That was a fun episode of Top Chef—easily the best this season. The contest elements were smart and interesting, and I even feel like I learned something about cooking, which is not something I can say about much else that happened this season. The contestants butcher a whole pig. There is no way that is not going to be kind of amazing. Carlos wins with taquitos, followed by Nina and Shirley in close seconds. Shirley used pork kidneys! Dude!
The thing is, so far, this season of Top Chef has only occasionally been focused on the food. The judges get it, but the writers who formulate the contests often give the chefs challenges that don’t really let their skills shine through. Louis said it as he was walking out the door—he never got a chance to show off his potential. Part of that is because Louis isn't that flashy of a chef. But part of it is because he had to cook with cream cheese and in sloppily organized teams. Ain’t nobody going to make their mark with cream cheese.
But both challenges in “Piggin’ Out” were honestly fun and very food-centric. The hot sauce challenge is a great one, and I was amazed at what the chefs thought of when they went to hot sauce—apricots, coffee, Trinidadian pepper sauce, habañero, and yuzu. That last citrus fruit is what wins Brian his second quickfire (although the first one that feels truly earned). Dr. John, yes, the totally crazy-looking musician, is the subjective, hilarious judge. Even though nothing he says sounds totally sane, he seems to know his hot sauce.
Then the chefs are handed a huge, 300-pound hog and asked to share it. No teams, no friends. Just cutting up a big animal and arguing over which pieces to get. I liked this tension a lot more than the team infighting of episodes past—it feels like a competitiveness of creative visions, rather than a messy collaboration. It might be more like a restaurant to see the collaboration, but it's a bit harder to follow each dish from conception to creation.
Because the other good thing about this challenge is that all the chefs have a different part of the pig they're working on. Nina and Nicholas got the head, and Travis the backbone. Louis got the leg meat, and Stephanie the pork belly. It was, for once, possible to keep all the chefs straight. And it’s finally down to a number that feels manageably small—about 10 chefs, all with names and faces and strengths. It’s just a lot easier to watch and a lot more fun. All that equipment when they were cooking their pork looked awesome, and if anything, I wish we’d gotten more information on how they did what they did, with that massive smoker and huge outdoor grills. Because I want to replicate it and then eat all of the pork in my current radius.
Louis gets sent home, which didn’t sit quite right with me. His pork was good, and the judges opposed his use of popcorn, which I actually thought was kind of a cool idea—and the guests liked it, too, because they came back for more popcorn! I can see how the textures would be weird, though. My choice to go would have been Stephanie, even though I like her a lot. Her pork thing seemed tepid, and she was already coming off of a bad challenge last week. For all of Justin’s whining, he’s been a stronger cook in the past, and it seems like this dry meat thing could have been a fluke. Or he’s just a huge asshole. Who knows.
- Kidneys, freal.
- Is there a universe in which it isn't Nina who takes this home?
- Which part of the pig would you cook? I am a sucker for pork belly, myself. Though the one time I had pork cheek, it blew my mind.