'Top Chef' All-Stars Los Angeles Recap: Episode 2—'The Jonathan Gold Standard'
What is the difference between inspiration and imitation? This week's Top Chef challenges the cheftestants to walk the narrow line between the two with a challenge that pays homage to the ultimate restaurant explorer, the late Jonathan Gold.
After their beachfront blowout, the judges waste no time getting the chefs ready for their next elimination challenge. We pick up right where we left off last week, on Cabrillo Beach where Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, and Padma Lakshmi are facing our cheftestants. Padma announces that there will be no Quickfire this week, and instead the chefs will be touring Los Angeles using Gold's last "101 Best Restaurants List" as their guide. "Jonathan Gold was a true hero to the Los Angeles food community," Gail explains. Gold explored all of Los Angeles' neighborhoods with curious voracity, creating a culinary map of the city's different enclaves, always treating each cuisine equally. The chefs will get to visit some of the restaurants that Gold included in his list and then will create a dish based on some of the late writer's favorite restaurants before serving 200 guests at a party at Los Angeles' Union Station honoring Gold's memory. Their guest judge will be Gold's former editor and food writing legend, Ruth Reichl. No pressure.
Back at the house the judges celebrate surviving their first elimination challenge and Kevin shares why he's competing for the title of Top Chef again. After a scary health issue that took him out of work for a year, he's here to prove that the experience made him a better person and chef. "I'm competing to feel alive," he says. In the morning the crew splits up into groups for a day of exploring some of Gold's favorite restaurants in Los Angeles.
Here are the different groups and a summary of the meals at the restaurants they visited:
Angelo, Gregory, Eric, Kevin
This group's first stop is Jitlada, a Thai restaurant that Gold loved for dishes like curried fish kidneys and fried fish. The chefs are presented with "turmeric fish," a stunning whole fish dish that's been rubbed with spices, deep-fried and topped with crunchy peanuts and herbs. They discuss whether their challenge is to replicate these dishes or pay homage to which is an interesting question. Kevin thinks it's the chefs' job to honor what makes the dish and the restaurant special. Next, they head to Meals by Genet, a world-famous Ethiopian restaurant owned by Genet Agonafer specializing in doro wat, a stewed chicken dish. (I literally squealed when I saw it because it's been on my culinary bucket list for years.) Eric feels right at home since he's very familiar with the ingredients and flavors of Africa. Genet gets choked up talking to the chefs about Gold and what he meant for her restaurant and to her as a person. The chef's final stop is République for updated French fare with classic techniques.
Nini, Brian M., Bryan V., Jamie
First, the chefs are headed to Lasa, a Filipino restaurant in Los Angeles' Chinatown neighborhood where they taste a spiced steak tartare and egg noodles with egg yolks cured in fish sauce. Next, they head to Rossoblu, an Italian restaurant focusing on Bolognese cuisine owned by chef Steve Samson. Samson serves them "soup in a bag" with Parmigiano Reggiano dumplings that looks way better than it sounds. They finish out their trek with a bunch of incredible looking tacos at Guerrilla Tacos.
Melissa, Karen, Lisa
This crew starts their day at Chengdu Taste, a Szechuan restaurant in East LA known for their use of numbing, hot Szechuan peppercorns in their dishes. The chefs are so excited to see the restaurant and taste the food. Karen doesn't want to leave and sees a lot of similarities in the food and her own style of cooking. Next, they head to Mariscos Jalisco, a taco truck that specializes in seafood. Lisa, who used to own a food truck, loves the "bright, acidic" ceviches and tostadas the truck is serving up. After that it's biscuits, broiled oysters, and salad at Manuela.
Stephanie, Jenn, Leigh Ann
First up for this crew is Mayura, a south Indian restaurant in Culver City where Gold loved the fish curries and the rice porridge. Dr. Padmini Aniyan, owner of the restaurant, presents the chefs with the fish curry and explains the impact of Gold's writing. "After the reviews came out we became very popular," she says. Next, it's Japanese cuisine at Shunji where Jenn is amazed at the "clean" flavors of the dishes they try.
After this marathon of eating at L.A.'s best restaurants, the chefs have to shop at Whole Foods for their challenge. Kevin jokes that someone will have to push him around the store in a wheelbarrow which is a reasonable request given how much they just ate.
At Whole Foods, the chefs have 30 minutes and $700 to shop meaning they have to synthesize what they tasted and experienced, plan a dish and shop all in that time. Bryan V. shares that the meal at Lasa reminded him of family meals aboard a cruise ship where he worked with a Filipino staff. He's going to try to pay homage to those flavors in his dish. There's a bit of drama at the store's meat and seafood counter when Lisa buys all of the duck breast before Eric can get any meaning he has to pivot his dish to scallops. It's an interesting swap since those proteins are nothing alike. Angelo is going to make a Thai curry but can't find annatto seed, a crucial ingredient.
In the kitchen, the chefs seem a bit frantic as they prep even though they have three hours. Karen decides to make cumin lamb dumplings inspired by Chengdu Taste. She's making the dough by hand (of course) meaning she has to roll out, shape and cook 200 dumplings. In three hours. It's a big task for one person but she's going for it. Stephanie somehow doesn't have time to taste anything she's making which is concerning and Melissa and Brian M. are both making steak tartare which is dangerous because the judges notoriously hate repetitive dishes. At the end of prep time, everyone packs up and heads home for the day, hoping their dishes are enough to keep them in the competition.
The next day at Union Station, Brian M. seems to be having a great time while everyone else is nervously finishing their prep. Angelo's curry is missing a sour element and there are only 47 seconds left on the clock meaning he doesn't really have time to fix it. When the clock runs out Tom, Gail, Padma and 200 guests descend into the cavernous Union Station joined by Ruth Reichl and Laurie Ochoa, Gold's widow. The crowd is stocked with celebs and well-known chefs like Jon Favreau, Roy Choi, Jeff Gordinier and more all paying homage to their friend Jonathan Gold. The judges waste no time and start tasting the dishes at each of the chefs' stations. Of course, the chefs won't know how they did until Judges' Table.
Here's how things shook out with each chef's dish and some of the comments from the judges:
Karen Akunowicz—Cumin lamb dumpling with roasted chili oil & pickled cucumbers
Karen's dumplings look beautiful, delicate and pleated with a great crispy sear on one side. Padma tells her that she did a "great job" which is always a good sign.
Angelo Sosa—Crudo of tuna with chilled turmeric broth & jicama
Angelo is worried about his broth going into the challenge and he's rightly concerned since the judges don't think it hits the mark. "It's a savory dish that eats like a dessert," Tom says.
Melissa King—Mala beef tartare, anchovy aioli & five spice potato chip
Melissa's amuse-bouche-sized dish looks gorgeous as she plates it up. But then Tom takes a bite and turns red saying he bit into a big bite of chili. Uh oh. Ruth says hers was pleasantly spicy.
Leigh Anne Wong—"End of Summer" Hayashi with black plums, tomato-seaweed gelée, mozzarella, and king crab vinaigrette
The judges are mum on this dish except for Tom who raises an eyebrow at fish and cheese being part of the same dish.
Lisa Fernandes—Pickled chili salad with spicy caramel duck
Lisa's dish looks great but Tom asks if she thinks the dish was successful in using spice to cut the fat. It's a leading question, meaning he probably doesn't think that it did.
Brian Malarkey—Fried rice beef tartare with kimchi vinaigrette, peanut crack & fermented egg yolk
There's a lot going on on Brian's plate but he's confident and tells Gail and Padma to "prepare to be blown away" by what they taste. Ruth calls it a "show off dish" that speaks to what people hate about restaurants. Ouch.
Gregory Gaudet—Halibut, turmeric & tomato broth with chilies, lime & pineapple
Gregory nails his fish again with Tom saying the halibut was "nicely cooked."
Bryan Voltaggio—Short rib with charred eggplant puree, fermented radish & butternut squash vinaigrette
Tom seems to like Bryan's dish saying it's the first dish that isn't sweet but otherwise the judges are pretty quiet.
Jamie Lynch—Duck mole taco, lime crema, and fire-roasted chili salsa
Jamie is making mole, which is risky since L.A. knows mole. It's got to be spot-on to impress. The judges don't say much about this one either.
Stephanie Cmar—Grilled naan with curried peas, crispy lamb, carrot relish & cheese
Stephanie is instantly nervous when she realizes that she's cooking Indian food for Padma who has been very critical of Indian dishes in the past. She refers to it as a "wicked oops" which is the cutest Boston euphemism ever. Padma says the dish is missing "tart flavors."
Jennifer Carroll—Chickpea & navy bean stew with hominy, herb yogurt, cashews and pickled red onion
Ruth loves Jen's stew humble-looking stew, saying it "really honored the challenge."
Nini Nguyen—"Masa Ball Soup" with coconut-ginger chicken broth
Nini blends all three restaurants she visited into one dish by making a play on a matzoh ball soup with masa dumplings and coconut broth. It looks amazing but she's worried about how simple it is. Gail loves the dish and how each bite "felt different, felt lifted and truly balanced."
Kevin Gillespie—Roast pork, mushroom & black currant terrine with "Granny's" apple butter
Inspired by République's duck and mushroom terrine, Kevin is making a fried terrine which is risky because it will not have much time to set. His dish looks like fried boudin balls but with pops of color from herbs and the rust-colored apple butter. Ruth loves the butter telling Kevin he should "bottle it." Padma is impressed by the amount that he got done in such a short amount of time.
Eric Adjepong—Ethiopian-braised cabbage & seared scallop with kitfo oil
In the kitchen, Eric is still smarting that Lisa got the last duck but is planning to make a scallop and braised cabbage dish which sounds simple but risky since the two textures are totally different. Tom and Ruth say the cabbage is undercooked and the flavors didn't "mingle."
At Judges' Table, Ruth shares that today's challenge was an emotional one for her because Jonathan was one of her closest friends. "He would have enjoyed so many of these dishes," she says to the chefs. "There's a fine line between inspiration and imitation," Tom adds saying that a lot of the food was personal and delicious.
The judge's favorites are Nini's soup, Kevin's terrine, and Bryan's short rib. Tom says Nini's soup is "penicillin in a jar" and that he had someone bottle some up for him because he's been feeling under the weather. If a chef wants to take some of your dish home that's got to feel like some really high praise! "I saw this clunky ball… and I thought, 'this is going to be a disaster,'" Ruth says of Kevin's deep-fried terrine with apple butter. "And then I tasted it and it was delicious." Gail says that Bryan's short rib was a "departure from anything" she's eaten from him but it still had his signature refinement and technique. So who wins? Ruth picks Kevin's dish as the best tribute to Jonathan Gold and he's overwhelmed thinking about his journey to get here. "I wanted to prove to myself that this journey wasn't over," he says, fighting back tears.
Now it's time for the bad news as Padma announces the chefs on the bottom this week. Angelo's curry, Stephanie's Indian "nachos" and Eric's scallops were the judges least favorite dishes, landing them on the chopping block. Padma says Stephanie's nachos didn't taste of anything, adding that it lacked salt, acid, and a point of view. Yikes. Ruth says a chutney would've "woken it all up" and Stephanie agrees. Tom thinks Eric's cabbage was cooked too low, leaving a lot of liquid and Gail says the dish wasn't "cohesive" and instead felt like two separate parts. Angelo's curry ate too much like dessert for Tom. "Did a pastry chef talk to you while you were at Jitaldo," Tom asks. Ruth says the tuna "died in vain" and was reduced to a piece of flesh in a sweet broth. Brutal.
The chefs are sent away for the judges to deliberate. Ruth sums things up, saying "I feel the bottom three chefs forgot that food is supposed to be delicious." So who goes home?
It's Angelo because his dish "never quite came together." He still has a shot at the title in Last Chance Kitchen, with last week's eliminated chef Joe Sasto, so his journey isn't necessarily over.
And so we're another week closer to learning who will walk away from season 17 as Top Chef. Who will remain next week and who will pack their knives? Check out a sneak peek of episode three below: