Often, the problem with having such a stacked cast of competitors on a reality show is that sometimes you’re not able to get to know all of them—their intimate backstories, their individual ambitions, their inspirations—before their time is up. Top Chef judiciously fleshed out those character bios with this week’s “Holiday Vacation” episode, giving all 11 remaining chefs a space at the family table to talk about the people and the meals that mean the most to them.
Before we could get to that heavily personal potluck—and this week’s blatant corporate sponsorship, i.e. the vacation-rental marketplace Verbo—chefs had to get through the Quickfire. This week’s challenge was all about mead, an alcohol made with fermented honey, which has served as a symbol of celebration since ancient times. (Fun fact: The term “honeymoon” comes from newlywed couples continuing to toast their nuptials with mead for one cycle of the moon following their wedding!) The chefs had 30 minutes to make a celebratory dish spotlighting the stuff: “Think of those life events or milestones where you want a memorable dish to celebrate,” Padma instructed.
Some chefs, like Victoire, had never encountered the beverage, while others were well-versed. (“I’ve been mead-drunk before!” yelled Sara.) Despite any lack of familiarity, the Quickfire wasn’t too much of a sticky situation for the competitors. Nicole did have a hard time with the sugar for her mead zabaione with honeyed strawberries (“it became a bit soupy,” criticized guest judge, Michelin-starred chef-restaurateur Adam Handling), and some of Sylwia’s dumplings opened up before she could plate them with her mustard-and-mead sauce. “The execution needed to be a touch tighter,” said Adam, though he acknowledged it was “a very tasty dish.”
More successful in celebrating the honey wine was Victoire’s shrimp with guacamole, endive, and honey (“Your dish was the best paired and the most balanced”), Charbel’s butternut squash with feta and honey-mead sauce (“The way that you used the honey and acidity was magical”), and, the ultimate winner of both the Quickfire and immunity this week, Tom’s pine honeyed duck with honey caviar. “You have some serious skills,” Handling told him, praising how the dish “fundamentally understood mead and honey.” Said the Top Chef Germany alum: “I needed that!”
He would, in fact, need that immunity, because Tom took one for the team and grabbed the very unpopular dessert course during this week’s Elimination Challenge, which saw the competitors having to work together to create a celebratory family-style menu inspired by their favorite holiday for both the judges and their fellow chefs, all while cozying up together in a vacation home in the countryside of Kent. “Essentially the challenge is a potluck,” Nicole said, though Buddha was worried about the flow of the group feast: “Everyone decided to go for a real hearty main, lots of meat.” As a result, he opted to switch out his initial choice of pork belly for salmon.
It wasn’t only the menu itself that was a concern. Though the 24-bed vacation home was more than spacious, managing the number of burners was a challenge, with the chefs having to meticulously time their cooks to free up stove space. Some—like Amar with his Moroccan-inspired lamb shank and Sara with her creamed greens and brisket gravy—decided to cook through the night to free up priceless square-footage in the morning, a move that would have helped Begoña, who was stuck waiting for Charbel’s fryer to heat up, costing her precious minutes. “I’m in the shit,” worried Begoña, concerned that the chicken for her “leftover” Christmas stew would be raw.
Things graciously calmed down for the competitors when it came to eating time, as they gathered at a table with our usual trio of Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons, and Tom Colicchio, as well as Top Chef Mexico judge MArtha Ortiz. (“I hope you’re rooting for me, bitch!” Top Chef Mexico alum Gabri joked of his seeing his former judge.) “To see everybody sit around this table, to see the face of the judges, it’s love. This is the power and magic of food,” Victoire said of the family meal.
Ali’s lamb kebab with pomegranate molasses and grilled salad—inspired by his family’s Eid al-Adha tradition of slaughtering an animal and giving the bulk of the meat away to those in need—was a standout, with Martha likening his flavors to “a symphony.” Victoire’s warming madesu, a Congolese bean-and-tomato stew made “when we want to wish you a best life,” also wowed. “To show my story, to show my gastronomy is amazing to me,” said the chef. “You showed us another dimension of the culinary world that we all love so much,” Gail praised.
But it was the “punch and tang” of Amar’s braised lamb shank with prunes, sweet onions and cinnamon that won in the end, with the chef receiving a Verbo stay anywhere in the world worth up to $10,000. (Adorably, he invited Ali to join in on the vacation with his family.)
“It’s difficult to send someone home when we’re having such a great time,” Tom Colicchio began. But alas, at the bottom this week were Buddha’s “really under seasoned” salmon, Begoña’s holiday stew, and Gabri’s seabass with mole verde and homemade blue-corn tortillas. “This is a very personal challenge…Mexican mole verde means a lot to me,” said Gabri of his dish, which was inspired by Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos tradition and dedicated to his late father, who passed away a year prior. “Yesterday was a very emotional day,” he added during judging, bringing Gail to tears. “If you’re not cooking with that smile on your face, it reflects immediately in your food.”
However, Gabri was safe to cook another day, as Begoña’s uncharacteristically disjointed plate shockingly sent the Michelin-starred chef home. (“It’s not the food I’m used to eating from you,” Padma had told her during judging.) “I’m sad to go out of the competition because I’d prefer to go out with a really nice dish, something that really represents me,” our departing chef said. “I don’t want to go with tears on my face.”
- In keeping with the family theme of this week’s Elimination, the judges had to utilize a shared budget of £1,000, or about 90 bucks each. (“Luckily, London is not expensive at all,” Tom joked.) And after Gabri’s mole money meltdown three episodes ago, it was hilariously understandable why the rest of the chefs audibly groaned when he announced he was tackling the ingredient-heavy dish yet again. “This time, it’s a more simplistic mole!” he promised. The group managed to be under budget by £30, so they celebrated the way we all would—by buying a bottle of tequila for shots later.
- After Victoire’s scary nut-allergy incident last week, the chef took proper precautions and wore a safety mask while cooking this episode. “I’m cooking with walnuts; I don’t want to die today!”
- Sara may be a Pisces on paper but that detailed, type-A graph keeping track of which chefs have been in the top and bottom so far this season is pure Virgo. And after this week, she’s the only competitor who hasn’t yet fallen into the bottom three, so maybe girlfriend is onto something?