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'Top Chef' recap, 'It's War'

For The Baltimore Sun
It's time for war on this week's "Top Chef"

After last week’s double elimination, the collective mood is actually pretty light. Sure two people are gone, but the rest of the group knew those two weren’t going all the way anyway.

Katie says it’s all about surviving the next day. And of course, Aaron feels the need to contradict her by coming back with, “I think it’s more about competing and doing your best dish every day.” (This coming from the guy whose team won last week not by cooking, but by coming up with the catchiest menu description.)

Remember Chris Rock's show “Everybody Hates Chris?” If this season’s “Top Chef” had another title, it’d be “Everybody Hates Aaron.” Sure Katsuji is also annoying and is probably still yapping away this very second, but at least he can be funny. Aaron is about as pleasant as Donald Trump on a bad hair day.

QuickFire Challenge

This week’s guest judge is chef Jamie Bissonnette. Normally there’s an aside of a cheftestants’ reaction to who the judge is, but not this week. I’m going to guess that some of these out-of-town guys might not know who he is.

Unless you’re from Boston or super into the food scene, you have no idea who Jamie Bissonnette is either. Let me fill you in. He’s a bad-ass chef who recently won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Northeast, owner of the hit restaurant Toro (two locations, Boston and New York) and just published his cookbook on charcuterie.

Remember the name. I’m just sayin’.

This week’s QuickFire is a straightforward head-to-head battle. One chef can challenge whomever he or she wants, but the one being challenged gets to pick the dish/technique. No elimination or immunity, but this is a Reynolds Products-sponsored challenge, so the winner get $10,000. Not bad for 30 minutes of work.

The two notable match-ups are Katsuji vs. his nemesis, Aaron, and the two chefs nobody dared to pick, Gregory and Mei.

You know the saying, “Never fight a land war in Asia?” Apparently no one taught Gregory that because dude chose to engage Mei in a battle of steamed dumplings. Talk about a bold move.

Mei says she’s been making dumplings since she was 7-years-old. If she doesn’t win, her parents will be “very, very disappointed.” 

Aaron picks smoked salmon. He’s from the Pacific Northwest, so I guess that makes him an expert. He says, “Me and my younger brother growing up, we always liked to cook. Every time him and I get together it’s like, ‘You bring the smoker dude?’ and he’s like, ‘You know it."

Somehow I don’t think they’re talking about salmon.

Quick run down of the battles and results

Adam and Dougie steam mussels. Doug, who has an upper hand by knowing who Bissonnette is, slips some saffron butter in hopes of emulating the Spanish flavors of chef Bissonnette’s restaurant. It works; Dougie wins.

Keriann and Stacy make trout en papillote, one of the few dishes that requires the use of a Reynolds product (parchment paper). Keriann’s dish was less boring than Stacy’s, so she gets the nod.

Melissa sticks a smoking gun in a container with some scallops, then sears them and calls it a day. Katie trumps that by making BBQ chicken but with pine nuts cooked down like baked BBQ beans. Their dishes are as exciting as their cumulative personalities.

Now, the featured matchups.

All that smoking experience apparently didn't help Aaron. While the judges taste it, he is already making excuses about only being able to brine his salmon for five minutes. Katsuji serves some slices of smoked salmon sashimi with sake broth and easily defeats Aaron.

Gregory steams shrimp dumplings with ginger and herbs while Mei serves a pretty standard pork dumplings with black vinegar. The bold move pays off. Gregory not only defeats Mei, but he goes on to win the whole challenge. I guess Mei won’t be making the dumplings at the next family reunion.

I don’t know what chef Bissonette’s food tastes like, but after this segment I sure know what his favorite word is. He says “ultimately” four out of the five times when declaring the winner. So ultimately if you’re picking up his new cookbook, I’d ultimately expect more pretty pictures and less variety of words. (Just kidding, chef!)

Elimination Challenge

It's time for war!

No. Not Restaurant Wars. I know, I got all excited, too. This week’s stretch of a theme is (what else) the Revolutionary War.

The QuickFire winners will take on the losers in a team “culinary war.” Padma reveals a list of the five most critical battles of the Revolutionary War. Each team has five chefs, so this makes for very convenient coincidence. Basically it’s a head-to-head, best-of-five team challenge. The winning team staves of elimination and someone from the losing team will go home.

Padma names each of the important battles and asks the teams for their lineup. Turns out most of the match-ups are re-matches, because everyone who lost seeks redemption. Aaron wants redemption too, but he gets overruled. Since the first team to win three battles wins the war, the stronger chefs go first. Needless to say, Aaron is last.

Food is often scarce during times of war, so each team will only have $1,000 to shop for five dishes to feed 100 guests. Talk about rationing.

Adam leads the team that lost the Quickfire. He decides to divvy up the Red Team's money so each chef has $200. Because it’s head-to-head, there’s no need for a cohesive menu. Everyone just needs to make their best dish and beat their respective opponents. He also knows that he just needs to be better than someone on his team to stay alive.

Gregory takes the reins on the winners’ team, now the Blue team. Unlike Adam, he doesn’t believe this to be an every-man-for-himself scenario. He’s going around tasting his team’s food and making sure they perform well as a team.

You know what I miss? Tom Colicchio’s cook-n-chat. For some reason, that’s been very scarce this season. I wish they’d bring that back; it’s far more interesting to see Tom chatting and busting chops than random shots of cooking and bad jokes from Katsuji.

Aaron feels super confident that he will beat Katie, because he’s beaten her once already and she’s baking a chocolate cake. He doesn’t feel a chocolate cake is battle-worthy.

Last time, he beat Katie by blending up some shrimp and using them as a spring roll wrapper. This time he’s doing the exact same thing, only using scallops and calling it “noodles.” His dish is supposed to be an Asian version of spaghetti and meatballs, with no tomatoes or pasta but with dashi and scallop paste.

Minutes before service, Aaron’s pot of dashi falls off the prep table and everything spills onto the ground. Luckily, Mei has some instant boxed dashi powder in her kit or else Aaron would have zero sauce. He says he has no idea how that could have happened. Um, it’s five episodes and we’ve all seen how messy and frantic you are. Nobody is surprised.

Time to eat

The first battle is between Adam and Doug, a rematch of the Quickfire. Padma even makes a point to announce the name of the battle. I will not because it’s arbitrary and has nothing to do with cooking. 

Adam has the audacity to make grits with Hugh Acheson on the judges panel. That audacity pays off as his salt and pepper grits with cheddar, poached egg and bacon onion jam beats Dougie’s beef tartare. Both were good, but Tom thought Adam’s dish was a little more interesting. Adam gets his revenge, and the Red Team goes up 1-0.

Next up: Katsuji vs. Melissa. Out of nowhere, Katusji starts to have a panic attack. He’s totally freaking out while the rest of the team plates the dish for him. That’s exactly what you want in a “Top Chef,” someone who folds under pressure and needs his team to step up for him.

Luckily for Katsuji, Melissa made watery white gazpacho with cucumber and green grapes. Nobody likes watery soups. Blue team evens it up 1-1.

The third battle is a rematch between Gregory and Mei. Gregory goes outside the box again with a shiitake mushroom in a Thai curry broth, while Mei counters with a Korean-inspired New York strip with kimchi vegetables. A perfectly seasoned soup versus perfectly cooked steak. Ultimately, chef Bissonnette’s vote gives the edge to Gregory and the Blue team takes the lead, 2-1.

The fourth battle features another rematch of Keriann and Stacy. I thought their first battle was boring. This was the battle between Keriann’s dry meatball vs. Stacy’s beets. I know budget was an issue but you really think serving some marinated beets will win?

Apparently so. Tom hates Keriann’s dish. Her meatballs are dry and that onion jam is too sweet. Red Ream ties it up, 2-2.

The final battle: Aaron’s Asian spaghetti and meatball versus Katie’s stout chocolate cake. Tom makes the astute observation that war always comes down to the last battle. Thanks Tom.

If chocolate cake kills him today, Aaron says, he will shoot himself in the face.

As soon as Aaron put his dish in front of the judges, Tom shoots Hugh a “What is this?” look and takes a whiff at the dish. Not a good sign.

Basically, the scallop noodle has no texture. Tom says the dashi is OK, with a good amount of smokiness. Aaron commits one of those things you don’t do: He starts rattling off his mistakes. He tells the judges that his original dashi fell on the ground and the broth they’re tasting is out of a box. I guess he decided to shoot himself in the foot first.

At this point, Katie just needs to serve an acceptable cake, which she does. With the outcome obvious, Katie gives Aaron one last shove off the cliff. She brings up how Aaron’s been talking trash about desserts, goading him to say with a smirk on his face, “I thought this was a war challenge and I don’t see anyone bringing chocolate cake to war.”

Hugh immediately fires back, “Have you ever seen them bring a scallop noodle to war? Because I don’t know about that either.”

Judges laugh, audiences laugh. We’re all laughing.

Aaron just stands there awkwardly, smirk long disappeared, giving Hugh the four-letter-word stare.

Blue team wins the war. 3-2.

Judges Table

Adam and Mei are both safe, which leaves Stacy, Melissa and Aaron.

At this point, Tom asks if anyone on the Red Team feels like they should have looked out for each other, specifically Aaron and his limp noodles. Tom, have you seen how annoying this guy is? Nobody would go out of the way to save him.

Gregory tries to act sanctimonious and chimes in, “I would have never allowed that to happen.” Where were you with Keriann’s dry meatball?

It’s pretty obvious who gets the boot this week. Tom tells Aaron that he just tried to do too much with this dish. He packs his knives.

Surprisingly, Aaron departs with grace. He thanks everyone and says he felt honored just to be there. Damn, now I can’t say snarky, see-you-later, comments about him!

Next week: Cranberries, more history and at least one quote from a famous Spike Lee movie.

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