'Top Chef' recap, 'The First Thanksgiving'

For The Baltimore Sun
A contestant from Boston feels the pressure to represent her city on "Top Chef."

Aaron’s finally gone! Here are a collection of feels: 

Keriann: “It’s like a breath of fresh air!”

Gregory: “That kid’s like such a pain in the ass.”

Dougie: “He was messy.”

Adam: “Time for him to go.”

I can’t remember the last time someone was so disliked on “Top Chef” by their peers. The other good thing is that we don’t have to watch yet another replay of Keriann and Aaron shouting at each other.

What we still get, though, is Katsuji continuously hamming it up. Guess since he’s based in Beverly Hills, he can be a comedian if this cooking thing doesn’t work out.

Adam is confident because he essentially played Aaron by watching him scallop noodle himself out of the competition, but there are still plenty of strong chefs left so he’s still very cautious.

The next morning we find out that Melissa is gay and her girlfriend has left a packet of love notes for her. How sweet. I’ll tell you one thing though, given Melissa’s performance so far, chances are she’s not going to need the whole packet.

I just remembered the last time someone was so universally disliked on the show. Tiffany Faison from Season 1 walks into the apartment and everyone’s a little taken back. Considering some of these chefs weren’t even old enough to legally drink when her season aired in 2006, I can understand why.

Tiffany tells the gang she’s taking them to see something they might have seen before (but not in person), really beautiful and unique to this area. 

A bronze statue of Mark Wahlberg in his Calvin Klein underwear? No. Sadly, It’s just a cranberry bog.

If you’ve ever seen an Ocean Spray commercial (which you will have tonight, repeatedly) you know what it looks like. A giant hula-hoop with a bunch of red marbles inside. The water looks cold and everyone’s about to get their waders on. 

So this is just the prelude to the QuickFire Challenge. Everyone is to jump in the bog and scoop up cranberries. The first four to fill up their crate will gain a significant advantage in the QuickFire.

Mei is 5’2”, so right away you know she’s out. Katsuji jumps out to a fast start but you’ve seen him. "His Chubbiness" gets winded after one round of back-and-forth. Meanwhile Katie, with her Salt Lake City high altitude trained lungs, smokes everyone and finishes first. She is followed by fellow long-legged chefs Adam, Gregory, and … Doug?! How did Doug sneak in the top?

QuickFire Challenge 

Obviously this is going to be a cranberry challenge. The spin is that the winners from the harvesting portion get high-end products to work with while the losers get “pedestrian” ingredients. Tiffany adds that they want something creative, something that can be served year round and not just your typical Thanksgiving dishes. 

Thirty minutes on the clock. Winner gets immunity. Go.

Talk about creative. Katie, who won the bog race, has access to the high-end proteins. However, she’s going to make a cranberry borscht. Dougie’s not buying it. He says it looks disgusting. He’s going with the opposite side of creative and making cranberry glazed pork loin with mustard. 

Katsuji has taken the term “cookin with watchu got” to a whole new level. He’s going to make steak tartare out of skirt steak, “You don’t really see tartare made with skirt steak,” he says, “but this is what I have.” *shrugs* 

You don’t see tartars out of skirt steak because it’s known for its toughness! And whether or not he’s slicing against the grain doesn’t matter because he’s cutting instead of mincing. Good luck to the judges as they try to chew through that. 

Stacy is psyched because she’s from the area so that makes her a cranberry expert. She’s making a curry soup with some sort of cranberry component on top. Guess that’s creativity?

Adam had a rough QuickFire. His plan of rehydrating couscous didn’t quite work out so he’s just got steak with cranberry sauce and mushrooms. He does the whole 'telling the judges how badly he screwed up' thing and sighed his way through the tasting. Tiffany tells him confessing to the judges is a rabbit hole which he does not want to go down.

Kerriann whines to Padma and Tiffany that she wishes she got to work with the better ingredients. Tiffany mocks her with an exaggerated pouty face, as in, “Aw you poor thing.” Ah there’s the Season 1 Tiffany!

Mei is really stoked. Her sweet and sour pork with pickled mustard seed and apple salad was praised by Tiffany. She said it was a way more elegant version of a Chinese American sweet and sour pork. Mei has recently been overshadowed by Gregory’s success. We know she’s been bummed because we haven’t heard her name-drop her boss in awhile. 

Speaking of bummed: Stacy is down in the dumps. After landing on the bottom for the past two weeks on the Elimination Challenges, she’s again on the bottom for this QuickFire. It doesn’t help that Tiffany kept reminding Stacy that she’s the hometown girl. No pressure.

Other cellar dwellers are Katsuji with his tough tartare, and Adam with his sad steak.  

The winner and immunity goes to Katie and her cranberry borscht.  

Elimination Challenge  

As certain as Thanksgiving comes every year, so does the weekly “Top Chef” Boston history lesson. Did you know the first Thanksgiving was held in Plymouth? (Of course, you do because every year they tell you at some point during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.)

This challenge is actually kind of cool. They’ll travel 40 miles south to Plymouth and, as a group, create a traditional Thanksgiving meal. And by traditional they mean really old school. Just from the promos we can tell that they’ll be using 17th century cooking utensils and equipment.

As for ingredients? They’re not going to know until tomorrow. But you can bet there won't be any hormone-injected Butterball turkeys running around.

What’s even scarier is they only have two-and-a-half hours to cook. Can you imagine preparing Thanksgiving dinner even with all modern luxuries in two hours, let alone 17th century stuff? 

The other cool thing is that descendants from both the Wampanoag tribe and colonists who came over on the Mayflower will be at the table. Holy reenactment, Batman!

Back at the apartment the gang exchanges stories of their own traditional Thanksgiving meals. There were some dinners that didn’t involve turkey. Dougie and his brother made pizzas, while both Mei and Melissa’s families ate duck stuffed with sticky rice.

The only person not feeling the holiday spirit is Stacy. She’s still beating herself up over losing the cranberry challenge. I’m just glad it wasn’t a “chowdah" challenge. Can you imagine a Boston chef losing a “chowdah” challenge?  

Time for the ole “I’m feeling down so let me call home” segment. One problem: Her boyfriend is a Marine and he is currently deployed overseas. That’s what video chats are for.

Stacy tells her boyfriend she’s not doing well here. Apparently Stacy is that classic tough girl from Boston who grew up poor and had a heart of stone until she met her love. Now she’s being “a girl” (pointing to her tears) and exposing her vulnerable side. “I’m turning into a little bitch,” she says.

Yawn. More cooking and less cliched storyline please. After her emotional chat with her boyfriend, Dougie gives her a hug. 

The next morning, it’s time to head to Plimouth Plantation. It’s not a typo. That’s how they spell it. 

The good news is there are plenty of quality ingredients to choose from. There are fresh lobsters and clams, whole goose and rabbits, pretty much everything that was available to the pilgrims back then. No jellied cranberry sauce though. Bummer. 

The bad news is they have to cook over an open fire, using cast iron pots and pans. Not to mention most of the cooking is done outside, so they have to battle against the wind.

With Aaron gone, the rest of the chefs rally together and are working well as a team to make sure they honor this tradition by putting together a great meal.

They separate into two groups and serve the entire dinner in two waves. It is quickly decided that Stacy, Dougie, Melissa and Katsuji will go first. 

Stacy says she’s never smoked clams before, and we see her sticking clams basically on top of a pile of ash and flames. Not exactly sanitary. 

Dougie’s roasting a whole rabbit on a spit. Melissa decides this would be the time to show off her knife skills. She’s going to make a roasted vegetable salad because you know, Thanksgiving’s all about nicely diced veggies. 

They must read my recaps, because back by (my) demand is Tom Colicchio's “cook-n-chat!” This week’s guest judge is James Beard Award winner chef Ken Oringer. Remember last week’s judge/MMA fighter lookalike Jamie Bassionette? Chef Oringer is his partner at Toro and another popular Boston eatery, Coppa.

Chefs Tom and Ken pay Gregory a little visit. Gregory decides to take on the goose knowing it’ll be a risk. Normally a goose will take 20-25 minutes per pound to cook. Nobody’s got time for that; certainly not Gregory. He’s breaking the bird down into pieces and cooking them separately. “Sometimes you gotta push the wall to see how big the room can get,” he says.

Next stop, Meriann tells the two judges that her initial plan of making a blueberry pie fell through. Her crust wasn’t coming together so she’s switching gears. She says since the pie filling hasn’t been sweetened, she can turn it into a savory sauce. Good luck.

While Katsuji is trying to explain his dish, smoke keeps going into his eyes and he’s totally tearing up. He tries to be philosophical and wax poetic about how cooking over fire brings him back to the craft of being a chef…*tear* (unable to speak). The judges chuckle and walk away.

Here come the guests — representatives of the Wampanoag tribe and direct descendants of the Mayflower colonists. You’d think it’s pretty cool to share a table with the 13th generation descendants of someone from the Mayflower, then you go and actually live in Boston and realize that everybody in Boston act like they’re related to someone from that ship. And we all owe them a thank you or something.

Time for Round 1. 

Everyone loved Dougie’s roasted rabbit. He manages to control the smoke just right. Katsuji, despite all the bumbling antics, pulls out a great side dish of roasted butternut squash with ancho chile butter. 

Stacy’s ramp-smoked clams seem to go over well. Tom even brought up the time when he mentioned that Stacy should “dirty up” her food this is exactly what he meant. However, that prompted her to proudly bring up the fact that she plated the food on the ground. Um, that’s not what he meant, Sherlock. Then of course now the rest of the table tastes something “musty” about the dish.

Melissa’s vegetable dish was good but didn’t blow anybody away.

All in all, Tom seems really happy about everyone’s dishes. He says that everyone really brought it. 

Fifteen minutes until Round 2 and Gregory’s got some problems. His ambitious goose isn’t quite there yet so it’s chewy. He’s putting some breasts back into the pan, trying to make it work. Fellow Portland buddy Dougie jumps in to help. It’s going to be close.

During the interlude, we’re reminded that Gail grew up in Canada. They don’t really celebrate Turkey Day the way we do and Thanksgiving is definitely her favorite adopted holiday. Once again President’s Day gets passed over. Guess she’s not a big fan of discounted mattresses.

Round 2. 

Adam made a succotash with bunch of veggies and spiced goat milk. On paper that sounds like nothing I want near my mouth, but that’s why you don’t judge dinner by reading the menu. Oh wait. They did that a few weeks ago.

Katie follows suit with a blueberry stuffing with cornbread and sautéed lobster. Blueberry?! Try busting that out this Thanksgiving and see what kind of daggers are thrown at you by traditionalists. One year I suggested putting sausage in the stuffing and was nearly excommunicated. 

Mei always brings her “A” game. She’s roasted cabbage in duck fat and served it with a trout vinaigrette. While I can’t even conceptualize what that tastes like, the judges loved it. 

In fact, the only thing judges questioned during dinner was Gregory’s goose. Everyone thought it was “toothsome.” But hey, it’s Gregory and so it seems like he’ll gets a pass. Tom even said that the flavor was nice and was pleased that Gregory chose something difficult and put out a nice dish. Hm. Extra credit for difficulty?

This is going to be tough. It seems like the judges liked every single dish. The deliberation was quick and to the point. No matter who is it, they’ll be going home for making a pretty good dish.

This week, we have a surprise winner. Katsuji takes it with his roasted squash with lobster. It was right down Tom’s alley. Gooey, tasty, but not overly complicated. Katsuji had less components to play with, and the mandatory editing totally helped him.

On the flip side, Stacy almost feels a sense of relief to be sent home. As the hometown girl she came in with all the swagger in the world. But sometimes it’s just not meant to be. She knew it was time for her to go.

We’re down to eight contestants left, which means it's almost time for Restaurant Wars. Have a happy Thanksgiving. See you in two weeks.

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