Padma and Tom play cornhole at Mile High stadium.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

A truly heartbreaking episode eliminates two top contenders from the competition.

Carolyn Lipka
February 01, 2018

“I don’t see a Super Bowl champion here. I don’t see someone who’s really going for it.”

Wow. Well, let’s get right to the meat of this week's Top Chef episode and skip past the aftermath of last week's elimination. The Quickfire starts when Padma introduces the chefs to three-star Michelin chef/owner of Manresa David Kinch in the Top Chef kitchen. Immunity is off the table at this point in the season and oh, it’s another sudden death challenge. The chefs must find the balance between beauty and flavor by making a dish using edible flowers in 30 minutes. Fatima notes that edible flowers are distinct for their “extreme bitterness and extreme perfume so you need a delicate hand.”

So, naturally, Bruce decides to make a pasta. For the record that makes the sixth time Bruce has cooked a pasta dish in nine episodes. Everyone seems pretty confident in the execution of their dishes except for Chicago Joe who fears that the radishes he put in the wood fire oven to roast and caramelize didn’t reduce down enough.

Adrienne is first to present her dish, a beautiful seared scallop carpaccio with watermelon radish, black radish, radish blossoms, and yuzu. A very confident Chris is up next with his sea bass and scallop tartar with charred onion, wonton crisps, chive blossom, and onion flower. Fatima took a different approach by rubbing her lamb with mustard flower and serving it with chili de arbol, Fresno chilies, broccoli florets, and orange blossom. Her dish was the first to evoke a reaction from the judges, with David Kinch noting that she was the first to take advantage of the aroma of the flowers. Carrie made a “fancy toast” which is, as it sounds, a piece of toast with lavender, fig, goat cheese and candied pecans. Chicago Joe’s roasted radishes went into a roasted radish salad with crème fraiche, buttermilk dressing, radish and arugula flowers. Mustache Joe went a different route by stuffing squash blossoms with goat cheese fondue and poaching them rather than frying them, served alongside watermelon radish and radish flowers. Bruce was the last to present his ricotta cavatelli (as he laments, it's second time he’s made cavatelli on the show) with squash blossom, grape tomatoes, arugula pesto, and arugula flowers.

Padma seems nearly irate at Bruce’s offering exclaiming “Pasta again?” When Bruce tells her he initially wanted to make a bucatini, Padma rightfully points out “that’s still a pasta.” Bruce replies “well that’s my comfort zone.” To which Padma walked away muttering “you guys are killing me with the pasta and polenta.”

Carrie and Fatima are in the top with Carrie taking home the win for her fancy toast. In another (perhaps) surprising move, Kinch’s bottom three are Chicago Joe for his undercooked radishes and over-sauced plate, Chris’s tartare that Kinch called overdressed and was turned off by liquid that flowed from the fish on the plate and Mustache Joe's squash blossoms which  Kinch’s called “pedestrian.” (For someone who awarded a lavender goat cheese toast top honors it’s frankly shocking to me that he called a poached zucchini blossom stuffed with goat cheese fondue pedestrian but there’s a reason he’s a Michelin-starred chef and I am writing this review while happily enjoying a stale bag of Moscow mule flavored chips.) Kinch remind all of the chefs, re: Carrie's win, that sometimes the simplest thing, done well, is all it takes.

Carrie toasts her ultimately first-place finish dish.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

For the sudden death, Padma brings out Tom who's tugging a cart full of cauliflower behind him. The challenge before the Joes and Chris is to create a dish where cauliflower is meant to take the place of another ingredient in 30 minutes. Chris plans to marry “old school flavors with new school ingredients” and prepares a cauliflower caponata with white wine vinegar where the cauliflower takes the place of the eggplant. Mustache Joe makes smoked cauliflower buffalo wings with cauliflower crème fraiche and pickled cauliflower stems. Right before serving he tastes his cauliflower and realizes that the texture was off because the smoking process cooked the cauliflower more than he anticipated and braces himself for the worst. Meanwhile, the other Joe makes a purple cauliflower risotto with caramelized cauliflower puree and pickled romanesco broccoli. He achieved the risotto by cooking the cauliflower down with Arborio rice liquid to add starchiness to the cauliflower and allow it to act as a risotto.

Unfortunately for all three of them, the judges are disappointed across the board, with Tom noting “considering how much is on the line right now I’m kind of disappointed in all three of these dishes” and said they uniformly lacked flavor and finesse. His vote is for Mustache to pack his knives. Kinch’s least favorite dish is Chicago Joe’s risotto, possibly because he has a similar dish on his menu and is therefore acutely aware of just how lacking his execution was. Padma is the tiebreaker and votes to send Chicago Joe home.

Joe Flamm doesn't survive the sudden death Quickfire challenge.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

A frontrunner from the beginning and all around the most likable of the bears on this season it’s just a bummer all around not to mention a shock to the fellow chefs. After the announcement, Adrienne falls to the ground in shock and Fatima starts sobbing. After they say their goodbyes the chefs line up to hear their elimination but Fatima is still crying and the chefs are visibly shaken. (This reviewer even had to pause the show and take a breather before continuing because of how out of the blue this is.) But that’s the nature of Top Chef: Someone who has been in the top the entire time and clearly is one of the best, most creative chefs in the bunch can be sent home for one bad dish.

To introduce the elimination challenge Padma brings in Adam Perry Lang, bonafide pit master (and yet another one of Bruce’s close personal friends). Inspired by the Super Bowl this Sunday, the chefs must work in three teams of two to cater a tailgate party for 300 hungry Broncos players and fans. Carrie’s Quickfire win earns her first choice of partner and the opportunity to pair off her competitors as she sees fit. She picks Chris for herself because he’s a football fan and a comfort food expert, perfect for this challenge. She pairs off Adrienne and Mustache—the only two chefs who haven’t worked together yet—and that leaves Fati to pair with Bruce. (Even though she’s friends with Fatima I see this as a clear strategic move seeing as Bruce and Fati have vastly different flavor profiles.)

Fatima has the idea to do nachos using lentils instead of beans which Bruce likes but he isn’t quite sure how he fits into the dish. He chooses to make his own steak dish catered to his insider knowledge of his friend’s palate and sell the whole thing as offering multiple dishes like a tailgate party. Adrienne and Mustache decide to do ribs and fried mac and cheese, which sounds delicious if a pretty traditional approach to a tailgating party.

After they return to the kitchen from a generally uneventful Whole Foods trip (Bruce gets steak, Adrienne gets St. Louis ribs instead of baby back ribs because they’re on sale) Tom and Adam make the rounds to see what the chefs are up to. Carrie and Chris are making a chili poutine but with no cheese curds, a decision Tom repeatedly questions. He’s also concerned about the seeming lack of unity in Fati and Bruce’s offering.

The next day the chefs arrive at the Broncos' Mile High stadium and begin their two hours of prep. The mayor of Denver declares it official Top Chef day in Colorado, Tom throws a cornhole and we’re off to the races. Jennifer Jasinski, the chef/owner of Rioja and Carrie’s mentor joins Tom and Graham while Padma and Adam make their rounds separately.

The mayor of Denver declares 'Top Chef' Day.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

Chris and Carrie are up first with their pork green chili poutine with stadium fries. This goes over well with both the judges and the Broncos players who find the dish extraordinarily flavorful and enjoy that the heat in the dish builds rather than slapping you in the face all at once. Players and guest judges alike comment that the dish “screams Denver.”

Fatima and Bruce are up next with their two separate dishes on the same plate: Fatima’s “blue and orange” nachos with achiote rubbed chicken braised in beer, black lentils, sharp cheddar cheese sauce, and peach habanero salsa and Bruce’s grilled sirloin steak with bread and butter beet salad and horseradish aioli. Adam searches for something nice to say about his friend’s entry landing on a compliment about the “diversity” of offerings on the plate but admitted that he found it lacking in cohesion as a dish.

The judges and some of the Denver Broncos discuss the tailgate menu.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

Finally, Mustache and Adrienne present their fried mac and cheese, miso-glazed St. Louis-style ribs with kale slaw and kimchi aioli. Right before they started serving Mustache was unhappy with the mac and cheese, finding that it didn’t get crispy in the frier. They chose to adapt by dusting the mac and cheese bites in cornstarch to give it the extra crunch they’re looking for. Even though they’re happy with the final product, the judges and players unanimously agree that it was unsuccessful. The rest of their dish fared better, the ribs were tender and had good flavor and the slaw went over well with the patrons.

All in all, the judges are disappointed with the offerings and aren't shy about saying so. In a discussion before the Judges Table they express their universal dissatisfaction with the seeming lack of ambition by these chefs. They take this attitude to the panel where they chastise the chefs to their faces. “This is food I could get at any tailgate party not catered by professional chefs,” Tom spits at them. The winners are Carrie and Chris, who get to enjoy their prize of a trip for two (for each of them) to the Super Bowl on Sunday in Minneapolis. This is an especially great prize for Chris, a lifelong Eagles fan (fly Eagles fly, baby!), who will get to see them go up against the Patriots in person.  

In the bottom, the judges remarked that Fatima’s nachos were muddled and soggy, and the plate she and Bruce presented was disjointed and lacked finesse. Mustache (whom I guess I can just call Joe now but absolutely never will) and Adrienne get taken to task for their heavy dish and the cornstarch mistake on the mac and cheese. Tom especially laid into them, saying, “the mac and cheese didn’t taste very good. You can make better ribs than that, you can make better coleslaw than that. I’m frustrated because I think you’re better than this.”

As the chefs go to stew, Tom says “I hope that scared them,” (and frankly I hope it did, too). As they come back into the room we know it’s between Fatima and Mustache in the bottom, and it was painful to watch Padma fight back tears as she asked Fatima to pack her knives.

Fatima Ali is sent packing in episode 9.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

Last Chance Comments

  • This episode really broke my heart. Lots of tears onscreen and off. My favorite two contestants were eliminated in a single episode and I have no reason left to live!
  • I am still really confused about what happened in that Quickfire. Maybe I have a different perception of what food is pedestrian, but I really was taken aback that a frankly ubiquitous toast topping was considered creative and good enough to win a challenge while a dish I have never seen before was discarded with such disdain.
  • Devastated to see Fati go. She has been a bright light the entire season and is one of the only people who actually cooked interesting food this season. I hope she fights her way back in through LCK but I also would not be upset to see Chicago Joe make it all the way.
  • “I’ve never been to a football stadium before. That’s not true I went to a Taylor Swift concert at one once.”
    “Which one?”
    “The 1989 tour, obviously.”
    “I meant which stadium.”
  • Carrie was in rodeos! “I couldn’t cow wrangle I had to goat tie.”
  • “I’m not ashamed to say I don’t like sports at all.”
  • “I switched up my crystal configuration.” Oh, Mustache Joe!
  • “We decide not to use cheese curds because we’re going for a little bit more elegant of a plate so nacho cheese is a better fit for us.”
  • Will Bruce see any consequences for doing essentially the same dish six times in one season? On other seasons (even the dreadfully slow Washington D.C. season. Justice for Marjorie!) the chefs would get chewed out for repeating dishes (like on the D.C. season, when Jeremy got called out for doing multiple crudos in a row). I love Union and I know his pasta is fantastic but I love Top Chef because it usually asks more of its contestants. It pushes them to create food I’ve never seen before and rise to the challenges set before them to become more creative, innovative chefs. I think back to last season when in Silvia made radish cake for the Top Chef superfans or back to the Vegas season when Michael Voltaggio braised a slab of bacon like pork belly for veterans. As we see people getting sent to the sudden death Quickfire for new dishes that weren’t quite up to snuff while the same dishes waltz through and safe choices (like a toast for example) claim win after win it’s hard to feel inspired by the food this season and I’m sure doubly hard for chefs to take risks when they routinely watch safe choices get rewarded. I hope that as the group keeps getting smaller they push themselves to take chances on new flavor combinations or unexpected preparation methods that really speak to what Top Chef is all about. And I think the judges agree with me on that.

Last Chance Kitchen

This week on Last Chance Kitchen a vengeful Claudette is out for Brother’s blood and to “light those bitches on fire.” Her successful run in LCK earlier this season doesn’t seem to intimidate Brother who comes in confident that his streak will continue.  This week the chefs must cook with produce that is well past its prime with a pantry completely devoid of protein and fresh produce. Claudette plans on drawing from her experience as a single mother and making the best with less while Brother says this challenge evokes memories of working with food from church donation bins his family subsisted on as a child. Claudette is also drawing on her experience in LCK wowing Tom with her flavors and leans heavily into her mastery of Mexican cuisine to make plantain molotes, heirloom tomato caldillo, and cabbage avocado slaw with crema. Brother makes grilled artichoke atop charred eggplant puree with miso, nutmeg, morels, confit of tomatoes and chive. Tom walked away from Claudette’s dish saying “wow wow wow wow wow wow.” He thought the cabbage had great acid and the dumplings were flavorful and delicious. He similarly loved Brother’s vegetables and found both dishes to be so good he would go back to eat them both. Ultimately, Brother’s diverse selection of vegetables and flavor-building gave him the edge and he narrowly beats out reigning LCK queen Claudette.

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