Tu and Fatima take on the deconstructed Denver omelette Quickfire challenge.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

In our first truly brutal episode of the season "Top Chef" bequeaths us a sudden death Quickfire, a food truck team challenge, and a hungry social media star.

Carolyn Lipka
December 21, 2017

Week three is here and the chefs are not playing anymore. The tension is palpable as we open on the chefs ruminating on the contentious elimination from last week. Adrienne and Rogelio are eager to prove they deserve to stay in the competition and Laura is feeling homesick for Alaska. When they enter the kitchen the next day, everyone seems to be in a convivial mood ready to plunge into the next Quickfire.

Padma crushes their spirits immediately after introducing this week’s Quickfire guest judge, James Beard award winner and Top Chef Master Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, by announcing that this Quickfire will be sudden death—the bottom three must compete in a head to head battle and the worst dish will pack their knives.

The chefs immediately put their game faces on to meet the challenge before them: they must produce a deconstructed take on the classic Denver omelette (traditionally an omelette filled with diced ham, onions, bell peppers and cheddar).

Some of the chefs jump at the opportunity to update the classic dish: San Francisco brunch maestro Tanya Holland immediately decides she’ll be making a crepe, something she grew very familiar with while training in France, Brother Luck wants to use egg smoking techniques he learned in Japan to create a unique approach to the egg. Rogelio has a more rustic approach by creating a toad in the hole.

Laura, still reeling from an emotional call with her son, is frantically running around the kitchen, incapable of conceiving a complete dish. She decides to go with a savory French toast, but she is visibly unhappy with the product she’s putting out.

When time is called Padma and Lachlan make the rounds as the anxious chefs nervously wait to hear if they’ll be competing again to stay in the competition. It seems like they’re disappointed with almost everything they eat. Padma is exacerbated by Bruce’s ricotta gnocchi with duck egg yolk, sharp white cheddar and applewood smoked ham, sighing “gnocchi again?” when he introduces his dish. She is equally as disenchanted with winner’s circle frequenter Joe Flamm’s Denver panzanella with ham and basil aioli, exclaiming “that’s it?” when he admits the egg presence in the dish is confined to the aioli. Tanya received similar criticism from Lachlan for her cornmeal crepe stuffed with Virginia ham, Gruyere cheese and red pepper sauce because it didn’t contain a separate egg component. Basically everyone receives some form of side-eye from the judges.

Lachlan and Padma seem unenthusiastic about announcing the winners but offer some heartfelt compliments to the top three. Tu’s fried egg salad with ham, peppers, caviar, and onion tarragon vinaigrette brought a brightness and acidity that his competitors were lacking. Padma also enjoyed the bright bursts of tobiko that his “egg on egg” dish offered. Carrie’s extremely simple Denver breakfast sandwich with bacon pepper jam, soft-scrambled egg and crisp prosciutto also wound up in the top because of its perfect execution. This choice struck me as a surprise and really highlights how unhappy the judges were with the selection of dishes the cheftestants proposed. On a challenge where they asked for innovation and deconstruction, to provide a classic breakfast sandwich with the same ingredients seems like something they would have eschewed in previous seasons (and have! Tom once lectured the chefs on how disappointed he was that they did not rise to a deconstruction challenge in season five). The judges’ favorite dish was Brother Luck’s smoked soft-boiled duck egg with red pepper gastrique, cheddar and ham tempura with a pepper salad and awarded him immunity for the impressive technique on the egg and truly unique take on the classic dish.

Brother Luck wins immunity with his deconstructed Denver omelette.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

Unfortunately the mood turns dour after Brother’s win because the chefs know what’s coming. The bottom three are Laura’s savory French toast with cheddar cheese crust, crispy Serrano ham and fried quail egg that didn’t translate to the plate both visually and conceptually, Rogelio’s improperly cooked egg in a hole with cheddar cheese, basil, and red pepper sauce, and Tanya’s dry and incomplete crepe.

Tom enters the kitchen to announce their sudden death challenge—the three chefs must produce a perfect classic French omelette in fifteen minutes. That means soft curds, clean folds and absolutely no browning on the egg. In a move that truly perplexes the judges and fellow competitors watching the showdown, all of the chefs decide to prepare a filling for their omelettes. Delicately put, this sudden death is a shitshow. Tanya grabs the last two nonstick pans forcing Rogelio and Laura to waste valuable time cleaning the dirty nonstick pans from the Quickfire—a necessary part of clean French omelette technique. Laura is scattered and tearful; she’s homesick and disoriented, completely demoralized from her performance in the Quickfire and visibly shaken.  It’s tough to watch. Fatima notes that Laura is a two-time James Beard nominee, and to watch her reduced to tearfully and frantically failing to prepare a French omelette is difficult. As a viewer I have enjoyed Laura’s asides and can feel that she is one of the more open, loving contestants. As the time winds down and Laura realizes that she put her egg in the pan too late, she begins to drain the excess liquid, essentially raw egg and liquefied cheese, into the garbage. It’s devastating. She shakily plates an unfolded, partially raw egg and before the judges even see them it’s clear what’s about to happen.

Rogelio offers a torn and slightly overcooked mushroom cheddar and ham omelette that Tom says “has problems.” Tanya’s asparagus and spinach omelette is the best but everyone is audibly disappointed that nobody prepared a classic French omelette composed simply of egg, salt and fine herbs.  Unfortunately Laura’s uncooked omelette with marscapone unanimously sends her home.

Laura Cole is eliminated in the first game-changing Quickfire challenge of season 15.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

The chefs are given about five seconds to mourn the loss of one of the most animated competitors this season before Season five Top Chef champion Hosea Rosenberg walks into the kitchen to announce their elimination challenge. A purveyor of his own food truck empire, Hosea challenges the chefs to provide a three-course food truck menu to feed 150 college students. The students will each be given a ticket that they can exchange for one of the trucks’ full menu, so creating attractive dishes is a key component of the challenge. The chefs draw knives to divide them into four teams and get to work menu planning and coming up with almost universally unappetizing names for food trucks.

Padma informs the chefs that for some reason Logan Paul, known for his (sometimes sexist) YouTube videos and being the slightly less obnoxious Paul brother, will be bringing the students with him and tasting their food.

The teams get to work planning their menus. Mustache Joe is excited to work with Fatima and Tyler, all of whom have been in the top multiple times. Fatima comes up with the idea to do a hangover cure because college students love to party and there’s nothing a college student wants more than something greasy to sop up all that liquor. Mustache Joe, who lived in a frat (in a surprise to no one) is confident in his experience cooking “cannabis-induced snacks” and decides to make some sticky Chinese-inspired wings. Tyler, who spent his young adulthood in punk bands instead of college, decides to cook what he as a chef would make himself if he were hungover—a tomato soup.

Bruce is confident in his team even though Rogelio has been circling the drain on the past three challenges and Brother has immunity. Bruce decides to make a fatty pork sandwich and Brother is making a frybread dessert so Rogelio decides to do a fresh salad take on Mexican street corn to offset the heaviness of their menu. Bruce is a little apprehensive about Rogelio’s nervous energy, understandable because of his narrow escapes of the chopping block, but is confident their menu will gel.

Tu, Adrienne, and Chris Scott decide to go with a sandwich concept and to tie their menu together they are all enthusiastic about the prospect of using the same bread for all of their dishes. Meanwhile, Carrie, Joe Flamm, and Tanya decide to call their truck “Down the Chin” because they want unctuous food that drips down your chin. I like the concept (who doesn’t love cheese so melty you struggle to catch it all in your mouth) but the name, as a producer points out, invites other… connotations.

Everything seems set until the chefs arrive at their new digs; the cramped hot kitchen of a food truck with limited cooking instruments. Bruce’s convection oven breaks and he panics about how to prepare the pork for his sandwich. In order to adapt, he wraps the pork in cling wrap and then foil and puts it in the tabletop high-end toaster oven for what he calls a “hillbilly sous vide.” This is a real Top Chef move and one of the reasons I love watching the show—it really shows the levels to which top chefs are intimately familiar with what makes a certain ingredient cook a certain way.

Fatima is also struggling with some of her materials, as the canister she planned on piping her whipped cream out of is broken and doesn’t aerate any of the cream. Luckily she adapts by using a hand mixer. Tanya’s outlet popped as she plugged in the waffle machine for her chicken and waffles and back on Bruce’s team their fryer craps out and Brother must adapt and reignite the heat. Now that’s what I call a Top Chef challenge!

In the midst of the chaos, the college students arrive with a vlogging, dabbing Logan Paul. Fatima, Tyler and Mustache are the first to get slammed at their truck aptly named “Hangover Cure.” Gail was apprehensive about the concept of Tyler’s smoked tomato soup with vodka and grilled cheese croutons from a food truck but it’s so good that it makes a believer out of her. Tom particularly loved the crouton. Mustache Joe’s “Sticky-licky” wings with sake and kale were Padma’s favorite and all the judges love the sneaky nutrients in the delicious kale topping. Fatima’s waffle with strawberries and cream makes Logan happy whose main contribution to the judging panel is saying, “waffles are kind of my thing.”

Down the Chin also fared well with the college students as the menu was not afraid of a little grease.  Carrie’s juicy lucy cheeseburger stuffed with American cheese with bacon aioli plays perfectly into her classic simple Americana flavors and impressed Gail with its perfect construction. Joe’s Maxwell street style ribs were pleasant but nobody felt that they were a standout. Tanya’s chicken and waffles, something she’s famous for at Brown Sugar Kitchen, impressed Tom with the clean execution.

Blazin’ Sammies, named for the sandwich concept and heat-forward flavor profiles of Adrienne, Chris and Tu falls flat with the judges. Chris’ crispy fried fish sandwich with jalapeno jam and southern red pickle was exceptionally dry and Tu’s braised meatball bahn mi with traditional garnish was lacking in fresh herbs and heat. Everyone loved Adrienne’s take on a Harlem chopped cheese sandwich which had Denver beef chopped up topped with a beer cheese sauce. The judges were also distraught at the decision to use the same bread on all the sandwiches and felt all the dishes suffered as a result.

Rogelio, Bruce and Brother’s “Foodgasm” truck was also a disappointment to the judges. Rogelio’s “nibble on your ear” elote salad with queso fresco and pepitas, lime and cabbage had an unpleasant temperature and was “crying out for acid” according to Hosea. Tom called the salad “sloppy” and throughout the judging returned to his distaste for the dish. Padma called Bruce’s “The Oh-Face” pork sandwich with smoked gouda and spicy tomato jam a “big fail” and Gail concurred, saying she found it extraordinarily greasy and just fat on fat on fat. Brother’s fry bread with drizzled chocolate, white chocolate mousse and powdered honey was also a failure; Gail thought it was stale and called the powdered honey “cute but useless.”

At judge’s table Down the Chin received the most tickets from the students but Hangover Cure had the judges’ favorite meal. Mustachio Impresario takes home the top honors for his “crispy, moist” wings and he feels redeemed from his lamb dish last week. Foodgasm and Blazin’ Sammies both received heavy critiques from the judges but Foodgasm was the losing team and Rogelio was asked to pack his knives with clear influence from Tom who seemed intent on sending him home from the moment he tasted his dish.

Rogelio Garcia packs his knives in Season 15's first double-elimination episode.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

Last Chance Kitchen is about to get interesting with the French Laundry alum and Laura’s two-time James Beard nominations entering, both with something to prove.

Last Chance Comments

  • What exactly is the intersection of Top Chef viewers and Logan Paul fans? They seem diametrically opposed in taste.
  • Also on the Logan Paul front, by far the best part of his presence on this episode was Gail’s unapologetic shutdown of his attempts to hit on her. Gail, welcome back. I love you.
  • Brother Luck was a (very cute) gangbanger in a previous life with some impressive cornrows.
  • “No one says oh cool you’re an accountant!?” – Joe Flamm and I chose our careers the same way
  • Laura’s elimination was like watching just a slow-motion train wreck. She’s the first person I’m genuinely sad to see go home and feel like she had a lot more to show us. I hope she comes back in another season.

Last Chance Kitchen

Wow. What a week for Top Chef. The episode was a roller coaster and if you thought we were going to get a break from the drama with a quiet Last Chance Kitchen you are sorely mistaken.

This week a vengeful Claudette faces off against veterans Kwame, Lee Ann and Marcel to cook a cheese curd dish with a very special ingredient: TARANTULAS. Yes, Tom is asking these chefs to create a delicious dish with POISONOUS SPIDERS THAT HAVE HAIR ON THEIR THICK-ASS LEGS.  Marcel says Claudette has a je ne sais quoi that shows she can cook and I agree. Her intensity in the kitchen is something I was sad to see leaving the competition and the fact she is nowhere close to intimidated by the fact she has to cook with spiders (“I’ve cooked weirder ingredients than this”) is frankly pretty badass!

Meanwhile, Kwame is gagging and even Lee Ann seems shaken. Marcel’s attempts to impress Tom are on full display as he half-heartedly pretends to be excited about cooking this ingredient. He’s not impressed by the presentation of Claudette’s Yucatan guacamole and Tom cracks open a beer before diving in. Her dish is called Ha Sikil Pak and she topped it with some fried sweet potato skins and tarantula. Kwame overcame his disgust to prepare a grilled flatbread with whey sauce and cheese curds with crispy tarantula to mask the spider.

Tom points out that they’re working with zebra tarantulas, which apparently don’t have hair on their legs. Oh, that makes it so much better. Marcel prepared a fresh mozzarella (he made the cheese) and heirloom tomato salad with whey emulsion, prosciutto, and tarantula gremolata. Lee Ann wanted to mask the taste of the spider with her crispy tarantula over “grime time” of fried curds and piquillo pepper compote and whey honey vinaigrette. Tom was impressed by how good the dishes were; his favorites were Kwame and Claudette’s. Claudette walked away with the win, no doubt aided by her experience working with bugs as ingredients. Unfortunately for Marcel, his cheese was not up to snuff and he was sent home. I can’t say I’m shocked, as his molecular gastronomy toolbox that was impressive in season two seems rather run-of-the-mill in 2017.

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