This week on Top Chef, it was time to celebrate both Portland’s designation as “The City Of Roses” — that classic nickname for Portland that we all know and use that was officially adopted in 2003 — and moms! Because it’s almost Mother’s Day, you see. And because there’s nothing my mom loves more than sinking her teeth into a juicy bouquet of Mother’s Day roses, the contestants’ challenge was to incorporate roses into a quickfire challenge dish that paid tribute to their mothers. Yum, flowers!
But first, Top Chef contestant and quickfire challenge guest judge Amar Santana showed the contestants how it’s done by incorporating roses into his pants:
Somewhere off screen, Richard Blaise shed a single tear. “B-b-but being jaunty was my thing…”
After that, as if trying to incorporate rose into a dish wasn’t an arbitrary enough test of a chef’s skills, it was time for the Top Chef Drive-In challenge! In two teams, the contestants squared off in one-on-one rounds, cooking movie drive-in food tailored to a genre — comedy, drama, sci-fi, or horror. Christ, I thought making food “sexy” was hard. Imagine trying to cook 50 portions of something that is both “dramatic” and suitable to be eaten in a car. Voila! It’s a play on smoked Milk Duds!
Both rounds involved the chefs having to stretch the theme to its breaking point in order to tie it back to food. Byron apparently did it right when he cooked “something fresh” in the rose challenge as a tribute to his mom’s “fresh start” as an immigrant in America. Gabriel apparently did it wrong when he tried to say his cauliflower tots with two dipping sauces represented “action.” Because of the “action” of dipping, which was also a “choose your own adventure.” I tend to think a thematic stretch is acceptable in direct proportion to how good the actual food is.
Yet those Top Chef producers are crazy like a fox because this convoluted impossible challenge did make for some great TV. Padma even got to act a little, in some Oscars-esque interstitial sketches introducing each round, like the Vanna White of Top Chef. So refreshing that the famous supermodel is finally getting a little screen time.
Both of these challenges were both weird and hard, and, as such, they played hell on these rankings. Almost everyone I had as a favorite after last week ate turds in either the quickfire or the elimination challenge this week, and all of last week’s underdogs shat roses in same. Honestly, you could just draw a big X over all the names and write “pick ’em” after this week. Nonetheless, I went with my gut, shot from the hip, gripped and ripped it, and what have you, in order to come up with this unimpeachable scientific analysis of basic cable food television. We can’t choose our gifts in this life, our gifts choose us.
Quickfire Bottom: Maria, Sara, Nelson.
Quickfire Top: Byron, Chris*, Gabe. (*winner)
Elimination Top: Byron*, Avishar, Dawn, Maria.
11. (-2) ((Eliminated)) Jamie Tran
Aka: Splat. Police Academy. Womp Womp.
Poor Jamie, eliminated juuuust before her inability to converse in anything but sound effects became endearing (I assume). It seemed Jamie’s biggest sin this week was letting her teammates walk all over her. “Just do another chicken wing dish,” they said. “Don’t fry the chicken so long,” they said.
Both of which turned out to be bad ideas, when Jamie served up a not-crispy chicken wing, a mortal chef sin. It was a bit of a shame, since chicken wings seem like solid drive-in food, and Jamie’s point that chickens are a weirdly consistent staple of comedy (rubber chickens, why did the chicken cross the road, etc) was actually low-key astute and insightful. Even if Jamie’s attempt to articulate this was about as lucid as an armpit fart.
ALSO — I would argue that Jamie was partly responsible for Byron’s win. She connected “chicken” to “comedy,” while Byron never even verbalized the high-larious pun (Korean Fried Chicken) that made his dish “comedy” in the first place. But because Jamie put the idea that chickens = comedy into everyone’s heads, Byron didn’t have to. Sad times for Jamie. That being said, her going home saves us who knows how many more episodes of having to pretend the sound effects thing is a hilariously endearing quirk.
Notable Critique: “A limp, rubbery chicken dish.”
10. (even) Nelson German
AKA: Papa Bear. Cardio.
Nelson landed in the bottom three in the quickfire before roaring back in the elimination round, by conceptualizing a dish to fit the theme arguably better than anyone. His flying saucer-shaped pupusa, for the sci-fi round, an “Unidentified Dominican Object,” as he called it, was so good that it even beat Avishar’s equally conceptually successful frozen s’mores. Yet even after that, I’m sort of at a loss to figure out who he should leapfrog in these rankings. Someone, probably…
Notable Critique: “I’d like to buy a dozen of these.”
9. (-2) Maria Mazon
AKA: Gas Can. Backdraft. Tammy Faye. James Brown. Buns.
Seems like Maria spent almost this entire episode with her mascara smeared, either from crying about almost going home in the previous episode or from the insane amount of effort she put in for her elimination challenge dish. It was truly a dish after my own heart when the hardest-working chef in show business chose to make a Sonoran hot dog (I can’t even calculate the amount of money I’ve spent on these over the years) for 50 people, for which she hand-made her own sausage and buns. This was to fit “action,” because they’re what you eat on the way home from the bars when you’re trying to get some “action,” Maria explained. More accurately, I feel like they’re more what you eat when you fail to get some action after a night out at the bars, but that’s just picking nits. And also maybe projecting.
In any case, it was truly an insane amount of effort, and for a thematically clever, contextually appropriate dish. And she ended up losing to… f*ckin’ Korean fried chicken!? I demand a recount!
I don’t know whether to move Maria up 10 slots for that dish or to drop her down for the fact that she didn’t win for something everyone was so clearly impressed by.
8. (-2) Chris Viaud
AKA: Stretch. Butter. Kelso.
My man Chris won the quickfire challenge with his Haitian porridge and it turned out he needed that immunity in the elimination round. This when he turned in a rib dish so mediocre that he actually lost to a duo of popcorn. Damn, dog, you really lost to popcorn? This was for the “drama” round, by the way. I enjoyed that Chris made the case that “I think ribs are dramatic” without elaborating in any way. That’s a power move right there.
Notable Critique: “This is so messy. It’s the first dish and my buttons are already sticky.”
7. (+1) Byron Gomez
AKA: Manolo. Burger King. Goldblum.
I’ve been saying Byron needed to show me something and this week he did, with a top-three finish in the quickfire and a win in the elimination round. It’s truly impressive that he cooked “something fresh” as a tribute to his mom’s “fresh start” in America, and then “Korean fried chicken because comedy,” and not one judge said, “I dunno, seems like kind of a stretch, bro.”
He didn’t even say “Korean fried chicken” when he introduced the dish, which was the whole “joke,” if it can be called that. I mean I guess it is sort of a play on words, which is adjacent to a pun, and puns are arguably in the vicinity of jokes. I’m going to nickname Byron “Goldblum,” after Jeff Goldblum’s character in Independence Day, who used exactly that kind of lateral thinking to give the aliens a computer virus.
That must’ve been some damned fine chicken though. Impressive that a concept and dish so straightforward could beat a totally-from-scratch Sonoran hotdog.
Notable Critique: “This was crispy and flavorful.”
6. (-2) Gabriel Pascuzzi
AKA: Patriarchy. Evil Gabe. Chad. Bluto. Mr. Mackie. The Noodge.
This week Evil Gabe remained the show’s villain but revealed some hidden layers when he admitted that he was dedicating his Mother’s Day dish to his sister, rather than his mother, with whom he apparently has a difficult relationship. He made some kind of crudo/ceviche dish because, “When she was pregnant, all my sister wanted to eat was raw fish.”
Uh, come again? Isn’t raw fish the exact thing you’re supposed to not eat while pregnant? I’ll leave that debate for the food scientists, but meanwhile, Gabriel’s choice to make a cauliflower tot in the elimination round, because the action of dipping into one of two sauces represented “choose your own adventure,” seemed even more dubious. The judges were skeptical, probably because it didn’t taste very good. As someone probably once said, “thematically weak and poorly executed is no way to go through life.”
Also, cauliflower tots? Come on, man! Buffalo cauliflower, which I actually have eaten in a movie theater (yes it was a Drafthouse) was right there! You could be all like “Hey, I made this Buffalo cauliflower to represent action, because this one time I got some action in Buffalo.”
I’m a freak / I like the girls with the boom / I once got busy in a Buffalo bathroom. -Shock G, RIP
Notable Critique: “Gummy and salty.”
5. (+6) Avishar Barua
AKA: Milhouse. Chillhouse. Thrillhouse. American Pie. The Carbonator. Portmanteau. OH.
Thank God roses weren’t a Top Chef sponsor, or else we might never have heard Avishar bitch about how much he hates rose-flavored food. It was nice to hear, because honestly, I don’t think I know anyone who loves rose-flavored food. Seems like a thing you either hate or are mostly indifferent to.
After that, Avishar took the sci-fi round and was inspired to create an entire backstory about how he was some alien who came to Earth and wanted to eat frozen s’mores or some shit. “Star s’mores,” as he called it at one point. In concrete terms, this basically meant that Avishar went back to the liquid nitrogen well. Turns out Avishar used to work under Wiley Dufresne at WD50, so there’s a reason he knows his way around space food.
“He’s like a real nerd,” said Gail.
Revenge of the nerds
Injury was added to insult when Avishar managed to lose his sci-fi round to Nelson’s UDO, much to Tom Colicchio’s chagrin. Tom loved Avishar’s frozen s’more. Poor Avishar. He did the alien voice and everything!
Notable Critiques: “Avishar just nailed that.” “He’s like… a real nerd.”
4. (-1) Sara Hauman
AKA: Tails. Yogurt. Portlandia. Trapper Keeper. Manic Pixie Cream Sauce. Fiddlesticks.
Poor Sara saw all the big kids crushing it on the mic with their cool stories and puns and sex jokes and characters and she decided to give it a go herself. She introduced her milkshake. “Now that the drive-in is almost over I’m sure there’s still a lingering question, your place or is it mine?”
Which went over about as well as this Padma screencap would indicate:
This was for Sara’s “your place or mine” milkshake, which she presented for the “romance” round. And in so doing she managed to conflate the 1950s ideal of sweethearts sharing a two-strawed milkshake and deciding whose house to have sex at. Perfect for the contestant who’s always censoring her own swear words! And just to make sure we know that Sara is a Portlandia character come to life, the milkshake had “miso whip.”
Hey, just put some Fruit Loops on it, right? Needs more matcha dust!
Sara still managed to win this round, on account of she was going against Gabe, who served people churros and liver. Is Sara still a favorite or have the judges gotten fed up with her bullshit? It’s honestly hard to tell.
3. (+2) Dawn Burrell
AKA: Hothead. ‘Sheed. Legs. Breaking Dawn. Milk Carton.
Dawn hasn’t been getting much screen time or gotten many big wins lately, but it’s hard to remember the last time she made something bad. This episode, she made a fennel rosewater fritter (which looked weird yet good) and in the elimination round managed to beat Chris’s rib with a god damned duo of popcorn. Popcorn! Not only did Dawn win with popcorn, she managed to convince the judges that serving popcorn at a drive-in movie counted as “drama.” That’s not just mastery, it’s practically sorcery.
I would have Dawn ranked at number one, except that I can’t quite justify it for a chef who served popcorn.
Notable Critique: “They had four hours to cook and Dawn made us… popcorn?”
2. (even) Shota Nakajima
This was certainly a down week for Shota, who received some of the most brutal critiques of any contestant this season. Mostly though, he became a textbook example of When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong. Shota had “horror,” see, and what people occasionally misunderstand about horror is that they think it’s meant to actually be horrific. The truth is, horror movies are escapist — you get to pretend to be afraid of ghosts or creepy dolls or gypsy curses for two hours, to distract you from actually scary things like your mortality and the sense that existence is ultimately meaningless and so forth.
Thus, Shota embarked upon a horror challenge by describing a thing that actually scares him, the idea of something happening to his dog. Ah yes, no better way to whet people’s appetites than having them picture a dead dog! Shota even named the dog! He then served them a black corn dog with cheese inside and a bloody-red sauce, in order that they could better imagine the charred, bloody, pustulent corpse of Shota’s beloved pet dog, Dodger, if it had been horribly mangled in an accident and left to rot on the side of the road. Holy shit, man.
This was a bad idea for food, but Andy Kaufman-level genius as performance art. Even the judges were kind of like “this is disgusting, but I respect it.”
Speaking of which, I’m not futzing with Shota’s ranking too much this week, because how much can you knock a guy for getting too carried away with the challenge?
Notable Critiques: ““This does not look appetizing to me.” “It’s indescribable.” “I couldn’t finish it.”
1. (even) Gabe Erales
AKA: Good Gabe. Canelo. Fozzy. The Foz. Masa Father. Jamón.
Oh, Gabe. Gabe went full ham-mode (jamón mode?) this week introducing his dish, a bloody seafood cocktail served with crackers, meant to represent horror, and the crowd ate it up. Thus proving Gabe may have a viable second career in acting or voice-over. Unfortunately, the dish itself went over like a lead balloon and almost lost him his day job in the process.
It was so bad that Gabe actually lost to Shota’s imaginary dead dog cheese disaster. Turns out, a bad seafood cocktail on Saltines does not make a good dish (if it had been Maria she would’ve at least made her own Saltines from scratch. And came in third). I’ve always said that comedy is what you do when you’re bad at everything else, and Gabe proved that even the reverse is true: being momentarily good at comedy will even make you bad at things you were previously good at.
Gabe also sort of took ownership over his team’s team dessert, a churro that for some reason Gabe decided should be served with chicken liver mousse. This meant to illustrate “romance” — maybe the single most ill-conceived dish I’ve seen since I’ve been covering this show.
But like I said, these rankings were a gut decision, and after Gabe’s top finish in the quickfire and general on-a-rollness lately, I’m thinking he merely got all his bad decisions out of his system in one go and managed to not go home for it, which only bodes well for him.
Notable Critique: “I wish this dish was as good as his delivery.”
Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.