In tonight's episode, the remaining 14 chefs gather at Pike Place Market, tasked with cooking breakfast on a stick for 50 market workers. I'm surprised it took this long for Top Chef: Seattle to land at the market, one of the city's more iconic food spots and therefore one of the more obvious locations for a challenge. Once again, showing some well-advised restraint this season, the producers skipped any material related to the guys throwing fish (there had to have been a pitch meeting where someone suggested the chefs try to "catch" their own ingredients, right?) and focused instead on cooking with fresh ingredients found in the market. Putting it on a stick just seems like something Padma decided on a whim. Why not, right? Dance, monkeys, dance while cooking!
Looking at the two challenges side by side, it almost seems like the show reversed things—pulling a random ingredient for a team challenge feels like a quickfire, whereas cooking for 50 leans a little more toward an elimination challenge fodder. (I'm sure as soon as I say this, we'll get one, but I'm really glad we've been spared the large-event challenges so far this season.) Though they're able to choose their own teams, the chefs don't do much jockeying for partners. Everyone seems to partner up with whomever they're standing with. Two teams—the two that end up on bottom—seem resigned to their fates before things even get started. Perhaps it's too early for solid allegiances to have formed.
The group puts forward a nice mix of sweet and savory offerings, but two of the sweeter dishes land on the bottom, proving once and for all that savory is superior in the morning. Danyele and Lizzie's fruit kebabs are too simple, and Josie and Eliza's bumbling around results in a layered train wreck involving raspberry, sausage, pancake, and jalapeño syrup. Temporarily in love with their ability to play nicely, Josh and Jon nearly take the win with their breakfast chilaquiles, but Sheldon and Bart edge them out with a breakfast sandwich of eggs, cheese, pancetta, bacon, and spinach. They win immunity, which for the coming elimination challenge proves to be invaluable.
Still centered on Pike Place Market, the elimination challenge has the chefs remain in their quickfire teams and prepare a dish featuring an artisinal product from the market. From rosewater jelly to truffle popcorn, many of the ingredients aren't simple to work with because they're not simple ingredients—they're products of several ingredients, and therefore tougher to incorporate, especially when the dish should be designed to showcase them. I feel for the chefs here. It's easy to think of a dish that incorporates cheese curds, which, alongside the salmon are the friendliest ingredients of the challenge, but far more difficult to come up with a dish that has truffle popcorn as its shining star. (I mean… truffle popcorn? Yawn.) Maybe it was the two-hour time limit, maybe it was because of the team challenge—maybe it's both, plus the not-so-obvious ingredients. In any case, the chefs choke, and they choke hard.
The evidence first pops up in the cuts to the interviews, where the chefs are already making excuses and blaming their partners for lack of creativity. Stefan starts talking about a birthday curse. The team serves lunch at Marché, and despite Gail's generous attempts to say something nice about the meal, the judges end up apologizing to their guests and embarrassed about the turnout.
They say that the chefs have been producing fabulous food all season, which has included team challenges—this points to the failure of the construction of the challenge, then, instead of simply the chefs' collective misfiring. But that's not how the game is played. When Tom is sent to give the chefs a talking-to, things are bad. The $10,000 prize is off the table. There will be no winner, and two of them will go home. Like I said last week: At this stage, the more the merrier. I'm all for anything that speeds out this early stage and gets us to the finale faster. Until CJ is involved. It's really too bad to see talented chefs (Kuniko, CJ) go home this early, especially on team challenges. Then again, CJ was the mastermind behind that nasty, soggy pork burger on a crumpet—with pickles—he thought it was a damn fine burger. He takes Tyler with him. (Tyler, we hardly knew ye, or that you were trying to stay sober.) It's a tough loss and, overall, a downer of an episode.
- We're only five episodes in, but somehow, this season's already feeling more intimate than the past few. Perhaps this is because three of the 14 left have returned for another season, or perhaps it's that—wait, who's Brooke again?
- Eliza followed Widespread Panic for a year, selling vegan sushi out of the back of a van. At least four things in that sentence are just plain wrong.
- Adding to the drama of the not particularly nail-biting elimination challenge were the ridiculous effects added to the cuts at judge's table: whoosh, chef-face, whoosh, chef-face, whoosh, chef-face. We get it. And did you catch the weird shot of Padma almost looking at the camera? Sloppy, folks.
- Last Chance Kitchen (spoilers!)— I enjoyed tonight's LCK more than the full episode. It's more playful and affords a better focus on the cooking since we're only dealing with a couple of chefs at a time. It's like a mini-finale each week. I love that they seem to make the challenges up on the fly, based on content the elimination, and that Tom's as open as he is about screwing with the chefs. I was, however, sad to see Kuniko go. Her dessert may not have been plated as artfully, and wasn't super contemporary in that regard, but it sure sounded more appetizing than the Tyler-CJ concoction, hay ice cream aside.