The chefs enter the arena to compete in an Olympic-sized challenge.

By Korsha Wilson
May 22, 2020
Advertisement
Nicole Weingart/Bravo

And then there were six! The chefs are relaxing after battling it out in a brunch-themed elimination challenge that required them to rough it in the great outdoors, looking noticeably run down. Melissa says she’s been in an “emotional rut” since Restaurant Wars when she and her team were on the bottom. Stephanie is also feeling the pressure since her dishes have been in the middle and she wants to win. She’s missing her late brother, wishing she could call on him for emotional support, and is going to dig deep and try to win the competition in his memory.

In the Top Chef kitchen, the chefs find Padma Lakshmi and special guest judge, pastry chef extraordinaire, Sherry Yard. Karen has a bad feeling that this means the Quickfire is going to be dessert-themed and she’s right. “This Quickfire should be a piece of cake,” Padma says with a mischievous smile.

Quickfire

“There’s really no difference between an executive chef and a pastry chef,” Sherry says. “It’s all about time, temperature, taste and methodology.” The chefs will have to create a sweet treat using a pantry of basic ingredients and some special ingredients they correctly guess during a blindfolded taste test. The two chefs that guess the most right out of twenty in five minutes will get to cook for an hour, the next two forty-five minutes, and the bottom two only 30 minutes. Padma also adds that the winner of the Quickfire will have a “huge” advantage in the Elimination Challenge.

[primary_media_image primary_image="7835388" orientation="horizontal" autocrop="true" /]

The blind tasting starts one at a time, requiring the chefs to identify things like almond butter, lychee, guava paste, and tarragon using only mouthfeel and smell which is no easy feat. The chefs finish with Stephanie in first place for guessing 15 ingredients correctly, Gregory and Melissa tied for second with 13 (but Melissa didn’t get through all of her ingredients so the edge goes to Gregory), Bryan V. fourth, Karen fifth and Brian M. in last place with only 7 ingredients guessed correctly. Melissa and Bryan V. will have 45 minutes to cook and Karen and Brian M. will only have 30 minutes.

Karen is going for a panna cotta, but is worried that 30 minutes may not be enough time for it to set. Brian M. also has 30 minutes so he’s going for a cake cooked in the wood-fired oven and, what else, something from the ice cream machine. Hopefully it goes better than last time. Melissa is making an olive oil pistachio cake which sounds really good. Bryan V. is making a curd and crumble dessert which hopefully tastes better than it sounds. He makes desserts at his restaurant so he’s feeling very confident. Gregory is also going the curd route, planning a chocolate curd dish with cherries and frozen coconut ice. Stephanie is using her hour to make a tarragon, peach, and chocolate crostata which sounds amazing.

With only two minutes left in their cook time, Brian M. and Karen check their dishes. Brian M.’s cake came out great but Karen’s panna cotta didn’t have enough time to set so it’s very liquidy. She plates anyway and hopes for the best. At the forty-five minute mark, Melissa and Bryan V. both plate up their desserts and Melissa decides to go the extra mile and make an egg custard ice cream using liquid nitrogen which she pulls off just in the nick of time. Gregory and Stephanie finish up their desserts next. Gregory is worried he’s done too much and his dish is “heavy and unfocused.”

Nicole Weingart/Bravo

After Sherry and Padma taste all of the desserts, it’s time for them to levy their judgments. On the bottom are Karen’s unset panna cotta and, no surprise here, Bryan V. who, even when he puts up a restaurant caliber dish, can’t seem to win a quickfire to save his life this season. Brian M.’s wood-fired cake gets high marks as well as Melissa’s pistachio cake. The winner? Melissa! It’s her first Quickfire and hopefully it gives her a bit of her winning mojo back.

The chefs say goodbye to Sherry and find out their next elimination challenge will be cooking for olympic athletes. No pressure.

Elimination Challenge

In honor of the Tokyo Olympics—which were supposed to have been held this summer—our cheftestants will be making a meal inspired by Japan. The chefs will have some help in the form of two of the best Japanese chefs anywhere, Niki Nakayama and Carole Iida Nakayama, co-owners and chefs of n/naka in Los Angeles. “I’m really freaking out,” Gregory says. “They are such iconic, legendary figures.” The cheftestants will prepare a six-course, progressive kaiseki meal for  Niki and Carole and some Olympic athletes. “It is the most formal way of dining in Japanese cuisine,” Niki says of kaiseki service. “It’s a celebration of nature so it’s about doing your best to protect the integrity of an ingredient.”

The chefs are treated to the meal of a lifetime when they’re able to sit and taste a few dishes from Niki and Carole that exemplify n/naka’s modern kaiseki menu and the traditional flow of dishes. First is sakizuke, or appetizer, usually a cold dish with an element of vinegar. The second course is owan, or soup, then yakimono, a flame-grilled item, then mushimono, a steamed dish, and shokuji, a rice dish, before mizumono (dessert). “This challenge is very difficult because it feels very different from how most of us try to cook,” Karen says. Brian M. is also feeling nervous since his cooking is “loud” and this is more about subtlety. Since Melissa won, she gets to pick which course she wants to make and gets to assign courses to her fellow competitors. She takes the fourth course, gives Gregory the fifth course, Stephanie dessert, puts Bryan V. on the appetizer, Karen on yakimono and Brian M. is left with soup. The chefs will have two hours to prep before serving the judges and the athletes at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the winner gets a trip for two to see the Olympics in Tokyo! (Hopefully even with the delay.) With that, the chefs head to Whole Foods to shop for their ingredients and to discuss what they want to make for their progressive menu. Shopping goes off without a hitch, except for when Brian M. calls Bryan V. by his brother's name, Michael, but otherwise the chefs seem to have a clear idea of what they’re doing. Gregory is making a rice dish with matsutake mushrooms but feeling unsure because he’s being pushed out of his comfort zone with these muted flavors.

The next morning the chefs are up early for their battle at the coliseum and seem really stressed over the precision and restraint of the type of food that they’re cooking. Karen is worried that there’s not enough room over the charcoal grill to cook the thirteen portions of duck she needs, but she’s rolling with it anyway. Melissa’s hoping to channel the energy of her mother’s chawanmushi she made during her season of Top Chef Boston and bring home a win. Stephanie is serving panna cotta in lemon shells which looks interesting but may not set in time. Karen’s duck still isn’t cooking so she decides to hot smoke it over jasmine tea to add another dimension of flavor. It’s risky because it could cause the duck to overcook.

Padma, Niki, and Carole arrive at the coliseum with Tom Colicchio and Nilou Motamed in tow, and they’re joined by Olympians including Ibtihaj Muhammad, Christian Coleman, Kerri Walsh Jennings and NBC Olympics Primetime host Mike Tirico.

Nicole Weingart/Bravo

It’s time for the meal to start. Here’s how things went:

Bryan Voltaggio

Course: Sakizuke (appetizer)

Dish: Scallop, avocado confit, tomato dashi with osetra caviar & bonito aioli

Bryan V. feels very comfortable cooking Japanese cuisine since his style is so detail-oriented. He plates up a gorgeous raw scallop dish that shows off his precise knife work. Carole loves the dish saying he really brought out the “beautiful colors of the scallop.” The other judges agree, saying it’s a great start to the meal.

Brian Malarkey

Course: Owan (soup)

Dish: Spot prawn, dashi, celery & squash

Malarkey is embracing the challenge, using tweezers and plating things “very slowly.” The judges seem split on his dish, with Nilou saying it looked more compelling than it tasted and Carole saying the cutting techniques were off while the Olympians loved it. Tom thought the temperature on the dish was off and it ate “cold.”

Karen Akunowicz

Course: Yakimono (flame-grilled)

Dish: Jasmine tea smoked duck, with roasted and fresh grapes with miso & saba

Karen’s worried about her inconsistent cook on the duck breasts as she’s plating but otherwise thinks she’s done a good job. The Olympians wish the skin on the duck was crispy. Tom says the cut on the meat, thin in some places and thick in others, is a big mistake and doesn’t speak to the precision of kaiseki cooking.

Melissa King

Course: Mushimono (steamed)

Dish: Dungeness crab chawanmushi with clams, chanterelles & Meyer lemon

With six minutes to go, Melissa is still steaming her chawanmushi, waiting for them to set. She’s never used a commercial steamer before, preferring instead do it the old-school way of using a steamer basket on the stove, so she’s unsure of how the dish is going to come out. Padma says it’s delicious and that it ate like a soup because it didn’t set “solidly.” Carole found a shell in her crab which she says is a “very critical mistake” for this type of cuisine.

Gregory Gourdet

Course: Shokuji (rice)

Dish: Short grain rice, sable fish, mushroom broth, with salted daikon & pickles

Gregory, who is usually calm and focused, looks incredibly flustered as he starts plating his rice dish. His broth is under seasoned but there’s no time to fix it because the judges are waiting. Christian says it’s kind of “bland” and Tom agrees saying although it’s a subtle dish, it’s still under seasoned. Carole adds that Gregory’s broth was very cloudy which is a technical mistake.

Stephanie Cmar

Course: Mizumono (dessert)

Dish: Panna cotta with yuzu curd & orange granita

Stephanie seems to be the only chef having a good time cooking and she’s pumped to serve the judges her panna cotta which set perfectly after cooling for forty-five minutes. The judges swoon over the dessert with Kerri saying she’s “in love” with the dish and Niki agreeing, pointing to Stephanie’s use of the lemon shell as a highlight. Tom says it’s really successful.

Judges’ Table

Padma kicks off Judges’ Table by saying there was a unanimous decision about who the winner was for this challenge. “The dish that really stood out for us was an incredible balance of flavors and ingredients,” Niki says. That winner is Stephanie and her yuzu panna cotta dessert! She nearly falls over from shock after her name is called. She’s going to Tokyo! The judges’ other favorite dish of the evening is Bryan V.’s scallop appetizer.

Stephanie Cmar gets the gold medal in the kaiseki challenge.
Nicole Weingart/Bravo

On the bottom are the remaining four chefs. “It will pain me to see whoever leaves the kitchen tonight,” Padma says. Karen’s duck missed the mark because the cuts were uneven and it was “missing that fatty, unctuous” flavor, Carole says. Melissa’s chawanmushi was delicious but the texture was off, Padma comments. The raw celeriac in Brian M.’s soup was overpowering for Niki. Tom says Gregory’s dish ate bland because the broth was under seasoned and placed around a pile of bland rice. The judges send the chefs away so they can debate who goes home. It’s a tough decision because while every chef rose to the challenge, all of the bottom chefs had technical errors that impacted how the final dishes tasted. After the most intense debate of the season so far, the judges decide that it’s Karen who’s going home again.

Karen's duck breast doesn't deliver enough for her remain in the competition.
Nicole Weingart/Bravo

And that’s it! There are only five chefs left to duke it out for the title of Top Chef. Take a look at next week's episode below:

Season 17 of Top Chef airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on BravoFind additional interviews, chef bios, and more at BravoTV.com/TopChef.