At this point in the Top Chef seasonal arc, quickfire challenges can be a snooze. Immunity is off the table, and with only six chefs outstanding, judge's table will result in a straight split between the best and worst dishes. To that end, it's also the most exciting part of the season: No one's safe anymore. Perhaps the producers realize that the quickfire has to be a throwaway; we're locked into them procedurally, but they don't serve any real purpose anymore. Tonight's quickfire is over and done with well before the 10-minute mark.
What's unfortunate is that this particular quickfire challenge lands late enough in the season to be inconsequential. Sushi should never be filler material; it's both difficult and specific enough to warrant more attention than it's given here. It does, however, fit well with tonight's episode as a whole, which latches onto the concept of deceptively simple dishes done well. Tonight's quickfire, as guest judge Katsuya Uechi says, should be straightforward: Sushi is fish and rice. Hell, you don't even have to cook the fish. But it's equally easy to screw it up, either by drowning the fish in heavy-handed sauces, over-handling the fish, or cutting a delicate fish incorrectly. I might be a nerd, but this is Top Chef at its best.
There are few enough contestants now that cooking technique and explanatory footage make the final cut, giving the challenge some well-deserved context. It's more fun to watch the cooking process when we're given enough information to appreciate the particular challenge of an ingredient without having to resort to Wikipedia. Landing on the bottom tonight are two people who truly botched the challenge, but with opposite attitudes. Lizzie acknowledges sushi's artfulness while confessing her ignorance in the matter, pouring hot soup onto cold fish; Porkstache scoffs at the idea altogether and manages a greasy sushi breakfast sandwich. He also wears his bacon t-shirt for the millionth time this season, causing me to rage uncontrollably. Stefan takes his first win of the season, which I hope is also his last. Padma's clearly got his twitchy blonde eyebrows in her sights.
Who knew that fried chicken could serve as such a refreshing palate cleanser to the atrocities of last week? And to think I was ready to hate on this episode based on the title alone, which may be a new low for show titles. ("Wolfgang Clucks?" Of course this pun fell from the mouth of Tom Colicchio, whose self-satisfied chuckles would be obnoxious were they not so earnest.) The elimination proved to be one of the better setups we've seen this season, though. So simple and straightforward it almost seemed like a quickfire, the challenge put forward a difficult standard. Fried chicken, when done well, manages to be crispy outside and juicy inside. It's also a landmine in that everyone has a favorite—a clear picture of what fried chicken should be. The judges are looking for something in particular. With just six chefs still in the competition, the challenge is a nice change of pace, allowing us to get a micro view at both the chefs technical skills and execution, with enough leeway that they could offer variations on a theme.
But not too much variation. Both Brooke and Stefan end up on the bottom from a basic misunderstanding of the challenge—it's not a dish inspired by fried chicken; it's fried chicken. Brooke takes only the boneless breast from the bird, securing her spot on the bottom during the first 30 minutes of prep. Stefan chooses to serve cordon bleu and is docked for both straying from the challenge's conceit and serving a dated entrée. Joining them on the bottom is Josie, who typically talks a big game but mismanages her time, delivering fried chicken sitting in pools of grease on a banana leaf. The chefs, maybe still seething from last week, jump at the chance to slam her; they don't even pretend to have anything nice to say, or to have any patience for her excuses. She makes her long overdue exit, and there was much rejoicing in the land and in the stew room. Lizzie's unconventional fried chicken does land her up top, with a side of cabbage salad that had Tom nearly speechless. Josh and Sheldon join her there, with Josh taking the win with his smoked version.
With so many of the stronger chefs eliminated early in the season, and with two slots opening to LCK winners and viewer's choice, it's tough to tell what the final lineup will look like. My money's on Stefan going home next, but that may be wishful thinking on my (and Padma's) part. He consistently performs well, but not the best; he may scrape by for another episode. My money's on Sheldon, Lizzie, and Brooke.
- The cuts around Josie's crying at the beginning of the episode were pretty funny; Lizzie clearly was responding to her, not just tying her shoes or whatever while Josie sat there crying, as they tried to play it.
- I love Brooke's response to Josh when he asks if she's ever made sushi. Her contempt is so obvious: "Yes, of course, [you idiot]." And then he acts like they've never heard of sushi in Oklahoma! I get that it's not coastal, but still. You're not doing Oklahoma any favors, pal.
- Stefan thinks that in Japan they cut your fingers off for making bad sushi? He's a little off mark.
- Sheldon! I am rooting for Sheldon. He continues to surprise me, tonight by putting lemon charcoal in the blender. And according to my notes, "Sheldon's leg is yum."
- Unlike most of the forced banter at these Top Chef dinner parties, the rapport seemed genuine tonight, like everyone was having a good time. I'd go to a fried-chicken-and-wine party with these guys. …Is that why judge's table was the next day?
- Wasn't that guy already on Top Chef?