It only took six episodes, but season twelve of Top Chef finally produced an episode that felt like an actual episode of Top Chef. And all it took was forcing people to cook in the dirt.
“The First Thanksgiving” was actually far from the first Thanksgiving episode the series has produced but it was certainly among the best. For the first time, Boston was able to provide actual culinary context for each challenge and the episode was all the better for it.
The episode itself opened with plenty of good riddance-ing from the remaining contestants over last week’s elimination of Aaron. Shockingly, he was not very popular among his peers. Can’t imagine that’s ever come up for him before. Adam then is featured talking about the chefs who he views as competition and names, literally, half of the remaining contestant pool. He’s not wrong with many of his choices, Doug, Gregory, Mei, with wild card Katsuji. But he includes Melissa on his list and it feels like a complete misread. Melissa is fine but she’s definitely middle of the pack material, which is a precarious place to be with only nine remaining chefs. Nothing is said about Gregory’s big mouth at Judges Table which is, honestly, a huge disappointment.
All of the chefs are surprised when season one runner-up Tiffani appears in their kitchen and bade them to follow her to a mysterious second location. (As she does not appear to be a hippie, they oblige.) To the audience’s surprise, the second location is actually kind of awesome. Despite being yet another instance of product placement, forcing the chefs to harvest cranberries was remarkably entertaining to watch and informative in a non-stifling way. Ever wonder how cranberries are grown and harvested? Well, now you know. Also, one should never underestimate the hilarity of watching non-athletic people run. Also, it is additionally hilarious to watch said individuals attempt to run in water.
To no one’s real surprise, those chefs who are moderately athletic or nimble garner the advantage, which entitles the first four contestants to fill their baskets with cranberries the opportunity to cook during the Quickfire Challenge with high-end ingredients. Those chefs include Katie, Adam, Gregory, and Doug. Katsuji does not come close to qualifying but he doesn’t get special recognition for flopping around like a beached carp after the race’s end.
And just what does that Quickfire Challenge entail? Well, the chefs, once again safely ensconced in the comforting walls of the Top Chef kitchen, are asked to prepare a unique dish highlighting cranberries that is suitable for any time of year. They can choose from a small pantry, with the winners getting high end materials and the losers getting inferior product, and the use of any number of OCEAN SPRAY cranberry products as well as their freshly harvested cranberries, also courtesy of OCEAN SPRAY.
The Quickfire is intriguing because cranberries are not a simple ingredient to work with and featuring them without relieving them of all their signature tartness takes a delicate hand with flavor profile balancing. Undoubtedly the best aspect of this challenge, however is how Hannibal-ish everything looked. Cranberries have the best color and with so many chefs incorporating the cranberry glaze schmear on their plates it gave the appearance of a particularly gore heavy dinner. Ultimately, the chefs produce a number of unremarkable dishes and Katie, of all people, walks away with immunity for her, frankly, brilliant cranberry borscht. While I suspect this will be the high point of Katie’s Top Chef experience, good for her for tackling such a difficult product and making something sing.
Which leads us to the Elimination Challenge, which finally manages to thematically integrate Boston (or, at least, the greater Boston area) in a very organic way. Located 40-some miles from Boston is a recreation of a 17th century pilgrim village called Plimoth Plantation. The chefs will be expected to work together to create a traditional Thanksgiving meal using only the ingredients that could be naturally found at the location and items the pilgrims would have brought over on the Mayflower. As well as the judges, the chefs will be feeding descendants of both Mayflower passengers and Wampanoag tribe members (the local tribe in attendance at the first Thanksgiving) which is pretty awesome all around. The chefs are clueless as to what ingredients and utensils they’ll have to work with until they arrive and that alone is fascinating. It’s always a good challenge when the contestants go into a situation completely blind and have to create on the fly.
Once they reached their destination and took in what they were working with (wooden spoons, cast iron pots, fire pits, spit sets, and a beautiful, if limited, outlay of natural ingredients) they got down to cooking. These are the best challenges on Top Chef as they really reveal the breadth of a chef’s ability, not only to be imaginative and understand how ingredients work together, but also to understand the limitations of their methods of preparation and adapting as necessary.
When all was said and done the chefs put together a rather fantastic spread and it became clear that if someone was eliminated (because, come on, it’s Thanksgiving, and if they’re going to do a non-elimination round it would definitely center around a holiday and/or a round where no one fucks up beyond belief) it was going to be for a dish that wasn’t abysmal at all. Tom even theorized that being forced to work in such clamped down conditions produced better food all around because there was little opportunity for a chef to get distracted by too many options.
The cream of the crop were Mei’s duck fat roasted cabbage with trout vinaigrette, which sounds insane, but apparently was more along the lines of delicious, Doug’s spit-roasted rabbit, made extra delicious by natural smoking, and Katsuji’s roasted butternut squash with poached lobster. It was the squash that reigned supreme and Katsuji continues his slow and steady rise to full-blown dark horse this season.
On the other side of the scale were Melissa’s unimaginative vegetable medley, Gregory’s ill-cooked goose, and Stacy’s dirty clams. At this point, it became clear that no matter how mind-blowing it would be to see a Gregory elimination and how deserved a Melissa elimination would be (sorry, if you’re aiming for the middle of the pack, just pack your bags instead), that there was no way that Stacy wasn’t being eliminated seeing as she far outstripped any other contestant this week as far as screentime and backstory went. And eliminated she was.
To her credit, she seemed relieved to be removed of the burden of competing on Top Chef and happy that she represented her hometown well. Good for her.
And with that, the series takes a two week holiday to allow its audience to experience their own Thanksgiving festivities and flops. While we don’t know what to expect when the show returns we are explicitly informed that Last Chance Kitchen will be back and that this season’s finals take place in Mexico. This is very likely old news to everyone but whatever. Previews are full of spoilers and spoilers ruin entertainment. (Ha. No.)
Quickfire Winner: Katie
Elimination Challenge Winner: Katsuji
Elimination Challenge Loser: Stacy
Bitchin’ ‘Bout Blais:
- Guys, it’s super awkward that Blais didn’t get invited to Thanksgiving, right? I wonder if they’re gonna ice him out of the Secret Santa next month.
- Cranberries are so pretty, guys. That’s it. That’s the whole observation.
- Stacy has a very attractive Marine boyfriend and Melissa has a very attractive girlfriend. This has been your moment in equal-opportunity objectification.
- Mei was sharpening her knives in the opening and it was strangely hypnotic to watch. If she doesn’t step up and start kicking ass I’m going to be super disappointed. I hope we’re not heading to season four Jennifer territory with her.
- What do you think came first: The fork or the spork?