It’s one of the most fearsome sights on Top Chef: The humble rice kernel. “After 19 seasons, no ingredient has caused more chefs to pack their knives than rice,” says Padma Lakshmi at the top of this week’s Top Chef elimination challenge, the finicky starch famously vulnerable to turning into a blackened crunch ora boiled gloop with merely one wrong notch of a burner knob.
But before our global band of Top Chef: World All-Stars competitors could take on rice, they had to take on Ritz—yes, the Ritz cracker, our first blatant display of corporate sponsorship of the season. Guest-judged by Santiago Lastra, the chef-owner of Kol (the only Michelin-starred Mexican restaurant in the UK), this week’s seemingly simple Quickfire Challenge charged the toques with putting together the “perfect amuse-bouche” in 30 minutes using the name-brand cracker and one chosen ingredient that would “transport us across the globe in just one bite,” from caviar cream to tropical jackfruit to guajillo peppers. “But…” Nicole started, having seen Top Chef before.
Yes, there was a curveball: the players would be placed into groups of three and have to utilize all three chosen ingredients in their singular dishes. (“This is too many twists for one Polish girl!” Sylwia exclaimed.) They would be judged head-to-head in each set, and the winner of all five sets would reap the Quickfire’s elimination immunity and a $10,000 cash prize.
Some trios naturally benefitted from the group harmony of their ingredients, like Tom, Amar, and Begoña, who were working with the fresh, oceanic flavors of bottarga and oyster leaves. In contrast, others were perplexed by their competitors’ selections. Dale, lumped together with Luciana and Charbel, had never worked with plantains before, and Victoire wasn’t so excited about Vegemite-like yeast extract (“Ali, why did you pick that?!”).
In real-time, Padma and Santiago judged the heats, pulling off to the side to discuss their front-runners. Nicole’s grilled bavette with goat cheese and horseradish black-garlic jam wowed due to its “umami and balanced intensity.” Tom’s “very yummy” shrimp cocktail with avocado roulade and bottarga persillade took top marks in the second round. In the third heat, Dale overcame his plantain panic with his plantain-fried cod and wasabi-caper aioli. Gabri’s jackfruit a la Mexicana with caviar paste and tamarind butter impressed the judges in the final set. But it was May’s “surprising, unexpected” spicy kumquat jam with hibiscus juice and extract yeast from round four that proved to be the best of the bunch, securing her immunity.
And it was a good week to have it, as the Elimination Challenge was a doozy: The chefs had to cook rice-focused plates across two days for 100 diners plus the judges—including a guest judge, Top Chef South Africa host Lorna Maseko—in outdoor tents at London’s Alexandra Palace. (“Can we have a rice cooker?” joked Luciana.) The application was of their choosing; their plates could be sweet like a pudding, savory like a paella, or risotto if they dared.
Some, such as Gabri’s earthy mole over arroz verde pulled directly from family recipes, while others, like Tom’s lamb biryani, had to look to international influences. (“There’s not a single rich dish in the whole of bloody Germany, man.”) Two contestants, Dale and Dawn, opted for congee due to the porridge’s characteristically forgiving texture, but the latter had trouble with her black Venus rice after the first day of cooking. “My rice let me down. I’m stressed,” she said, tossing the still-crunchy kernels into a pressure cooker overnight, hoping they’d stew down to softness by morning.
Some chefs struggled with proportions with rice cast as the star and not the sidekick this week. “There’s too much rice on the fish,” Tom Colicchio said of Nicole’s crispy furikake rice with negitoro, while Padma found that “the rice didn’t feel like the center’’ of Budda’s Hainanese chicken rice. The three favorites of the week were Gabri’s green rice with mole negro, May’s rice pudding with watermelon puffed rice and sweet potato, and Ali’s charcoal-smoked lamb ouzi with toasted nuts and minted cucumber, the latter eking out the others for the win. “It’s more than an adrenaline rush, it’s a Top Chef rush!” the Jordanian gushed.
Alas, the rice curse did damn three competitors. Luciana’s London-inspired kedgeree with smoked haddock and duck egg was “overcooked and undercooked at the same time,” said Colicchio. (“For me to go home with rice, I don’t think I could enter Brazil again,” she worried.) The vanilla salt that finished Sylwia’s massaman-spiced coconut rice gave the dish a sharp sweetness that Gail Simmons wasn’t loving, but it was Dawn’s crunchy congee that “ate more like a black rice soup” that ultimately sent the Top Chef Portland alum home.
- Major girl-power props to Sara Bradley, who, in the middle of this high-stress competition, was still pumping and sending breast milk back to the states to feed her nine-month-old baby, Hazel. “I want to show people that you can have a family, be a chef win Top Chef: World All-Stars.” Work, queen.
- It’s a running gag that cooking-show lingo is inherently sexual, and we can already hear Thirst Twitter coming for Ali’s “when I cook rice, I’m always gentle, I’m always sweet and nice” moment.
- The discrepancies between the various Top Chef franchises were evident this week, especially during Gabri’s grocery run for his 54-ingredient mole recipe. “In my season of Top Chef [Mexico], we’re not doing shopping at all...my cart still has half of the ingredients, and already I spent £350. What should I do?!” Eventually, he convinced May to lend him the rest of her unused shopping budget to complete his purchase, but his “Oh my god, this is so expensive!” meltdown at Whole Foods is all of us at Whole Foods.