Open on Brooke in tears over CJ’s departure. Or maybe because she and Stefan almost went home instead. She has a plastic lizard her kid gave her for good luck, which is probably supposed to make us go “awww.” John’s worried he’ll never be able to offer grits at his restaurant, and Stefan advises Josh, who failed at his specialty pork, that “Divine Swine” might no longer be the best name for his restaurant. Josh takes that with surprisingly good humor, considering how he’s exploded over less in past weeks. Josh and Stefan are buddies, even though Josh thought Stefan was “a little douchey” during his season. Everyone gets cut different amounts of slack.
John wonders who the older woman is with Padma; maybe Martha Stewart’s mother? This seems like a bizarre connection to me, but what do I know. Turns out it’s Marilyn Haggerty, the 85-year-old North Dakota reporter whose restaurant review of her town’s brand-new Olive Garden went viral. She didn’t know what that meant. She wasn’t sure what blogging was, either, but it maybe sounded dirty, so she wasn’t too concerned about these blogger people making fun of her for appreciating a tacky chain restaurant. Hey, at 85, she writes 5 columns a week, she can pretty much say what she wants as far as I’m concerned. Anthony Bourdain seems to feel the same way: he wants to write a book with her. Or a book about her. Or he’s going to put some of her columns in a book he’s writing. Depends on who you listen to.
The challenge is to make a sweet and savory holiday dish based on the chefs’ own heritage. Marilyn talks about her own family favorite, Danish Aebleskiver (pancake balls), which, incredibly enough, I first heard of on Food Network Star earlier this year. See, you never know where you’re going to pick up something new. Because this is Top Chef, they throw in a completely unnecessary product placement requirement (a sugar substitute); then they go way too far and make the chefs all share one knife. They all figure out how to use spatulas, pizza cutters, graters, and scissors instead of actual knives, so it’s a big so what. That’ll learn ya, producers: the challenge was a cool idea, why complicate things with nonsense?
The real challenge, for those of us watching Top Chef on a meta-level, is not – repeat, NOT – to authentically represent one’s cultural heritage, but rather to figure out what an 85-year-old woman from North Dakota who thinks The Olive Garden is pretty cool (and just recently had a whirlwind tour of New York top-flight restaurants) would like.
Brooke decides safe is better than bad, so does a play on plain old American Apple Pie with cheddar and comes up with Apple Crostata with Cheddar, Candied Pine Nuts, and Apple Salad slathered with a yogurt sauce. I’m not sure the cheddar and yogurt pass the requirement to include a savory component, but I’m not the judge. Padma says it tastes very homey. Brooke’s worried about that: in a room full of chefs, she doesn’t think “homey” is a compliment. But it is when Marilyn says it: she took the basics to another degree, and wins because it feels like going home. If Brooke didn’t have such an honest face, I’d think she knew exactly what she was doing and is putting us all on.
Josh stops adjusting his mustache long enough to make Johnnycakes with Bacon, Cheddar, Spicy Compound Butter, and a Sous Vide Egg. Johnnnycakes (cornbread pancakes) remind him of his wife and kids, which is kind of awful, really. He tells Marilyn in his family the men cook breakfast on Christmas; she likes that. She likes his dish, too; top three.
Stefan stops helping Josh adjust his mustache (just what is going on between those guys?) long enough to hound Lizzie for the knife and make Smoked Salmon Tartare with Potato Latkes in honor of his Jewish ex-wife’s grandmother. Make that, ex-wives. Um, maybe: he married the same woman twice, because, you know, one bad marriage just wasn’t fun enough. Here’s the thing: my father did the same thing. At the opposite ends of his life, though. Marilyn likes the latkes; top three.
Micah has his choice of heritage, being Mexibro… or Blaxican… he can’t decide if he’s Black and Mexican or Mexican and Black. He makes Pineapple and Pork Tamales with Charred Tomato and Tomatillo Salsa and Fried Plantain, then worries first because Josie is also making a tamale, and second that Marilyn won’t know what it is. She doesn’t – “You’ve made something unusual…I’ve not seen it before” – then calls it a taco. Because those Mexican foods all look alike, you know. Hey, North Dakota is a long way from the Southwest, in more ways than one. He’s in the bottom two; it’s inventive but a bit on the dry side. Maybe you should’ve made a better tamale, Micah, because Josie didn’t do so bad with hers.
Bart figures if he has to make Belgian food without a knife in 30 minutes, he might as well make Belgian Waffles with Celery Three Ways, Apple Purée, Chicken, ad Prosciutto. “So chicken and waffles is a traditional Belgian dish?” asks a doe-eyed Padma. Marilyn finds too many things to judge; bottom two.
Sheldon has a lot of heritage to pick from – one of the advantages of living in Hawaii – and ends up with Filipino lumpia, a variation on egg rolls. Padma calls it very sophisticated.
Danyele was adopted, so she’s just making the Bread Pudding her mom used to make with leftover Christmas ham, with raisins, and pecans. No comment.
Lizzie is used Christmas spent around the pool, seeing as she’s from South Africa. She makes lamb bobotie, a variation on shepherd’s pie, with apricots.
Eliza comes from a family that fries together; her family lovingly called her “chunky” when she was a kid, so she makes the Hush Puppies Two Ways that got her that way: one with Shrimp and Sweet Potato, one with Sausage and Corn. Yep, that’ll do it. My sister called me Crisco: “Fat in the Can.” We’d give her sponges and Bon Ami for Christmas, because she was a bit of a clean freak. Ah, warm family memories. Marilyn likes the mild sweetness. But not as much as she likes other stuff.
Josie is Puerto Rican, Italian, and Filipino, so she makes a Mexican Tamale with Habanero Masa, Mangos, Papaya, and Cilantro Cream, plus a tostone for crunch. “Nice combination of tastes,” says Marilyn. Just… not quite nice enough. But see, Micah? It’s not the tamale, it’s the twist. Or something.
John is another adoptee, but he found out his birth parents were Irish and Italian and served port wine even to the kids for Christmas, which Marilyn is all for. He makes Bondino of Parmesan Reggiano, figs and apricots in port wine and caramel, which is a really cool way to get booze into the kiddies. Only trouble is, seems there’s no such dish as “a bondino” outside of his own mind. Go ahead, google it, if you find something let me know. It looks like a custard. The recipe seems like a custard. I’m calling it custard.
Marilyn has had all the non-North Dakota food she can take for one day, so she exits to warm applause.
Bring on the celebrities I’ve never heard of. Some actor types named Anna Faris and Chris Pratt, who are apparently married and expecting their first child (who was born in August, so no apparently about it). For celebrities, they actually comport themselves quite well: they’re funny (they do a riff on one of the hookup shows), and have normal family and friends around instead of bimbos and fools. As celebrity party challenges go, this is one of the best.
The chefs come into it by creating a dish each for a buffet-style Welcome Home party. They get a few minutes to talk to the couple about their likes and dislikes: Pacific Northwest seafood like salmon and Dungeness crab, lots of game (he’s a hunter who eats his kills, with tales to tell of eating raw squirrel hearts to prove it), nice Norwegian-German meat and potatoes type things. They claim to be pretty adventurous, culinarily speaking (and I guess the squirrel backs that up). But no hummus. None. I love these people. These are my kinds of celebrities. No vegan or raw food crap, no caviar or foie gras. And they hate hummus, which is as far as I’m concerned the whole reason for the discord in the Middle East. When that’s your culinary birthright, you’re going to be cranky.
The party’s at Chihuly Garden and Glass which is… I don’t really understand, it’s a garden with glass, a glass house, an exhibition hall, and a café with one of those menus without plebian things like dollar signs and decimal points so you’re not really absorbing that a burger costs $16.00. But it’s truly beautiful. Top Chef has a history with Chihuly glass; remember Robin trying to make the Bellagio glass flowers out of sugar candy in TC6? Wait, that sent her home…oh. Well, maybe it’ll go better this time. I keep wondering how they keep visitors from breaking things. Or, for that matter, birds and squirrels. Not to mention rain and hail. I guess the glass is pretty sturdy.
And here we are, only on Episode 6 with a dozen chefs still in, and they bring out the car. The car challenge already? Gee, what’ve you got for next week? I still remember Marcel on All-Stars, noting he came in second in S2 and never got a nickel. Yeah, but he got rug burns, and managed to build a career on them.
The guest judge is Rick Moonen, who makes an entrance after John talks about making the clam chowder he learned while working for him. Rick doesn’t seem to be one of the thousands of chefs John has alienated along the way. I’m beginning to wonder if this whole Most Hated Chef in Dallas thing is purely a marketing gimmick.
Top Notch Cuisine:
Kristen‘s passion is pasta, which is fun to say. She fulfills her longing to run her hands through flour and egg by making Delice de Bourgogne Tortelloni garnished with dried apricots and leafy sprouty things. For the record, Delice de Bourgogne is a French triple-cream cheese made extra-special by a dose of Penicilium Candidum, just like its cousins Brie and Camembert. Yum. The stuff is 75% fat. Gail was dubious about the apricots, but they end up working perfectly with the creamy cheese. As well they might; I became addicted to a dip made with cream cheese and apricots (and a hit of spice) a few years ago. Rick calls it a perfect bite.
John credits “a wise old man” with teaching him the base of his Seafood Chowder with Cockles, Manila Clams, Crab, Mussels, Sockeye Salmon, and… well, that’s half the ocean, what more do you want. Rick calls it a hug from the ocean; Padma finds every component beautifully cooked, especially the salmon skin.
Brooke feels a little inspired, coming off her QF win, so she aims for the bleachers with Lamb-Stuffed Squid on Black Rice with Coconut Milk. Tom’s impressed: she had immunity, she could’ve laid back but she went for it, which is the real purpose and opportunity of immunity. Anna and Chris are crazy about it, too.
Sheldon makes what he has when he goes home: Braised Pork Belly with Seared Scallop and Rice Congee. In case you’ve forgotten what we learned during the oh-so-forgettable S7 finale in Singapore, congee is Asian comfort food. Or gruel, depending on who you ask. Anna loves the sweetness of the pork belly, and finds every bite a surprise.
Middle of the Road:
Bart makes Elk with Cherry-Beer sauce and mushroom couscous. It’s fun watching the BeerKnight work hops into his dishes. Padma thinks the meat is beautifully done; Rick says it’s tender and delicious, a well-balanced plate, but it could use a touch more salt.
Stefan goes German. German Gulash, to be exact, mit zie Dumplings und Sour Cream and a little Marjoram Bread. Anna: “This is what a pregnant woman craves.” Padma says it’s rich, which probably means adding another half hour on the treadmill. Back behind the induction burners, Kristen tastes it unenthusiastically. “I’m going to divorce you,” says Stefan. Is he leaving her for Josh?
Lizzie stays in the Pacific Northwest with her Crusted King Salmon with Radish and Beet Salad. Gail wants more sear, more caramelization. Anna wants more seasoning.
Josie goes for Malbec-Braised Short Ribs and Pork Belly over Polenta with Sous Vide Cippolini Onions and Figs. To me, Malbec sounds like one of those awful vegetable proteins like seitan and tempeh, but that doesn’t makes sense, since you don’t braise things in proteins. Turns out it’s a wine. I’m not up on wine (let’s see, there’s red, and white, right?) so looked it up, and Malbec is an Argentinian red wine. Rick doesn’t think there’s enough contrast; Padma wants more brightness and tartness.
Bottom Notch Chow:
Eliza tries the game angle, but her Elk Ribeye, served with Elk Sausage Polenta, Spiced Carrots, and a Huckleberry Port Sauce, is chewy so she slices it thin to tenderize it. Not a good move. Tom is ok with the meat, but the rest is bland, and the carrots, well: “I don’t get it, what happened?” Gail wishes for a hit of acid (don’t we all); Rick finds the meat grainy.
Danyele got the thinnest cut of boar chops; now she’s afraid they’ll overcook when seared. Sure enough, when she tries it, they’re shoes. She was mentored by Stephan Pyles, the “legendary Founding Father of Southwest Cuisine” (take that, Bobby Flay), and wants to live up to it. Chris ratchets up the pressure a little more when he tells her he loves wild boar. “I hope I don’t disappoint,” she says. “So do I,” he warns with a mock menacing glare. But, alas, she does. Her Pan-Roasted Wild Boar with Hoppin’ John (a Southern dish of black-eyed peas and rice often served on New Year’s Day) and Tomato-Bacon Marmalade doesn’t work. Tom finds the thin chops lack the texture expected of boar. Gail finds it bland and cooked unevenly. Anna wishes for more seasoning. Chris does admire the tomato-bacon jam, but come on, who wouldn’t. Just saying “tomato bacon marmalade” makes my mouth water. Rick thinks she was uncomfortable. So, what, she needs better shoes? Maybe boar chop shoes?
Josh is determined to redeem his reputation as a pig man. Unfortunately, the Roasted Pork Shoulder and Grilled Corn Purée with Succotash and Fennel-Apple Salad ain’t gonna do it. Chris tries: “It might not be great, but there’s a lot of it.” Anna wishes the pork was more seasoned. I’m beginning to understand why Josh closed his Divine Swine restaurant and transplanted to a Dallas pastry chef position. Maybe he can try TCJD, but if he fails at that, will he have to shift to seafood?
Micah does Pork Short Ribs with Celery Root Purée, Grilled Apples, and Celery Leaf Salad. All these dishes sound great, so it’s the execution that’s failing. He knows the celery root isn’t as creamy as it should be, so he adds milk. “Too much cream,” says Tom. Oopsie. Rick feels some of the components didn’t quite add up. Pork, celery, apples, it takes skill for that to not add up.
John, Kristen, Brooke, and Sheldon are the top contenders. John gets props from former boss Rick for making celebratory soul food that maintained the integrity of every ingredient (just like he taught him to do). Gail asks Kristen how she knew the apricots would work; Tom realizes it makes sense, and lauds her for thinking of it. Brooke gets into a riff about fear, how she’s been holding back so no one would yell at her, and now just cooked; Tom tells her, “If this is the way you cook, no one’s going to yell at you.” Sheldon talks up being under the influence of many ethnicities.
Brooke wins in a unanimous decision; she’s genuinely excited. It’s nice to see someone nice get goofy with delight; I don’t think it’s happened since Carla in TCAS Episode 6 when Marcel shot her down once he realized he was in the bottom. I hope she carries this forward; it’d be nice to have two women consistently doing well.
Eliza, Danyele, Josh, and Micah line up for the beat-down. Tom emphasizes they weren’t bad dishes, but they all had quality issues. Micah‘s celery root was grainy; Tom found the ingredients out of proportion. Padma tells Josh he needs to stop saying he’s a pork man; the ratio of pork to everything else on the plate was out of whack, and Rick complains about underseasoning. Tom questions Eliza about the thin slice of the elk, then complains about dry, undercooked, flavorless carrots. “Thank you for your feedback, this has been a wonderfully humbling experience.” Oh, just wait, dear, there’s plenty more where that came from. Danyele gets credit for fantastic relish, but the boar was overcooked. Padma notices she’s scared, and she can’t explain why she’s so stressed out, why she can’t cook in this competition the way she cooks in her home kitchen. Tom’s advice: “Cook your food. Don’t get psyched out, don’t second-guess yourself.” Still, she worries she’s not cut out for this competition thing. That happens to a lot of good cooks on this show. Unfortunately, it also happens to mediocre chefs who aren’t experienced enough to cope with small variations.
Eliza’s out. Eliza approaches the panel but declines to shake hands, as she’s coming down with a cold: “So I’m going to give you each a nod.” I appreciate the courtesy behind the idea, but, yeah, it’s just weird. She’s disappointed, of course; she thought she’d do better. I’m a bit surprised myself; I expected Josh to be out. Tom explains this decision in more detail in his blog; it was the carrots that did it. I just read his book, Think Like a Chef, and he devotes a lot of space to veggies, and I’m glad he doesn’t consider them a throwaway part of the plate. Still, Josh is a pork guy who’s fluffed pork twice now. But this works for me: now I don’t have to figure out which one is Brooke and which one is Eliza. All I have to do now is figure out who the woman who always turns out to be Lizzie is. It’d help if she actually did something memorable.
Last Chance Kitchen:
Eliza joins CJ and Tyler for a three-way while the others watch. The ingredients are pickles and carrots, come back to haunt them all.
Eliza was hoping to never see carrots again, but here they are. She does a Brown Butter Carrot Mash with Crusted Scallops and Corn/Pickle/Bacon/Mushroom Succotash. “Tell me you like the carrots, that’s all I care about,” she pants. “Carrots are good,” Tom says noncommittally. “Oh, good, I’m going to go now.” Tom doesn’t smile. Hey, she’s trying, it isn’t her fault her sense of humor is on a par with her cooking abilities. Come on, she’s relieved she made mashed carrots? I could make mashed carrots. They’d probably be good, too. Tom doesn’t understand why she used white wine with the bacon in the succotash, but the scallops are perfectly cooked. But the succotash does her in. It’s always something. Bye.
Tyler makes a deconstructed ceviche, using the carrots grilled and in raw ribbons, marinating the veg in pickle juice, and adding shrimp with cumin. “It’s probably too simple,” he tells Tom, determined to shoot himself in the foot. I love Tyler. I’ve finally discovered someone who can outstrip me in the self-destruction department. I don’t particularly want to watch him cook, though. Tom liked the use of pickle juice, but the shrimp was underseasoned. Not good enough. “Take the ‘l’ out of Lover ’cause it’s Over,” he says. Didn’t he say that before? Or was that a preview?
CJ is just so happy he doesn’t have to work with anyone inferior to him, he could just about shit. So could I, preferably on his head. Wow, hostility. But he’s such a jerk this season: he tells Tyler, “In case you want to redo our burger there’s crumpets over there.” CJ, darling, the burger was your idea. But he knows who’s susceptible to needling. He gets to work charring pickles, cleaning, smoking, and cooking the trout, puréeing the carrot tops into a sauce, juicing the carrots. I’ll give him that a lot of work went into his Pan-roasted Rainbow Trout with Carrot Purée and Charred Pickles, but the fish is overcooked. No matter; he used simple ingredients in the most interesting way, and wins. CJ’s direction is unwavering. Oh, goody. I’m beginning to hate Last Chance Kitchen. How come it isn’t all going my way like last time?
But wait, there is good news: Kuniko was Saved! No, this has nothing to do with Jesus; she now joins Tyler and Eliza in the Save a Chef thing. I think. After six episodes, I still don’t understand Last Chance Kitchen or its cousin Save a Chef. Did Congress design this process?
John tries to throw Stefan under the bus with some frozen tuna, but it’s probably not anywhere near as dramatic as all that. And how to cook when everything in the kitchen is wrapped in tin foil. *
*Yes, I know, these days all tin foil is really aluminum foil, except on Top Chef where it’s Product Placement Wrap.