Preliminaries? Over. We’ve now entered the serious business portion of this here competition. No need for a lengthy intro, am I right? Let’s get ready to cruuuuuuuuumble!
You’ll recall the 6 successful chefs who made it past the qualifiers here to this our portentous CHAMPION’S ROUND. Anita Lo, Suzanne Tracht, Rick Bayless, Hubert Keller, Art Smith, and Michael Chiarello.
They all regroup in the fabulous Top Chef kitchens and say stuff about being more acclimated to the competition. Then here comes Kelly Choi to give out info they already know, and to get into the Quickfire. They draw knives for teams (yay, because I have been wanting to see the team element come into play here), and group up: Hubert, Rick, and Anita vs. Suzanne, Michael, and Art. Also here’s Tom Colicchio. (You can read that with an exclamation point if you like.) He’s around to judge this week’s Quickfire, the oh-so-crucial mise en place challenge! I love this game. So, each team will field a member to dice 5 onions, cut up 4 chickens, shuck 15 oysters, separate a dozen eggs and whip the whites to stiff peak stage. One team member will have to complete two tasks. Anita reminisces about watching Casey slave over her onions for forever back in season 4, Hubert is a bit anxious because he’s doing oysters and onions so the pressure for victory is a little more on his shoulders.
The clock begins! Suzanne and Hubert face off with the shucking. I can’t stand to watch people shuck oysters (those sharp knives and all the dangerous momentum, OMG), but from what I can see through my fingers Suzanne is pretty much whipping through the oysters like a maniac. Hubert isn’t doing too shabbily, but when he glances over at Suzanne and sees her progress, he steps his speed way up. Suzanne still beats him by a hair. He’s then chopping onions up against Art, and it’s interesting to compare methods here. Hubert is all meticulous and machine-like, and Art is going some willy-nilly kind of way, kind of like I do but with way faster, with less swearing and less pieces shaped like trapezoids. He too finishes ahead of Hubert. The chicken butchering portion pits Anita against Michael; she’s so super methodical and focused that even Chiarello can’t keep his eyes on his own work. They finish practically at the same time so we’re in a dead heat as Rick and Art come in to whip the eggs. Unfortunately for Art though, Rick is a frigging ringer at this because in his pastry teaching he always demonstrates thing like whipping eggs and cream by hand, so his students will have value for those skills. His egg white whipping looks like something out of an old Popeye cartoon – like his hand turned into an electric mixer. Of course he schools Art handily, giving his team the win. Rick, Anita, and Hubert now have 5 stars going into elimination, while the losers have 4.
Now For Something Completely Unsuspicious
Kelly Choi offers the chefs the chance to unwind over a nice meal; they’ll all prepare their signature dishes for each other. This unnerves Anita a bit; she says cooking for other chefs makes her more nervous than cooking for critics. Oh girl, I know. I’ve spent enough time in graduate classrooms to feel you 100%.
But they get started anyway. Art’s looking over at Hubert’s station wondering what kind of fancy Frenchy French stuff he’s coming up with. It turns out to be a delicious sounding lobster and truffle cappuccino with a pretty little corn madeleine on the side. Art went with seared grouper and hearts of palm, because he just so happened to serve it once to President and Mrs. Obama, and now they’re President and Mrs. Obama. Anita is still nervousing over her dish, but everyone at the table loves her seared scallop and mustard greens on potato puree. Chiarello offers up balsamic glazed quail and roasted apples with sautéed field greens. Suzanne serves a simple pan-seared steak with green peppercorn sauce, topped with a fried egg, and Rick dishes up a mouth-watering rack of lamb with figs and pasilla chile sauce. I’m not being metaphorical there; my mouth is actually watering.
So they’re all sitting back and getting the It is when Kelly Choi strolls back in and drops some science: for the elimination challenge, everyone will be assigned to recreate someone else’s signature dish. “That’s mean!” says Rick, like a sad schoolboy. Aw. If you want to be the Master, you have to do the work. (Read that in Ludo Lefebvre’s accent if you possibly can.) Hubert was captain of the winning Quickfire team, so he gets to choose which dish he wants to tackle. He picks Anita, so she gets to redo his cappuccino. Everyone else draws knives: Rick and Michael will switch dishes, and so will Art and Suzanne.
They all express some apprehension about touching dishes that their fellow competitors put so much heart into, and Art says again, some more, how out of his league the rest of these guys are. Then they go a-shopping. Chiarello is thinking of ways to bring his flavors to Rick’s lamb. Rick on the other hand is busting straight out of his comfort zone and use Michael’s flavors to recreate the dish as he might do it in his own backyard. Hubert was really inspired by Anita’s scallops and potato puree; he says her pairing sea urchin with potato was a “revelation,” (doesn’t that just warm your heart), so he’s going to pay tribute by emphasizing that even more. Meanwhile, Anita’s lobsters are running away! She spares no mercy in catching them and executing them. To rework Hubert’s lobster cappuccino and corn cake, she’s planning a corn custard with lobster tartare and herb salad, plus a mini lobster biscuit, changing his Franco-American (eheh) into something Asian American. Art is spinning Suzanne’s steak and egg into … a Scotch egg. Yeah. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I have never understood how that dish is appetizing to anybody. Everyone who enjoys eating Scotch eggs is wrong.
Michael Chiarello asks Rick “how the Eye-talian” is coming, Rick is adorably modest and says he’s trying to make it work. Art doesn’t know if his ground meat is cooked all the way through, but he’s chancing it. Great idea. Suzanne finishes way ahead of everyone else, so unfortunately her plates are sitting there for a few additional minutes.
Table time! This week’s dinner guests are CHAMPION’S ROUND rejects from rounds past including Mark Peel, Michael Cimarusti, Ludo Lefebvre, and Elizabeth Falkner. Also there are Jay, James, and Gael, of course.
Art presents his Scotch egg with sweet potato fries and tomato tart first. Cimarusti cuts into the monstrosity and says, “Huh. There’s a big old egg in there!” LOL. I would’ve loved him here instead of Art. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Falkner thinks Art shouldn’t have boiled his eggs so hard because it doesn’t blend well with the chopped meat. Gael loved the tart but conveniently refrained from remarking on the egg.
Rick’s out next with his roast quail, wild greens, and parsnip-prosciutto stuffing. Everyone is shocked at not seeing a big old chili pepper wearing a sombrero on the plate, but they are also pleased with how delicious the meal is.
Suzanne presents her roasted grouper with fresh peas, gnocchi, and parsnips; it’s clear to everyone that their plates have been sitting out a while. Elizabeth says her gnocchi’s cold and her fish is overcooked, and she remembers that during their preliminary round Suzanne did tend to finish early. Sad trombone.
Hubert rock stars out with his plate of scallops on a bed of mashed fingerling potatoes with a cream of sea urchin gravy. No one seems as enamored of the sea urchin flavor as Hubert was, but they do approve. Michael pops in with his lamb stuffed with figs and flavored with rosemary and olive oil. Cimarusti finds it a bit underseasoned and undercooked. Mark Peel thinks that with some revision this could be a fantastic dish. Just like grad school, I swan.
Anita brings up the rear with her delicious custard and lobster roll. Elizabeth can tell Anita thought very carefully about the dish; Ludo is impressed by the way she spun the dish from its origins but still kept its integrity. And I just really want to eat it.
At judging, the critics grill Hubert first. James compliments the scallop, but Jay asks whether he didn’t need a more pronounced sea urchin flavor. Hubert thinks the flavor was just powerful enough. Then they all tell Anita how much they loved everything about her plate. Gael says she’s “full of surprises,” because no one expected her to make a fluffy delicious biscuit. Art talks about his egg; James calls out the undercooked meat and Gael goes for the overcooked egg. Art mysteriously says, “I have issues with eggs,” and everybody laughs, thus we don’t get to find out what the heck that means. Did eggs come for his father in the night? Did eggs keep him out of the Follies Bergere? We’ll never know.
They all tell Suzanne her plate was cold and old, and she accepts that she probably plated too soon. Everyone applauds Rick for stepping out of the Mexican expertise and delivering something fantastic. James says his take on Italian food was fresh and innocent, and Rick laughs because no one has complimented his “fresh innocence” for a long while. Michael’s spin on Rick’s dish was not so universally approved; Jay thinks the lamb was too rare, and James thinks the dish was wholly Michael and not at all Rick. Michael says he was paying tribute to Rick by not treading on his ground of expertise and going with the flavors he knew best. Everybody looks differing degrees of unconvinced, with James and Jay at the two poles.
They troop back to the kitchen to decompress while the critics reiterate everything they loved and hated. High points: Gael calling Art’s Scotch egg “grotesque” and “terrifying,” and James on Rick’s plate, “Iiiiiiiii luvvvved it.”
The chefs file back in to hear the pronouncements. Kelly starts by separating Rick an Anita and telling them they have the highest two scores.
Rick earned 5 stars from the Quickfire. He gets 4.5 from the diners and Jay, 5 from James, and 4 from Gael for a total of 23, the highest we’ve seen so far.
Anita also scored 4.5 from the diners. Jay calls her a genius and hands her 5 stars, and she gets 4.5 from James, and another 5 from Gael. Added to her 5 stars from the Quickfire her total is 24. Out of 25. That’s some good food she made. Here we learn that another 10 grand will be given out each week to the winners, so I’m sure there’s much rejoicing at the S.H.A.R.E. compound.
Speaking of the less fortunate, let’s check in with the rest of our chefs.
Chiarello: The diners gave him 3 stars, James gave a generous 3.5. Gael and Jay popped for 4 each. Added to his 4 Quickfire stars his total is 18.5.
Hubert: He earned 4 from the table, James, and Gael, and 4.5 from Jay. Added to his Quickfire score that gives him 21.5 which is more than enough to beat the pants off of everyone else.
Art got 3 stars from the diners, 2.5 from James and Jay, and 3 from Gael for the tomato tart. That plus his 4 Quickfire stars gives him 15.
We finish with Suzanne, so this doesn’t bode well for her. She earned 3 stars from the diners, but relatively cool 2.5s from each of the critics for a total of only14.5. She’s out, but not down, and declares that she would come back to the game tomorrow and do the same dish. Only perhaps not so quickly.
Farewell, Suzanne. See you in the final episode, I’m sure.
Next week Zooey Deschanel brings her big eyes and big appetite to the kitchens to throw a wrench in the chefs’ games. She may also bring some of her pixie dust to sprinkle on the plates. Be there or be square.