Chef Bruce Kalman fires things up in episode 2 of "Top Chef."
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

Season fifteen of "Top Chef" continues with some recognizable challenges, a parade of guest judges and our first taste of drama.

Carolyn Lipka
December 14, 2017

The chefs are acclimating to their new digs, team sleep apnea (Bruce, Tyler and Joe Flamm) are leaning into their status as bears and Carrie is hungry to prove herself after a weak showing in the first episode. It’s a new episode, a new day and time for a new Quickfire.

Padma welcomes the chefs to the kitchen and introduces Quickfire guest judge and prolific Colorado restaurateur Troy Guard and a table of Blue Apron ingredients. At first, it looked like the chefs were going to have to do the Blue Apron challenge from last season but Padma divides them into two teams and announces that it’s time for the legendary mise en place relay race. The teams must brunoise a quart of shallots, peel, destem and slice a quart of cremini mushrooms, and finally clean and portion twenty 7- to 8-ounce pieces of beef tenderloin. The first team to complete all the tasks will use the remaining time to cook against each other using the ingredients they just prepared to win immunity, five thousand dollars and a year of dinners and wines furnished by Blue Apron. There are seven chefs per team and they can divide down the tasks to put multiple chefs per team but each chef can only work on one station.

The green team quickly individually claim which ingredient they feel most comfortable with while the blue team strategizes by assessing how long each task will take and assigning stations based on experience. This strategy gives the blue team a quick lead as Adrienne puts her years under Eric Ripert’s tutelage to use and barrels through the shallots. Meanwhile on the green team, Alaskan chef Laura’s meandering through the shallots and teammate Chris Scott is worried that her inconsistency might bog down the team. Joe Flamm and Brother Luck (clad with a mise en place tattoo) struggle with the dainty mushrooms for the blue team but manage to maintain their lead as they hand off the proverbial baton to Bruce who’s alone on the butchering station. It looks like they have a sizeable lead, but the green team’s choice to put two people on the beef proves to be an effective means of closing the gap. Bruce is meticulously weighing each piece, but his attention to detail slows him down and he watches in frustration as Mustache Joe runs up the green team’s tenderloins. It looks like it's over but Troy finds multiple pieces under and overweight just as Bruce finishes up for the blue team. His painstaking care has paid off and just as soon as they announce the winner, the teammates become competitors, rushing to cook a composed dish with the ingredients in eight minutes.

Chef Bruce Kalman's methodic technique in the Quickfire puts his team ahead.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

There’s just enough time to cook the meat and make a sauce if the chefs commit to running around the kitchen like chickens with their heads cut off but somehow even in the time crunch everyone manages to pull off dishes that impress Padma and Troy. A close battle puts Rogelio from the Commissary and Tyler in the bottom—Rogelio’s classic roasted filet with mushroom, shallot and Dijon cream sauce was an obvious flavor combination with the Blue Apron ingredients at hand but his execution was lacking causing his sauce to break. Tyler’s bourbon-grilled steak with sautéed mushrooms, shallots, and glazed carrots didn’t come together for Troy despite Padma’s love of the tarragon element. Brother Luck and Joseph Flamm fared better with more innovative flavor combinations and colorful dishes. Brother’s pan-seared steak with mushroom goat cheese crème topped in a hibiscus and tarragon mignonette visually appeased the judges but it was Joe’s quick shallot, mushroom and ginger-marinated tenderloin with peppers and a radish and cilantro garnish that took home the $5k and immunity. His dish will also be featured in an upcoming Blue Apron meal as an added bonus.

It’s a quick turnaround from the Quickfire to the elimination challenge as Padma announces that the teams must plan a four-course progressive menu with each course incorporating a mystery ingredient they’ll find out when they arrive at guest judge Alex Seidel’s farm. The meal will be served to 20 of Denver’s finest chefs and suppliers, and the cheftestants will have two hours to plan, prep and cook upon the ingredient reveal. As the chefs embark on a scenic drive over to the farm we learn a little bit more about them: Mexican chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins is a Leo and a self-described witch (for the good vibes, not the spells), Bruce and Joe Flamm are “culinary soulmates” who envision the same potential dish, and Adrienne is a planner which, in the case of a mystery ingredient at least, isn’t the most useful skill.

When the chefs arrive at Fruition Farms they’re greeted by Seidel and his cheesemaker Jim Warren who informs them that the mystery ingredients they’ll be working with are fresh cheeses made at the farm. After a cheese curd cutting lesson and a cheese tasting the chefs get to work planning their menus around the four cheeses they must highlight: a ricotta, a sheep’s milk feta, shepherd’s halo cheese and cacio pecora.

The chefs learn their mystery ingredients will be a variety of cheeses.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

Adrienne immediately asserts herself on the blue team, suggesting making a crisp with the pecora to accompany a raw fish. Claudette suggests a rillete with smoked, cured trout and a cheese broth that Bruce immediately shuts down. After some deliberation Claudette suggests cold smoking the trout and the team moves on. Joe and Bruce want to work together on a stuffed pasta based on something they saw on Instagram and it seems like smooth sailing for the blue team.

Meanwhile, on the green team, Mustache Joe takes charge of the menu planning, rejecting a soup because of potential presentation issues and spearheads the creative conception of the third and fourth courses without much vocal opposition. In her talking head interview, Laura reveals frustration with his controlling approach, but doesn’t mention anything until after the chefs hit Whole Foods. Chris is also concerned with Mustache Joe’s need for control and after a lengthy discussion says Joe needs let go of the reins a little bit and trust his team which he may or may not be ready to do.

The next day in the kitchen at Mercantile, as Tu is prepping lamb for their third course, Mustache Joe struggles to not micromanage the butchery and preparation that he finds unsatisfactory. It turns out he’s not the only one pained by Tu’s approach to the lamb; when Tom Colicchio makes his rounds in the kitchen to see how everything is going he is so turned off by Tu’s technique that he rolls up his sleeves and shows him how to tie a rack of lamb.

Even after the tutorial, Tu appears to be struggling and Mustache Joe, responsible for components of two of the courses, is at his wit’s end when he smells part of the lamb dish burning. Tu attempts to comfort him but it does not assuage the Mustache’s anxiety.

Chef Tu Phu struggles with the lamb preparation.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

Back on team blue, Adrienne is struggling with Claudette on the first course who, despite suggesting a cold smoke, doesn’t appear to know the technique and requires step-by-step instructions from Adrienne. They manage to get the dish out on time but neither of the chefs are happy with what they present.

The progressive menus are eerily similar with three of the four courses going head to head: the second course pasta, the third course lamb, and the fourth course dessert. The green team presented an elevated take on cheese and crackers, incorporating the rind of the shepherd’s halo cheese into the dough for the cracker (which Padma couldn’t get enough of), a potato and ricotta dumpling with butter sauce and hazelnut relish, seared lamb chop with corn grits featuring the cacio pecora and a fried dough with sheep’s milk feta ice cream, chocolate ganache, and orange cream. The blue team offered a smoked trout with cacio pecora, trout skin chips, and zucchini, a beet agnolotti stuffed with sheep’s milk feta with charred scallions, garlic, lemon, chili and drizzled in fonduta, sous-vide lamb atop a puree of wheatberries and alfalfa with spring vegetables and shepherd’s halo cheese, and rounded it out with a blueberry tart topped with whipped ricotta, grated almond and candied grapefruit zest.

Chefs "Mustache" Joe Sasto and Fatima Ali put the finishing touches on their elimination round dish.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

The judges’ favorite meal was the green team’s despite the abject failure of their lamb course and their favorite component was Carrie’s dumpling. Tom particularly loved the textural balance achieved by searing the dumpling on one side and the ratio of ricotta to potato that put her over the top. Tu attempted to salvage criticism of the lamb dish by offering that he wished the diners ate the lamb with their hands, demonstrating a lack of understanding as to why the dish failed. The judges traditionally penalize chefs for not knowing what went wrong, and this is the second week in a row he scalded a meat jus, so Tu definitely has his work cut out for him if he wants to return to the winner’s circle in his own right.

The blue team had some successful dishes but the colorful, acidic agnolotti wasn’t enough to save them and the green team walked away with the win (though Tu and Mustache Joe are told they’re lucky to be on a team that overall performed well despite their poor showing with the lamb). Carrie’s dumpling wins her top honors and redemption. The blue team’s smoked trout had no essence of smoke, suffered from a criminal lack of salt and put the judges on edge because of the inherent prejudice any self-respecting foodie has against a fish and cheese pairing. Tyler and Rogelio’s lamb was too rare and the judges felt that the cheese was an afterthought in the dish, failing to rise to the challenge.

Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins is sent home.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

Ultimately, it was Claudette’s mishandling of the fish in the first course that cost her a spot in the competition and she packed her knives in a tearful and vengeful goodbye. The elements of the dish that the judges liked were all conceived and executed by Adrienne, and this is what saved her from elimination, much to Claudette’s chagrin.

Last Chance Kitchen

So we get our first peek at what the rest of Last Chance Kitchen will hold: Last week’s eliminated chef Melissa Perfit faces Kwame, Marcel, and Leanne for three available spots in the next episode. Tom cracks wise about being the first to get eliminated and brings Jenn in to watch the episode unfold for a little extra bit of humiliation.

The challenge gives Melissa a chance to redeem her missteps from the Quickfire last week; each chef must prepare a perfect potato dish. She jumps at the opportunity to cook with fish, leaning on strengths she’s honed in her restaurant Bar Crudo. Marcel makes glorified French fries and mayo (aji amarillo aioli), using liquid nitrogen to freeze the potatoes before they hit the oil. Melissa presented Tom with pan-seared salmon with confit fingerling potatoes, Yukon gold potato chips and chive oil with lemon. Kwame prepared potato écrasé with potato crumble, lemon, smoked paprika, and crispy pancetta while Leanne went with an architectural presentation of her herb, kale and potato puree with crispy potato batonnet, potato ring, seared scallop and andouille sausage.

Kwame and Marcel wound up in the top with Marcel taking home the win alongside a rare “best I’ve ever had” accolade from Tom about his fries. (It always pays to do simple new-American food on this show when will the chefs learn?!) Leanne’s overcomplicated and underseasoned dish confounded Tom but ultimately Melissa’s overcooked salmon and burnt potato chip sent her packing her knives once again, for the final time this season.

Last Chance Comments

  • “What are you making?” “Love!”
  • Tyler is thirsty for every chef in Denver and who can blame him! Also, how cute was his Julia Child Halloween costume?
  • Watching Adrienne go to town on those shallots evokes the spirit of Jenn Carrol, one of my all time favorite Top Chef contestants from season 5, another Le Bernadin alum and badass female in the kitchen.
  • This is not the first time a chef has been sent home for preparing a misguided fish and cheese dish on Top Chef. I couldn’t help but see echoes of Top Chef: Texas’s young Chuy whose salmon and goat cheese dish confounded Tom. 
  • Claudette is a witch, but not a regular witch, like a cool witch.
  • This week on Tales From Alaska: a bear once rummaged through Laura’s fridge.
  • That sheep’s milk cheese ice cream must have been the most delicious ice cream in the world for Tom to overlook the texture failure. As someone who’s notoriously a stickler for execution it was surprising to see him react so positively.
  • This also isn’t the first time judges have asked chefs not to prepare a raw dish. Seems like they learned their lesson after awarding King Crudo Jeremy the Top Chef title in season 13.
  • Multiple action shots of Carrie applying mascara this week.
  • No Gail this week. I miss you girl. Come back.

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