How do you maintain the intensity and excitement of a season following “Restaurant Wars,’’ the best episode of the season? By throwing a 50-pound wrench into the season, of course!
Veteran “Top Chef’’ viewers have been anticipating the arrival of Last Chance Kitchen, which is this show’s equivalent of an ex-girlfriend showing up at the “Real World’’ house. The premise: Since Season 9, “Top Chef’’ has included a way for eliminated chefs to fight their way back into the show to compete in the show’s finale. In the first Last Chance Kitchen, all of the eliminated chefs duke it out in a battle royale with only one victor. Moving forward, that chef faces the most recently eliminated chef one-on-one, and so on. Whichever chef is still standing at the end of the season gets a spot in the finals. And if you think it’s a longshot for someone to go from Last Chance Kitchen to “Top Chef’’ champion, look no further than Boston’s own Kristen Kish. After being eliminated in the “Restaurant Wars’’ episode of Season 10, Kish went on a miraculous run through Last Chance Kitchen and eventually won the grand prize.
(Last Chance Kitchen can only be watched online, and Bravo posted the first two episodes Wednesday night. My suggestion is to read this entire recap before watching the episodes to avoid spoilers. Here are the links to Episode 1 and Episode 2. )
Looking to Episode 8, there are only seven contestants left and the dwindling cast makes it even harder to compile the Ratty Power Index (RPI). Last week I had Doug in the number 5 spot and said that I thought he was “peaking at a good time’’; he went on to win last week’s episode. Conversely, Keriann was falling fast on RPI when she got the boot last week for fumbling her job as Front of the House in “Restaurant Wars.’’ What does this mean? It means that the RPI is working and I’m going to work even harder each week to provide the most accurate information possible to you, the reader. At this point in the season, the talent gap between the chefs in negligible and the margin between winning an episode and being sent home can be razor thin. Here’s an updated RPI as we head into Episode 8:
1. Doug: He tallied an impressive win last week by leading the 4 Pigs team to the win as Executive Chef and chief expediter
2. Mei Lin: All she does is win! Her contributions to the winning 4 Pigs earn her the top spot this week.
3. Adam: Had the most memorable performance last week, charming the judges and guests as the voluble Front of the House for 4 Pigs
4. Gregory: He was on the losing Magellan team last week and was lucky that Katie and Keriann were the prime targets heading into Judge’s Table
5. Katsuji: Didn’t do himself any favors by getting involved in Crepe-gate
6. Melissa: Her buttermilk biscuit cobbler had my mouth watering, but she was still lucky to end up on a talented team
7. Katie: If Keriann wasn’t such an utter disaster running the Front of the House, Katie’s lack of leadership would have got her booted last week.
After the best episode of the season, it wouldn’t be surprising if the following episode was a major letdown. But “Top Chef’’ has a knack for keeping us interested for the entire season, and they opened this week’s episode with a dreaded Sudden Death Quickfire. The chef with the best dish would receive immunity for the Elimination Challenge, and the chef with the worst dish would have to battle it out to remain in the competition.
It was great see Jasper White on the set this week, though I wish he stuck around longer. White, the chef and owner of the successful Summer Shack Restaurants, literally wrote the book on the main ingredient of this week’s Quickfire: Chowder. The contestants had thirty minutes to create a unique chowder, with a range of available ingredients including littleneck clams, razor clams, shrimp, and lobster. Several of the contestants seemed noticeably intimidated to make chowder for a Boston restaurant legend. “Every restaurant and every home claims to have the best chowder in Boston,’’ White added before the chefs got started.
Mei: Clam and lobster chowder with yuzu aioli, celery, and fennel
Katsuji: Oyster chowder with poblano, jalapeno, and toasted garlic broth
Gregory: Razor clam and sweet potato chowder with bacon, dashi, and coconut broth
Adam: Red wine poached littleneck clams, boiled potatoes, carrots, celery, and tomato water
Melissa: Cioppino chowder with clams, shrimp, white wine, onions, leeks, and garlic
Doug: Grilled oyster chowder with steamed clam broth, and fresh jalapeno
Katie: Clams in lobster stock, with black tea, and sourdough
White’s top three chowders came from Adam, Gregory, and Melissa, with Gregory’s being his favorite. This marked Gregory’s third Quickfire win of the season, and the immunity that came with it was probably a relief after two straight weeks of ending up near the bottom.
White’s four least favorite dishes (or, better put, the other four) belonged to Doug (too salty), Katsuji (White couldn’t taste the oyster), Mei (hers was the prettiest to look at but under-seasoned), and Katie (the raw sourdough had a gummy texture.)
Of those, White liked Katie’s the least, which meant she would have to cook again in the Sudden Death Quickfire for the right to stay on the show. Just as I was wondering who Katie would have to go up against, Tom Colicchio marched into the kitchen with … all of this season’s past contestants! To commemorate the start of Last Chance Kitchen, “Top Chef’’ brought back every single eliminated contestant, from George (remember him?) who was eliminated in the very first Quickfire Challenge to Keriann who was booted last week.
The eliminated chefs were lined up and asked to vote for who among them would compete the Sudden Death Quickfire. The chefs could not choose themselves, and the chef with the most votes would cook against Katie. If Katie won, she would stay, but if the ousted chef won, she would be eliminated and the ousted chef would re-enter the game.
The ousted chefs seemed to put some genuine thought into who deserved a second chance. It was a safe bet no one was going to vote for Aaron (the most hated contestant) or Keriann (eliminated last week), and I will admit to hoping Stacy would pull some sympathy votes as the lone local contestant. But as the voting progressed, George emerged as the choice. As I noted in my first recap, I thought George was an extremely talented chef who got a raw deal in the very first episode. You don’t work with Mike Isabella without knowing a thing or two, and after meeting him in Washington, D.C. in October, I thought he would make a great contestant. It’s also been frustrating seeing contestants like Katie and Melissa squeezing by week after week while George sat on the sidelines.
Alas, a delicious matchup was set: George, the likeable former contestant who was seemingly gone too soon, versus Katie, who has annoyed some castmates (and me) with oversimplified dishes.
The two chefs were tasked with cooking a “rabbit masterpiece’’ in 45 minutes, using any part of the animal. The Sudden Death Quickfire made for an interesting dynamic in the kitchen as both the ousted chefs and current contestants were watching the action and offering both advice and insults. The burn of the week came courtesy of Adam who, upon seeing that George was making glazed carrots, cracked “I didn’t realized this was the Culinary Institute of America Cookbook from 1996.’’ Ouch.
Sudden Death Quickfire Dishes
Katie: Braised rabbit leg with moroccan tomato sauce
George: Roasted rabbit loin, barley risotto, glazed carrots, and mustard rabbit jus
Needing two votes to win, George swept the votes with a perfectly cooked rabbit loin. Just like that, George was back and Katie was gone. You could see the relief written all over George’s face when the decision came down, and you get the sense he’s not going to waste this second chance.
For this week’s Elimination Challenge, “Top Chef’’ did something they’ve never done before. They invited a group of “Top Chef’’ superfans to come to the kitchen studio to eat and mingle with the judges. A casting call went out earlier this year for the shooting of this episode via Twitter. According to the judges, they receive more than 15,000 responses for only 75 spots. (Full Disclosure: I was one of the 15,000 people who applied to appear on this episode, but I was not chosen. I don’t harbor any ill will towards the “Top Chef’’ producers about this. Okay, maybe a little.)
Not only were the chefs going to cater a tasting event for the lucky guests, but the “Top Chef’’ judges would do all the shopping at Whole Foods. The contestants drew knives to see which judge would shop for who, with the rub being that the chefs wouldn’t know the ingredients until the day of the event. Contestants on “Top Chef’’ are always coming up with recipes on the fly, but having them not know what they were working with until the day of added a “Chopped’’ layer of drama to the challenge.
Tom, Gail, and Richard Blais all seemed at ease shopping at Whole Foods, while Padma was probably wondering if her assistant was free to fly to Boston to help her. The idea to have the judges do the shopping was a great one because it forced the judges to use what they knew about the chefs when choosing ingredients. Adam might disagree, though, because he was clearly worried about that the molecular gastronomy-friendly Blais was going to come back with a test tubes and a bunsen burner.
The best part of the Whole Foods trip was when Blais left his cart unattended and Padma took it for a joyride — and proceeded to spill a a box of fish onto the floor. Blais said it reminded him of high school, “the dork getting picked on by the pretty girl.’’ Later that night, the chefs retired back to 1330 Boylston (they are plugging that place hard) and George got his first look at the apartment, since he was eliminated before the contestants ever made it there in Episode 1.
As the Elimination Challenge began, the chefs ran to their respective pantries to see what the judges has chosen for them. As I expected, some chefs were happy their haul and others were less enthused. In particular, Mei thought Tom’s pantry gave her a lot of directions to go in, and Gregory thought Padma perfectly played to both his (curry spices and coconut milk) and George’s (lamb, beef, and chicken) strengths. Adam, as expected, didn’t think Blais’ ingredients went together and showed no intention of using liquid nitrogen or doing any kind of molecular gastronomy. Doug, who was also working from Blais’ pantry, was more amenable to the ingredients and decided to focus on bringing out one or two big flavors.
With two and a half hours to cook, eyebrows were raised when Melissa announced she was only going to make a shrimp salad. Adam admitted that he’s sick of being in the middle, and decided to flash marinate shrimp to (hopefully) impress the judge’s with his technique. Gregory’s jackfruit, when opened, reminded me of the alien autopsy scene in “Independence Day,’’ and that’s not a visual I look for prior to eating. And although Mei was excited about the proteins in her pantry, she had a tough time getting her rack of lamb to cook evenly.
Katsuji: Harissa-poached shrimp with Tunisian potato salad
Melissa: Sauteed shrimp, harissa yogurt, roasted fig, fennel, dill, mint, and artichoke salad
Gregory: Coconut milk and chicken in madras curry with jackfruit relish
George: Beef and lamb kabob with green lentils and cucumber-mint yogurt
Adam: Flash marinated shrimp, mushroom conserva, peppadew peppers, herbs, and aioli
Doug: Chorizo-marinated mussels with sweet pepper and cauliflower relish
Mei: Rack of lamb with charred eggplant purée, scallion-ginger relish, and lamb jus
Across the board, the judges were very happy with the overall quality of the meals in this challenge, and they noted that the guests all seemed happy with the food at the event. (They are “Top Chef’’ super fans, of course they did.) The three dishes that lept to the front of the pack were from George, Gregory, and Doug.
George’s appearance in the top three may have been more about this return to the show than his actual dish, but it was clear that both he and Doug benefitted from a solid, straight-forward collection of ingredients from Padma. Doug’s dish, Padma said, was the “most savory, soulful, and well-spiced dish’’ he has cooked this season. It’s tough to beat praise like that, and he was named the winner for the second straight week. His dish also happened to be the one I most wanted to try.
The judges’ three last favorite dishes were from Mei, Adam, and Melissa.
Mei’s lamb was undercooked, Adam’s plan to impress the judges with his flash marinating technique didn’t get him very far, and the judges were nonplussed that Melissa only came up with a shrimp salad in two and a half hours. And, like a Harvard Business School professor looking at his Chinese food receipt, Padma unequivocally refused to accept Melissa’s reasoning that her main goal was to feature a lot of knife cuts in the dish. We’re at Episode 8 and Melissa is talking about knife cuts. Knife cuts? Someone call Allen Iverson.
In a decision that surprised me, the judges decided to eliminate Adam instead of Melissa. He seemed surprised too, as it took a few long seconds for the news to register on his face. In his post-elimination interview, Adam admitted that he took a big risk with his technique and seemed surprised to be penalized for going big instead of playing it safe.
“Top Chef Boston’’ Cheat Sheet
Who Should’ve Won
For the second straight week, I agree with the judges about Doug. I didn’t particularly care for Gregory’s dish (he sure loves coconut!), and a victory by George right after winning his way back onto the show would have been a little too perfect. Doug’s dish looked and sounded delicious, and he’s on one hell of a roll right now. But…
Who Should’ve Been Eliminated
… I couldn’t disagree more with the judges on this one. In addition to being handed a tough hand by Blais, I think Adam is also one of the more talented chefs remaining. I can’t fathom how the judges chose to eliminate him instead of Melissa who, with two and a half hours to work with, came up with shrimp salad. Shrimp salad, people! Adam took a risk and Melissa played it safe, and I don’t think Melissa should be rewarded for putting in a minimal amount of effort. If you couldn’t already tell, I literally can’t believe she is still on the show. (She does seem like a nice person, though!)
Boston Eye Candy
North End, Quincy Market, Trinity Church in Copley Square, Greenway, Zakim Bridge
My connection to this episode is that my wife (@amydeveau on Twitter) used to work for Jasper White at The Summer Shack’s Cambridge location. When I asked her if anything interesting ever happened there, she told me that she once got Julia Child stuck on an elevator. Say what?
Child, a Cambridge resident and longtime friend of White, was a frequent diner at the restaurant and arrived one day with friends. Amy had never used the wheelchair elevator before and somehow got it stuck between floors with Child on it. After a few harried, dramatic minutes, a manager got it moving and the rest of Child’s visit proceeded without incident. Regardless, when you find out your wife trapped one of the most famous chefs in the world on an elevator, it’s worth sharing.
Weekly 45-Second Interlude During Commercial Break
A tiny, charming girl apparently stole the show during the taping of this episode. In addition to getting Blais’ autograph and hamming it up with the judges and guests, she loved Doug’s dish enough to go back for seconds (and thirds and fourths?). Doug was so smitten that he gave her his pantry’s chalkboard board to keep, but only after erasing the ingredients and writing “#YOLO’’ on it. Cute.
This Week’s Lesson
“Supermarket Sweep’’ circa 1993