What would New Orleans cuisine be without Paul Prudhomme? I joked previously in the premiere recap that he’d be the grand marshal of the New Orleans clichés I expected Top Chef to parade out throughout the course of the season, but there would truthfully be no reasonable justification for leaving out someone who so distinctly put a face to New Orleans and Cajun cuisine. Not only are we graced with his presence, but I also apparently missed the memo that Prudhomme has lost what appears to be over 300 of the 500 pounds he once weighed, as his appearance tonight sees him on his feet and no longer tethered to the motorized wheelchair he once still managed to cook like a pro from. For an episode centered on the history of the titular city and the legendary Commander’s Palace, Prudhomme couldn’t be a more welcome sight. Now if only they had let him speak more.
Before we get to the main challenge, this week is terrifying double elimination week, a plot twist that I’m sure was created when producers realized there were still 17 chefs left in the competition. Editor-in-chief of Food and Wine Dana Cowin makes her annual resurfacing for this week’s Quickfire, and boy is she mad! She hates all these newfangled food trends! She hates them! She’s tired of hearing about all the bacon you’re eating in your man cave, she’s over putting eggs on top of every dish like they’re a star on a Christmas tree, and she’s most certainly doesn’t want to eat anything smoked again for at least another 5 years because apparently smoking stuff is a food trend as well. Most of all, she doesn’t even want to lay eyes on kale chips or kale salads anymore, a statement that I’m sure made Gwyneth Paltrow cry.
The challenge is for the chefs to make these expiring trends new again, and while our local hero Sara Johannes (pictured) is bummed that eggs have been forever been tainted in this competition by Dana Cowin’s disapproving glare, most are able to look past the egregious culinary sin of being passé and come up with some clever, tasty dishes. The egg concoctions fare best, with heaps of praise poured upon Nina’s tiny scotch quail egg on a leek and potato soup, and Shirley’s immunity-winning shirred egg congee. Sara also gets some praise from the judges with her smoked tuna tataki and arbol chile vinaigrette (below), which Emeril likes for its hints of orange flavor.
No surprise that the worst two dishes involve kale (in what world is kale more fun to cook with than bacon?) and Bret inexplicably defies the explicit wishes of Cowin by making a kale salad to go along with his gazpacho and kale juice side. Despite this bizarre lapse in strategic judgment, Bret is spared elimination by Aaron’s fried kale that is both overdressed and deemed “too salty to finish” by Emeril. Aaron was quietly charming and seemed terrified of TV cameras, so I think I’m going to miss him.
The chefs are then whisked away to Commander’s Palace - a legendary New Orleans eatery that served as a launching pad for the likes of Prudhomme and Emeril - where they are told they must replicate one of the four dishes they are treated to by executive chef Tory McPhail. There’s a lot to unpack in each of these dishes, and while McPhail is certainly correct that recreating complicated dishes will test each of the chefs’ palates and attention to detail, it’s ultimately a bit of a letdown to have to watch our contestants parrot the dishes of someone else instead of flexing their creative muscles with food of their very own.
Still, precision is key here and the stress of the whole ordeal appears to have sent the kitchen into chaos. At one point Shirley loses track of her beets (I think because of Patty, who finally gets some kudos from the judges in both of her dishes this week) and Nina finds herself on the wrong edge of Michael’s competitive streak after he dumps the okra she mistakenly places on his plate all over the place.
Sara finds herself in good company (Carrie, Stephanie, and Justin) but she’s given the dreaded Top Chef dessert course that has notoriously sent many talented chefs home in past seasons. She’s tasked with recreating McPhail’s strawberry trio, which includes a biscuit, beignet and cocktail, and unfortunately, its Sara’s first real miss in the competition. Padma says her beignet is greasy and that the top of the biscuit was “obliterated” when served to her, while Tom notes a lack of white chocolate in his portion entirely.
Although she’s not in the bottom three, Sara’s faux pas is made even worse by the fact that Stephanie and Justin both nail the same dessert course. New Orleans resident Justin eventually wins the challenge (a sweet note of pride and victory considering McPhail just recently beat him out for a regional James Beard award) and Stephanie overcomes her flop sweat and panic to produce a biscuit that Hugh Acheson claimed was better than the one from the Palace. Stephanie’s terror has made her something of an audience surrogate at this point (who else wouldn’t feel like vomiting if they were thrown into Top Chef?), but it will be interesting to see how long it takes for her self-effacing comments to become annoying to the other chefs the more and more she succeeds in the competition.
Most of the other chefs aren’t able to escape critiques this week (even Nina’s top 3 shrimp and tasso henican gets dinged for messy plating), but Louis, Bret and Carlos are ultimately the ones who end up with this week’s worst 3 dishes. No one from the group responsible for Prudhomme’s black skillet seared trout did very well, as the team foolishly decided to divvy up the prep work amongst the four of them, leaving poor Louis in charge of the entire team’s seasoning despite him making no qualms about not knowing much about Cajun seasoning. The bland result lands him in the bottom for the second time in the episode, where he is joined by Carlos, who botched the balance of his fish by worrying about losing crust to overcooking.
Thankfully, Bret is the one who is told to pack his knives and go home courtesy of his poorly grilled veal chop tchopitoulas (what even is that word?) and general sense of meekness. Bret, who reminded me more and more of someone Elaine from Seinfeld would have dated and eventually grown to hate, kept making bad decisions throughout the night, none worse than his confounding choice to wait until close to plating time to cook his veal because he couldn’t find space on the grill earlier in the day. Emeril said it best: “no sear, no love.”