The cheftesants file into the “Top Chef” kitchen and face a table full of chili peppers with a sign depicting their corresponding Scoville heat units, and what’s that? Dollar signs? Ah, I see: the hotter the pepper, the higher the dollar value.
But why? The chefs are told to create a dish using any of the chilis on the table, and their confidence in taking risks can earn them mucho dinero. If theirs is chosen as the winning dish, they get immunity in the Elimination Challenge and win the dollar amount associated with the chili pepper they used. The mildest chili, poblano, is worth $0 and the hottest, the ghost pepper, is worth $20,000. The guest judges are, natch, the “Two Hot Tamales” — firebrand chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger.
The chefs prepare their chili dishes for the judges with little drama. Mary Sue and Susan aren’t keen on Chuy’s habanero with scallops, Richie’s scallop-corn-and-chili dish or Beverly’s boring anaheim chili crudite. They love Grayson’s deep-fried, cheese-stuffed habanero, Paul’s chilled coconut soup with ghost-chili relish and Heather’s Mediterranean-inspired dish with Thai chili. The winner? Paul! He gets immunity and 20 thousand smackeroos, which thrills me because his and Heather’s are the first dishes so far this season that I would eat.
This week’s Elimination Challenge is a chili cook-off. The cheftestants are grouped into five teams and told they need to make enough chili to feed 200 “cowboys and rodeo regulars” (a.k.a. random friends and advertisers the production company pulled in to fill the arena) at a rodeo the following night. And the kicker? They have to cook at the “Top Chef” house, and the rodeo guests will be choosing the winning chili.
The chefs race all over the market to grab their ingredients. When they get back to the house, there’s a mad scramble in the kitchen to grab pots, pans, utensils and ingredients (I swear I hear someone yell, “Nobody take my breast milk, okay?”) while other team members commandeer the grill, the outdoor fireplace and surface areas to work. They cook the rest of that day and overnight to make sure their meats are grilled, roasted and braised, and that their chili is cooking through and coming together with a strong flavor profile. While some chefs slip away for an hour or two of shut-eye, there’s horseplay and smack talk (I especially love Chris C. for verbally rolling his eyes at Chuy’s annoying stories and braggadocio), drinking and swimming, and very little sleep.
The next day, Richie dons what looks like a 1970s-era McDonald’s fry station manager hat, and the chefs head over to the rodeo. They have an hour to prep for service and reheat their chili. The guests file in and begin eating, and the judges aren’t far behind. Tom, Padma and Gail are joined by Mary Sue and Susan. (We’re never gonna see Emeril again, are we?)
Here’s what the guests had to sample:
Green Team: Sarah, Chris C. and Chuy make chili con carne with roasted corn salsa that the judges seem to love, though Gail thinks it’s a little thin.
Red Team: Whitney, Chris J. and Dakota make a braised brisket and shortrib chili that the guests think is too spicy, but the judges like, though the texture is deemed stringy.
White Team: Ty-Lor, Grayson and Lindsay make a three-bean smoked brisket and shortrib chili with poblano cornbread that the judges don’t really love, but don’t hate.
Blue Team: Ed, Heather and Paul make a smoked brisket-shortrib chili with pickled peaches, haricots verts and radishes, with pork rinds to garnish. I don’t care what the judges think (their reviews seem mixed), I would eat the heck out of this chili, and I’m counting the days until peach season so I can make it.
Black Team: Beverly, Nyesha and Richie make a mole-inspired chili with cornbread. The judges like the cornbread, but the chili? Not so much.
Tom seems relieved he doesn’t have to choose the winner because there was more than one chili he really liked. When the judges talk about their least favorites, the Black, Red and White teams are clearly in contention for the losing slot.
The chefs watch some staged rodeo events, Beverly cries because she misses her husband, and as I’m rolling my eyes and yelling at Beverly though the television, Padma rides out on some old glue stick to announce the winner. (Pro Tip: Don’t try to drink wine, roll your eyes and yell “Shut up, Beverly, gah” all at the same time because Padma inevitably will gallop into view wearing a sheer white blouse and crack you up with the absurdity of it all, making you choke on your Cabernet Sauvignon.)
The winners are Sarah, Chris C. and Chuy! Sarah, a native Texan whose Dad knows his way around a head of cattle, is extra-proud. Their celebratory joy is soon crushed by Padma, still sitting on the horse in the middle of the rodeo, who announces over the crackly loudspeaker that the Black Team served the worst chili, and that one of its members will be sent home.
Then there’s a Losers’ Circle twist I totally love — Beverly, Richie and Nyesha are told they have to transform their losing chili into a winning dish. They have 30 minutes to cook in the rodeo kitchen there, under the bleachers, and the loser of this last-chance cook-it-again-off will be sent home. Beverly makes a seared tuna with habanero-pineapple-corn salsa. Nyesha whips up a Frito-crusted black tiger shrimp with roasted corn salsa. Richie makes a Frito-crusted pork tenderloin with potato hash and ricotta-chili puree.
As much as I’m ready for Beverly to go bye-bye, it’s Richie who is sent home because his dish just wasn’t good enough. He thanks them for the opportunity (drink!) and throws himself into the arms of his Moto colleague, Chris J., crying and apologizing for letting him down, which I just find to be odd in a way I can’t explain. Chris J. holds Richie’s face in his hands and tells him everything’s gonna be okay. The rest of the chefs get in on the hugfest, and they seem genuinely shocked that Richie’s out of the competition so soon. He does get to go into the “Last Chance Kitchen” to do battle with Keith to regain his spot on the show, but quite frankly, I’m not paying attention to those online-only Webisodes, so we’ll just all learn together who comes back onto the show whenever they sort it out.
Up Next Week: We leave San Antonio and head to Dallas where John Besh greets the cheftestants in an open field, Chris C. is threatened by Besh’s dashing good looks and the competitors cook in someone’s home for what looks like a small dinner party. Oh, and there’s probably more crying. We’re 1 for 4 on Emeril, but 4 for 4 on crying. Oh, “Top Chef.”