Olympic athletes help explain the elimination challenge.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

"Top Chef" brings medal-worthy drama in a fiery ode to the Olympic Games.

Carolyn Lipka
January 18, 2018

This week, Top Chef packed an episode with a birth, a fight, and the show's very own version of the Olympics. A hat-trick episode. Right off the bat, Bruce gets a call that the biological mother of his child is going into labor and the chefs stay up with him until his new baby boy is born. A sweet gesture, but it is ill-advised as Padma and Season 14 winner Brooke Williamson just so happen to show up at 6 a.m. the next morning to announce the next Quickfire challenge.

Much to the chagrin of baby bear Fatima who is emphatically not a morning person (seriously, can Fatima get any more likeable? Is it possible?), the chefs must prepare a mouthwatering breakfast dish involving Nutella and inspired by Brooke’s Sunday crepe routine with her adorable son Hudson (a frequent guest of her Instagram, I’ve followed Hudson’s breakfast habits for months. Right now he’s really into fried rice). They have 30 minutes to find a way to complete their dishes in the Top Chef house, a staple challenge of the show where the chefs struggle to find room to prep, adequate cooking implements, and the right ingredients not to mention conceptualize and execute an entirely new dish after being woken up at six in the morning. 

A lot of the chefs end up making very similar dishes, which makes for an uneventful Quickfire. Claudette and Mustache both make crepes; Claudette’s is a vanilla crepe filled with blood orange paste topped with whipped ricotta and Nutella, Mustache’s is a Nutella crepe stuffed with a Nutella cherry filling and espresso hazelnuts. Bruce makes pancakes with Nutella, dried cherries, bacon, chopped hazelnuts, and spiced bourbon maple syrup. Adrienne, Tanya, and Fatima all make waffles. Adrienne’s is a waffled French toast with sugared Nutella hazelnuts and Nutella-foam espresso, but she leaves off the drizzle in a plating mistake leading to a dry breakfast. Tanya makes an orange zest waffle with caramelized banana, toasted walnuts, and Nutella syrup, and Fatima makes an almond waffle with Nutella yogurt, candied turkey bacon, and toasted hazelnuts.

Brooke Williamson and Padma Lakshmi taste the chefs' Nutella creations.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

Joe and Carrie are the only two to offer something even slightly savory. Joe makes Nutella oatmeal with shaved coconut, bacon, strawberries, and almonds that he over-salts. Carrie makes eggs benedict with Nutella, strawberry habanero jam, and hollandaise that Brooke loves. Joe’s muddled and over-salted oatmeal, Tanya’s overly sweet, texture-less waffles and Adrienne’s dry Nutella-less waffles were Brooke’s bottom while Carrie, Fatima, and Claudette are Brooke’s top three with Carrie clinching the win, which comes with immunity and five thousand dollars furnished by Nutella. Padma bids adieu to Brooke and welcomes three Olympians to the house who are there to introduce the elimination challenge.

Olympic ice dancing gold medalist Meryl Davis, Olympic freeski slopestyle silver medalist Gus Kenworthy, and two-time Olympic skeleton racer for team USA John Daly talk a little bit about the rigor and skills their sports require: precision, speed, and creativity. For the elimination challenge the chefs will break down into teams of three that will compete head to head in three rounds to test their speed, precision, and creativity, Bruce immediately grabs Mustache and Joe FLamm as the “bears” (I guess since Tyler left they adopted Mustache.) Carrie grabs Fatima and Adrienne, dubbing themselves the “foxes,” which leave Tanya, Claudette, and Chris to work together. Chris is irked by the bear clan thing which he admits “is getting to me a little bit” but he’s happy with his team, especially Tanya who he calls a “living legend in the black chef community.” 

The new "bears" shop for the elimination challenge, including proud new papa Bruce Kalman.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

The head-to-head competitions consist of three rounds. The first round is speed: one chef from each team must feed thirty diners in 45 minutes. The second round is precision: another team member will create a dish that has a protein cooked to the perfect temperature and contains elements with perfect chiffonade, bâtonnet, and brunoise cuts. The third round is creativity—one chef will “freestyle it,” throwing in as many tricks as possible using a mystery protein that will be given to them at the beginning of the Top Chef games. Each group immediately begins to assign tasks based on their skills. The foxes (Red Team) and bears (Blue Team) are both immediately clear which round each chef wants to take, but the White Team is struggling to delegate tasks. Claudette immediately lays claim to the speed round because of her successful run on Last Chance Kitchen and Chris lobbies for the creative round because he wants to pay homage to his Korean in-laws and 2018 Winter Olympics host city Pyeongchang. That leaves Tanya with the precision round—something she’s not too happy about. In her talking head, she admits she would have preferred the speed round and she feels rusty on the “old school” knife cuts required of the second round.

After a quick surprise party for Bruce to celebrate his new fatherhood, the chefs head over to the kitchen where they’ll be cooking for thirty guests cheering them on, the three Olympians from earlier, and the judges. The protein for the third round is revealed as short ribs, something that pleases all the chefs except Carrie. Tom throws another twist at the chefs right before they get started—they must give him the exact temperature they intend to cook their meat to for the second round and they will not have the use of a meat thermometer. The teams will be docked one potential point for every three degrees off their finished protein is measured. Joe intends on cooking his chicken to 165 degrees, Adrienne wants to cook her filet to 125 degrees and Tanya pauses before saying she wants to cook her lamb to 145 degrees. Tom seems surprised and Joe gives her some side-eye but nobody says anything and so it’s off to the races!

Bruce is handling the speed round for the Blue Team and he’s making a creamy polenta with mushroom ragu, parmesan, pickled ramps, and pink peppercorns. Bruce has never met a ragu he doesn’t like and (though I gripe that all of his dishes have a familiar tone to them) it looks and sounds delicious and he pulls it off without a hitch. The Red Team is also operating fairly smoothly with Fatima taking the helm of the speed round serving her fast-searing scallops with coconut broth, avocado mint puree, spicy papadum, and pumpkin seeds. The White Team encounters some trouble as Claudette finds herself in the weeds and heavily relying on Tanya to help her complete her dish. Tanya is finding herself more and more in the weeds for her own dish because of Claudette’s increasing demands and her attitude reflects it. She makes one too many gripes under her breath and Claudette chides her, plating her dish on her own and, due to the ticking clock, completely misses her acid component for her crispy yellow corn grits topped with crispy pork belly and tossed in a pipian sauce.

At the end of each round the judges and Olympians hold up a score out of 10 available points. They are added up for the cheftestants’ total scores and they are awarded a gold, silver or bronze medal. They even have the little podiums. It’s all a very precious tribute to the Olympics and the first round scores come in for the dishes. Fatima’s Red Team scores a total of 47, Bruce’s Blue Team earns a strong 50, and Claudette’s White Team comes in with a score of 41.5. Padma and Gail were particularly critical of Claudette’s dish calling it overly rich and muddled, respectively. 

In the precision round, the chefs are all aiming for the temperatures they announced at the beginning of the cook. Adrienne calls for a check on her filet first and she comes in under her goal of 135 at 115 degrees. She’s frustrated but goes back to focusing on her knife cuts. Joe calls it next and his chicken clocks in at 158.5 degrees out of his 165. Close, but no cigar, as he will be deducted points as well. Tanya calls Tom over for her 145 and she’s way off at 125 degrees. Unfortunately for her, the meat is perfectly cooked but the 145-degree threshold she set for herself at the beginning would have meant well-done lamb. This, as well as Claudette’s attitude and reluctance to help her on the line, unnerve her. There’s more bickering as Tanya struggles to execute her cuts. When time is called on the round the chefs present their dishes. Joe made an Urfa biber-roasted chicken with apple brunoise, sorrel chiffonade, and butternut squash bâtonnet. The highest score any individual judge can give him is an 8 and he racks up 42.5 points. Adrienne offers a roasted filet with chiffonade kale salad, apple brunoise, and butternut squash bâtonnet. Her highest possible score was a 7, which her best-of-the-group knife cuts earned her from the judges, but not the Olympians. She comes out of the round with 40.5 total points. Tanya’s already foiled by her sour teammates (Chris is doing his best to ignore the bickering and Claudette is noticeably bitter the entire round) and her misjudgment of temperature so she’s hoping her North African spiced leg of lamb with chiffonade collard greens, couscous, shallot brunoise, glazed carrot and zucchini bâtonnet will impress the judges. Although the flavor of her dish went over well, Tom called her knife cuts “atrocious” and Gail called them “unidentifiable.” Out of the 4 possible points she could have earned most of the judges gave her an unforgiving 2 for a total of 18.5 total points. Brutal.

Joe Flamm anxiously awaits an official temperature reading from Tom Colicchio.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

For the final round, the chefs are challenged to be as creative as possible while highlighting the short rib. Chris integrates it perfectly into the Korean flavor palate he planned on working with earlier and makes a braised short rib with ginger tofu cream, miso caramel, and bok choy kimchi. Carrie, someone who’s typically Americana palate made for a surprising choice to helm this round, made beef short ribs with fettuccine, butter poached morels, and oyster mushrooms in a bleu cheese sauce. The Olympians and the judges alike really disliked the flavor of her bleu cheese sauce. Tom said it was a “very amateurish way of making pasta” and one of his least favorite dishes of the season. Ouch. Mustache, who last week was chastised for using too many of his tricks at once, relishes the opportunity to pull out every technique in his basket. He makes a beautiful beef short rib casoncelli with carrots and ramps. The carrot tops were used to stripe the pasta dough, the ramp bottoms are incorporated into the meat filling, and he incorporated dehydrated carrot into the dish as well. Say what you will about the man’s ego and his silly mustache, but he can make a pasta.

Mustache Joe brings his pasta skills to the elimination challenge.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

Carrie takes home a scant 35 points, Chris, a strong 51, and Mustache a slightly stronger 51.5 for the gold. The Blue bears swept these Olympics and the chefs head to judges table ready to fight for their survival. Right before they head in, Tanya’s stress begins to show as she snaps at Bruce saying, “I love you guys but you monopolize the conversation when you win you monopolize the conversation when you lose, so just like have some empathy.” Tanya started the episode over it and it looks like she’s going to end it that way, too.

Claudette and Tanya struggle to work as a team in the elimination challenge.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

First, the good news. The judges loved the entire meal the bears offered, with Gail saying it was “hard to find any flaws in any of your dishes.” The big win went to Mustache whom Padma called whimsical and creative. His dish was composed, beautiful and a “home run” in Gail’s words.

When the White Team is called before the judges, everyone in the room tenses up. Everyone loved Chris’s dish and he’s definitely safe even though Gail felt that the tofu cream caused some of the kimchi flavor to be muted. When Tom was questioning Claudette about her dish she immediately got defensive, saying she knew that it was missing the acid component—claiming that she had a green onion, Serrano and lemon sauce prepped that never made it onto the dish because Tanya was giving her attitude when she asked for help. During this exchange, Joe Flamm leans over and whispers to Adrienne that this scenario seems familiar, referring to when Claudette threw Adrienne under the bus during the first team challenge over their appetizer course. Claudette continues to throw Tanya under the bus, blaming her bad attitude and claiming she was the reason that the first course didn’t come together. Not one to take it lying down, Tanya comes back at her claiming that’s not what happened and that by spending so much of her time helping Claudette, her own dish suffered. When the judges ask her for her side, Tanya falls silent, saying she’s said her piece. She is truly a woman who is over it, and who can blame her? Tanya has been frustrated with the egos in the house for a while and voiced her concerns with how challenging it was being away from her family and in this environment. After coming to blows with another chef here, blaming her for trying to execute her own course, she’s clearly done with these people. Back in the stew room, she snaps at Carrie who tries to paper things over between the two chefs by telling her to “get woke” (which I’m not sure why, but I loved watching it nonetheless). The judges send Tanya home for her temperature mistake and failure to make distinguishable knife cuts, meaning Claudette will live to fight another week in the competition. 

Tanya Holland is sent packing to 'Last Chance Kitchen.'
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

Last Chance Comments

  • Damn, Tanya was so over it. I am going to be up front, I am team Tanya in this. I think Claudette has had trouble plating all her elements on time in the past, and she is always throwing her teammates under the bus!
  • “I’m not upset Gail, don’t project that on me.” 
  • Congrats to Bruce on becoming a dad!
  • Of course Brooke already knew Bruce well. Find me one guest judge who doesn’t already have a long history with Bruce, I dare you.
  • Fatima’s love of Meryl Davis was another amazing thing about Fatima. I love Fatima.
  • Chris is feeling excluded from the bear clan and I can see why. They invited MUSTACHE in over CHRIS? I, for one, am shocked. 
  • Adrienne’s knife cuts were absolutely baller. I love when she knuckles down and shows her insane technique. I also love her weirdly intense love for mise en place.
  • The bears going around Whole Foods snagging all the samples was fun. Chefs: They're just like us!
  • That temperature guesstimate for Tanya was really too bad. I felt for her.

Last Chance Kitchen

Tu and Brother are fighting it out for a chance to get back into the competition in the second round of Last Chance Kitchen. They both come in gunning for the next round in the “old school rules” as all the veterans are gone, even from the peanut gallery of LCK. The boys must cook with Colorado’s most abundant ingredient—trees! There are spruce tips and pine leaves, bark, and curry leaves to choose from among others. Tu grabs the curry leaves to make a curry and Brother grabs the avocado leaves that he’s going to crisp down into an ash. Brother and Tu bro out in a steamy sequence at the fridge and numerous talking heads about how much they love each other. Halfway through the prep, Tu realizes he can’t find any plastic wrap to form his chicken rillettes so he tries to use a sous vide bag to do it. Meanwhile, Brother somehow pulls plastic wrap out of nowhere and it’s out on his station and Tu doesn’t see it. Sabotage!

They’re both relatively comfortable with their dishes but Tu is worried about his chicken skin not getting crispy enough (not sure how plastic wrap would have affected that, but I’m not a chef). Tu offers a chicken curry with curry leaves, bay leaves, and kaffir lime leaves. When he explains that he couldn’t find the plastic wrap, Brother laughs and points at the plastic wrap on his station. Was it intentional? In any case, Brother made a pork chop with avocado leaf ash and guajillo chilis, lime and jalapeno syrup, charred pineapple, and mango. Tom thinks both dishes are some of the best food they’ve cooked all season but Brother wins and will be continuing on. Tu, realizing the plastic wrap was on Brother’s station the whole time, is incredulous, changing his tune from a “Brother is the man and I love him” to “I don’t know about that guy’s character. Seems messed up.” A dramatic week for Top Chef and a tough challenge lies ahead for Brother. Tanya will not take sabotage lying down, I suspect.

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