This week’s episode opens with the remaining Qualifying Challenge as Group 3, the remaining group of preliminary cheftestants strolls into the Top Chef Kitchen. Tom, Padma and Hugh Acheson are there to greet them. Their challenge? Choose from one of 10 ingredients on the table in front of them to create a dish, and “make it sing.” But, according to Padma, there’s a surprise. After they’ve chosen their main ingredient — displayed beautifully on a tray with a silver cloche next to it — they’re asked to remove the cloche, revealing kitchen timers pre-set to the amount of time each of them has to make something with their main ingredient. There’s a fair amount of lip biting and grimacing among the chefs as they get to prepping and cooking. Tom and Hugh meander from station to station to check on their progress.
Let’s recap how the judging, at this stage, goes down:
●After the tasting, if two of the three judges like the dish, the chef gets a spot on the show.
●If two of the three judges don’t like the dish, that chef is sent home.
●If the judges are undecided, the chef is put “on the bubble,” which means he or she has to do another challenge to earn a place in this season’s cast.
The first three chefs — who had 20 minutes to make their dishes — feed the judges. Paul Qui’s (Uchiko, Austin) grilled trout with southeast Asian tomato salad lands him a spot on the show. Kim Calichio’s (Fishtail, New York) lamb chop with kalamata olives and arugula earns her a ticket home. Andrew Curren’s (24 Diner, Austin) roasted mushrooms with brown butter vinaigrette, spinach and poached egg puts him “on the bubble,” so he’ll have to cook again.
The next cluster of chefs — who had 40 minutes to make their dishes — go before Judges’ Table. Chaz Brown (Fatty Crab, New York), who chose risotto because his wife is Italian, doesn’t finish or plate his dish and is sent home, which is fine by me because as my grandmother (rest her soul) used to say, “He sure does think a lot of himself.” Berenice deAraujo’s (Sra. Martinez, Miami) short ribs with cabbage slaw was called one-dimensional and uninspired, and she’s sent home. Laurent Quenioux’s (Vertical Wine Bistro, Los Angeles) duck with yuzu curd and arugula lands him on the bubble. Jonathan Baltazar’s (Heights Cuisine, Long Beach) Spanish-style Brussels sprouts with tomato sofrito got a thumbs down and he was sent home.
The last batch of semi-finalists — who had 60 minutes to make their dishes — step up to be judged. Ashley Villaluz’s (Seattle) braised oxtail dish sends her home. Lindsay Autry’s (Omphoy Ocean Resort, West Palm Beach) braised veal shank with polenta makes Tom shake his head, smile, and say, “I love it,” so she gets a spot on the show. Beverly Kim’s (Aria, Chicago) Korean octopus dish makes her an official cheftestant.
Padma summons the “on the bubble” chefs from the Stew Room to the Top Chef kitchen, where Emeril is among the judges waiting for them. I’m pleased that Emeril is two for two so far this season, but what I find fascinating is that in Emeril’s on-screen description, he is not listed as chef, restaurateur, rock star, Friend of Martha or anything like that. In all fairness, you could just list him as “Emeril,” and everyone would know who he is. But sadly, no. He’s listed as “Emeril Lagasse, author of Sizzling Skillets and Other One-Pot Wonders.” Um, okay. Sure.
There are six chefs on the bubble, and only two slots left to compete for. Their challenge? Prepare a dish using any of the ingredients in the Top Chef kitchen in 45 minutes, and “show us why you should be here.” The squinty Debbie Gibson-looking chef does her usually squinty thing, and the other cheftestants look a little petrified at being given such wide berth in this challenge. Which... [sigh]. There’s just no energy here. Granted, for all we know they’ve been in the Stew Room for 30 hours while the rest of the cast was cooking, but still. I think that’s what’s bothering me, only two episodes in, about this season. There just doesn’t seem to be any drive, or dishes I want to eat and can’t stop thinking about. I know, I know — things will (might?) pick up once we get into the real challenges of the show. Let’s cross our Microplanes in the hopes that the further we get into the season, the more drooling opportunities there will be for the viewers.
The cheftestants race around the kitchen to gather their ingredients and figure out what they want to cook, when Ed practically slices off his finger during prep, and yet, keeps on cooking with his good hand while the medic treats him. Take that, Stitch Lauren.
The “on the bubble” cheftestants present their food to Tom, Padma, the author of Sizzling Skillets and Other One-Pot Wonders, and Hugh.
Ed: duck with barbecue sauce and sweet Asian custard, pickled corn and candied bacon. (Yum, but mostly for the pickled corn.)
Molly: stuffed prawn with a mousseline of shrimp, soy-glazed watermelon and rice. (Um, no thanks.)
Janine: seared scallop with baby clams, bacon, corn and watermelon-snap pea garnish. (Are we at a wedding reception?)
Grayson: creamy polenta with bacon-wrapped shrimp and port wine-fig sauce. (I thought Bennigan’s went out of business.)
Laurent: scallop duo: tartare and seared ... (so bored by this I don’t even pay attention to what he served with it).
Andrew: mussels with sherry, fregula, charred corn panna cotta and shrimp. (Not too shabby.)
There’s some pretty passive and boring judge commentary, and the chefs go back to the Stew Room while the judges pretend to deliberate further. The chefs are called before Judges’ Table where Molly is sent home first, and Laurent is next out the door. Ed Lee is up next for critique, and is given a spot on the show. Andrew is sent home next, and it’s down to Janine (who just got dumped by her partner of nine years), and Grayson (who needs to give Andie McDowell her hair back) for the final slot on the show. Grayson wins the final spot on the show, and Janine is sent packing.
Here they are, the Sweet 16, your Top Chef: Texas cast:
Chris Jones (Moto, Chicago)
Sarah Grueneberg (Spiaggia, Chicago)
Heather Terhune (Sable, Chicago)
Richie Farina (Moto, Chicago)
Nyesha Arrington (Wilshire, Los Angeles)
Whitney Otawka (Greyfield Inn, Cumberland Island, Ga.)
Keith Rhodes (Catch, Wilmington, N.C.)
Chuy Valencia (Chilam Bilam, Chicago)
Chris Crary (Whist, Santa Monica)
Ty-Lör Boring (Spasso, Brooklyn)
Dakota Weiss (9:30 and The Backyard, Los Angeles)
Paul Qui (Uchiko, Austin)
Lindsay Autry (Omphoy Ocean Resort, West Palm Beach)
Beverly Kim (Aria, Chicago)
Ed Lee (610 Magnolia; Louisville)
Grayson Schmitz (New York)
Is this the first time in Top Chef history that the cast has been 50-50 male-female? I’ll be curious to see how those dynamics play out.
In the clips preview, here’s what we see coming up this season: swearing, Patti Labelle, snakes, Charlize Theron, mental breakdowns, blood, Pee-Wee Herman, lots of crying, hair gel, oxygen masks and a new online-only Bravo series featuring Tom putting tonight’s eliminated chefs Andrew and Janine through a mini-competition to earn a chance to go back on the show. Let’s hope it’s nothing like chartering a schooner out to sea to try and board the Titanic.