This is the best episode of Top Chef so far this season. We're only three episodes in, so that isn't the boldest statement I've ever made, but it's a good, gripping episode, balanced between chef drama and fancy cooking. Two chefs go home in "Commander's Palace," which is more than I expected; it seems like the series started with a bigger roster of chefs and it's trying to trim down that list fast. I don't mind it, as far as plot goes. It means that things really do feel hectic and important the whole time.
I don’t mind it when Top Chef goes down the road of creating a dish that sounds cool or creates a sort of spectacle—last week’s food truck challenge ended up being quite interesting. But it’s more engaging to watch a chef do something smart, and both challenges this week ask the contestants to use their craft to do two rather difficult things.
As we learned last week, the first challenge is a Quickfire elimination. The chefs have to reinvent tired food trends: bacon, kale, smoked things, topping things with eggs. Of the four, kale seems like the worst possible assignation, and the elimination reflects that. No one can really do anything much with the kale, and Bret and Aaron get singled out for bad work. Aaron is eventually sent home, which disappointed the crowd on this couch—Bret blatantly made kale salad even when Dana Cowin said no salad, which seems like more egregious of an offense than a salty dressing. It doesn’t help that Bret’s demonstrated to be a little obtuse and cocky. (Alright, maybe I was just annoyed with him at this point. I found Aaron quite charming, in a quiet way.)
But there were great little innovations in the Quickfire: bacon fat-coated pasta from Stephanie, a scotch egg with leek and potato soup from Nina, and shirred egg on congee from Shirley. I also saw a raw duck egg vinaigrette, which is just an amazing idea, and bacon pho. Both of those kind of yoke the tired trends to other current trends, which might be cutting corners, but hey, it works. (I want that bacon pho.)
And the main challenge has the contestants replicate dishes they eat at the famous Commander’s Palace, a launching pad for chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme. The dishes are really, really complex; they’re not easy to unpack, even if you know what they’re called, which I don’t, entirely. There’s a shrimp in tasso sauce made famous by Prudhomme and a veal tchopitoulas which is difficult to pronounce. There’s a lot of delicacy involved in technique and ingredients, and the chefs have to come up with it all on their own, which sounds so impossible it’s mind-boggling.
It’s also one of those challenges where it’s clear even to the audience that there are a few standouts, a lot of mediocre stuff, and a few really terrible dishes. In this case, Nina, Stephanie, and Justin rise to the top quickly, and Justin wins for his perfect beignet. Bret already seemed like a disaster, and he so badly cooks his veal that he drops out of the competition with just a few lame excuses on his way out. The team on the desserts had a way better sense of what they were doing than the seafood teams, and everyone on the veal team seemed way too overconfident. Shirley has a really really big whisk at some point, and Nina and Michael get into a spat about okra on serving plates.
It was not clear to me that the chefs on the different teams weren’t working together on their dishes, so when the yellow team collaborates on crawfish and blackened salmon, it seemed like a semi-good idea. Of course, they put the one guy on their team with no understanding of creole cooking on seasoning, which seems like a terrible idea, and then he doesn’t even taste it before plating it, which also seems flawed. Then the judges are like “You worked together? But why?” I have to conclude that collaboration was not a good idea. That whole team got critiqued. Dessert was the only course that had clear winners.
Justin’s win seems well-deserved, and this episode gives us a lot more insight into Nina and Stephanie, who are two chefs that are growing on me quite a bit. Add that to Sarah, Carrie, Shirley, and even Jeanine, and this season of Top Chef seems absolutely dominated by skilled women chefs. No men have stuck out as much as this group of women has. It’s good to see that in an industry that can be defined by testosterone.
- “Ooh, I have that challenge stomachache again."
- “Per usual, I feel like I'm going to vomit."
- "Are you having vast differences in salt content?" Hugh Acheson has concerns.
- “I’m such a whipped cream whore that it all tastes good to me.” Dana Cowin doesn’t mince words.
- Emeril looks so disappointed. “Did you have a hard time plating the dish?"