In “Rebuilding New Orleans” the personalities of the chefs in this season of Top Chef begin to emerge, which means that it’s already becoming clear who are going to be some of the heavyweights for the season. This episode features the season’s first quickfire—a late-night challenge to make gumbo by the next morning—and a food truck challenge, which is the centerpiece, elimination challenge. Carrie from Iowa, who was in the top three last week, sweeps both competitions, getting immunity in the quickfire that she doesn’t even need as she leads the yellow team to victory. It’s early, but it’s hard to imagine that this show isn’t going to be a major launching pad for her career. She’s already managed to impress several celebrity chefs (last week, Emeril; this week, Leah Chase and Susan Spicer. More on them both in a minute), and she seems to have inventive technique and an idea of what flavor fusions actually work. Her gumbo has a Trinidadian flair to it, combining roasted corn and green mango, which isn’t, on face, something you think she’d be capable of; and she makes empanada dough with a cold wine bottle instead of a rolling pin, which impressed even my cold, cynical heart. (The chilled glass keeps the dough from getting sticky because it doesn’t melt the butter, meaning that the empanadas are flaky, not gummy. It’s a good call.)
Both of the challenges require the contestants to get inventive in different ways. Gumbo is a slow-cooking dish, while the food truck snacks are essentially gourmet fast food. It’s a good balance, especially as the quickfire is a solo challenge, while the elimination round is all teams. A lot of mouthy dudes made an impression with bluster and posture in both challenges: Michael from New Orleans is a frustrating braggart with his gumbo, making a big to-do about how he threw out his first dish when it wasn’t good enough, only to deliver another dish that was also lackluster. And Benedetto (who I think goes by Bene) makes a big fuss out of being everyone else’s sous-chef on the red team, even though it really doesn’t matter that much, as far as I can tell.
Something I have in the past found frustrating about Top Chef and shows like it is how the cooking often devolves into trend-pieces: There are two or three different ceviches in “Rebuilding New Orleans,” and more than one team leans on sliders, too, as a convenient street food. I get that some foods are better than others for a truck, but the end result is that a lot of the dishes from different teams sounded the same, even if they didn’t taste the same.
Blue team loses the challenge with their very unappealing-sounding “surf truck”; putting that much seafood in a van on a hot day didn’t sit quite right with me, anyway. Bret and Patty emerge as consistently quite tone-deaf; they seem to have trouble communicating their visions to the judges, either with words or with their skills. Patty says something flip about her tomato slices being “nothing special” which seems to personally offend Tom, and Bret’s hot tostones with cold ceviche annoyed Gail Simmons to no end.
I would have put my money on Patty going home. She hasn’t seemed enthusiastic about the competition, or even had much to contribute except “Puerto Rico” every now and then. But ultimately, the judges went with Jason, who seemed to have good ideas, but not enough finesse to execute them properly.
Susan Spicer guest-judges the elimination in support of Habitat for Humanity, which she works with; the food trucks drive out to different work sites, and everyone talks to the workers about how Hurricane Katrina affected them. Leah Chase judges the gumbo quickfire ably all by herself. She’s easily the most charismatic person on the show, gently offering critique left and right while also schooling Padma on how to eat a whole deep-friend prawn. Her, I would like to see again.
- Live crayfish are thrown into a kiddie pool at some point. Just warning you. You may not enter a kiddie pool again without fear.
- It’s weird to me how much the red team relied on salads for a food truck competition.