All eyes are on Mei Lin.
She whooped everyone and won the first elimination challenge last week with a bowl of rice porridge. Rice porridge, people!
In the stew room over empty bottles of beer and wine, one of the brunette cheftestants felt the need to raise her glass to toast Mei Lin. The rest of the chefs muster weak and insincere applause.
I don’t blame them. It’s a big deal to win the first elimination challenge. In 11 seasons of “Top Chef,” eight of the chefs who won the first challenge have gone on to either winning the whole thing or came in as runner up.
So yeah, I wouldn’t be cheering too hard either.
Afterwards comes the gratuitous post-mortem. Katsuji Tanabe is embarrassed his “petroleum” taco landed on the bottom. He should be; that thing had more ingredients than Katusji has nationalities. Also, it’s always a good idea to name your dish after crude oil. Not.
Aaron Grissom, who came across as a jerk last week by making fun of Katie Weinner’s “tossed salad,” picks a fight with chef Keriann Von Raesfeld about her “rookie” usage of modernist technique. (She made olive oil snow.) In case the black, flat-bill baseball cap hasn’t tipped you off yet, he’s the unlikable cast member this season.
All this before the opening credits!
Next morning when everyone’s getting ready, we learn something about James Rigato. Who, you ask? Exactly. After getting almost zero screen time last week, James decides the best way to get the camera on him is to show off his Patrick Swayze tattoo.
You read that correctly. Dude’s got a portrait of Patrick Swayze as Johnny Castle in the 1987 classic “Dirty Dancing” tattooed on his shoulder.
“Patrick Swayze was just kinda a hero of mine. I just respect his craftsmanship, his commitment to excellence,” says James. ”You know it’s funny, but he’s extremely inspiring to me as a chef.”
It is funny considering James was 2-years-old when "Dirty Dancing" came out. I guess it is a timeless classic.
This week’s QuickFire judge is none other than four-time James Beard Award winner and owner of the restaurants Olives and Figs, Todd English. Considered one of the earliest “celebrity chefs,” English has been doing food swaps-out on PBS and cooking on television before some of these contestants were born.
Speaking of ancient history, here we go with Boston again. This week’s history lesson tie-in involves Paul Revere and the Old North Church, yeah, the ol' "One if by land, and two if by sea" line from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem about the famed ride.
The challenge is pretty simple. There are two lanterns in the “Top Chef” kitchen and two separate displays of ingredients. One side is “land” and the other “sea.” Each time the lanterns light up, the chefs must grab ingredients from the corresponding table. One lantern means they must take from the “land” table, two lanterns means it’s the “sea” table.
The tricky part is the ingredients are first come, first serve. So they have to keep an eye on the lanterns while they cook or risk getting the leftovers. With forty-five minutes on the clock, whoever makes the best surf and turf dish wins. No immunity but the winning chef takes home $5,000.
To no one’s surprise the “land” light comes on first. Everyone is scrambling around, trying to get ingredients. You know what else is not surprising? Katusji making a hot chili sauce. For a Mexican-Japanese chef who sells kosher tacos, dude’s sure got a limited repertoire.
The challenge here is obviously making a dish as you go along, and not knowing what you might have to work with. But there are so many ingredients available that no one seems to have a problem … except for hipster-in-skinny-jeans chef Adam Harvey.
Adam didn’t notice when the “sea” light comes up and ends up with dried crab snack — literally baby crabs that have been roasted, dried and candied. It’s crunchy, salty and sweet. The only thing that’ll pair well with this is beer. Lots of beer.
Overall, there were some pretty uninspired dishes. For whatever reason Joy Crump chose to pick veal cutlet to go with her buffalo strip steak. Judge Todd finds that combination weird. Not to mention the “sea” part of her dish is just sea salt. So this is more of a turf-turf-salt dish.
Boston-native Stacy Cogwell serves some overcooked and under-seasoned pork chops. Melissa King makes tempura out of mushroom and clams with some vinaigrette and calls it a day. None of these people won. Maybe they should have watched the culinary inspirational films, "Ghost," "Roadhouse" or "Point Break" ...
... because James Rigato takes home the prize money with his sautéed mussels in boar bacon broth and fiddlehead ferns. I wonder if he imagines Patrick Swayze lifting him up in the air in celebration.
Either way, one thing’s for sure: Nobody puts James in the corner.
We now come to the part of the program where you say “Ah, that’s why they named this episode 'Boston’s Bravest and Finest.'” Here comes Boston’s interim fire chief and the police commissioner.
Get ready for a bunch of non-sequitur puns that try to compare the important and dangerous work of police and firefighters with that of chefs.
“Each day the men and women of the fire and police departments work together to protect this city. They’re the first to respond to whatever situations may arise,” Padma explains. “And for your challenge we’ll be asking you to do that same.”
Run into burning building or take down a mugger? Not exactly.
The chefs must “work together” as a team and put together one cohesive dish to serve some of the men and women of Boston’s finest. And they won’t be doing any shopping for this challenge. Each team will have to “respond” to a different set of ingredients available in the kitchen.
Get it? Get it? It's a bit of a stretch. Since this is a team challenge, time to draw knives.
Mei Lin is teamed up with Katsuji Tanabe and Katie Weinner, who were both on the chopping block last week. Needless to say, she is visibly unhappy about it. Girlfriend looks like somebody owes her money.
I can almost hear the producers cheer off camera, because as fate would have it, Keriann is on the same team with her nemesis, Aaron Grissom. Remember that earlier fight in the stew room? Yeah this is gonna work out real well.
Oh, the knives also determine the order in which teams get to “respond” to their box of ingredients. The first team will get dibs on any box they like while the last team will have no choice but the leftover box. Guess who’s the last team? Funny how things work out sometimes right? #ProducersCheer
The gang goes back to their apartment to strategize, which leaves time for some character development and backstory.
• Adam’s mom worked at the World Trade Center on 9/11, though luckily she was not in the building at the time of the attack. Needless to say he has the utmost respect for first responders.
• Mei Lin name drops Michael Voltaggio again and basically would like her $125,000 and the title of “Top Chef” now please.
• Kerian’s dad is a firefighter so that pretty much makes her an expert in firefighter cuisine.
• Aaron is not a bad guy. He’s just having a hard time expressing his true feelings for Keriann. Like a little boy that pulls on a girl’s pigtails on the playground maybe this is the only way he can show love. Or not.
Time to cook.
Mei, Katsuji and Katie’s team get the first pick at an ingredient box. They’re doing a halibut with pickled veggies. And since Mrs. Voltaggio thinks her teammates can’t cook worth a damn, she and Katsuji fight over who will make the sauce for their dish. Katsuji won't budge. Mei throws shade.
Next up are Adam, Gregory and Rebecca. They immediately decide on the box with filet mignon, scallops and chanterelle mushrooms. I might not be a fireman’s daughter but I’m gonna go ahead and say this is a good choice.
The two-man team of James and Doug goes with pork chop and grilled fruit. Doug, as a self-proclaimed blue-collar guy, believes all blue-collar guys like pork chops. Way to stereotype, Dougie.
The fourth group is Joy Crump, Ron Eyester and Melissa King. Talk about a team of unknowns. With only two choices left they picked veal chop, kale and celery root. Because of the size of the veal chops, Joy wants to take it off the bone so it’s easier to grill. But nope, the rest of the team vetoes her suggestion because of presentation. Joy decides to be a team player and “censors” her opinion and goes along with the rest of the team’s ideas, like Ron’s idea of putting vanilla into the dish. The go-along-get-along attitude always works out in team challenges. (Except it doesn't.)
Speaking of getting along, Keriann, Aaron and Stacy are the last to arrive and find in their box short ribs, corn and chicken. Talk about a bad beat. Two hours is not enough time to properly cook short ribs and chicken is well, chicken. Just to show Keriann how technically proficient with modern techniques he is, Aaron is going to make a chorizo and onion jam and thicken it up by using agar. Good luck — you’re going to need it.
As it turns out, Katsuji did a great job with the sauce, and everyone liked the halibut dish. Tom thought the fish was nicely cooked and everything came together nicely. Mei Lin exhales and realized that she was worried for nothing. Next week we’ll see if she mentions Michael Voltaggio again.
Everybody loves a good surf n’ turf. Adam says being so close to a horrific attack gave him a greater sense of respect for these first responders and cooking them a perfect steak might be the best way to show his gratitude. Apparently that motivation worked. Tom loved the dish, and said it could go on the menu of any restaurant as is.
Grilled pork chop with grilled fruit. The dish totally reflects the team that cooked it. Just like James and Doug, a couple of perfectly nice and solid guys but not exactly edgy and exciting like Michael Voltaggio. It’s contagious!
Pro-tip: When you hear yourself say, “At this point, we just don’t have time to change anything,” chances are you are in trouble. Melissa sees that some of their veal chops are undercooked, but true to their team’s go-along-get-along attitude she sends it out anyway. Well, congrats because you’ve just sent out rare veal. Most people can’t even finish their plate. Oh and that vanilla idea? Chalk that up with Jar Jar Binks and Crystal Pepsi.
During the interlude we hear the heartwarming story of how officer Shana Cottone saved two victims during the Boston Marathon bombing and how moved she was when she later watched one of them walk down the aisle at his wedding. It's moving reminder of this week’s theme and just how important these men and women are to society.
Back to the kitchen.
With four minutes to go, Keriann and Aaron are still bickering. I swear at this point somebody should just tell them to get a room. Aaron’s chorizo jam or marmalade or whatever he wants to call it, is a watery mess. So he’s reheating it and adding more agar to thicken it. Basically he’s made brown onion goop. Meanwhile Stacy’s just keeping her head down and cooking chicken.
The result? Not good. Much like a reflection of the team dynamic, the only good thing on the plate is Stacy’s chicken. In two hours Keriann made some oniony raw corn salad and Aaron made Jell-O. Tom flat-out tells Stacy she should be angry, because even though she made a perfect chicken, this team is on the bottom.
True to form, Aaron throws Keriann under the bus. He calls her erratic and said she made some bad moves. It gets so awkward, one of the officers at the table gives one of those “Oh my” looks.
In the end, Stacy’s chicken saved both Keriann and Aaron from getting the boot. I guess raw veal trumps raw emotion because Joy Crump is the one who gets sent packing. There’s just no excuse for serving the judges raw meat. Goodbye Joy. We hardly knew ya.
The winning dish? The seared scallop and filet mignon by Adam, Gregory and Rebecca. You knew things were going well with them because they hardly had any screen time this week. No drama equals delicious food.
Two weeks in and we’re starting to see some personalities come through and roles being filled. It’ll be interesting to see how this Keriann/Aaron conflict plays out and who will be the next chef to step up and show some chops. As of right now, it’s the Mei Lin/Gregory game.
Next week: Fenway Park where I’m sure the word “history” will be used a few more times.