With Jeff’s departure last week, we’re down to a mere six chefs competing for the Top Chef title. I’m not going to mourn Jeff’s departure; his little wink in the opening credits annoys me every time I see it. If you missed last week’s episode like I did (I seriously avoid all things football-related), then check out Iguanachocolate’s fab recap here.
Amazingly, no one lost a finger…
Still stunned at being in the bottom in the last elimination round, Stefan greets the new challenge day with a pledge to not be in the bottom again. Tom’s favorite shouldn’t worry so much, should he? Fabio also feels bad about being in the bottom three in the last challenge; he gets a chance to call his wife, go all lovey-dovey Italian with her, and make sure she hasn’t burnt his restaurant to the ground. Meanwhile, Hosea notes he’s the last American male in the competition and wants to take down the Euros. Finally, Carla—who has really grown on me—is riding high from winning the last challenge and wants to use her momentum to get to the final four.
Back in the Top Chef Kitchen, it is time for the Quick Fire Challenge. The chefs are met by Padma and Eric Ripert. Ripert is one of my favorite guest judges, and if I can’t have the acerbic wit of Bourdain this season, I’ll gladly take the calm directness of Ripert. Of course everyone in the kitchen knows who Ripert is—he’s legendary for Le Bernardin, a top rated fish-centric French restaurant in New York. And seeing as how Ripert is a French fish cooking legend, this entire episode is going to revolve around preparing fish. Leah should be worried. This also means I’m in the dark on the cooking techniques; I have serious fish ignorance.
The QF, as we come to learn, involves three rounds of filleting fish. First the chefs have five minutes to fillet a couple of sardines just like the example Ripert has prepared for them. These are not the tiny sardines that come in a can, but they are still pretty small fish. Carla, who freely admits she screwed up the job, and Jamie are knocked out in this round. Leah did the best, followed by Fabio. An Italian chef should know his way around sardines, though. In the second round, the four chefs have to fillet an arctic char. (I have no idea what the hell that is, by the by.) Hosea did the best job and Stefan did okay; Fabio left too much meat on the head of the fish and Leah gave up, so they are both out. The final round is fresh water eel—they’re dead but still moving, and they need to be cleaned and filleted. Stefan has an evil twinkle in his eye; he’s German, so he’s been cleaning eel since he was knee-high to a grasshopper. Meanwhile, Hosea isn’t terribly familiar with eel, as they aren’t common in Colorado. Hosea puts up a valiant effort, but pretty much copies whatever Stefan does. At the end of the round, he does okay, but Stefan wins the QF. There’s no more immunity, but he’ll get an advantage down the line somewhere. Also, Ripert invites the chefs to have lunch with him and Tom at Le Bernardin the next day.
No such thing as a free lunch.
The next day, the chefs wake up, get dressed and head to Le Bernardin, where they will sample six of Ripert’s signature fish dishes. That there are six chefs and six dishes should have been a clue, but no one seems to catch on. The dishes they eat are: (1) sourdough encrusted red snapper with tomato basil consommé; (2) baked mahi mahi with miso and matsutake mushroom sauce; (3) baked lobster with Hollandaise sauce; (4) oil-poached escolar with potato crisps in a red win Béarnaise sauce; (5) za’atar spiced monkfish with black garlic; and (6) sautéed black bass and braised celery with Serrano ham peppercorn sauce.
Everyone seems to be agog over the food, aside from Jamie; she says she’s bored and she really did not like the last dish of black bass. After the final course is served, out comes the knife block and the chefs learn that their Elimination Challenge will be to recreate one of the six dishes they just sampled. Stefan, on account of his QF win, gets to pick what dish he wants to make and he goes for the lobster. He, as does everyone else, knows that this is probably the easiest dish to recreate. Carla draws the escolar, Leah the mahi mahi, Fabio the red snapper, Hosea the monkfish, and Jamie gets stuck with the black bass she hated so much. To make matters worse, that dish also contains celery, which is another thing Jamie hates. Well, of course she hates it; it’s neither soup nor scallops.
The chefs head down to another kitchen downstairs where they will have all the ingredients for their dishes. They will have two hours to prep and Ripert will be around and give some advice. After the two hours are over, they will come back up to the Le Bernardin kitchen and prepare the dishes for the judges in a side-by-side comparison to the real thing.
To say that this challenge is a bit intimidating is to understate the matter. Carla is nervous because she’s never oil-poached fish before. Jamie doesn’t know what she’s doing; she has never braised celery nor cut down a ham for sauce. Fabio and Stefan are pretty confident, as per usual. Leah, in a surprising statement, says she is confident handling fish because her last job was lead fish chef. Perhaps we know why she no longer has that job. Hosea struggles with his dish, as it uses a spice called za’atar, with which he has no experience. Nor do I; it isn’t listed in my Food Lover’s Companion and I’m too lazy to google.
After some time, Ripert makes his rounds to see what these folks have cooked up. (Seriously, they should think about bringing Ripert in full-time, kind of like a Tim Gunn figure.) Stefan’s asparagus is not cooked right and Leah’s broth is too oily and has too strong of a flavor. Carla’s sauce is close but needs more acid but her fish is fine. Hosea has used too much of the za’atar. Jamie had nothing ready for Ripert to taste, so he didn’t give her any feedback. Ripert departs, wishing them all luck.
The two hours are over soon enough and the chefs head upstairs to the real kitchen to prepare their dishes for the judges. They’ll each have 15 minutes to fire the dishes before service. Fabio goes first; he knows the bread is a bit over done, and the judges note that it was also too thick. However, he got really close on the flavors with the red snapper.
Leah’s mahi mahi comes out next. The judges say the fish isn’t cooked properly—some of it is over-cooked and some of it is under-cooked—and the miso in the sauce is way off. The only thing that is prominent is the ginger and, over all, it’s deemed pretty dull in comparison to the real dish.
Stefan’s lobster is third on the roster; aside from Stefan making the sauce by hand—and it turning out thicker than Ripert’s sauce done in a blender—the taste is almost exact. The judges really are impressed with Stefan’s dish.
Carla’s escolar with the potato crisps is next up; she has trouble getting the oil hot enough to crisp up the potatoes and everyone has to pitch in to get her plates done on time. However, aside from a few un-crispy chips, she pretty much nailed the dish.
Hosea is very nervous about his monkfish; as he thinks of himself as a “fish” guy—as do the judges—he doesn’t want to get sent home on a failed fish dish. He knows he’s missed something in the prep with the za’atar crust, but doesn’t know what. The judges think he got the sauce pretty close to the original but used too much spice and failed to let the monkfish rest before slicing. So far, this is the least precise of all the courses.
Finally, Jamie serves her black bass and celery. Before it even goes out, she knows her braised celery is too salty, but there’s no time to fix it. The judges concur; the fish was fine but the celery was not. Meanwhile, Toby tries to be funny in his appraisal of her dish, but he bores me so much I don’t retain what he spewed out of his pie-hole.
The Celery Stalks at Midnight.
With the challenge over, the chefs hang out in the stew room and drink. Padma enters and, as somberly as ever, calls in Fabio, Stefan and Carla to face the judges. They are told that they are the top three in challenge and they all are relieved and excited. Stefan feels he did pretty well and found the challenge a nice chance to cook things grew up with. The judges found only one flaw with his dish—his sauce was a bit thick. Fabio says it was an honor to have the challenge of cooking Ripert’s dish. The judges thought his plate was a very good example of the dish and he cooked the fish perfectly. Carla also says that she loved the challenge; Ripert was impressed that she figured out how to make the sauce. They all did very well and left the judges with a tough decision in picking a winner. Ripert gets the honors of choosing and he goes with Stefan. As his prize, he gets a copy of Ripert’s latest book, a week following him in his three New York restaurants and a trip to go with him to Food and Wine Festival in Pebble Beach. (Oooh, I’d love to play the Pebble Beach golf course! Call me, Ripert!) Deep down, I hold a suspicion that the only reason Carla didn’t win is because she’d be a lot of personality to handle on such an adventure.
The top three send the bottom three in to face the judges and discuss their failures. Hosea tries to explain that he’d never cooked with the za’atar spice before, but Ripert says that not only was the spice off, the fish wasn’t cooked correctly. Tom wonders why Hosea didn’t allow time for the monkfish to rest, since Hosea should have known to do so. Hosea admits he made mistakes. Leah did not understand nor figure out how to make the broth correctly and the fish was bland without the proper broth. Tom asks her about giving up in the Quick Fire; she says she regrets giving up there but didn’t give up on the Elimination Challenge and tried to do her best. Jamie says she isn’t surprised to be in the bottom three because she knows her celery was over-salted; she tries to explain about the liquid reducing too much, causing the saltiness to occur. Padma says that the plate was unappetizing to look at and to taste and it was the only dish she would have sent back, could she have done so. Jamie tries to recover and says that she thought the got the fattiness and richness of the sauce correct; she knew she made some mistakes but had no time to fix them. The bottom three are then dismissed while the judges deliberate a bit.
The judges concur that this was the most difficult challenge yet. Hosea’s failure was in not searing the fish before spicing it and not letting it rest, but at least he got the sauce right. Leah completely misunderstood the dish by not using the miso correctly and by including butter in the sauce. Tom thinks her head isn’t in the game anymore. Jamie achieved critical mass with the salt, but she knew what she did wrong. Tom poses the question, what’s worse: someone who doesn’t get the dish or someone who does something wrong and can’t fix it?
Well, that question is answered soon enough after Leah, Jamie and Hosea are called back in to the Judges’ Table. Tom admonishes that each of them made mistake in observation or execution. Hosea should have seen seared first, Leah couldn’t figure out miso and mushroom situation, and Jamie over-salted celery and caused the downfall of her dish. Padma then tells Jamie to pack it in. They all thank Ripert and depart. Jamie then laments the end of Team Rainbow, but is glad for friendships she formed, for learning to have more patience with people, and building her confidence level.
Come back next week for even more high-stakes cheffery, as the final four are determined and Iguanachocolate takes back the reins.