Gregory Gourdet, Katsuji Tanabe

After four weeks of generally competent episodes that never rose the level of “fine,” Top Chef finally turned in an episode that was better than fine. It was, dare I say it, good. The episode seemed tailor-made to subvert a lot of the issues the season has had with lowered stakes thanks to the tweaks made to the judging process, as it had the competitors engage in head-to-head cook-offs in not just the Quickfire Challenge, but the Elimination Challenge, as well.

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The episode opened with a chef I’ve never heard of, Jamie Bissonnette, a James Beard award winner with altogether too many consonants in his name, alongside Padma to introduce and judge the Quickfire Challenge. (A James Beard award is a cooking award given to good chefs who, upon accepting it, also receive a guest spot on a future episode of Top Chef, which may or may not be a fact I made up but find it far more interesting to pretend it’s canon.) Immediately the chefs are slightly jumpy as they’re informed that they’ll be competing one-on-one and able to choose their opponent, while their opponent chooses which dish (from a pre-established list) they’d be preparing. Up for grabs for the ultimate winner of the challenge is $10,000 courtesy of REYNOLDS KITCHEN PRODUCTS. In trade, the chefs must cook incorporating REYNOLDS KITCHEN PRODUCTS. In his kitchen, Chef Jamie Bissonnette (having that many double letters is just showing off, honestly) they often use REYNOLDS KITCHEN PRODUCTS when preparing their food in any number of ways. Doesn’t that make you want to run out and buy some REYNOLDS KITCHEN PRODUCTS today? Not me. I don’t even like foil.

The pairs are interesting, with Katsuji choosing to go head-to-head with Aaron and Mei and Gregory ending up squaring off by default proving the most interesting match-ups. Katsuji handily outpaces Aaron’s smoked salmon and Gregory upsets Mei’s steamed dumplings, before ultimately, again, winning the challenge, a result that’s starting to get pretty old. Doug, Keriann, and Katie also win their battles and end up on the blue team who will, together, yet still head-to-head, battle the red team in the Elimination Challenge to see which chefs would be subject to dismissal.

Before moving on to the specifics of the Elimination Challenge, let me take a moment to discuss how irritating I found certain elements of the Quickfire this week. Thanks to the mandatory useage of REYNOLDS KITCHEN PRODUCTS and the fact that two separate pre-selected dishes required smoking (smoked salmon and smoked BBQ) several of the chefs opted to attempt to cold smoke their protein. A fine choice, if cold smoking didn’t take 12 to 24 hours to be effective. I mean, congratulations on knowing how to cold smoke but F for effort for trying to pull it off in, literally, 30 minutes.

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Since the show didn’t have faith that forcing the chefs to compete on a team while also going head-to-head was enough of a set-up for the Elimination Challenge, they also decided to arbitrarily build it around a Revolutionary War theme, with each match-up coinciding with a famous Revolutionary War battle. Not for any particular reason, mind you, just because. They did make the chefs serve outside at an old-timey location with a couple re-enactors wandering around but outside of Katsuji’s cowboy hat, the entire charade was an exercise in desperation. Also, since it was hard to make do during the days of the American Revolution, each team only has $1000 to split in order to prepare dishes for 100 guests.

Now that I think about it, that’s another bizarre aspect of the Elimination Challenge, further making it seem like a strange, cobbled together monstrosity. The teams prepare portions for 100 people and serve them but those people just wander around in the background and their opinion is of absolutely no consequence for the challenge itself. Was this really something that mattered? If one of the chefs or teams failed to produce 100 portions would they have been disqualified? Would it have been taken into consideration? Why even have them take on this extra element of obstacle if it really has no relevance in the end. They easily could have been sent into the world with $100 bucks per team to prepare five dishes for the judges and been just as challenged.

Regardless, Adam decides to take definitive action on his team, declaring that each person would have $200 for their budget which is really incisive action if you decide to overlook the fact that such a decision is the most logical and basic option offered. Still, way to be assertive, buddy. The nice thing about the Elimination Challenge is that as important as it is to win your own battle, the chefs are kept invested in their team stakes, as the first team to three victories wins.

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The first battle is a rematch between Adam and Doug, with Adam preparing the finest grits Top Chef has ever seen and Doug serving some under-seasoned beef tartare, resulting in an easy Adam vindication win. Next was Katsuji’s slightly rich cauliflower and goat cheese tostada facing off against Melissa’s weak-ass white gazpacho. Katsuji takes it and Melissa will ultimately end up in the bottom three, because, yes, team red loses. Gregory and Mei also rematch, with Gregory preparing something Thai because that’s what Gregory always does and Mei preparing kimchi vegetables and New York strip loin. Both dishes are among the best of the day but the judges ultimately give Gregory the win. Keriann and Stacy also rematch and in the process produce two of the days most lackluster dishes, with Keriann’s herb meatball losing out to Stacy’s marinated beets. Because of her team’s ultimate loss, Stacy will also end up in the bottom three. Finally, Aaron and Katie rematch, not from earlier in the episode but from a previous SUDDEN DEATH QUICKFIRE head-to-head, the same SUDDEN DEATH QUICKFIRE, if I’m not mistaken, where he first served his weird-ass scallop noodle things, which he brought back to the table tonight, this time coupled with a meatball. Katie kept things more simple and made a basic chocolate cake but it was enough to get her the win, in that it wasn’t a noodle made of scallops.

And I’ll be completely honest when I say that I was totally blindsided by this episode’s elimination. Throughout “It’s War,” the reality TV edit was screaming that it would be Stacy sent home, even giving us a peek into her hard-working childhood and difficult circumstances and yet, almost as if from nowhere, the judges tossed Aaron and his terrible attitude to the curb. It was as if they finally figured out how to generate their own internal conflict again and had no more need for our little instigator (and possible domestic abuser.)

That said, perhaps even more interesting than Aaron getting the boot was the incident at Judge’s Table wherein Adam was, nonsensically, being put on the spot for not telling Aaron his dish was terrible (despite not being the actual team leader and also despite it being a competiton in which Adam was obviously playing the odds), when Gregory piped up and said that he never would have let that happen. Great, Gregory. Pin a rose on your nose. So here’s hoping that Gregory’s big mouth and aggravating winning streak are enough to bring about more organic Top Chef drama in the future.

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Quickfire Winner: Gregory

Elimination Challenge Winners: Doug, Gregory, Katie, Katsuji, and Keriann

Elimination Challenge Loser: Aaron

Bitchin’ ‘Bout Blais:

  • I dunno, guys. I kind of miss him when he’s gone. Where am I supposed to put all my awesome jokes when he’s not here?

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Stray Observations:

  • “…knocked it over the Green Monster and out of the park.” Wait, this season is in BOSTON, you say? Well why didn’t you mention it before!?
  • Next week appears to feature season one’s Tiffani, rustic cooking, and bobbing for cranberries. (Maybe not bobbing, but how I wish it were.)
  • Padma was/was not wearing a jumpsuit? I did not care for it.
  • I would bring cake to a war.
  • I would also open carry a musket.

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