The chefs cook for Kelly Clarkson and are challenged to make vegetables the star of the show.

By Korsha Wilson
April 10, 2020
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Kelly Clarkson arrives in the Top Chef kitchen!
Nicole Weingart/Bravo

If you had access to some of the best produce available anywhere in the world, how would you approach building a dish that honored those ingredients? The chefs will be challenged with just that in episode four of Top Chef, working in teams to prepare tasting menus that celebrate California's fruits and vegetables.

But first we find our cheftestants at their Los Angeles pad, relaxing after their intense art challenge, and the boys club vibes are strong. Nini, Karen and Stephanie are leaning on each other and their “girl gang,” calling themselves Padma’s Angels, complete with Charlie’s Angels poses.

The next day in the Top Chef kitchen, the cheftestants are greeted by Padma Lakshmi who is standing next to a very brightly colored display of ingredients like purple potatoes, blue cotton candy, yellow corn, red strawberries and more. “It’s like a rainbow threw up everywhere,” Stephanie says with a mixture of amazement and horror. Padma announces that their special guest judge for this Quickfire is a Grammy winner, American Idol winner, talk show host, and voice in the upcoming Trolls World Tour movie. It’s Kelly Clarkson! As Kelly walks in the chefs freak out. “I’m glad y’all know me,” she says. Duh. Of course we know who you are. Karen, in particular, is super excited. It’s time for a Trolls-themed Quickfire!

Quickfire

Padma and Kelly present a colorful array of ingredients inspired by "Trolls World Tour."
Nicole Weingart/Bravo

The chefs have 30 minutes to use one ingredient from each color display (red, purple, blue, yellow, orange, and pink) to create a single harmonious dish. The winner will receive immunity and will get to attend the world premiere of Trolls World Tour (which premieres online April 10).

The clock starts and the chefs make a mad dash for the ingredients. Brian Malarkey wants to win for his daughter who is a huge fan of Kelly Clarkson and Trolls. Jen is having a hard time deciding how to combine all of these disparate flavors into one dish. Bryan and Kevin are both making ceviche, Lisa is going to use the cotton candy she grabbed as a finishing ingredient for a steak with lots of chilies. Gregory is making a butternut squash soup because he thinks it's the easiest way to combine flavors. Reflecting on his successful run of Quickfire wins in season 12, he’s really hoping he can win to create some momentum for himself in this competition. Nini is using the purple potatoes to make gnocchi which will make for a stunning colored pasta but they aren't behaving the same way white potatoes do.

The chefs seem really frantic as the clock winds down to 10 minutes left with Melissa and Lee Anne colliding into one another by the stoves. Brian is making a curried ice cream which is super risky since ice cream needs time to churn and set. While he’s at the ice cream machine he seems to be having a hard time and making a huge mess. He pivots to using liquid nitrogen to set the ice cream which won't create the luscious scoop he was going for.

Time runs out and the chefs put up their dishes for Padma and Kelly to taste. At the end of tasting Kelly is pleasantly surprised by what the chefs were able to turn out. “I think all of you did fantastic,” she says. But some folks have to be on the bottom. It’s Nini’s seared gnocchi, Stephanie’s rice rolls with a rock sugar dipping sauce that Padma thought was “too sweet,” and Bryan’s shrimp ceviche because it was too “mushy” for Kelly. Bryan, who has thus far been doing very well in this competition, looks shocked to hear his name anywhere near the bottom. On the top? Gregory’s vegan butternut squash soup which Kelly describes as “awesomeness,” Lisa’s steak which balanced the flavors really well, and Karen’s crunchy beef and pomegranate tartare. The winner is Gregory! He rightly says that he’s going to take Nini because she generously let him borrow her can opener during cook time.

Gregory lands his first Quickfire win of season 17.
Nicole Weingart/Bravo

Kelly says goodbye and it’s time for the Elimination Challenge!

Elimination Challenge

“The Santa Monica Farmers Market is a chef’s dream,” Padma says as she explains that the market has 75 organic farmers and over 9,000 shoppers every single week. The chefs are split into two teams by picking knives: the Red Team and the Blue Team. The chefs will have to create a six-course, progressive menu with each chef responsible for one course, one of which must be a dessert. There’s one catch: the menu must be entirely vegetarian which the chefs are genuinely happy to hear. Each team will have $1,200 and 45 minutes to shop but they won’t know what ingredients they’ll have to work with until they get to the market. They’ll serve a restaurant of 40 guests plus the judges at Birdie G’s in Santa Monica, including the chef and owner of the restaurant, Jeremy Fox.

The teams split up to begin planning their menu. The Blue Team is Eric, Gregory, Jennifer, Karen, Kevin, and Melissa. The Red Team is Lee Anne, Brian M., Bryan V., Nini, Lisa, and Stephanie. “A progressive, coursed vegetarian meal is definitely difficult,” Stephanie says. “Not only will we [have to] make a cohesive meal, but we have to prepare vegetarian dishes that eat as if they’re as substantial as something with a protein in it.” The judges are looking for dishes that highlight and celebrate vegetables instead of treating them as sides. The Red Team decides to build their meal around a mushroom main course using what they can find at the market.

With their meeting done, the chefs head home and find a surprise from Kelly Clarkson waiting for them: a basket of Trolls dolls, eyewear and more! So fun.

The next morning the chefs hit the Santa Monica Farmers Market for some gorgeous produce. “Communicating with each other and being able to pivot is going to be key here,” Melissa says. The Blue Team seems to be working well together as they move through the market. Kevin excitedly shares that he found fresh dates and, after some searching, Jen finds corn at a stall. Karen has decided to do an herbaceous pasta course.

The Red Team seems to be working as solo chefs instead of a team as they run around the farmers market. Bryan V. finds out that the mushroom guy didn’t show up at the market today which is a big problem. He pivots to a sprouted grain and beet dish. Brian M. seems to be upset that Lee Anne is spending a ton of money building her crudite course. Nini finds peaches and decides to make pâte à choux or cream puffs with fresh peaches—a simple dish but if the peaches are perfect and the dish is well-executed, it could be a winner.

After their shopping time, the chefs start to prep in the Birdie G’s kitchen. We're treated to lots of shots of gorgeous produce and things seem to be going smoothly. Gregory is stoked about this challenge because it’s so similar to how he eats naturally to fuel his body as an ultra runner. “I’m excited for this challenge because it speaks to me on so many levels,” he says. Melissa is using all parts of the corn cobs to get maximum flavor while fully utilizing and honoring the main ingredient of her corn broth. Brian M. is going really simple with his dish of tomatoes and burrata to make the “most restrained dish” he can possibly do. It’s a classic dish but he’s not making the burrata so he risks the judges reading it as too simple. Things are moving along for Jen until she realizes that her cauliflower cashew butter, which was slowly cooking on the stove, got turned up by accident and is now scorched. Uh oh. Right at that moment, Padma, Gail Simmons, Tom Colicchio, and guest judge Jeremy Fox walk in and take their seats at the chef’s counter facing the kitchen. Tom says he would organize a progressive vegetarian by “light to heavy,” featuring raw dishes first and then moving to heavier preparations and bolder flavors closer to the end of the meal. Luckily Jen has a few cashews left for her garnish so with 18 minutes left on the clock she restarts a new version of her sauce.

Here’s how the meal went for our cheftestants during each head-to-head style course:

First Course

Kevin Gillespie (Blue Team)—Heirloom tomato & melon with avocado tofu, fresh dates & “California” togarashi

Brian Malarkey (Red Team)—Tomato, burrata with sherry vinaigrette

Tom immediately asks Brian why he served tomatoes and mozzarella as a first course to which Brian responds that sometimes “less manipulation is the best manipulation.” Tom doesn’t seem to agree. “We’ve seen it,” he says, sounding exasperated. Jeremy thinks Kevin’s tomato dish was much more interesting to eat and Gail says the flavors were “bright and really seasonal.” 

Second Course

Melissa King (Blue Team)—Coconut corn soup, pickled garlic chives & puffed grains

Lee Anne Wong (Red Team)—Butternut squash hummus, goat feta & market crudité

Lee Anne is running low on time to plate so she asks Brian M. to finish her plates with olive oil and sea salt. It’s an interesting juxtaposition with Melissa who is calmly plating all of her dishes alone. Both chefs present the judges with gorgeous plates and the judges seem impressed. Gail says she loved all of the textures in Melissa’s soup and the corn flavor. Jeremy says he liked the precision of Lee Anne’s dish but Tom thinks the Red Team’s first two dishes are too similar. Gail says a bit more salt on the hummus dish would have “pumped everything up.”

Third Course

Karen Akunowicz (Blue Team)—Trofie pasta with mint pistachio pesto, fava greens, pea shoots & asparagus

Lisa Fernandes (Red Team)—Chili soy brussels sprouts with apples & pistachios

While plating, Lisa tells her fellow teammates to push any of the “not perfectly cooked” brussels sprouts to the side, which isn’t a good sign. Lisa’s dish is so simple that in order to really shine each component needs to be perfect. Karen’s dish looks like Spring on a plate—lots of vivid, bright greens enveloping tender-looking trofie pasta. Jeremy says the temperature on the brussels sprouts threw him off and Tom says they’re dried out. Gail says her favorite part of Karen’s pasta dish is the fact that pasta was in the background behind the market vegetables. “It was green forward and I think she really nailed that challenge,” she adds.

Fourth Course

Stephanie Cmar (Red Team)—Cauliflower a la plancha with quinoa & spiced piri piri sauce

Gregory Gaudet (Blue Team)—Grilled carrots, charred scallion coconut yogurt & charred kale oil

Both of these dishes are gorgeous. Padma says she loves Stephanie's cauliflower dish and Jeremy says it’s probably his favorite he’s had so far. Gail says she’s “crazy about these carrots” when asked how she feels Gregory did. Tom feels that the Blue Team’s progression is much better and the other judges agree so it feels like the Blue Team is pulling ahead.

Fifth Course

Bryan Voltaggio (Red Team)—Smoked beet, sprouted legumes & grains, vegetable demi-glace, pea tendrils, watercress

Jennifer Carroll (Blue Team)—Jerk cauliflower with cashew sauce, broccoli flowers & grapes

Jen seems nervous about her dish as both teams plate up because her dish doesn’t look as refined as Bryan’s. Tom says Bryan’s beet dish is “fantastic” because it delivers a meaty last course before dessert. Jeremy thought Jen’s cauliflower was “pretty successful” and Gail liked the jerk flavor.

Sixth Course

Eric Adjepong (Blue Team)—Butternut squash and goat milk pudding, chocolate hazelnut “soil”, with ginger granita

Nini Nguyen (Red Team)—"Peaches and Cream" cream puff with peach sorbet

Both desserts are stunning. Gail says she wants to eat Nini’s dessert every day. Tom likes Eric’s dessert a lot, too, and Padma says he was “very clever to get bitter, salt and sweet” into his dish in a “beautiful way.”

Overall the judges seem pretty happy with the meals that they had. Gail says that although the Red Team started slow, they picked up towards the end and the Blue Team had some great moments.

Judges’ Table

Jeremy Fox of Santa Monica restaurant Birdie G's joins the judges' table.
Nicole Weingart/Bravo

At Judges’ Table, Tom says he and the other judges didn’t miss the proteins at all and it was great to see the chefs focus on produce. That being said, there was a team whose progression was the clear winner. No surprise, it’s the Blue Team! Karen, Kevin, Gregory, Melissa, Jen, and Eric are ecstatic to hear it. “It had a start, it had a finish, and everything was solid all the way through,” Tom says. But there was a best of the bunch. Jeremy’s favorite dish, the dish he felt really highlighted the season, was Melissa’s corn and coconut soup. That’s two wins in a row for the California native.

Melissa King takes home her second win in a row.
Nicole Weingart/Bravo

The bad news is the Red Team is on the bottom. Tom explains that the chefs had six courses to “express what’s at the market” and their menu didn’t reflect that. Brian M. looks absolutely shocked that the judges have critical feedback. “Was there any discussion of two raw dishes starting off the tasting menu,” Tom asks the team. Bryan V. falls on the sword admitting that the team didn’t talk through their menu enough. Padma says Lisa’s brussels sprouts felt “clunky” compared to the refinement of the rest of the dishes the judges ate. Lisa says she’s a “rustic” chef and doesn’t plate refined dishes, but Tom advises her to tease out those ingredients to create texture in a way that stays true to her style. Jeremy liked Lee Anne’s hummus but says it needed more oil and more acid to which she says that she would’ve liked to put the finishing touches on but “somebody else had put on the salt and olive oil.” Ouch. Brian M. (rightly) feels like he was thrown under the bus with that comment. But he gets revenge back quickly by asking the judges to clarify that the hummus on Lee Anne’s plate was under-seasoned too. Yikes. Lee Anne looks pissed and Tom looks mortified.

As the judges deliberate, the cheftestants head to the stew room to wait and Brian won’t stop apologizing to Lee Anne. “I seasoned your f---ing vegetables, I swear to god I did,” he says. She looks really angry but holds her tongue. When the chefs head back to Judges’ Table, Tom tells them that in this competition mistakes are going to be amplified because the cooking is so excellent. “The difference between staying here and going home is really how far are you willing to push yourself,” he says. “You don’t want to be the one walking out of here second-guessing ‘Could I have given more?’" In the end, it’s Lisa and her clunky brussels sprouts that Padma asks to pack her knives and go.

Lisa Fernandes heads to Last Chance Kitchen after her elimination in episode 4.
Nicole Weingart/Bravo

Take a look at what's in store in episode 5 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.