First off, thanks for Genevieve Koski for filling in so capably in my absence. Given her own prowess in the kitchen—as evidenced by the delicious jailhouse “Nutriloaf” she prepared from a recipe ganked from an Illinois court case—Genevieve is probably more qualified than I to understand the subtle differences between fine dining and culinary school hackery.
Second, this is just turning into a bloodbath. Stefan is so far ahead of the pack at this point that the rest are really backing into a race for second. The guy could turn in a greasy bag of McDonald’s drive-thru on the final challenge and probably still have enough respect built up to win Top Chef outright. The proof is in the numbers: After tonight’s episode, Stefan has notched four Quickfire and four Elimination wins, which already puts him two ahead of any chef from a previous season. He exudes—okay, more than exudes, boasts—an unshakable confidence in his abilities while even his toughest competitors can hardly hold onto their knives in the presence of a culinary artiste like Eric Ripert. He’s going to have to have a massive, Richard-esque meltdown to let this one get away from him, and he’s far more disciplined than the freewheeling Richard ever was.
Both challenges tonight were designed to honor guest judge Ripert, who has a new book (they always have books, don’t they?) and an upcoming PBS show called Avec Eric, which will bring him even further into the celeb-chef limelight. I’ve always liked Ripert’s appearances on the show; for one of the most revered chefs in the country, he’s pretty magnanimous and unpretentious, and his criticisms register without needing to be hammered home, Toby Young-style. The Quickfire was another variation on the knife-skills relays of the past, though no teamwork was required. In three rounds, the chefs were asked to filet three very different fishes for the edification of a man who knows his seafood better than anyone in America. Starting with the six remaining chefs, the bottom two were cut after each round until a head-to-head showdown in the final round.
The knife skills challenges tend to separate wheat from chaff more clearly than the cooking challenges, because they speak so transparently to a chef’s experience in the kitchen. To that end, we learned a few things we already knew: Hosea may be the “seafood guy,” but only some seafood falls into his wheelhouse; Carla has perilously low expectations of herself (on the sardines: “Mine looked like crap, even by my standards”); and Leah just doesn’t give a shit anymore, based on the way she packed it in on the butchered Arctic char. Fabio’s swift work on the sardines made him seem well-positioned to give Stefan a run, but in the end, Stefan was the only chef who was comfortable filleting whatever was put in front of him. He didn’t so much as break a sweat.
The Elimination Challenge began with a treat: The remaining six contestants were treated to a special six-course lunch at Le Bernardin. Most of them are thrilled about it, as they should be given Ripert’s reputation for super-fresh fish and simple, refined preparations. Not so much Jamie, however, who declares herself “bored” by his food and shows particular disdain for the black bass. So when the chefs were told to replicate the dishes they had just eaten, it’s only karmic justice that Jamie draws the short knife and has to prepare the dreaded fish.
For the second straight challenge, the emphasis is not on creativity but on precision and craft—and in the second case, a strong enough palate to recognize how the end result is supposed to taste. Stefan’s Quickfire win gives him the option of choosing his dish and he picks the lobster, which he nails in every detail save for a slightly thicker hollandaise sauce. The others flounder to varying degrees, though the judges like Fabio’s “forgery” and appreciate Carla’s classical training, which came as a big surprise to me, too. (Ripert’s nodding at Carla’s explanation for how she executed a sauce has me thinking that maybe I’ve underestimated her slightly. Perhaps she brings more than “love” to the game, after all.) Hosea doesn’t fall on his face so much as deviate too much from the original dish, leaving Jamie and Leah on the firing line.
I’m sure I’m not alone in being stunned by Jamie’s departure. I had pegged her as second-best (a distant second, but still) to Stefan throughout the competition, but I guess there was no excusing those “salt lick” celery sticks. Whenever Padma does something dramatic like spit out food or confess to wanting to send it back, it must really be terrible. Nevertheless, based on the judges’ discussion, I had expected them to come to the obvious conclusion that Leah was phoning it in and Jamie could at least recognize where she went wrong. With Jamie gone, the race to the bottom is on!
• Jamie not having Eric taste and critique her dish because of time issues was a major liability for her. From the conversations we hear, Eric was pretty helpful in nudging the other chefs in the right direction.
• Loved Padma’s response to Toby’s suck-up to Ripert: “Congratulations, [Eric], you are the top chef!”
• Per Padma’s jibe, am I wrong to sense that the other judges are turning on Toby a bit? Maybe I’m just projecting, but he seems to be annoying them as much as he’s annoying us.
• Maybe Top Chef is getting too good at not inadvertently revealing the loser in the opening scenes. Now when a chef gets an inordinate amount of screen time—as Fabio and his Sidekick did this week—that may be a sign that he or she is safe.
• Stefan: “Skinning an eel is like riding a bike”
• Carla, going a bit overboard when describing the Elimination Challenge: “Oh my gosh, it’s like recreating the Garden Of Eden.”
• Is Toby referring to Carla’s bold dish as “Pablo Escolar” the most cringe-inducing thing he’s said to date? I’m voting yes.