Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Top Chef: "Captain Vietnam"

Illustration for article titled Top Chef: "Captain Vietnam"

I didn’t find this episode quite as entertaining as last week’s “Commander’s Palace,” but I have to admit that the challenge was almost as brutal. I don’t think of Vietnamese food as being that fringe, so maybe it wasn’t that hard, but I will agree with the judges that Vietnamese food is deceptively simple—it’s hard to get right.

Still, “Captain Vietnam” would have been more entertaining if one team hadn’t been a total train wreck right from the start. The only challenge this week is the elimination, which is to produce authentic-seeming Vietnamese food for the judges and the patrons of a restaurant in New Orleans. There’s a strong Vietnamese influence in New Orleans, probably because Vietnam used to be under French rule, so there’s still a distinctively New Orleans theme to this episode. I really liked that the producers of the show branched out to different definitions of New Orleans cuisine. I also rather liked that they brought in the head chef of BaoHaus, Eddie Huang, to guide the contestants through the training process and to guest-judge.

Team challenges frustrate me a little, as a viewer, because it’s hard to determine who is actually responsible for good or bad outcomes. The judges go on faith, too, meaning that they don’t really know who was doing what, either. But as a critic, I have to admit that the team challenges make for great television. The politicking between all the contestants is magnified in the smaller teams, and because they’re working together, tempers flare. (I do wish that Top Chef had dressed up the teams in slightly different aprons, because red and orange are almost the same color if you’re still trying to keep the names and faces straight.)

Even though there are still a lot of chefs left in the competition, it’s been going on long enough that a few stars have already begun to shine. Shirley, Carrie, Justin, Nina, Sara, and Stephanie were on my shortlist before “Captain Vietnam,” and not much has changed since then. They’re consistently impressive in a way that none of the other contestants (there are about 15 remaining) ever manage to be. It’s hard to imagine any of the other contestants getting even close to winning with these chefs in the room.

So imagine my surprise when Emeril casually put Shirley, Carrie, Justin, and Nina all on the same team, the red-aproned team. Not only are those some of the best chefs on the competition, but they’re also chefs that wisely know to cede ground to Shirley, who has a lot of boss to her. I don’t begrudge her commanding attitude, because she knows what she’s doing, but there are plenty of personalities on that party bus that would have clashed with her style. The red team won handily, producing the only meal that seemed like a good meal to the judges. Carrie’s custard lost some points for bad plating and Shirley’s shrimp was a tad too buttery, but Shirley managed to argue out of every question the judges had for her. I’d dislike her strong personality more if she wasn’t just so damn good at what she does.

Of the remaining heavyweights, that leaves Stephanie—who went to the orange team, I believe, to produce their only solid dish, a coconut coffee macaroon—and Sara, who went to run the green team with a motley crew that included Travis, Bene, and Jeanine.


So, let’s talk about the green team.

They were a disaster right from the start—their ideas were bad, led astray by Travis’ weird insistence that if he’d had tomato sauce in Vietnam, they could use tomato sauce. As much as I like tomato sauce, I couldn’t quite understand why Travis wouldn’t shut up about the sauce. Clearly there was some careful editing there to make him sound as frustrating as possible, but in the upfront, when he rolled his eyes and said that Eddie didn’t know what he was talking about? That was a bit much. Just because you date someone from a culture doesn’t mean you automatically know everything about it. Have some humility, man, it’s like a thousand-year-old cuisine.


On top of that, no one was really able to take charge of the green team in a satisfying way. Sara was sort of trying to do it, but she didn’t manage to do it super well, and Travis’ feathers got ruffled trying to jockey for power with her at the supermarket. In the fallout, they somehow manage to not buy lemongrass. CRISIS. LEMONGRASS CRISIS. Sounds silly, but lemongrass is in fact a pretty important ingredient for Vietnamese cuisine, part of that aromatic flavor structure that makes the food taste so complex.

After that, I was kind of just waiting for them to crash and burn. Ultimately, nothing satisfies the judges—the tomato sauce is overcooked, the shrimp is soggy, the sausage is bland, and the rice—the rice!—isn’t even cooked right. It was a fail all around.


But when it came down to who to eliminate from that team, I was surprised that the judges chose Jeanine over Travis. Jeanine hasn’t been an impressive contestant so far—she’s cute and enthusiastic, but she just scraped by on a few challenges—so I’m not feeling outraged to see her go. But I do feel like Travis made the more egregious blunders in this challenge, getting into a pointless power struggle and dragging down his whole team in the process. Sara isn’t a great manager, and Jeanine can’t cook shrimp, but Travis doesn’t seem to understand that contests have rules.

Stray observations:

  • Jeanine saying “lemongrass” is super funny.  Australians, what are they?
  • Eddie describes Stephanie’s dessert as keeping in line with the tradition of “janky, ratchet Asian desserts.”
  • I can heartily vouch for BaoHaus, having been there more than once while intoxicated. The bao are fantastic, and pretty cheap, too. If you are in New York, it’s worth the ride on the L train.
  • Last Chance Kitchen is happening, and Jeanine will be on it, along with Bret, Ramon, and Jason.