In the realm of art where creative intelligence is exhibited through more hands-on expression than intellectual endeavor, is there a point where basic intellectualism become more burden than benefit? It would seem that may be the case for Gregory on tonight’s episode of Top Chef where the thrust of the elimination challenge centers around interpreting the literary works of famous New England authors.
But before jumping to the true meat of the episode, let us first examine the meathead. Before the final six chefs arrived at the Top Chef kitchen, we hear a bit about Katsuji’s wife, daughter, and impending daughter which, as always, is either a great or a terrible sign for his success in the episode. Upon their arrival, the chefs are greeted by Padma, as per usual, and special guest judge RON GRONKOWSKI, of the New England Patriots. (Readers less familiar with the wacky escapades of Gronkowski would do well to familiarize themselves here.) Things are immediately off to a terribly awkward start when Padma appears to be somewhat of a smitten kitten in the radiant presence of Gronk, informing him that he can call her “honey” before the two exchange some sausage-based dick jokes. For the uninitiated, Gronkowski is Polish and demands the chefs make him some big sausages.
The chefs, to their credit, oblige. Sort of. George and Melissa both struggle with the sausage casings, with George ultimately deciding that sausage patties will have to suffice on his breakfast plate and Melissa opting to use her teeny tiny sausages. George’s decision lands him in the top two, along with the ever buoyant Dougie and even scores him the win. Immunity is a big deal for a guy who only rejoined the competition last episode and it’s exciting to see George have a measure of success upon his return. Exit Gronk, stage left.
Which brings us to the aforementioned elimination challenge. The contestants are tasked with selecting one of six different New England authors and crafting a dish based on some aspect of their work. The authors are diverse and none would necessarily make for easy interpretation. Gregory has first choice and chooses Poe, probably the most straightforward of the options. The other chefs choose as such: Katsuji takes Stephen King, George, with immunity, Dr. Seuss, Mei picks Henry David Thoreau, Melissa picks Nathaniel Hawthorne, leaving poor Dougie with Emily Dickinson.
It’s fascinating to watch the chefs attempt to suss out an angle for creating their dish and it’s clearly more difficult for some than others. Gregory clearly has a deep understanding of his source material, Poe’s “The Raven” and he speaks passionately about the abiding themes of love and loss. Other contestants had more muddled interpretations of their authors with George deciding that merely focusing on the title of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish would be sufficient and Katsuji taking a very literal route in designing a plate with beet puree when drawing inspiration from King’s Carrie.
But having only a surface understanding of the material isn’t a huge hindrance to all the chefs, as evidenced by Dougie and Mei. Dougie is at first completely outmatched by being paired with the work of Emily Dickinson but finds inspiration in a single line of her poetry, “Bring me the sunset in a cup.” This alone is enough to compel him into making a tremendous grilled carrot bisque that invokes the both the simplicity and the depth of Dickinson’s poetry. Mei, too, finds the makings for a great dish with a somewhat generic interpretation of Thoreau. Calling on the knowledge of Thoreau’s vegetarianism and philosophy of simple living, Mei beautifully roasts some vegetables, painstakingly arranging them on the plate, pairing them with the high concept execution of both charred onion soil and tom kha snow, heralding the rustic landscape of winter at Walden Pond. Also landing somewhere in-between in depth understanding and completely missing the mark is Melissa’s interpretation of Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, focusing on the farm setting and the changing seasons. Again, it’s not so much the interpretation that is important but the execution of the idea. Melissa’s seared halibut and spring vegetables are light and flavorful, while her mushroom broth perfectly encapsulates the ever encroaching fall.
In the end, it is the chefs that find inspiration in very generalized interpretations of the literature that have the most success, as though there is a value in not trying to literalize every aspect of the text. Gregory falters, not because he doesn’t understand Poe’s work, but because he gets so lost in displaying that understanding that it doesn’t ultimately translate. Especially if the judges are expecting something in particular. It would seem from their reaction that the judges panel would have preferred Gregory simply preparing a bird, running with the most obvious and singular image from the poem and within that is a valuable lesson to never forget who it is you’re cooking for. Katsuji fails not because he didn’t understand the discordant, violent work of Stephen King, but because he wasn’t able to maintain the culinary standards required to make something so visually unappealing wickedly delicious.
The contestants, to a one, all make delicious entrees that clearly impress the judges panel but it is Mei who triumphs in the end, and at the best time possible, as heading into the final episodes is a good time to finally start figuring things out. And it is Katsuji who takes his (sort of) final bow on the back of his gory fabada tableau. All in all, a strong episode to head into the holidays with a whole lot of disappointing French cooking to look forward to, if the previews are to be believed. Can’t wait!
Quickfire Challenge Winner: George
Elimination Challenge Winner: Mei
Elimination Challenge Loser: Katsuji
Bitchin’ ‘Bout Blais:
- *sighs* It’s like he doesn’t even care we have this special section for him.
LAST CHANCE KITCHEN, “The Kitchen Sink”
(Spoilers. Please scroll to Stray Observations if necessary.)
- Something I perversely love about LCK is how much control producer’s have in crafting challenges that play to certain people’s strengths. As annoying as he was, Adam wasn’t WRONG to grouse about how blatantly tonight’s challenge played to Katsuji’s strengths. That said, if you’re a good enough chef to beat everyone else out to get back into the game, you better be a good enough enough chefs to beat everyone else at their OWN game.
- Which Adam did. So. Good on him.
- So ends the mysterious reign of Katie. Oh well.
- I feel like Tom is never hard on dishes in LCK. How boring.
- Have they always done the establishing shots before the episode starts or is this iteration of the web series being produced MUCH MORE like an episode of TC?
- I felt really bad for Gregory this week. He shows such understanding of Poe’s work but just couldn’t make it sing on the plate. At least he didn’t go home for it.
- Fare thee well, Katsuji. We hardly knew ye, because you were fucking nuts.
- So Mei laid down the most extreme eye roll that I’ve seen in ages when Katsuji was saying his goodbyes. I was afraid she was going to sprain something. It made me suspect a number of things:
- That Katsuji was even more annoying in the house than his edit made him seem.
- That Mei hates people at a much higher level than her edit makes her seem.
- Or, most likely, the editors just like to make people look bad. Maybe that eye roll was from MONTHS AGO.
- It’s bizarre to me how much I wish Blais was judging every week. I don’t like him but I like consistency in the judge’s panel more than I dislike his presence.
- That’s it until January 7th. Meet you back here then. In the meantime, tell everyone in the comments what you want for Christmas/the holiday of your choice.