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'Top Chef' recap, Kings of Alaska

And then there were four. Brooke, Sheldon, Josh and Lizzie disembark from the Celebrity Cruise ship in Juneau, Alaska. They are all thrilled to be there, though Sheldon’s Hawaiian faculties are not accustomed to the climate: “I better throw on a couple extra underwear just so I can keep the package nice and warm, you know?”

The shivering chefs meet Padma and guest judge Sean Brock at Juneau’s top culinary destination: Tracey’s King Crab Shack. Their Quickfire challenge is to “take this near-perfect ingredient and make it shine in a dish.” Chef Brock, who hails from Charleston, tells them he’s been on a flight for 13 hours to eat Alaskan King crab. “Please don’t let me down.”

The chefs have 30 minutes and the winner will receive $5,000. They get to work, all of them sampling the crabmeat heavily as they prep. “I’m not going have any crab left to use because I can’t stop eating it,”  Brooke says.

Josh is excited to be cooking for Chef Brock, one of his culinary idols. His dish is a nod to Brock’s upscale Southern fare: crab succotash with — wait for it — bacon. “Sucker-tash?” Brooke asks.

Sheldon is a bit shaken from his near-elimination last round, and is trying to get back on his A-game. He is using the innards from the dungeness crab to create a miso soup base. This concept nearly brings my viewing partner to hurl, but I think it sounds delicious. He’s also smoking pine needles to cook asparagus. Sheldon is definitely thinking creatively.

As they run out of time, Josh’s butter sauce is broken and he’s crestfallen.

Sean and Padma sample the dishes. Sean’s least favorites are Lizzie’s crab frittata with cherry tomato, garlic oil and fried capers (it had too many flavors), and Josh’s succotash, which was overpowered by bacon. It is clear at this point that Josh has angered the pork gods and nothing he can do will lift their curse on him.

Sean loved both Brooke and Sheldon’s dishes. Sheldon takes the prize for his King and dungeness crab miso, pine-smoked asparagus and charred corn. Sean was impressed with his snout-to-tail approach with the crab.

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs will be celebrating Alaska’s fondness of salmon and sourdough. Apparently sourdough is just as big up there as it is in San Francisco. The first prospectors who settled in Alaska carried their sourdough starter in their packs with them as they moved north. Thanks for the history lesson, Padma!

Padma explains they will be picking out their fish tomorrow and will have three hours to prepare their dishes for the Juneau locals at the Gold Creek Salmon Bake. “You’re serving them ingredients they’re probably used to cooking themselves in a million different ways.” she warns, adding, “Kind of like serving succotash to a Southerner.” Josh blushes and Brooke adds, “Ouch.”

As they head to their lodging the chefs worry about bread baking, Josh especially. “I’m not putting bacon in my bread. I’m done with bacon, apparently. Jesus Christ.” The gang arrives at their fancy B&B; where a local baker has provided them each with a huge vat of 30-year-old sourdough starter.

Josh and Brooke are checking out the artwork in the B&B; when Sheldon jumps out from behind a curtain, scaring Brooke out of her wits. It’s a genuine and hilarious moment. Brooke is left curled up in the fetal position, wiping away tears of laughter as Sheldon screams “We’re in ALASKA!”

Sheldon changes into his house slippers and the chefs get to work on preparing their bread. Lizzie is the most unsure of herself. She plans on making individual rolls for each of the 200 guests. The chefs get their doughs mixed, kneaded and resting, and we’re left to watch them sitting on the sofa, waiting for the dough to rise. Hilarious and awkward silence.

The next morning, Sheldon serenades his fellow contestants and reflects on his journey. “I’m just a kid who plays the ukulele from this small town in Hawaii. Started out as a dishwasher. To think I have a chance to be Top Chef? That blows my mind.”

Josh keeps checking his phone. His wife is now several days past her due date and he’s anxiously awaiting news of his daughter’s birth.

The crew heads to the fishing docks where a boat pulls in, delivering a vat of freshly caught salmon. The chefs pick their fish and prep them on the docks. All four of them are blown away by the quality of the salmon. Lizzie is once again overwhelmed by memories of her Dad, who taught her how to fish.

As prep is underway, Head Judge Tom Colicchio comes into the kitchen to check up on everyone. Sheldon tells Tom he’s pairing pea soup with the salmon and Tom is taken aback. “That’s pretty funny. Yesterday someone asked me ‘what would you do?’ and I said, ‘Right now I’m feeling like some pea soup and salmon’ I swear to God.” Sheldon is thrilled: “BOOM.”

Tom doesn’t seem to have a lot of confidence in Brooke’s decision to poach her salmon to order, but at this point she can’t change her recipe. She shakes off his doubt
 and continues as planned.

The four move to the outdoor picnic area for the Salmon Bake. The weather is wet and cold and everyone’s breath is showing as they run around for final prep. The residents of Juneau head in and service begins. All the locals seem really into hearing about the chef’s choices. “Here we have a pea soup, perfect for this sunny day.” Sheldon says, to much laughter.

Padma and Tom are joined by Emeril, Gail Simmons, Hugh Acheson, and Sean Brock. Tom points out the bears that have scurried up a tree nearby. “I brought the bears,” he says, “That’s my fan base.” Oh, Tom. Sassy!

Brooke looks a little frazzled as she tries to finish poaching her salmon while Padma is “introducing” her to the judges, all of whom she has already met several times. She plates up her sockeye salmon and seafood broth with mustard seed caviar and dill sourdough. The judges and locals are all pleased with her dish, her bread especially.

Sheldon is up next, he’s prepared a green tea & chive sourdough with smoked salmon and pea soup. His dish has some problems. Sean Brock is disappointed how Sheldon actually served the salmon — ripping it up with tongs like it was pulled pork. “It is almost disrespectful.” he said. Hugh thinks the soup reminded him more of baby food. “But a good baby, a healthy baby, a well flavored baby.” and suddenly we’re all thinking of soup that is made from babies. Thanks, Hugh.

The locals are also a bit perplexed by Sheldon’s choice of the chum variety of salmon, which apparently nobody uses there. I’m no salmon expert but since “chum” is the bloody stuff fishermen use to attract sharks, I’m going to guess it’s not the most sought after ingredient.

The judges head over to Josh’s station. His dish is a roasted garlic sourdough soup with sockeye salmon & black olive croutons. The judges all agree that his salmon is perfectly cooked and the soup is delicious but that the elements are not paired well together. The garlic is overpowering the delicate fish.

Lizzie plates up for the judges her citrus & beet glazed salmon slider with poppy seed butter and pickles. “Sliders and pickles, huh?” asks Padma, disparagingly. Lighten up, Lakshmi. As the judges dig in they all agree her rolls are fantastic. Hugh points out she’s the only one who got a beautiful golden crust on her bread. Her salmon, however, hasn’t impressed anyone at all. The beet and citrus flavor is just not there. Emeril agrees with Padma that this far along she should have been a bit more daring.

Tom and his cohorts ask the locals for their feedback on the dishes. Then they head over to the judge’s picnic table.

Padma asks Lizzie if she tasted a whole slider before serving it. “I tasted all the components.” she replies. “See, that’s not the same!” Padma scolds, wagging her finger at Lizzie. It seems like Padma has it out for poor Elizabeth.

Sheldon’s choice of chum comes up again. “The locals never use chum,” Padma yells over the pouring rain, “It’s what they use to feed the dogs.” Then, after a beat, “But, they thought that yours was delicious.”

Gail confesses that the salmon Brooke served her was a bit overcooked. “I feel like I hit my stride very shortly after you guys left my table.” Brooke says. On the positive side, Sean Brock was “crazy” about her bread and said he didn’t want the dish to end.

Sean announces that the winning dish was a unanimous decision by both the judges’ panel and the locals. The best showcase of sourdough and salmon was Brooke’s dish. She wins a trip to Costa Rica. Brooke is all smiles and as she looks around at the wet, dark trees, says, “I’m DYING to go to Costa Rica.”

If Brooke keeps a steady head, I think she’s on course to win this competition. She comes across as having the perfect balance of confidence and gratitude and I would love to see her take the title.

“Now it’s about who makes the least mistakes.” says Josh as they wait to hear who is going home. “My green tea made no sense,” worries Sheldon.

For her underseasoned and uninspired slider, Lizzie is sent packing. While her bread was excellent the judges can’t get over how simple her dish was and the fact that she didn’t taste the composed dish. She is sweet and thankful in her departure. 

Next week: The three amigos go dog sledding and are asked to cook for the Governor of Alaska. Also, Padma pairs an Inuit coat with aviator sunglasses. 

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