After last week’s embarrassment of a cream cheese challenge (I actually skipped over the bagels on my grocery list in protest), this week’s Top Chef rebounds nicely (mostly) from that ill-conceived advertorial to deliver a pair of challenges that actually had something to do with this year’s host city. A jazz-themed challenge was an inevitability for this New Orleans season, but it’s certainly not unwelcome, especially when you throw jazz great Kermit Ruffins into the mix.
This week’s Quickfire Challenge was so fun to watch unfold that I barely noticed how utterly flawed it was in concept until the winner was announced. Basically the challenge is musical chairs with chef stations instead of chairs and knives and loose electrical wires instead of sanity and sound decision-making. The concept is that - like jazz musicians - chefs should be able to improvise on the spot, which is why each chef ends up changing food stations four times, searching for dish continuity along the way. It’s fun watching chefs wander around to the sound of trumpet music (Sara did a jaunty dance!), most likely while pondering why so many jazz musicians are named Kermit, but ultimately this challenge just isn’t fair. Justin (who’s slowly turning into this season’s resident grouch) starts out nicely at the quail and flounder station but later gets stuck at the finishing point with tofu, a microwave and Patty’s lame attempt at couscous. There’s really no justice here.
Sara gets royally screwed here as Brian ends up winning the challenge and immunity for the Asian-inspired duck and mussels dish that Sara worked on for half of the four rotations. Brian is rightfully excited, but also a little embarrassed, as his self-admitted contribution to the dish was mainly centered on the plating. Earlier, Brian avoided making a big move by sautéing vegetables instead of dealing with frog legs, a dish Louis unfortunately got saddled with. Sara’s good-natured about not scoring a win on what’s essentially her dish, but I’m less even-tempered as I think Sara’s confidence really needs a boost at this stage. She serves a trout dish that was initially Carrie’s. It goes over well. Luckily, Sara is never at risk of needing immunity in this week’s big challenge, but Brian's win still stings.
Speaking of, the Elimination Challenge this week is also jazz-themed as the chefs are asked to work in groups (under the thin veil of jazz quartets or something) to make food for Kermit’s potluck. Puerto Rican chef Patty has never heard of potlucks before, but Midwestern girls Sara and Carrie (an Iowan native, if you need a refresher) have a much better grip on the concept, but still don’t exactly want to put their best ambrosia salad or tater tot hot dish recipes forward.
The groups get to pick their teams (or “bands,” as Tom Colicchio was forced by producers to say) and Sara picks a pretty solid one in Shirley, Justin and the momentum-gaining Louis on Team Blue. Less together are Team Gray, who are not only saddled with the immune Brian and iffy Patty and Travis, but also Nicholas, who had to sit out the Quickfire due to a possible case of strep throat. He’s back before he’s forced out of the competition, but not before doing his entire ingredient shopping via Travis and a cell phone.
Despite the paradoxical nature of the challenge (is a catered potluck really a potluck?), there’s a lot of fun to be had in watching jazz musicians (A Marsalis! A Neville! That guy Steve Zahn essentially plays on Treme!) shoot the breeze and eat the most uniformly good food the show’s had in weeks.
Sara’s team plays it smart by aiming at the local crowd with food that’s both comforting and indulgent, including grits, okra and beef. The teams ends up in the middle, with most of the praise falling on Louis’ grilled and pickled vegetables with sunflower seeds and mustard vinaigrette. Justin scores some love for his super-buttery grits, but also gets nailed for not having enough as much seasoning as the locals are used to. Sara splits her work with her BFF Shirley on a glazed beef with charred onions, melon pickles and a pickled ginger vinaigrette. At judge’s table, it’s called a bit dry, but all the scenes of the diners eating it appear to be positive. All in all, not a bad week for Sara, especially since I’ve rewritten that Quickfire in my head to be in her favor. Her makeup process continues to stun me.
The Green Team wins with their Italian-style dishes. Nina gets kudos for her gnocchi despite making gnocchi three times already, which is frankly kind of irritating. Carrie went weird with a nectarine, pistachio and goat cheese tiramisu that involved microwaved sponge cakes in a way that I still don’t understand. It’s beautiful, but not a resounding success. Instead, the winner is Stephanie, who surprised the judges with a nice fried artichoke dish with preserved lemons and anchovy aioli. Stephanie says she hasn’t won anything since “Most Improved” in high school basketball and I continue to love everything about her.
The losers are the gray team, who underwhelm despite Brian’s stellar fried chicken. Nicholas (who did most of the prep work, drawing a good-natured accusation of performance enhancing drug use from Stephanie) fizzles with a bland and unevenly prepared barramundi fricassee, while Travis gets knocked a few rungs down the ladder for putting too much rub on otherwise well-prepared caramel-glazed BBQ ribs. That means Patty finally goes home for another indifferently prepared dish. Her tomato watermelon salad (so much watermelon this season! Can this be the end, please?) is called bland by the judges, who also note that it really needed a savory element added somewhere along the way of its uninspired genesis. Patty was canon fodder since week one, but her hair was always very lovely.
Next week Sara appears to draw the ire of Louis during a horrific-looking pig butchery challenge. I’m concerned.