This season’s episodes of Top Chef World All-Stars, including commercials, run 75 minutes (about 54 without ads), and I think we can all agree that that is much too long for a reality cooking competition. I remember when Project Runway switched to 90-minute episodes, because that was the moment I stopped watching Project Runway. And yet, I happily sat through the 54 minutes of this episode like a piggy cavorting in slop. Perhaps there’s a lesson here? Oink oink oink!
Anyway, in the vein of Top Chef‘s producers gettin’ that bag, this week’s Quickfire Challenge was introduced by Santiago Lastra, “the only Michelin star Mexican chef in the UK.” (An impressive achievement in the land of gwocky molo). More importantly, the challenge was sponsored by Ritz Crackers, which Padma revealed by pulling a giant silver cloche off a box of Ritz crackers. Ta da! My toddler would’ve been thrilled.
Lastra then told a story about how he had never cooked until he was 15, when he saw a recipe for a crab dip on the back of a Ritz crackers box, made it for his family, and it ended up being a big hit.
“So you’re saying that if it wasn’t for that box of Ritz crackers, you wouldn’t have that Michelin star??” asked Padma, a line reminiscent of Lewis Black’s “if it weren’t for my horse, I never would’ve spent that year in college.”
And she said it in a tone that suggested that this was the third or fourth time she’d read the line, and just before the cameras rolled asked “Oh, you want me to SELL it?” Before delivering it with the same barely-disguised malice with which you tell your most despised colleague “have a great vacation!” Now I need to hear Tom Colicchio do a sarcasm-drenched live read for Shari’s Berries.
Anyway, the contestants were first told that they’d have to choose a single ingredient from a platter of unusual ingredients. Then they were told that they’d have to use that ingredient for an amuse-bouche. Then they were joined in groups of three. THEN they were told that those groups of three wouldn’t actually be “teams,” but rather the people they’d be cooking head to head against, while making amuses bouche using all three ingredients. AY, I’M ALL TWISTED UP OVA HEAH!
“I don’t understand,” whispered Chef Sylwia, speaking for all of us. “This too many twist for one Polish girl,” she added, which does sound like the opening for a joke about screwing in light bulbs.
At the very least, it was a challenge that allowed for gratuitous Padma-shoving-things-into-her-mouth footage:
I’m not against it. “Heh heh heh, let’s make her eat little towers of food balanced on a crumbly cracker!” I imagine one of the producers pitching. “Yeah, and she’ll have to do it wearing a white dress!” chimes in another, rubbing his greasy little palms together.
After all those twists, it wasn’t just the Polish girl who needed something simpler. We got it in the form of a rice challenge. “Cook rice any way” was the prompt for the Elimination Challenge, with the twist being “…for a hundred people.”
That’s too many people to cook anything for, in my opinion. But I guess that’s why it’s hard. One idiot even tried to cook risotto for 100 people and… it worked out?! What the hell? We may have to shut this show down until we can figure out what’s going on.
(Official title of this week’s episode: “Rice Rice, Baby.” I’m going with “Puttin’ On The Ritz,” though I would’ve also accepted “Christ On A Cracker” and “A Song Of Fire And Rice.” In fact, I’m changing Puttin’ On The Ritz to fire and rice, that one is better.)
Nicole, Tom, Dale, and May*.
May, Ali*, Gabri.
Dawn**, Sylwia, Luciana.
15. (-3) ((Eliminated)) Dawn Burrell
AKA: ‘Sheed. Stormcloud.
Quickfire Dish: Caviar butter-basted salmon with tamarind and jackfruit tiger cry.
Elimination Challenge Dish: Black venus congee with black bean and five-spice braised oxtail
Someone on Twitter reminded me that I had nicknamed Dawn ‘”Sheed” during her season of Top Chef, after the famously mercurial Piston Rasheed Wallace. It’s always a toss-up whether she’s going to take over a game or unload on a ref, and she ended up drawing her second tech this episode (much like I’m probably doing by extending this metaphor) for her black rice congee.
Dawn chose congee (a sort of rice porridge she was using similarly to polenta or grits), figuring that a deliberately overcooked version of rice would be more consistent throughout a long service. This seemed like solid reasoning, but then she chose black rice for it and couldn’t get it cooked in time, let alone overcooked. Oh, sweet irony!
Dawn just couldn’t seem to get it going this season. And so she goes home, though I also have to question the production team, who had 90 minutes of screen time to unpack the phrase “jackfruit tiger cry” and never even bothered. (“Crying Tiger” is a Thai dish with a number of apocryphal explanations for its name but notably includes ground toasted rice in the sauce, which is probably the part Dawn was going for).
Notable Reviews: “If Dawn didn’t tell me this was congee I wouldn’t have known.” “It feels like broth and crispy rice.” “A lot happening, but no flavor.”
14. (-5) Luciana Berry
AKA: Real Estate. Lady Bangles. Crinkle.
Quickfire Dish: Plantain salsa with fried capers and wasabi.
Elimination Challenge Dish: Kedgeree with curry, smoked haddock, and duck egg.
Luciana, who I’m now also calling Crinkle because she does that crinkle-nosed smile a lot (but still looks much more like Eric Cartman in real estate mode) gave us our closest thing to DRAMA this episode when she ABSOLUTELY LOST IT on Amar and Dawn for dumping out her egg water. Her anger was noted, teased, recapped, and given two separate names (“beast mode” and “Brazilian fire”) despite lasting for less than 60 seconds total. Top Chef might as well go full sports media mode and get a 16-panel discussion going with competing rants from Skip Bayless, Woody Something, and Dingleberry. (Was Luciana’s tantrum elite?)
Anyway, I actually thought Luciana might go home for her kedgeree (an Indian-British dish consisting of flaked fish, rice, and hard-boiled eggs, another thing the show never bothered to explain), which apparently was both undercooked and overcooked at the same time. It appeared that she toasted the rice the day before she cooked it, though I’m not enough of a rice daddy to know if that was a factor.
In any case, she managed to just barely squeak by, so hopefully, she’s learned the important lesson never to try to cook a dish popularized in a country where peas are used as a seasoning.
Notable Critiques: “We got our first overcooked rice dish.” “It’s weird because it’s overcooked but it’s also hard?”
13. (+1) Victoire Gouloubi
AKA: Al Dente. Minute Rice. Steven Seagal.
Quickfire Dish: Panzanella cracker with kumquat salad and smoked mackerel.
Elimination Challenge Dish: Basmati rice with sauce maafe and shrimp.
Top Chef Italy finalist Victoire got very little screen time this episode, though I’m fairly certain I heard her call “kumquat” “kumquock,” which I actually like better. She also did briefly consult Gabri on his risotto, despite her being known solely for disastrously botching risotto in the previous episode. Could her bad risotto sense be contagious? Was this a test of the transitive properties of shitty risotto?
Turns out no, and Gabri ended up in the top three. Which I guess I have to count as a small point in Victoire’s favor.
Notable Critiques: “It had a lot of flavor to it.”
12. (+1) Nicole Gomes
AKA: Clawhoser. The Contessa.
Quickfire Dish: Grilled bavette with goat cheese, horseradish black garlic jam, and salsa macha.
Elimination Challenge Dish: Crispy furikake rice with negitoro.
I thought Nicole looked like Clawhauser from Zootopia last week and idiotically named her “Clawhauser,” neglecting to note the obvious fact that she’s also Canadian. COME ON, MANCINI, ‘CLAWHOSER’ WAS RIGHT THERE! The brain cells responsible for this oversight have been sacked.
Anyway, Nicole actually won her Ritz cracker round at the beginning of the episode, only to get dinged in the elimination challenge for a rice dish that had too much rice. Ah, well. Alas. No one wants that much rice in their rice.
Notable Critique(s): “There’s too much rice in this rice dish.”
11. (-6) Sylwia Stachyra
AKA: Auntie Claus. The Potato Lady.
Quickfire Challenge: Guajillo peppers on a pillow of goat cheese with truffle.
Elimination Challenge: Coconut rice with shredded coconut, with Thai-style massaman curry.
Man, I love Sylwia. Something about leaving the articles out of speech makes everything sound cooler. “Guajillo peppers on pillow of goat cheese” was easily the most inviting-sounding dish of the entire episode. “Pillow of goat cheese!” It sounds so relaxing!
For whatever reason, the judges didn’t seem to be nearly as charmed as I was, either by Sylwia’s goat cheese pillows or her coconut rice dish, which she finished with “vanilla salt” (is that a rap name? I have never heard of this ingredient). That ended up setting off Tom Colicchio’s very delicate sugar censors.
The judges mostly agreed that the rest of Sylwia’s dish was pretty good, but it’s All-Stars, so they have to be even more persnickety bitches than usual and so she ended up in the bottom three. It never seemed like she was in danger of going home.
Notable Quote(s): “I am not big fan of rice, I am potato girl.”
Notable Critique(s): “Very flavorful, great texture, but the rice is a side.” (Too much rice, not enough rice, make up your goddamned minds!)
10. (-4) Amar Santana
AKA: Big Sleazy
Quickfire Dish: Lightly smoked cod dip with avocado, pickled mustard seeds, and bottarga.
Elimination Challenge Dish: Pomegranate beef stew with saffron arancini and herb yogurt sauce.
Listen, I love Big Sleazy. You love Big Sleazy. Everyone loves this big belly laughing motherf*cker. I’m just a little worried that the casual approach he takes toward this competition and towards life, in general, is going to start to hurt him in the competition. It’s like he gets an idea of what he’s going to make based on what he wants to eat and if any voice in his head questions whether that idea really fits the challenge he just makes that “yap yap yap” hand motion and goes on with his cooking.
This week he chose to make an arancini to go with “his take on a fessenjoon.” Right off the bat most of us could’ve told him that a deep-fried rice ball with a beef stew was going to get dinged for “not making the rice the star of the plate,” just like last week when he put a seared scallop right in the middle of a dish that was supposed to make vegetables the star.
In both cases, the judges noted the error, but apparently still enjoyed the food enough that they let Big Sleazy skate on through to the next round. So maybe there’s something to this approach after all. Hard not to appreciate a guy who’s always giving the dismissive wanking motion to his inner critic (and probably outer critics as well).
Notable Critique(s): “I didn’t think he highlighted the rice as much.” “And as good as this stew is, the meat is a little tough.”
9. (+1) Dale MacKaye
Quickfire Challenge Dish: Plantain fried cod with wasabi caper aioli.
Elimination Challenge Dish: Congee with short rib, pickled mushrooms, and chili oil.
Johnnycakes, the Pride of Saskatoon, was the subject of a few soft-focus human interest vignettes this week, detailing his life as a single dad and his past as a sous chef in Tokyo. Surely that must’ve been helpful experience for this week’s rice challenge, but it was his decision to incorporate tiny cubes of plantain as part of the batter for some fish in his amuse-bouche that impressed me most. The judges seemed to agree, giving Dale the win (over Charbel and Luciana) in his quickfire round.
He also made the best congee of the elimination challenge, though apparently not quite good enough for the win.
PROP BET: How many more episodes before we see Dale crying while being asked about his son? I’m putting the over/under at two, which would be less if he weren’t Canadian (who are a little more restrained).
Notable Critique(s): “Great balance. I would’ve liked a little more congee, but I devoured this dish.”
8. (+7) Gabri Rodriguez
AKA: The Black Pearl. The Mongoose. Santos.
Quickfire Challenge Dish: Jackfruit a la Mexicana, with caviar paste and tamarind butter.
Elimination Challenge Dish: Green risotto with mole negro.
Gabri cemented himself as this season’s wild card with an episode that saw him running around like a chicken with his head cut off the entire time, seemingly ricocheting from disaster to disaster only for him to win his quickfire round and nearly win the elimination challenge.
In choosing to prepare a 54-ingredient mole for 100 people, Gabri learned an important lesson that comedians have known for years: Whole Foods? More like WHOLE PAYCHECK!
His tab at the London Whole Foods was upwards of 350 pounds, which was (I believe) 100 pounds over the contestants’ limit. Being the diabolical weasel that he is (The Mongoose!), Gabri instantly got May, who had both immunity in the challenge and a relatively cheap ingredients list, to fork over her extra budget to cover his mole tab.
And if a 54-ingredient mole wasn’t already enough of an unforced error in the making, he paired it with risotto, the most cursed dish in Top Chef history. Not only that, for advice on whether his risotto was cooked enough, he went straight to, who else, Victoire, who served raw risotto just last episode.
After all that, what happened? He won! This man dodges when we expect him to weave! He zigs when we expect him to zag! He’s teaching us to expect the unexpected! What if the WHOLE PLANE was made out of black mole?! Does anyone else smell BURNT TOAST?!
Notable Critique(s): “I love the flavors in it” “It’s like a hug in a bowl.”
7. (even) Sara Bradley
AKA: Party Mom. Reebok. Sassparilla.
Quickfire Challenge Dish: Brown butter and guajillo-fried Ritz with goat cheese, pepper jelly, apple & horseradish salad.
Elimination Challenge Dish: Everything rice with salmon, cucumber, and cream cheese.
Party mom opened this episode with a human interest vignette of her own, revealing that every day, she pumps breast milk for her nine-month-old baby and then has it shipped across the f*cking Atlantic. Is that girlboss or just insane? If Sara wins I worry that she’s going to buy a private jet to carry her falcons. I’m calling Chef Sara Reebok for releasing Pumps.
Sara is seeming especially confident this season, which is reflected both in her cooking and the sassy response she always seems to have in her back pocket. For the elimination challenge, she took some rice, fried in on a plancha, and seasoned it with everything bagel seasoning and delivered it as a vessel for some cream cheese and lox. It was pure Jewish-Appalachian brilliance (Ashkenachian? Appalazi? …we can workshop this) and the judges had no choice but to respect it. I imagine she would’ve won if only the judges could’ve squared “turn some rice into an everything bagel” with “make rice the star of the dish” in their minds.
Whether or not she wins Sara already seems like the best hang.
Notable Critique(s): “Just a banger of a dish.”
6. (-3) Charbel Hayek
AKA: Soup Nazi. 25. Davos.
Quickfire Dish: Sauteed corn and capers with fried plantain.
Elimination Challenge Dish: Lebanese spiced basmati rice with mint and cucumber yogurt, toasted nuts, and fried parsley.
After last episode’s onion-based triumph, the Onion Knight tried to keep the onion thing going with a mini-vignette of him chopping some onions. Onions? This guy loves ’em! …Probably not much more juice left in that berry, let’s be honest.
Not much else to note about Charbel’s episode, which was solidly middling. I guess he did a better chicken and rice than Buddha? That’s something.
Notable Critique(s): “I like Charbel’s chicken and rice better.”
5. (+3) Ali Ghzawi
AKA: RRR. Maui Wowie.
Quickfire Dish: Yeast extract topped with mascarpone mousse, kumquat jam, and glazed hibiscus.
Elimination Challenge Dish: Lamb ouzi, smoked rice, mint and cucumber
I would’ve expected one of the Middle Eastern chefs to own a rice challenge, and rhymingly named (I think?) chef Ali Ghzawi came through. He incorporated some charcoal into his lamb ouzi to achieve the smoky flavor of a dish that’s normally cooked underground, which got him the big win for the episode. You’d think that in a 75-minute show they could’ve shown us *how* he incorporated that charcoal in there (did he just bury a coal under the rice?? …that can’t be right), but, uh… no.
He also chose the “yeast extract” in the quickfire round (aka Marmite, aka Vegemite) which seemed like a clever way to screw over his competitors who also had to cook with it. Only it ended up backfiring when Chef May, who had never even tasted it before, ended up cooking a winning dish with it. You knew it was a bad sign when she took a taste and was immediately intrigued, rather than repulsed (like Victoire was), which is the normal reaction to yeast extract. Figures that a Southeast Asian could take a super funky, salty, kinda gross ingredient and make something delicious out it. These are the people who gave us fish sauce, after all.
What we were talking about? Right, Ali. Well, he’s very handsome, so that’s nice. I’m going to try to find a restaurant with lamb ouzi now.
Notable Critique(s): “I love the smokiness.”
4. (even) Tom Goetter
AKA: Günter. Brüno. Ümlaüt. Brint. Fickejunge.
Quickfire Challenge: “Shrimp cocktail my way,” with avocado roulade, oyster leaf and bottarga persillade.
Elimination Challenge: Sri Lankan lamb biryani with goji berry salad and green sauce
At first I thought it was basically a dead heat between Charbel, Ali, and Tom, in terms of who is the biggest himbo of the competition. Then Tom pulled far ahead this episode based on this reaction shot alone:
Tom’s accent is almost as naturally funny as Sylwia’s is, where everything he says kind of sounds like he’s tweaking his nipples under his shirt while he says it. I don’t know if that’s a German thing or just a Tom-is-very-pleased-with-himself thing.
Everyone had a good laugh about German being a very non-rice-based cuisine, but Tom had the last one when he revealed that he does a lot of cooking with his Indian boat crew (Tom is a cruise ship chef, remember) which presumably helped him whip up a crowd-pleasing biryani. It must’ve been really good, because Padma lives to dunk on bad Indian food and she didn’t.
For his latest nickname, I put “F*ckboi” into Google Translate and came up with “Fickejunge” for the German. My German readers can correct me if there’s a better version.
Notable Critique(s): “He did a good job.”
3. (+7) May Phattanant Thongthong
AKA: Sisqo. Onions.
Quickfire Dish: Spicy kumquat jam with hibiscus juice and yeast extract
Elimination Challenge Dish: Rice pudding dessert with salted coconut milk and sweet potato.
I had a feeling the Thai chef would be a favorite in this competition and May confirmed these suspicions with a monster episode. She won herself immunity in the Quickfire Challenge with her yeast-and-hibiscus-infused kumquat jam. That was it! She literally made jam! There were chefs out here grilling bavette steaks (Nicole) and frying fish in plantain batter (Dale) to put on a cracker, and May kicked all their asses with jam on a cracker. That must’ve been some really good jam. Never underestimate the power of a good jam. (Especially in the UK, where they wrote an entire cartoon series about liking jam).
Safely imbued with immunity, you might assume it was May’s chance to rest on her laurels, or at least maybe lean up against them a little. But nope! May’s laurels remained assprint free when she almost took home the victory in the elimination challenge for her rice pudding. Which looked delicious, and also — what’s the only thing British people like more than jam? That’s right, pudding. British people like pudding so much they’ll call anything they like a pudding. Popover muffin? That’s a pudding. Blood sausage? That’s pudding too. “Oi, wot’s dis cawed den, Tommy? Probly puddin’, innit.”
In between, we had time for a few tearful vignettes in between, including May describing coming out to her mom. “At first time she had a hard time accepting, but she never hate me.” Sheesh, is it dusty in here? I’m calling May Onions, because she keeps making my eyes water (with all due respect to Charbel).
Notable Critique(s): “May’s dish is fantastic.”
2. (even) Buddha Lo
AKA: Moneyball. Double Down.
Quickfire Dish: Veal tartare with jackfruit, tamarind, and caviar cream, cucumber in tamarind dressing.
Elimination Challenge Dish: Hainanese Chicken Rice
Buddha chose caviar cream in the quickfire round, as you might expect from a guy who works at a caviar tasting room. He surprisingly lost to Gabri that round (favoritism from the Mexican judge??), and then made Hainanese chicken rice in the elimination round. I’ve said before that Buddha is the opposite of most chefs, who win when they stay rustic and lose the plot when they get overly fancy. The brainier and more abstract Buddha gets, the better he seems to do.
Naturally, a heartfelt childhood favorite didn’t win him the challenge. He should’ve figured out how to make the chicken into the rice using some kind of space-age powder and then molded it into the shape of a chicken.
Buddha finished in the middle of the pack for the second straight episode, but I’m giving him the number two spot here anyway based largely on a hunch.
Notable Critique(s): “I love the cookery on Buddha’s dish.” “But the rice didn’t feel like the center of this dish.”
1. (even) Begoña Rodrigo
AKA: Beach Mom. Tilde Swintón. Ursula.
Quickfire Dish: Tapenada with oyster leaf mousse and bottarga.
Elimination Challenge Dish: Lemon rice with pickled ginger, beet root, and seabeans.
True, Begoña won neither her quickfire round nor finished in the top three of the elimination. As for the quickfire, she was basically disqualified for only getting one Ritz cracker on the plate in time. Normally that would feel like a blunder, but keeping in mind that she’s Spanish, getting even half an appetizer done on time feels like a win. In Spain they eat dinner at midnight and put the kids to bed at 3 am.
I suppose the big question is why I still have Begoña at number one with no wins and just one top three finish (in last week’s elimination challenge). I can’t really explain it, it just feels like she’s making weird space food like no one else could’ve conceived and doing pretty well with it. Here’s her dish, combining lemon peels, pickled ginger, beets (which I guess are those radish-looking things?), and seaweed.
At least, the titles say seaweed, but those look like sea beans, and the beets sure look like radishes. The editors can’t even keep up with her! This is like the food equivalent of the quarterback faking out the cameraman. Sea beans? Seaweed? Beets? Radishes? Who even knows with this crazy lady, but apparently it was delicious. She seems like she comes from another planet but in a good way. Big Tilda Swinton vibes, hence her new nickname, Tilde Swintón.
Notable Critiques: “She’s out there, man, and it works.”
Read the rest of our Top Chef Power Rankings here. Vince Mancini is on Twitter.