This week on Top Chef, the chefs traveled up the coast to my home base, San Francisco, which I assumed meant the usual suspects: Thomas Keller, Michael Chiarello, Chris Cosentino, etc. But the producers threw us a curveball! Instead of Cosentino’s charm and Chiarello’s smarm, we got… Jonathan Waxman and MC Hammer? I didn’t even know Johnny Wax had a restaurant in the Bay (opening soon, subsequent Googling revealed). Or that MC Hammer was using the “MC” in his name again. I’m not sure when that happened, it could’ve been 15 years ago. Surprisingly, this made for a great episode.
The quickfire, in honor of Oakland’s own Mr. Hammer, was to “Come up with your own rap name, and create a dish that expresses that name,” said Padma. “Rap names should personify who you are,” added Hammer, who mostly just played “yes and” throughout this entire segment.
This challenge is actually a lot like when I was on the golf team in high school and we all gave each other rap names. I was Busta Balls, my friend Cameron was Vanilla Slice, Deric was 2-Putt. Boy, I really wish this wasn’t a true story, please stop wedgying me ow ow.
Anyway, this was a clever little challenge that gave most of the contestants some awesomely dopey soundbites, and allowed Carl (who?) to finally come out of his shell a little. At which point the viewing audience breathed a collective groan of “please go back into your shell, Carl.” Carl actually exclaimed “awesome sauce!” when he found out MC Hammer was going to be judging the challenge, I swear I’m not making this up. How perfect is it that the world’s most boring white guy was galvanized by the appearance of his idol, MC Hammer? “It was MC Hammer who first got me into rap, and the Olive Garden that first got me into zesty Italian cooking.” (That wasn’t a real quote, but it’s not far from the truth.)
Carl even attempted a little freestyle. Padma’s face should give you an idea how that went:
Incredibly, Carl’s rap managed to not include the words “My name is Carl and I’m here to say.” Narrowly, friends. Very narrowly.
The Elimination Challenge
“Create a dish that evokes a culinary period in history.” All the chefs drew knives to determine order, and then chose their period. Isaac got to go first, taking “Viking,” an option that really seemed to stretch the boundaries of what’s considered a “culinary period in history.” Did you know Leif Skullsplitter held a pinkie out while he raped and pillaged? It’s true.
That being said, this might’ve been the best challenge in the history of Top Chef. Not only did we get to learn something, it forced the chefs out of their comfort zones and forced them to experiment, and required them to go to the library. I remember an episode of Project Runway that required the fashion designers to compete in a physical challenge, which was incredible. This wasn’t quite as funny as that, but forcing a bunch of chefs into the stacks like they were writing a term paper held similar appeal. Said Jeremy: “I was definitely not a ‘book guy’ in school, but I had the coolest electives. I had a surf class.”
I love that quote. That’s like saying “I was definitely not a ‘sports guy’ during football practice, but one time I fed some ducks.”
1. Amar (+3)
Nickname(s): Big Sleazy, Crab Nachos
Rap Name: “Santana Lover” (Lova?)
Quickfire Dish: Soy-glazed Chilean sea bass with dashi broth, enoki mushrooms, and shishito pepper.
Quickfire Finish: Bottom. “I probably would want more than just fish,” says Hammer.
Elimination Age: Belle Epoque Paris
Elimination Dish: Roasted squab, seared foie gras, sweetbreads, tourné vegetables, and truffle sauce.
Elimination Review: “You really nailed this.” “I think this is beautiful, my squab is perfect.”
Elimination Finish: Winner.
Notable Quote(s): “I’m gonna make something that, like, ladies would love.”
Prognosis: I didn’t want to rank Amar number one this week, because it makes it seem like I’m biased, and because this is his first win, and it came fresh off a bottom-three finish in the quickfire. But I defy you to find anyone else that fits the number one slot this week. All the favorites landed in the bottom three either in the quickfire or the elimination challenge. I kinda have to go with the guy who was on top at the end.
Also, what the hell is up with Chilean Sea Bass? I keep hearing that it’s endangered, but then I see it on cooking shows or menus once a week. Is it endangered or not? You don’t see anyone eating spotted owl.
Anyway, Amar had probably the easiest task in the elimination challenge, cooking the classic French food all the culinary school chefs were trained in anyway. Still, it’s easy to screw up a squab. Instead Big Sleazy nailed it this week, and I’m loving this ongoing theme of him dedicating victories to his ex-girlfriend. He’s like a Bruce Willis character, and this foie gras is his one last shot at redemption.
It’s also so refreshing to hear someone who’s not doing it for their kids. Reality show contestants always talk about “I’m playing for my kids.” Stop it, you are not. You know what your kids would probably rather you do? Not be on TV, and play catch with them. And let them play with your phone. Or something. I don’t really know what kids want, actually, but I doubt it has anything to do with you winning a reality show competition. And they’re going to hate you once they become teenagers anyway so shut up about it. The respect of your children is fleeting. Remember that.
2. Isaac (even)
Nickname(s): Cornbread, Roux McClanahan
Rap Name: Toups Legit
Quickfire Dish: Scallops with BBQ sauce and grits.
Quickfire Reviews: “I thought I was down there on Mardi Gras.” -Hammer.
Quickfire Finish: Winner! “Tangy sauce, great flavor,” says Hammer.
Elimination Age: Viking
Elimination Dish: Cumin and mustard-seared venison with caramelized onion grautr (“a Viking porridge of barley”) and pickled beets (served on a wood plank!).
Elimination Reviews: “Isaac, I think you certainly look the part.” “The texture and flavor of the venison was spot on, this is perfect.”
Notable Quote(s): “I do this advanced culinary tactic where if you don’t know how to cook something you read the back of the package.”
Prognosis: You guys have no idea how disappointed I was when they asked Isaac his rap name and he didn’t say “Cornbread.” Which isn’t to say that “Toups Legit” wasn’t still the best of the bunch by a Louisiana mile. Cornbread was on an absolute tear after the quickfire this week, winning immunity and knocking out two victories in a row. I thought he and his lizard sidekick Peppah would be takin’ a fan boat straight to da promise lan’! But then Isaac finished out of the top three in the elimination challenge (even though the judges seemed to like it). “Aw heck biscuits, Peppah! I guess dem ol’ fancy judges din’t like eatin’ vittles off grandmama’s pine tree! Maybe dat nice Padma lady done went and got herself a splintah. But donchoo worry none, you an’ ol’ Cornbread done got ourselves outta stickier grits dan dis, ain’t dat right, Peppah. Oooh wee!”
3. Kwame (+3)
Nickname(s): Wormser, The Prodigy
Rap Name: Bay-Lish
Quickfire Dish: Seafood broth with grilled lobster and dungeness crab.
Quickfire Finish: Bottom. “There were other dishes that were simular [sic] to yours, but the sauces had a little more oomph in ’em.”
Elimination Age: Han Dynasty Beijing
Elimination Dish: Coriander-crusted duck with black sesame duck jus, eggplant, and lapsang souchong cream.
Elimination Reviews: “I really love the coriander. It adds the crunch, it adds the spice, it elevates the dish to another level.” “There’s a depth to the knowledge that’s applied here.”
Elimination Finish: Top three.
Notable Quote(s): “I was doing shows in New York, I dropped a couple mixtapes.” “I used to give away complimentary food at my rap shows.”
Prognosis: This week, Kwame revealed that in addition to being a world class drug dealer and selling candy on the subway, he also had a brief rap and poetry career. Is there anything Kwame can’t do? Anyway, Kwame roared back from a string of bottom finishes to finish in the top three in the elimination challenge this week. Does this mean he’s finally shaken off the bad juju from his dad three episodes ago? I hope so, because I’ve got my fingers crossed for at least two or three more big Kwame backstory reveals this season. “Yeah, before I became a drug dealer or a poet or a rapper or sold candy on the subway I was actually on the SEAL team that killed Osama.”
4. Carl (+4)
Nickname: Ol’ Whatshisface, Him?, Dr. Funky Fresh
Rap Name: Dr. Funky Fresh
Quickfire Dish: Beef tartare lettuce wrap
Quickfire Reviews: “Very fresh.” “The layers are unfolding.”
Quickfire Finish: Top three. “I haven’t had a meat-flavored dish that was so succulent,” says Hammer.
Elimination Age: Ancient Greece
Elimination Dish: Marinated mackerel and calamari with olives and grapes.
Elimination Reviews: “I’m really enjoying the dish. It appears very simple but there’s a lot of different things going on.”
Elimination Finish: Top three.
Notable Quote(s): “The really good thing about Phil is that he did what he wanted and he stood by it.” “Oaklandish, baby.” “Awesome sauce!”
Prognosis: Oh, Carl. This week, we found out why Carl normally tries to fly under the radar. He said “awesome sauce!” when he saw MC Hammer, and I thought things couldn’t get any whiter. Then he named himself “Dr. Funky Fresh.” Because his cooking style is “funky.” Man.
Anyway, you might think Carl deserves to go higher on account of he finished in the top three in both the quickfire and the elimination challenge. Counterpoint: he’s still Carl. Rest assured, I’ve ranked Carl as low as is possible while still maintaining the facade of fairness. By the way, here’s how I would describe Carl’s rap:
5. Jeremy (even)
Nickname(s): Frat Dad, Totino
Rap Name: Spicy J-Rock 305
Quickfire Dish: Spicy broth with dungeness crab, grilled Summer squash, and halibut cheek.
Quickfire Reviews: “Thank you, Jeremy,” -Padma. “The spicy’s from that little kick you put in it, right?” -Hammer.
Elimination Age: San Francisco Gold Rush
Elimination Dish: Sourdough halibut with shellfish chowder.
Elimination Reviews: “Jeremy, it’s not eating like a chowder, this is not even a sauce.” “The miners, they were East Coast, they took their culture back to here. I’m sorry, you didn’t channel it, buddy.” “I’m a miner, I spent a lot of money, I want to see some crab, dude.”
“I wanted a chowder with a crab in the shell. That’s what a chowder is!”
Elimination Finish: Bottom three.
Notable Quote(s): “I was definitely not a ‘book guy’ in school, but I had the coolest electives. I had a surf class.”
“I’m Spicy J-Rock 305. The dish is gonna feel like that, because it’s got a lot of heat from chipotles, and my area code is 305. The rock part is just gonna be me rockin’ out service. ” (I legitimately laughed out loud at this one.)
Prognosis: J-Rock was bursting with previously unknown skills this week, from playing drums to coming up with really awesome rap names. Skills he must’ve picked up on them streets, him not being a “book guy” and all (yes, Jeremy is from Florida, shocking, right?). First J-Rock beat out Kwame in a head-to-head (but not really) broth battle, with J-Rock’s cream-less cioppino base winning the day. Jeremy seemed to see this as a lesson, opting not to use cream once again in his elimination dish. Which was, unfortunately for Jeremy, a chowder.
I don’t know how many times I have to tell you people. Never give the judges the opportunity to get hung up on nomenclature. They love getting hung up on nomenclature. “This doesn’t read like a chowder.” Okay, fine, but is it GOOD? I hate when food shows do this. Even worse was Jonathan Waxman saying he wanted a chowder “with a crab in the shell.”
Is it you who’s responsible for this kind of bullsh*t, Waxman? I will cut you. Because the last place I want food I have to eat with my hands is half submerged in a piping hot broth. Crab in the shell in a soup or chowder feels like a mean prank. You’re sitting there hungry as hell, and then someone sets down a dish that takes another ten minutes to cool down enough to touch, that you then have to sit there picking at with your damned finger tips like some 18th century weaver before you can even go at it with the big goddamned spoon they gave you to eat it with, which frankly feels like another taunt. It’s like culinary Saw. If you’re making me soup or chowder, don’t be an a••hole and shell the god damned crab.
Phew, what was I talking about? Anyway, it looks like Jeremy is going to have to come back extra strong next week to erase the judges’ memory of his effeminate chowder. Ha, nice chowder, pussy, does it come in men’s?
6. Marjorie (-5)
Nickname: Mike Ms.abella, Sheyore
Rap Name: Miss PunchALot
Quickfire Dish: Fried chicken sandwich with honey sriracha and marinated watermelon radish salad.
Quickfire Reviews: “The punch definitely came in.” -Hammer. “I think there’s so much bread that it tamps down some of the punch.” -Padma
Quickfire Finish: Bottom three.
Elimination Age: Ancient India
Elimination Dish: Lamb kebab with heart jus, curried split peas, and paratha. (Holy sh*t this looked good)
Elimination Reviews: “I like the balance of spice to heat.” “I admire your attempt to make paratha, but I myself don’t like it. It should be soft. It tastes like something that’s fried.” “Also, I don’t like the lamb. They wouldn’t have done medium rare back then, they would’ve cooked it all the way through.”
Prognosis: Just when it looked like Marjorie was putting herself in the running, thanks to her awesome baking, she landed on the bottom of both challenges, thanks to a bready sandwich and bad Indian bread. You live by the bread, you die by the bread, I guess.
Marjorie is getting more and more likable by the episode, and think she kind of got a raw deal this time out. Has Padma ever not lectured a contestant about the right way to cook Indian food? And Waxman, again with the totally unfair A-hole critique. “They would’ve cooked the lamb all the way through back then.”
Does anyone watching this honestly think Marjorie wouldn’t have gone home in a heartbeat if she’d given the judges well done lamb? I guarantee it. Anyway, I’ll be rooting for Marjorie. Keep bakin’ that bread, Mike Ms., just pray the judges don’t have a yeast infection next week. (Bread, yeast – yeah, you saw what I did there.)
7. Karen (-4) ((-4))
Nickname(s): Rosie the Riveter, Hot Topic
Rap Name: The Pink Dragon
Quickfire Dish: Hot and sour soup with pork meatballs, shiitake & morel mushrooms.
Quickfire Reviews: “I can definitely taste the spicy.”
Quickfire Finish: Top three. “We felt the fire of the dragon and the spices,” says Hammer.
Elimination Age: Empire of Japan
Elimination Dish: Soba noodles in mushroom dashi broth with wagyu beef and pickled mushrooms.
Elimination Reviews: “The broth seems more Chinese than Japanese, I would’ve liked to see just a clear dashi broth.” “I actually think there’s a lot of lovely notes in the dish. The roasted mushrooms have great texture and flavors.”
Notable Quote(s): “I’m bringing hot and sour soup realness to this competition.”
My favorite Karen moment this entire season was this week when she straight up admitted that being a women’s studies major is a great way for lesbians to meet chicks. I never thought about it before, but that makes a lot of sense. By the way, do you ever get the feeling that gay people are having way more fun than straights? I feel that every day.
Anyway, it’s a bummer that Karen went home just when she was starting to get likable. And all because her dish was too Chinese. The judges weren’t buying her explanation that this time was when Japan was “really starting to feel the influence of Chinese cuisine for the first time.” You never know with these damned judges, sometimes you get dinged for taking liberties with the challenge, other times you get dinged for not taking liberties.
R.I.P., Karen. Epitaph: Here lies Karen. She wasn’t as dull as Carl.
NEXT WEEK… All the eliminated contestants return to wreak havoc. Isn’t it a little early for that? I think these producers are really worried about entertainment value without Phillip to kick around. I guess I can’t blame them for that. Anyway, these posts will theoretically shrink along with the number of contestants. That will be great.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.