Before we get into all the grisly details of this particularly brutal episode of Top Chef, let’s take a moment to step back and applaud the show’s producers for so far displaying a real willingness to tread off the beaten path and dive headfirst into some of the more overlooked and less obvious aspects of New Orleans’ rich and storied culture. I made a few jokes at the expense of the series when it started (there is, after all, a fleur de lis emblazoned on each of the chefs’ uniforms), but devoting an entire episode to NOLA’s Vietnamese population is certainly a welcome and unexpected detour from a show that could easily have taken all of its cues from Anne Rice novels. Even Treme, HBO and The Wire creator David Simon’s New Orleans magnum opus, took until the third season to introduce Vietnamese immigrant characters, so color me doubly impressed that Top Chef went that route in just four episodes.
This week’s challenge, like Vietnamese food itself, is deceptively simple. After being split into 3 teams (seemingly at random by Emeril, who just sort of lumps bodies together), each group is asked to make a Vietnamese meal for a Vietnamese crowd, with at least one dish highlighting shrimp. In lieu of a Quickfire Challenge, the chefs are instead taken on a crash course of the culture by Emeril and guest judge Eddie Huang to places like shrimp docks and Vietnamese bakeries. While Carlos confesses to never having eaten Vietnamese food before, a few of the other chefs are much more confident, including Sara’s teammate, Travis.
I was already creeped out by Travis when he proudly declared his strict “Asian men only” dating policy back in week one, but he’s comes off even worse this episode by announcing himself “Captain Vietnam” and repeatedly reminding everyone just how much of an expert he is on the subject because of his three previous trips to Asia. The whole thing smacks of quasi-colonialism, a quality no more evident than when he tries to school Eddie Huang in a talking head segment by saying, “Eddie's Taiwanese-Chinese. He only knows a little bit of what he knows. Sorry, Eddie, you're kind of a douchebag." Poor Sara.
Sara herself should have had an advantage in this challenge because of her background cooking Asian food during her time with Wolfgang Puck, but it was clear very early on in the hour that the Green Team (also including Jeanine, Bene and Stephanie) would be self-destructing their way into the bottom, with each of Travis’ “it tastes like home” comments gleefully thrown in the mix by the editors in order to score maximum hubris points.
Basically everything that can go wrong for Team Green does. The most egregious miscalculation comes from Travis, who insists that Bene and Jeanine make a dish with tomato sauce because he had tomato sauce in Vietnam a few times. What a weird thing to fixate on. There’s also the matter of missing lemongrass. A quick shot makes it look as if it may have been Sara’s fault why this key ingredient didn’t make its way out of the grocery store and into the kitchen, but Travis only makes it worse when he spills the beans about its disappearance to Eddie Huang with a weird, kinda-icky “lost in translation” joke. Sara and her theater background extol the virtues of improvising, but Travis is on a warpath, and that means proving to Eddie that he’s well aware of how important lemongrass is to Vietnamese cooking. He’s been there three times, after all.
Sara is clearly annoyed, and it’s hard to blame her. She attempts to take lead of her motley crew and even reads a page from the reality TV classics with that “I don’t mean to be a bitch” line, but there are just one too many mistakes made by the entire team to salvage the challenge, despite almost uniformly disappointing results from the entire cast. On the bright side, Sara’s oxtail rice wrap is mostly spared from criticism and Stephanie’s coconut macaroon with Vietnamese coffee is awarded the funniest line of the night, when Huang praises it for being in the tradition of “janky, ratchet Asian desserts. “
However, that leaves Jeanine and Bene’s bad idea shrimp with the ginger tomato sauce to receive the lion's share of the scathing reviews. The sauce is too Italian for the judges (“I’m telling you, it was straight from Central Asia,” Travis protests), but Jeanine ends up taking the bullet for flash-frying her shrimp and allowing it to grow soggy under Bene’s misguided sauce. This is a bummer, as it was Travis who led his teammates in this direction to begin with. Huang makes note of this (“it’s like you saw a UFO and told them to draw it”) but I guess the dish Travis was responsible for was good enough to spare him. Sara’s is crying throughout all of this and appears to really care about the well being of her team. It’s sad!
In case you’re wondering, Shirley wins this challenge, mainly because she was humble enough to admit she didn’t know everything about the region’s food and took the time to ask the fisherman, and more importantly, their wives, how they actually like to prepare shrimp at home. Justin is also praised for his excellent pho, a dish that the judges note is difficult to pull off in just two hours.
Perhaps this challenge is the shot in the arm Sara will need to vault herself back up into the company of Shirley, Justin, and Nina. She almost went home for taking credit for Jeanine’s rice that Tom Colicchio said resembled baby food, which just goes to show that even the most minor mistake is cause for termination in the Top Chef world.
Next week: Lea Michele for some reason!