'Top Chef' All-Stars Los Angeles Recap: Episode 3—'Strokes of Genius'
The chefs compete in a fried rice Quickfire featuring Ali Wong and Randall Park, then try to master an art-themed challenge inspired by paintings at the Getty Villa.
The cheftestants are relaxing at home after a long day (at L.A.'s Union Station in episode 2) and Kevin is still emotional after his win. “I have more of my story to share finally,” he says of being in the competition for a second time. Stephanie is shaken up by how close she came to being eliminated and confides in Nini and Karen she's feeling a little doubtful about her skills, which they totally understand. Karen shares that her first run on Top Chef “ruined her for years” by making her second-guess herself, which is surprising to hear from the James Beard Award winner. Stephanie, Nini, and Karen decide to have each other's backs in the rest of the competition.
The next day in the Top Chef kitchen the chefs are greeted by Padma Lakshmi and special guests, actors, producers and comedians Ali Wong and Randall Park! Wong and Park reveal that they met as UCLA students as part of an Asian-American theater company that Park started and share memories of a yearly fried rice competition which brings us to this episode’s special Quickfire challenge!
The chefs have thirty minutes to make the “best damn fried rice” they can think of. It has to be creative, inventive and use at least one ingredient chosen from a table of options curated by Wong and Park. The cheftestants are presented with ingredients like figs, jelly beans, pomegranates, cucumbers, spam, Bleu cheese, frog legs and more. The winner gets immunity.
The clock starts and the chefs make a mad dash to the table to get their ingredients. Lee Anne is feeling super confident and says that fried rice is a “lifestyle” before laying down some facts: the rice needs to have texture, a little crispy with lots of flavor. Bryan V. says that although he doesn’t make a lot of fried rice he does know good from bad so he feels confident. He’s making shrimp fried rice with togarashi. Karen’s got Thai basil and pineapple—an amazing combination already—and is planning to cook up a play on nasi goreng, am Indonesian fried rice dish with fried egg. Nini is going to pickle the watermelon she grabbed from the table and treat large slabs of it like raw tuna which seems like the kind of thinking this challenge is all about. Kevin is making hot dog, whiskey, and Cheeto fried rice which sounds… interesting. Ali Wong calls it “stoner fried rice” which suddenly makes it sound amazing. Jamie is using Spam and crispy fried shallots to create a fried rice that has a lot of texture. Eric is thinking way outside the box and making a savory peanut butter and jelly fried rice.
The clock runs out and the chefs put down their knives, meaning it’s time to taste. After Padma, Ali, and Randall try everyone’s dish they pick their most and least favorite. On the bottom? Jamie’s spam fried rice with Fresno chilies and scallions which was too salty and the canned protein overpowered everything, says Wong. Padma says Nini’s watermelon was a good idea but because of its size watered down the rice. On top? Ali loved Kevin’s rice which she calls “a party in her mouth” and Randall loved Eric’s take on a pb&j rice because peanut butter is his favorite and it was “inventive.” Karen gets a shoutout from Padma for nailing the texture of her rice dish. Ali gets to pick the winner and it’s Kevin! He’s two for two now and beaming while Karen and Eric look a little annoyed. That means Kevin’s got immunity heading into this week’s challenge. Ali and Randall head out and Padma explains the chef’s next challenge.
“Los Angeles is home to more museums than any other city in the country,” Padma explains. The chefs will be tasked with creating dishes inspired by a visit to the Getty Center and works from four artistic movements. The chefs pick knives to determine which style of art they’ll be learning about and create teams. Each group’s dishes will be ranked against one another, meaning someone will come out on top, someone will land in the middle and one person from each group will land on the bottom and be up for elimination. Kevin gets to pick which trio he wants to make a quartet, since he won the Quickfire.
The movements the chefs will be interpreting are neoclassicism, baroque, renaissance and rococo. Kevin, a self-described art fan, decides to join the neoclassicism team which is Karen, Eric and Jen. Karen is not too happy about this. “This sucks. One less chance to be on top and he’s got immunity so he’s not going home,” she says in her confessional. The chefs will tour the Getty museum, have 30 minutes to shop at Whole Foods and then three hours the next day to prep and cook their dishes.
At the museum Melissa, Greg, and Stephanie get an introduction to the rococo art period by Jeffrey Weaver, an associate curator at the Getty. The rococo period is embodied in curvy lines, flowers, leaves and frequently incorporated Japanese and Chinese elements. Greg knows he wants to incorporate Asian influence into his dish to really speak to this art period. The renaissance crew—Lee Anne, Brian M. and Nini—really pick up on the religious figures in all of the paintings. Nini, in particular, uses saints as inspiration since that also happens to be the name of New Orleans’ football team, her hometown. “Renaissance is about artists returning to ideas that were happening in the classical past,” they learn from Anne Woollett, a curator at the museum. Nini feels really inspired to make gumbo, an out-of-the-box take on the theme. Lisa, Jamie, and Bryan V. are tasked with interpreting the baroque period which is characterized by energetic movement and bold colors. Eric, Kevin, Karen, and Jen are learning about the neoclassicism period which is the opposite: muted, darker colors and clean lines. Karen is having a hard time thinking about how she’s going to interpret these paintings into a dish which makes sense since her cooking is bright and often doesn’t stay within the lines of any cuisine. “Trying to formulate a dish in my head is really hard,” she says. Hopefully, she can come up with something that lands her on top. Keeping the art in their minds, the chefs head to Whole Foods to shop and then home to rest up before they have to cook tomorrow.
The next day in the kitchen, the chefs hit the ground running. Lee Anne is doing a metaphorical dish of duck breast with a duck egg inspired by the virgin Mary and baby Jesus. There are a lot of components and a lot of prep but she feels like she can pull it off. Lisa is making a brisket dish inspired by Mexican and Jewish cuisines which sounds like a really delicious combination. Brian M. is making a halibut "halo" dish inspired by a painting of Jesus, and Eric is poaching halibut in a green peppercorn sauce. Jamie is going back to chicken and making sous vide chicken breast, which is risky since chicken sent him home during his first season of Top Chef: Charleston. It’s got to be executed perfectly to stand out.
Time is winding down and the chefs are scrambling to get everything on the plates. Meanwhile, outside, our judges Padma, Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons are joined by chefs Ludo Lefebvre, Ray Garcia, Craig Thornton, Sara Kramer, and Sarah Hymanson.
Here’s how things shook out for our cheftestants:
The Renaissance Group
Lee Anne Wong—Duck breast & egg, beet purées, black garlic sauce, bread & celery root purée with poached apples
Lee Anne barely gets all of her components onto the plate as time runs out and she’s drenched with sweat as she presents to the judges. The plate looks pretty, but the judges look really confused as they eat it which is never a good sign. Tom says the plating moves more towards rococo than renaissance and Ludo Lefebvre says it’s “messy” and the duck breast is overcooked.
Brian Malarkey—“Halo of Halibut,” roasted carrot, burnt farro, quinoa, beets, chili & olive
There’s not really a halo on Brian’s dish which is super disappointing but it’s still pretty nonetheless. Ludo Lefebvre says Brian’s dish is “refreshing” with a lot of texture. Ray Garcia thought it was the most visually stunning of the group.
Nini’s take on a gumbo looks gorgeous and full of varying textures. Sarah Hymanson says she really liked the flavor of Nini’s dish but didn’t think it was very beautiful. Gail loved the story of how New Orleans inspired Nini’s dish.
The Baroque Group
Lisa Fernandes—Chipotle-braised brisket, dried fruit, habanero pickled red onions, tomato salsita, with chilies and crispy carrots
Lisa’s dish looks tasty but not as artful as the other plates from her team. Ray Garcia likes the story of the dish and Craig Thornton says it looks like a brunch hash dish.
Bryan Voltaggio—Red snapper, smoked sweet potato, celeriac veloute & parsley oil
Bryan’s dish is stunning, a fillet of red snapper served skin side up with a pop of orange color from the sweet potato purée and bright green parsley oil. Sara Kramer says she doesn’t feel like the dish “represented the baroque period very well.” Tom agrees saying the dish was good but didn’t match the art period it was supposed to represent.
Jamie Lynch—Seared chicken breast with charred citrus gremolata, butternut squash, glazed vegetables, and arugula purée
Jamie’s dish also has a lot of components that he struggles to get on the plate as the clock winds down. He misses the jus for the dish which means he just has chicken breast and vegetables headed out to the judges. Ludo Lefebvre notices right away and asks him why he doesn’t have a jus on the plate and Jamie has to own up to running out of time. Ouch. Tom says it looks great “but doesn’t taste like anything.” Ludo says it’s poorly executed.
The Rococo Group
(Quick note: As the team sets down these dishes the judges literally moaned at how gorgeous everything looks which is a good sign!)
Melissa King—Lobster wonton with shellfish consommé & charred alium oil, vegetables
Inspired by the luxuriousness of the rococo period, Melissa made a lobster wonton in a seafood broth. Tom loves this dish saying it’s “flavorful but still light” and stunning to look at. Gail says it’s pretty close to perfection and Ludo says it’s a “Michelin-starred dish” that he would put in his restaurant.
Gregory Gaudet—Miso braised short ribs, cauliflower purée & root vegetables
Greg’s braised short rib looks silky and glossy as he presents it to the judges. He very smartly highlights the Asian influence of this art period by braising the short ribs in miso. The judges loved the short rib and Craig Thornton says he enjoys this dish the most of the bunch.
Stephanie Cmar—Mortadella tortelloni with umami nage, grapes and horseradish soubise
Inspired by the “beautiful, supple bellies” she saw in the paintings of nude women at the Getty, Stephanie serves her gorgeous looking mortadella tortelloni with grapes as a nod to the excess of the period. Tom says he loves her dish but the pasta is undercooked.
The Neoclassicism Group
Karen Akunowicz—Braised chicken & chicories with brown butter & capers
Karen is super worried about her dish’s aesthetics as she plates because it’s so brown, while her teammates have produced colorful dishes. Ludo thinks it’s missing flavor and Gail doesn’t understand how it relates to neoclassicism at all.
Jennifer Carroll—Seared red snapper, apple, radish & fennel relish with Tunisian pepper sauce
Jen uses “The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis” by Jacques-Louis David as her inspiration to make a simple snapper dish. Ludo says Jen’s dish is good but it’s just “fish and sauce.” Craig and Padma agree that the dish didn’t go into the “art realm.”
Eric Adjepong—Poached halibut, peppercorn broth, buttermilk vinaigrette & pickled vegetables
Eric’s dish looks really beautiful and streamlined—a white filet with a bright burst of green color. Craig Thornton says the dish is “austere” and the fish is cooked well. Tom says it represented the period the best of the bunch and Gail says it made her “feel something” which, hey, is what art is supposed to do.
Kevin Gillespie—Poached & grilled lamb loin with glazed carrots & feta carrot tops
Kevin says he was inspired by the idea of making something new out of old things which is an interesting way to interpret this movement since it actually embodied a revolt against the excesses of rococo. Sarah Hymanson says the “balance” of Kevin’s dish was off and Tom says it’s good the Kevin has immunity. Yikes.
“It’s always great to go outside of your craft to get those creative juices flowing,” Tom says to our cheftestants in the Top Chef kitchen. Padma announces that the favorite dishes from each group belong to Brian M., Bryan V., Melissa, and Eric. The judges loved Brian’s colorful halibut dish saying each component could be tasted. They were stunned by Melissa’s lobster wonton and its opulent tie to the rococo era. Ludo was very impressed by Bryan V.’s veloute, adding “I’m French, I do a lot of veloute.” Gail says Eric’s dish was “the most exciting plate of food” they had all day. So who wins?
It’s Melissa’s beautiful lobster wonton!
And now for the bad news: on the bottom are Lee Anne, Stephanie, Jamie, and Karen. Each of them had the least favorite dishes of their group and seemed to be thrown for a loop by this challenge. Tom says Stephanie’s tortelloni had the makings of a good dish, but the technique just wasn’t there. The judges say Jamie’s plate desperately needed that jus for some moisture because it looked gorgeous but ate dry. Lee Anne admits that she should have started plating ten minutes earlier than she did. Tom says he understands why plating took so long but doesn’t think it matched the inspiration. Padma pauses during feedback to let Kevin know that he would be on the bottom if he didn’t have immunity. Karen looks absolutely heartbroken to be on the bottom for her dish and annoyed that Kevin's immunity is partly to blame for putting her there. Gail says that the simplicity of Karen’s dish didn’t match “what neoclassicism stood for.” Ludo says the dish lacked flavor and the chicken was dry.
So who goes home?
In the end, it’s Jamie’s incomplete chicken dish that sends him packing. But, of course, he has another chance to get back into the competition with Last Chance Kitchen.