For those of you placing bets at home, it only took until the second episode of Top Chef: New Orleans to center an entire Elimination Challenge on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Of course the show at some point has to acknowledge the events of the tragedy as to not appear completely tone deaf to the devastating impact it had on the region, but I can’t begin to stress how refreshing it is to see the series avoid the melodramatic impulses that lesser reality shows wouldn’t when addressing the topic, instead creating an episode that rather sneakily speaks to just how restorative the power of food and community has been to a state that’s still struggling to pick up the pieces a full 8 years after disaster. This episode is built all around teamwork, both in respects to the week’s food truck group challenge, as well as the Habitat for Humanity volunteers our cheftestants are tasked with feeding. Lest this episode get a little too much on the “Kumbaya” side, there’s a fantastically cruel elimination at the tail end of it, but we’ll get to that in a minute

The episode starts exactly where the last one left off. Contestants have barely had a minute to discuss Ramon’s exit before Padma struts in to inform everyone that they’re immediately going to participate in the “longest Quickfire Challenge in Top Chef history.”  They’ll be making gumbo inspired by their heritage, and since gumbo takes longer than 15 minutes to cook, the contestants will get a head start back at their apartment before heading into the kitchen in the morning. As New Orleans native and Cosmo Kramer look-alike Michael says of his home city, “If you don’t have gumbo on your menu, you’re going to go out of business,” a food motto I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing adopted in the Twin Cities.

While Aaron seems confused about what exactly constitutes a gumbo base (maybe a little research before boarding that plane?), most contestants appear to impress Padma and adorable guest judge Leah Chase. Unfortunately, our Minnesota gal Sara Johannes doesn’t fare quite as well as some of the others, although she avoids landing in the bottom with Jason’s poor attempt at mixing his Polish roots and this summer’s beet craze. Sara’s crab and silken tofu gumbo (right) is inspired by her time in Shanghai, and while it certainly appears to be one of the more ambitious dishes of the batch, it ends up being too difficult and too salad-like for Padma and Leah to eat, with each commenting on the unusual serving style that made it challenging to land food on their utensils.

Shirley and Carrie’s dishes both get high marks, but Carrie grabs the win and immunity by combining her Iowan roots and Trinidadian husband’s culture to create her pea-green gumbo with coconut, mango, and corn crumble. Guess which part of that is the Iowa.

By the way, it’s worth noting that contestant Brian Husky is now 0 for 3 in getting his dishes shown in detail at this point. Keep trying, Brian!

Padma divides the cast into four groups based on where each is standing during the Quickfire deliberation. Sara ends up on the Green Team (below), along with Shirley, Stephanie and Louis, the latter MSP chef Sara Johannes, left, with her fellow Top Chef colleagues.of whom I’m pretty sure didn’t exist at all in the last episode. Guest judge Susan Spicer tells them they’ll be in charge of creating menus for food trucks that will be parked outside 2 different Habitat for Humanity construction sites, two places Padma and Gail Simmons bravely face in white pants. Shirley informs us she once had a food truck but now calls it “the biggest paperweight in the world” after she couldn’t get the proper papers in order. Hopefully that’s not a chilling omen of things to come for Nicollet Mall.  

Of the four teams, green’s concept is by far the least defined (“light but refreshing”) especially compared to some of the others (Surf, Tacos, Miami and Caribbean), but the chefs seems to have an easy chemistry from the get-go, with Sara teasing Louis by telling him they’re banking the challenge entirely on his megawatt smile. Louis also says he likes working in a kitchen full of women, which was a tidbit I liked hearing nearly as much as Gail's defense of peanut butter and jelly.

Jason, on the other hand, is near insufferable on Team Surf. I neglected to mention Jason in the first episode recap, but he’s clearly an editors’ favorite, which has everything to do with his extreme ego and willingness to remind everyone he was once voted Philly’s Hottest Chef. At one point, Jason says “I’m probably going to end up at the [truck’s] window because I like chatting people up,” however the pause after “because” is so long that you know he had to fight everything in his power to avoid saying “because I’m so just so damn handsome.”

Ultimately, Jason shortcuts his salmon hand roll by preparing it too far in advance to make more time for flirting with female customers and flipping his Hitler Youth haircut, a mistake that leaves him with both a soggy dish and a plane ticket back to Pennsylvania. It’s a fairly shocking elimination considering how much screen time he’s received thus far (not to mention in light of Patty’s third consecutive appearance in the bottom, this time including a random tomato on a tuna slider that she referred to as “nothing special,” a comment that just about gave Tom Colicchio a conniption), but it will be nice to see less preening and more cooking in future episodes from here on out.

But how did Sara and the rest of Team Green do? Well, just like last week, Sara’s never a bride, always a bridesmaid. Green is highlighted in judges' deliberation as one of the top two teams (including mostly high marks for Sara’s tuna burger with sprouts, avocado and watermelon rind pickles, right), but it was Team Taco and Carrie yet again specifically who earned the week’s top honor.  Carrie has shown real ingenuity thus far in the competition, this week dazzling the judges with her and Aaron’s beef and pork curry empanadas. In this week’s try it at home moment, Carrie used a chilled wine bottle in lieu of a roller to keep her freshly made dough cold and resistant to gumming up with hot, sticky butter. Really, is there anything wine can’t do?

With Carrie (below) and her aw-shucks Iowa-by-Seattle charm on a roll and Sara not far behind, one thing is certain so far into this young Top Chef season: Midwest girls are definitely holding it down.

Did Sara impress you in her second outing, or are you too distraught by having to say goodbye to Jason’s chiseled jawline to notice?

Carrie Mashaney

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