes didn’t sound half bad, but Lee Anne unfortunately failed to notice that the oven was set to 100% steam. And thus her plan for fruity clafoutis turned into a Steamy Ray Vaughn.

Comedy Central

It might’ve been fine if her donut had measured up, but instead, everyone said it was dense and bad. I don’t know why people try to get so fancy with donuts, making it out of cinnamon roll or red velvet or putting fruit loops on top like at Voodoo Donuts. Just fry some goddamn dough and get out of the way! Donuts are perfect the way they are. You think Krispy Kreme made a billion dollars because their donuts were fancy? They got rich because their donuts were donuts.

In any case, Lee Anne is finally gone so we can get down to the nitty-gritty. I’m happy that I happened to catch her on a good day (her upside down cake was honestly life-changing and I don’t even like dessert) but she seemed to screw something up every week. My hunch says she wins Last Chance Kitchen and finds a way to return yet again, and then in the finale gets her foot run over by the production van or something. Then has to return next season.

6. (-1) Stephanie Cmar

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AKA: C-Monster. Aka Underdog. Aka C-Truffle.

Stephanie started the episode making excuses for why she couldn’t think of a bean dish (maybe the trees were out to get her like in The Happening?) which is never a good sign. Not that it’s easy to come up with a bean dish as a main course. She eventually came up with a bean hamburger, and promptly got busted down to the bottom three.

In the elimination challenge she cooked up a “breakfast salad,” which is apparently some kind of hash concoction with eggs and bacon and bread and cheese and stuff. Which earned her reviews like “this is like something I’d make for my toddler” and “it tastes much better than it looks.” Eh, I love a hearty dish that looks like throw up on a plate but tastes amazing, especially for breakfast, so I’m forced to respect it. It was also the only one of 14 dishes to include eggs so it probably saved them from a riot. She also made biscuits for the biscuit queen and got rave reviews.

All of which means… decent performance for C-Monster this week? So why do I still feel like she’ll be the next to go home?

5. (-1) Brian Malarkey


AKA: Shenanigans. Aka Grandpa Fancy. Aka Squirrely. Aka The Imp. Aka Leprechón.

Last week, the Leprechón shattered all expectations and looked like a frontrunner running the front of the house. This week, he returned to the middle of the pack. He began with a bean-bacon puree served with jalapeño, grilled underneath burning pine needles — a typically impish idea that didn’t win him any raves from the judges. In fact, Padma all but armpit farted at the very notion. Nonetheless, he stayed out of the bottom three.

Not so in the elimination challenge, where Shenanigans managed to monopolize the tomato sauce, half the eggs, the steak, and chorizo for a chorizo-shrimp stew that took two hours and still came out flavorless. This after he planned and then abandoned a shakshuka. Shakshuka sounded like a bad idea to begin with — I’ve never been to Isreal but it’s only ever been bland when I’ve had it. Plus, Kelsey landed on the bottom for it the last time it showed up on the show, when she tried to serve it to that finicky manlet of a country star. In the end, Squirrely ditched it and his chorizo stew turned out bland anyway.

Lucky for him, Shenanigans was saved by his other dish — steak with hollandaise sauce — which everyone loved. Still, the dude had half the ingredients in the pantry and managed to finish in the bottom three. Unless there’s another challenge that involves hypnotizing investors or conspicuously bare ankles it’s not looking great for Grandpa Fancy.

4. (+2) Karen Akunowicz

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AKA: Good Witch. Aka Glenda. Aka Aunt Kitty. Aka Rosie The Triveter

Karen conceivably could’ve gone home last week if Big Kev hadn’t martyred himself for his failed plantation food scheme, but this week she totally redeemed herself. First she cooked up some top three beans (white beans and kale) and then she did it again in the elimination challenge with corn cakes and grits. I do love some corn for breakfast. She also proved Lee Anne’s worries misplaced when she easily made pancakes to order, and even gave appetizer cakes to the moms waiting in line. Moms love not having to wait for food.

I’d love to make a joke about Karen being at home cooking for a horde of Karens, but honestly, Karen isn’t very Karen for someone named Karen. She seems more like a Sarah or maybe a Melanie to me. Anyway, Karen is back to looking strong but just behind the favorites, which is basically where she’s been all season.

3. (even) Bryan Voltaggio

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AKA: Flatbill Dad. Aka Bry Voltage. Aka Kyle Shanahan. Aka Linkin Clark Griswold. Aka Family Bry.

Bry Guy is extremely Bry every week but this week took the cake. Has there ever been uttered on this show a phrase more dadly than “No beans about it, I want to win!”?

Simply incredible. A slow clap for that one. Family Bry Voltaggio belongs in the Dad Joke Hall Of Fame. Yet he landed in the bottom three of the quickfire yet again, for once again cooking a really good dish that didn’t fit the challenge. He made steak with beans, trying unsuccessfully to convince the judges that his bean marinade made the steak a bean component (how much can you even marinade in 30 minutes?).

Bry stayed on-brand in the elimination challenge, chuckling to himself as he said: “I love it when a plan comes together, ha ha ha!”

He gets a slight dad point reduction for not turning to the other contestants right after and saying “The A-Team! Come on!” A true dad identifies the source of his quotes.

In a mom-feeding challenge, a pure dad like Linkin Clark Griswold was obvious eye candy for the hungry horny moms, and he exploited this advantage — serving up some white tablecloth-worthy roasted carrots and a potato shallot cake with bacon (I made potato pancakes last week. Underrated food.). Potatoes and bacon? Yes, exactly. Of course, he ended up winning. I don’t know if this mean’s he’s turned it around for good, but it’s a good sign.

2. (even) Melissa King

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AKA: Zen Master. Aka Dimples. Aka Shutterstock.

Romaine? No, mane. Yes, it was a rough week for Melissa. She overreached in the quickfire, during which her bean dumpling didn’t quite come together. I would excuse it by saying a dumpling is an extremely high degree of difficulty in 30 minutes, but Lee Anne did win with a bean empanada.

Then in the elimination challenge, Melissa played it passive, choosing from the leftover ingredients. Which led her to the disastrous decision to make a damn romaine salad — looking barely dressed and garnished with sad grapefruit. Salad for breakfast? Oh hell naw. I don’t even want to see lettuce on the same plate as my eggs. You ever go to a breakfast place where they try to give you mixed greens with your eggs instead of potatoes? That’s a place I won’t be going back to. Couldn’t she have at least grilled the romaine? Melissa is the leafy green grilling master! I don’t get it.

Thank god she also made a ham congee that everyone seemed to like. Despite this bad performance, I’m chalking this episode up to Melissa being slightly too nice and keeping her at number two. Hopefully this will be an important lesson, a wake-up call to stop trying to make friends and start throwing elbows. Box those fuckers out, Melissa! You gonna let Shenanigans take all the beef? Hell no, that’s your beef. Beef is for closers. (Melissa, if you’re reading this please let me be your pump up guy).

1. (even) Gregory Gourdet

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AKA: Kravitz. Aka Hepcat. Aka Lids. Aka Pollos Hermanos.

Gregory opened and closed with a top-three finish. What else would you expect? The man is a magician. He cooked up a roasted mushroom and tomato dish that initially he was going to serve with an egg but ended up swapping it out for spinach. Spinach! That was a move that would’ve gotten any other contestant sent home but in Gregory’s hand almost got him the win. His other dish was… a damned fruit salad. Even Tom refused to “wax poetic about a fruit salad,” yet there Gregory was in the winner’s circle.

What can you say? He’s killing this thing.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. Read more of his cooking commentary in UPROXX’s Cooking Battles and Viral Cooking. For past Top Chef Power Rankings, go here.