Maybe it’s the well-timed pre-holiday episode, or that I’m watching TV with a fire burning in the fireplace and Christmas lights strung around, but I thought this quickfire produced some of the most tantalizing comfort food we’ve seen on Top Chef. That’s the beauty of a fairly open-ended challenge—here, the hapless dozen were charged with creating a sweet-and-savory combination inspired by their upbringing. Assigning a flavor profile and connecting it to the chefs’ experience works every time. Put those 12 dishes on a menu and I’d have a hell of a hard time deciding what to order. Marilyn Hagerty, bless her heart, comes to serve as guest judge because… she’s Internet famous. She bears no connection to anything at all, as far as I can tell. I looked at a map, and North Dakota, where her column runs, is not near Seattle. She did write an earnestly laudatory review of the Olive Garden opening in her town. People found it and made fun of her, so then other, nicer people felt bad for her, and now she’s doing something with Anthony Bourdain and appearing on Today and playing up the wacky-old-lady bit by saying things like “someone told me I had become viral.”
Of course, the problem with choosing a judge whose very claim to fame is that she’s a poor* judge of food is that, well, she’s going to be a poor judge of food. She’s going to call Micah’s beautifully plated (but possibly dry) tamale a taco, and she’s going to conclude that the winning dish tasted good. I absolutely enjoyed her antics, but I also hoped Padma would jump in and offer a bit more detail, because seriously, I wanted to eat everything that was plated in that challenge. I’m also curious whether there would be consensus around the winning/losing dishes. Brooke takes the win for her apple pie with cheddar made with goddamn Truvia.
This week’s quickfire featured another twist from the “just because” files: One knife! Twelve chefs! What sort of crazy fighting will ensue? Sadly for the Top Chef production crew, the answer is none. None fighting. The chefs don’t seem bothered at all by the lack of knives, and the editing here so painfully tries to eke out a few drops of drama where they just don’t exist. This is one thing that I love about the better seasons of Top Chef. The chefs treat each other collegially, and for the most part, they’re able to jump through the producers weird hoops and stay focused on the food.
Slowly and steadily, this season of Top Chef is winning. This week’s elimination challenge has the chefs catering a party for Chris Pratt and a pregnant Anna Faris. Celebrity judges are risky for the same reason Marilyn Hagerty is risky. It all depends on how game they are. We’ve had some awesome celebrity guest judges in the past (Zooey Deschanel causing everyone to crash and burn while doing a vegan menu, or Charlize Theron eating black chicken and lamb’s heart), and some terrible ones (Holly Madison comes to mind). The previews for this week’s episode emphasized Anna’s pregnancy; I was afraid we’d get a gimmicky, pregnancy-related flavor combination or a list of dietary restrictions. Instead we get something so much better: They’re adventurous eaters who not only will eat anything, they want to eat everything, preferably in great caloric glory.
Coming off last week’s beating, the chefs perform well, given that they have plenty of time and freedom to pull off this week’s challenge. A few of the chefs choose to go along with Chris and Anna’s love of game, picking up elk and boar, and others go the Pacific-Northwest-seafood route. The top and bottom chefs represent a nice mix of flavor profiles and proteins. Jon manages to impress guest judge Rick Moonen with a chowder he learned from the man himself; Kristen plates an amazing-sounding pasta bite that pairs dried apricots with triple-cream cheese; Brooke delivers an intimidating but mind-blowing lamb-stuffed squid on black rice; and Sheldon manages to plate his soul, which is evidently tasty. I really wish the judges would cease and desist with the “your soul is in this dish” talk. It doesn’t tell us much at all. Landing on the bottom are Eliza, Danyele, Josh, and Micah for ill-cooked protein or lack of seasoning. It’s not a surprising lineup—we’ve seen these guys on the bottom before. I’m starting to feel that midseason antsiness, waiting for the stronger chefs to break away from the pack. Eliza takes the hit this week for her thinly sliced elk and texture-challenged carrots, and my money’s on Danyele to self-destruct next week. Her weirdly explicit nervousness makes for awkward footage, and she’s clearly about to implode given her “I’m too afraid to cook” speech at judge’s table. Not a smart move.
- Help me out. There was another local Olive Garden review that made the rounds long before this one did. Maybe around 2008-09? As far as I can recall, the guy was breathless about the soon-to-open Olive Garden. His thesis was that a town was really a town when it got an Olive Garden. Can’t find it anywhere. I remember it being funnier than the Hagerty one, though.
- *I’m aware that this word makes me a terrible person. But, guys, Olive Garden is pretty godawful.
- When Eliza’s family fights, they say, "Let’s fry together."
- Padma: “You keep saying you’re the pork man. Just stop saying it.” So much schadenfreude here. I kept imagining that Josh’s mustache would wilt with sadness like a dying and hairy flower.
- Last Chance Kitchen (spoiler!) pits Tyler, CJ, and Eliza against one another to cook with carrots and pickles. CJ emerges the victor, having escaped being “bitch slapped by a pickle” this time around. The other two dishes must have been fairly sub-par since CJ’s fish was overcooked.
- I really wish they’d leave the other, twice-eliminated contestants out of LCK. It’s the world’s saddest peanut gallery.