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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Top Chef: “Tribute Dinner”

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After last week’s no-holds-barred double elimination drama-down, Top Chef headed back on the road this week, planting the remaining chefs in Austin. A lot of the inter-contestant drama on “Tribute Dinner” was really the denouement of last week’s melt-down, and with the conflicts on slow simmer instead of a raging boil (I know, forgive me) we got more of a chance to see individual cooking styles come out.

Quickfire Challenge

On the way to Austin, we caught a little more of the chef’s banter—apparently Chris Crary’s meticulous hair and general lack of badassness earned him the nickname “Malibu,” and Heather has a thing for John Besh, that floppy-haired charmer. When they arrived at their stations, their challenge was to cook a dish based on what fans were requesting on twitter.  It had a vague tie-in with their location—Twitter taking off at South by Southwest—but it was mostly a product placement, and one that could have turned out a lot more interestingly than it did.

A fan-crafted quickfire challenge could have banked hard in the direction of impossible and hilarious challenges: make a dessert from Cheetos, design a sandwich that you imagine gnomes would eat, or combine two dishes into an ice cream, for example. But no, the task the chefs got was to make a dish with bacon in 45 minutes. It was an easy one, even with the added twist half an hour in that every chef had to pick an ingredient and give to someone else. The chefs were mostly kind to each other, though Lindsay and Ed both got Sriracha and had minor conniptions about it. Beverly tackled a pressure cooker for her pork belly, which was a gutsy move after Heather’s mishap with it last week, but she pulls it off with aplomb. I guess the pressure cooker is this season’s scallop; everyone’s using it but not everyone can use it well. There were a lot of bacon-wrapped things and fried accompaniments, all tasty-looking but mostly more sports bar than Top Chef. Paul ends up taking the challenge with the most creative dish of the night, in which he somehow manages to incorporate asparagus, bacon, blackberries, and clams without it becoming a horrid mess. No immunity, but a $10,000 prize means that Paul’s earnings are getting pretty hefty from these quickfires alone.

Elimination Challenge

Post-quickfire, Padma sends the chefs to relax in their hotle bar, which, as per usual, doesn’t actually mean that they get to relax that much. Instead, the fabulous Patti LaBelle appears to tell them about their next challenge, a tribute dinner for her in which each chef will make a dish that honors the person that inspired them to start cooking. After the slew of team challenges, it was good to have one focused on individual style, but there’s a reason that they usually save cooking that’s meant to pull at our heartstrings for later in the episode. Even with the winnowed down group, there are still a lot of contestants left, and it meant that everyone’s personal stories got short shrift, and a lot of them ran together. (Though I did love Ed’s story about his grandmother: “She was the one to tell me ‘Shave that stupid beard.’”)

It was good to see Emeril at the judge’s table for this one, but the real zingers of the night, unsurprisingly, came from Patti LaBelle. Heather chose to do beef stroganoff for her mother, but had a hard time with the execution of the beef. When it arrived at the judges’ table, none of the expressions were forgiving. “I can’t even tell what meat I’m eating,” Tom Colicchio complained. “Bigfoot,” LaBelle deadpanned. Exactly. Ditto to her comment about Chris Crary’s overly seared salmon: “The fish was fish.” Not a good thing to hear, and unsurprising that they both ended up in the bottom, along with Grayson’s enormously portioned steaks.

To paraphrase Tom Colicchio, it was easy to get stuck in grandmother’s kitchen in this challenge, and the chefs that triumphed were those that took a less literal interpretation. Ed’s vegetarian bibimbap looked hugely delicious, and Beverly again wielded the pressure cooker with a measure of success, making well-cooked Korean short ribs in the relatively short two hours they were given. But the judges awarded the win to Sara for her sausage-stuffed cabbage. Meanwhile, Heather’s unappetizing stroganoff proved worse than the other offenders, sending her home and ending her run as the season’s villain.


Stray observations:

I loved how enchanted Ty-lör clearly was with LaBelle. “Her toenail polish was the exact shade of Padma’s shirt.”


Also, how good did Patti LaBelle’s guest menu sound? “Fried chicen and macaroni and cheese with 8 kinds of cheese, bacon and shrimp.” I’m there.