This season of Top Chef, coming so hot on the heels of last year’s surprisingly great COVID bubble season, has been a little hit and miss by comparison. A little up and down. Lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what have yous…
Am I crazy, or did it feel like they started to turn it around this episode? It wasn’t choked with crappy product placement — Richard Blaise and Chris Scott didn’t show up in costumes to read lifeless ad copy promoting a Hitch reboot, say — the challenge had some gravitas, in a way that didn’t feel forced, and it actually related to food.
Also Padma looked good, even if I think we can all agree that she could’ve been a lot drunker.
Great outfit, now give her more booze! Anyway, pretty solid episode. My only real criticism? Not enough foams. WHERE ARE THE FOAMS? You used to get two, maybe three foams per Top Chef episode. These days we’re lucky if we get one aerated cheese. I blame inflation.
Anyway, this week opened with a monochromatic vegetarian challenge. The contestants had to draw from a series of colors and then prepare a vegetarian dish featuring only that color. A nice, old school Top Chef challenge. This, of course, turned out to be much easier for the people who drew, say, red, or yellow, than it was for the ones who drew white or black. Evelyn got stuck with the black, which, as she pointed out, isn’t even a color. Settle down, Evelyn, this is Top Chef, not Top Photography Student. Roy G. Biv wept.
After that, it was off to Bethel Baptist Church for a Juneteenth-themed challenge. This season was filmed in, as you might’ve guessed, Houston, which is in Texas, which is both the birthplace of and the setting for the events that inspired Juneteenth (based on the day when slaves in Galveston were finally freed, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation). Which just became an official national holiday this past year.
The challenge was to cook a dish for 100 people for a fundraiser at Bethel Baptist and make something “that speaks to your soul. …Things that are passed down from generation to generation, things that remind you of your family.”
This show can occasionally do a bad job feeling like they’re trying too hard to make a cooking show “culturally important” or tying in high-minded ideas with food, but… I think they kind of nailed it this time? I’m a big time sucker for “cook me the food that reminds you of your people.” (See also: Phil Rosenthal’s Egg Cream moment) Food history and family stories are kind of like my personal misty juice, and I’m the type of guy who rolls his eyes every time a cooking show contestant cries because of how much they miss their dumb wiener kids, or says “I’m doing this all for them!” (you are not, shut up).
Suffice it to say, it was a pretty solid episode, where the sentimentality actually felt earned and the chefs all brought their A-games. If there was anything that cheapened it, I would say it was probably the fact that Tom Colicchio showed up to a Juneteenth party looking like a plantation owner:
Damn, dude, did you raid Calvin Candie’s boudoir for that outfit? Someone should’ve pulled him aside and said, “Hey, man, it’s Juneteenth, try not to dress like someone who’s about to say ‘Well, I do declayuh!’”
Kwame had to try to undo the damage by showing up to judges table with a bejeweled glove:
Speaking of Leonardo DiCaprio memes, I went full Rick Dalton when Kwame pulled out the glove.
I’m not really qualified to discuss “swag levels” and whatnot, but I’ll simply say that Kwame has come a long way since selling candy on the subway. Top Chef has a way of turning nerdy chefs into well-scrubbed TV stars. The transformations are incredible. Do you think if some television producers got a hold of me they could make me look like not such a piece of shit? Well anyhoo
Quickfire Top: Buddha, Damarr*, Evelyn. Pedantic Honorable Mention to Luke.
Quickfire Bottom: Nick, Ashleigh.
Elimination Winner: Jae.
Elimination Loser: Luke.
7. (+1) ((Eliminated))
Soul Food Dish: Frikadeller, Mom’s Meatloaf Style
Critiques: “It was tough.” “It wasn’t juicy.”
At last, Luke finally came through on my week two nickname of “Noma gonna be in this competition much longer.”
And it only took seven more episodes! Alas, The Danish Zombie finally stopped staggering inexorably forward (Assuming he doesn’t win Last Chance Kitchen). Honestly, it was probably good that they finally put Luke out of his misery. I was getting a little sad watching the judges bat Luke’s emotions around like a cat toying with a half-dead lizard every week. Leave him alone! He lost his tail four episodes ago!
Luke opened this week cooking a purple cauliflower steak in the quickfire that had Padma asking, “Luke, did you enjoy this challenge? …Because it shows.”
After praise like that from a famous supermodel, surely Luke was about to be declared the winner of this immunity-gaining challenge… right?? But then they started announcing the favorite dishes and Luke’s heart seemed to break a little bit with each name that wasn’t his. By the time Padma got to the third (out of seven!) Luke looked like he was about to flip over table. And then she said, “…And honorable mention, Luke.”
Wow, a special award created just for Luke! Surely this will cheer him up! It’s never a good sign when the judges treat you like a Make-a-Wish kid. I thought Tom was going to burst into his bedroom dressed like Batman. “Cheer up, Luke, it’s your old buddy, Bruce Wayne! You’re doin’ great, pal!”
For his elimination challenge dish, Luke made a Danish frigadillo (later research would determine this was a “frikadeller“) in the style of mom’s meatloaf. He also made sure to get in one last “I’ve lived in Europe” on the way out, which was on brand. Every time Luke said “mom’s meatloaf” part of me wished it was “mom’s spaghetti,” Eminem-style, which would’ve been so fitting for the last white guy in the competition.
I thought it looked pretty good, but soon Luke was snapped back to reality, ope there goes gravity, ope he’s so sad but he can’t give up that easy… time’s up over BLAOW.
Sad for Luke to go out on such a relatively strong performance (I want to swim in those white cheddar mashed potatoes), but this was a few episodes coming. RIP to Luke. He may not have been the best chef in this competition, but he looks like he could bench the most.
6. (+1) Ashleigh Shanti
AKA: Moonjuice. Sugar Hillcountry.
Elimination Challenge Dish: Low-country crab rice with oyster gravy.
Critiques: “I was expecting some crispy bits and I did not get that.” “It was like two things together that didn’t need to be together.” “I didn’t expect the rice to be so doused.”
Speaking of the judges playing with their food, there’s Ashleigh, who every week seems to wake up refreshed and newly confident, with a brand new plan to really cook “her food” and smash the judge’s palates in the back walls once and for all and whatnot. Which quickly dissolves into yet another brutally nitpicking self-criticism session in front of the judges.
This challenge seemed tailor-made for the self-described “Afro-lachian” chef. I thought Ashleigh’s rice, combining her low-country father’s heritage with her Appalachian mother’s, sounded good. Tom liked it. And yet, it seems you can never have enough crispy crab bits to please some people. Bunch of crispy queens around here if you ask me.
If Ashleigh’s isn’t taking crap for a vinegary tartare it’s for crab rice with insufficiently crispy bits, which makes me think she’s not long for this competition. Ashleigh’s food always looks good until the judges say it isn’t. Stop gaslighting me, Padma Lakshmi!
5. (+1) Jae Jung
AKA: Noodles. Jae West. Hilaria. Dr. Hibbert.
Elimination Challenge Dish: Korean Baby Fish?
Critiques: “Perfectly flaked.” “Very interesting dish.” “This was a dish Jae just created, so it was like a new kind of comfort food she just invented.”
I always feel a little bad, because Jae’s English skills seem to leave her at a distinct disadvantage in the bullshitting-about-why-the-dish-fits-the-abstract-prompt department. That’s where a command of the language and maybe some liberal arts education could really come in handy. I could help her with that, bullshitting my way through half-assed metaphors is literally my only skill.
Anyway, Jae, in between uproariously laughter at her own non-jokes (Jae is the Dr. Hibbert of this competition) cooked up fish the way her mother used to feed to her as a baby. She didn’t give it a name but I’m calling it “Korean Baby Fish,” which was so good that it gave her the win and had Tom pointing out that “Well, ‘Seoul’ is the capital of South Korea.”
Nice one, Tom. Not even Jae was corny enough to find that pun. Which, to be fair, I had incorporated into her first nickname (“Seoul Food”) in these rankings myself before I decided it was too obvious. Oh God, has fatherhood turned me into a dad?! Damn my incredibly potent semen!
So yeah, Jae won, and seems to be on a bit of a streak after belatedly leaning on her French-trained fish skills. Is it enough to bump her up in the rankings? I don’t know, the competition is pretty stiff from here on out.
4. (-1) Nick Wallace
AKA: Domingo. Chocolate Mormon. The Count.
Elimination Challenge Dish: Nana Queen’s Salmon Cakes with Hoppin’ John salad.
Critiques: “The seasoning was spot on.”
Of course the seasoning was spot on, this is the inventor of Nick’s 26 we’re talking about here for Chrissakes!
Yes, it was another mostly solid-if-unspectacular week for Nick, who pronounced his dish “sal-mon” in one clip and “saa-mon” seconds later. Pick a pronunciation, man!
I’m putting Nick just behind Evelyn this week, for the sin of not counting the spices in his dish and a disappointing lack of pork neck. I don’t think Nick is going to win this competition, but I have high hopes that he’ll one day become as synonymous with spice blends as the Lawry family.
3. (+1) Evelyn Garcia
Elimination Challenge Dish: Beet sopes with black beans and chorizo.
Critiques: “This is maybe the top dish for me today.”
Evelyn once again cooked two solid dishes that received universally positive reviews and seemed wildly endearing in the process. It probably helps that I have the clearest frame of reference for Mexican food. I don’t know if Evelyn is going to win with Buddha and Damarr around, but she seems like a shoo-in for fan favorite. She and Nick feel neck and neck to me.
2. (even) Buddha Lo
AKA: Buddha. Mr. International. Big Pun. Asian Ben Mendelsohn. The Salad Nazi. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator.
Elimination Challenge Dish: Grandma’s Curry, aka nasi lemak.
Critiques: “Nothing completely popped.” “It felt compartmentalized.” “Not enough heat.”
Buddha seems to be cementing his position as, if not a villain, certainly the shrewdest, most shark-eyed competitor. Which is wild to say about a guy who comes from Australia (the chillest country) and is nicknamed Buddha (the chillest deity).
Buddha has become a favorite in this competition, not through getting in touch with this roots and learning to trust the humble food of his upbringing (the usual paths to success on Top Chef) but rather through meticulous study of past Top Chef seasons to gauge the judges’ tastes and the tactical employment of sophisticated cooking techniques to fit them. He’s even starting to play Arnold Schwarzenegger-in-Pumping-Iron-esque mind games to psych out the competition, such as when Luke tried to warm up his plates in the oven like Buddha was doing, and Buddha boxed him out and told him “You don’t wanna do that, that’s a stupid idea.” (If you can think of an Arnold Schwarzenegger food pun, please comment below).
Buddha immediately won praise for his hot plates and landed a slot ahead of Luke. He may be approaching this competition like a sophisticated AI but he’s crushing it.
So when Buddha said he was going to cook from the heart in the elimination challenge and make grandma’s curry, the touching story about his dead father notwithstanding (I got misty, I’m not ashamed to say), I was immediately worried for him. Sure enough, the reviews for his dish were uncharacteristically lukewarm. Cooking “from the heart” isn’t Buddha’s thing; cooking like a food assassin is.
1. (even) Damarr Brown
AKA: Catchphrase. James Beard. Screech.
Elimination Challenge Dish: Hoecakes with ham hocks and collard greens.
Critiques: “Thank your ancestors for me.”
This challenge seemed tailor-made for Damarr, who introduced himself in the first episode saying, “I’m here to prove that my collard greens are as good as your cassoulet.”
That quote is starting to feel like Babe Ruth calling his shot. No, Damarr didn’t win this challenge, but he already had immunity. He also cooked about the simplest thing possible and received universal raves. If it was up to Tom, it sounded like Damarr would’ve won.
The editors tried to amp up the drama by focusing on Damarr burning his first few hoecakes and worrying that he wouldn’t have enough batter, but I wasn’t buying it. This guy made an award-winning carrot cake in a broken oven, you think he can’t figure out a hot pan? Please.
Damarr, of course, eventually figured it out. I guess from now on if I want burnt ho cakes I’ll have to call your mother.
Read the rest of our Top Chef Power Rankings here. Vince Mancini is on Twitter.