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Top Chef: “Clean Up In Aisle 2!”

Gail Simmons, Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi
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Welcome back to season 12 of Top Chef where all it takes to be interesting is completely changing the dynamic of the entire show.

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To be honest, when the episode began, a significant amount of trepidation existed as we focused again on Gregory, the most boring contestant in a house full of boring contestants. Gregory is so well-meaning and unimaginative that even his hobbies are boring. Tonight we learn that he is an ultrarunner, which means that sometimes he is boring while running 50 miles at a time.

Things were immediately more interesting when we enter the kitchen, despite the special guest judge being a man named Jasper White who owns restaurants or something. Also despite the challenge being making chowder because it’s Boston and of course. At this point it feels like this season has already constituted of roughly six chowder challenges but that’s probably not accurate. Most importantly, this was another SUDDEN DEATH QUICKFIRE which you should have suspected when you saw your DVR had taped for an hour and 15 minutes. The chefs were instructed to make a unique chowder and most of them took unique to mean “unique to clam chowder” not “unique to the style of food you make every goddamn episode.” That meant that Katsuji made a Mexican chowder, Gregory made a Japanese chowder, Melissa made a Thai chowder, and Katie made a completely misguided gross chowder. Which is to say that everyone played to type.

Since everyone played to type that meant that Gregory won because it was a quickfire challenge and that’s essentially all that ever happens in quickfires this season. Where things finally got interesting was once it was determined that Katie’s black tea sourdough chowder abomination was the loser, the previously eliminated chefs were marched in and able to choose amongst themselves who would challenge Katie for the opportunity to re-enter the contest. In what was a decidedly charitable move, (And why shouldn’t they be charitable? They would all had the opportunity for redemption via Last Chance Kitchen.) the eliminated chefs decided that George should challenge Katie. George, for those of you who may not remember, was eliminated halfway through the first episode of the season and is best known for being previous Top Chef contestant Mike Isabella’s business partner. Which is another way of saying that he was definitely going to be a formidable opponent with something to prove.

Katie and George had 45 minutes to create a tasty rabbit dish and it’s unclear whether the challenge was concocted around “magic” puns or whether that was something that came after the fact. Regardless, George defeated Katie handedly with his rabbit loin and barley risotto besting her braised rabbit leg.

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Immediately, the energy on the show shifted as the remaining contestants were unsettled by George rejoining the group. The heart of this discomfort lay not in George being an overwhelming talent, which is yet to be determined, but rather in the fact that because of his mind-bogglingly early dismissal in the season, the chefs had no idea what to expect from him. This uncertainty is good for show energy because it’s difficult to be boring while people are feeling so uncomfortable.

Also zigging where the show would typically zag is the fact that this week’s Elimination Challenge fully incorporated the judges in a new and fun way. One advantage that ABC’s The Taste increasingly has over Top Chef (beyond continued use of Anthony Bourdain) is the fact that on that show the judges are fully integrated into every aspect of the episode. Gail and Tom, Padma and, hell, even Richard are often the most interesting part of any episode, in large part because they are known entities in an environment where even halfway through the season, we don’t know the competing chefs that well. It’s a wise move to lean harder on the judges, especially in seasons where the contestant pool seems a bit unremarkable.

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The challenge itself entailed the chefs cooking for a group of 75 foodies and superfans right in the Top Chef kitchen. The twist would be that after a knife draw assigned them to a particular judge, the chefs would only be able to cook from ingredients purchased for them from Whole Foods by said judge. Some of the chefs seem more into the challenge than others with Adam in particular being wary of being assigned to Richard, as he then went into detail about how Richard would inevitably fill the pantry with molecular gastronomy bullshit. (Which he did.)

Cheap entertainment as it may have been, watching the judges scramble around in Whole Foods was decidedly amusing as it went about exactly as you’d expect. Padma was a bit out of her depths and depended on the kindness of strangers. Tom was a direct yet charming bully. Gail was insightful and clearheaded. Richard was flighty and impractical. And everyone picked on Richard. Theoretically, despite being the whipping boy for the rest of the judges, Richard should have had the advantage in the grocery store, seeing as he’s been in that particular position on not one, but two separate seasons. He had literally made the Whole Foods trip dozens of times. Also interesting was to observe how each judge had a different strategy. Some tried to pick ingredients that suited their chefs. Some chose according to how they wanted to eat. And some were total dicks and insisted on including liquid nitrogen.

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Back at the house, the chefs were welcoming to George but clearly uncomfortable, as though they suddenly had a stranger in their midst. Which, really, they did. George got eliminated so early in the season he’d never even seen the living quarters yet. As far as talking heads go, the audience got time to learn about George’s history and his father. They also learned more about Adam and his struggles. So thanks to reality TV editing it became pretty clear who to keep an eye on when it came time for elimination.

As far as the event itself, all of the guests seemed to have a good time, gushing over chefs and judges alike, thrilled at the opportunity to actually be in the kitchen. The chefs had two hours to cook and all adapted pretty well when it came to making the most out of their ingredients with everyone making something relatively tasty, with varying degrees of true success. Three different chefs attempted to cook shrimp and none of them really did a very good job of it, with Melissa and Adam’s dishes actually landing them in the bottom three. Mei also miscooked her lamb and joined the ill-cooked shrimp club. Unflappable and increasingly winning Doug made some chorizo-marinated mussels that landed him in the top, along with immunity-laden Gregory who, believe it or not, made a curry. Joining the top tier stalwart was newbie George who played to his Greek roots and turned out some beef and lamb kabob with perfectly prepared lentils. Katsuji also cooked food.

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But, as the editing already told us, it was Adam’s night to go, a decision that was disappointing, but not surprising, given his continued underperformance coupled with his strangely undercooked shrimp. Doug scored another win, something that is by sheer accident becoming a relief in that it is not Gregory. As much of a bummer as it may be to lose Adam, one of the few remaining contestants with a discernible personality, it’s a value add to gain George simply because he is a completely unknown (if bland) quantity. The hope now is that the show can continue to build off of this destabilizing addition and evolve into something truly interesting heading into the final stretch.

SUDDEN DEATH QUICKFIRE Winner: Gregory

SUDDEN DEATH QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE Winner: George

SUDDEN DEATH QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE Loser: Katie

Elimination Challenge Winner: Doug

Elimination Challenge Loser: Adam

Bitchin’ ‘Bout Blais:

  • Oh my God, guys, we have use for this section again.
  • I don’t care for Richard’s hair. Still. Always.
  • Though my favorite moment of the episode may have been Richard playing beta to Tom’s alpha dog.
  • Or when people told Richard that their favorite season was nine. Or that Fabio was their favorite chef.
  • Lots of favorite moments tonight, I guess.

LAST CHANCE KITCHEN:

Hey, this is back and I watched it. Let me know if you’d like rudimentary coverage of it. We’ll try it this week and see what you guys think. As it is, if you’d like to remain UNSPOILED about what happens on this week’s LCK, scroll to the Stray Observations now.

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  • The most interesting thing I can say about tonight’s (two) LCK episodes is that I’m intrigued by their decision to move two chefs forward with each episode. I imagine that has something to do with their continued use of SUDDEN DEATH QUICKFIRES in the future or simply because they want to keep their options open in case a favorite suddenly gets surprise eliminated.
  • I was not expecting Rebecca to emerge victorious from the original round of seven.
  • I was also not expecting her to get eliminated by Katie in the next round.
  • So, unsurprisingly, Adam and Katie move forward to next week.
  • I cannot believe Aaron thought about making those fucking scallop noodles again. What a fucking lunatic.
  • It’s also fun to see chefs try to right the wrongs from their past and reimagine the dishes that sent them home. Always a favorite Top Chef challenge.
  • Whatever. LCK is okay but not required viewing for me, I guess. But I’ll watch it for you, AVC.
  • Last Chance Kitchen is brought to you by GLAD FAMILY PRODUCTS and HIDDEN VALLEY RANCH. Two great tastes that taste great together.
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Stray Observations:

  • I can’t believe Gronk is going to be on next week. I can’t believe Padma appears to be hitting on him. I can’t believe a lot of things, apparently.
  • Also, Padma was wearing skin tight overalls this episode and I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about them.
  • In equal opportunity ogling, I’m all about Tom’s glasses. More Tom’s glasses, please.
  • Personally, I’m looking forward to an author themed elimination challenge next week because I’m a huge dork.
  • Is Mei ever going to step up or is my admiration misplaced? It’s certainly unearned so far.
  • Am I being too hard on Gregory? It’s okay. You can tell me.
  • But, really, what if he had to cook one week without coconut milk? WHAT THEN?!
  • Okay, my actual favorite moment was when Padma exploded Richard’s fish.
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