Has there ever been a season of Top Chef where the favorites have been this obvious? The only season that comes close in my mind is season five, when Stefan Richter won damn near every challenge leading up to the finale, when he lost to Hosea Rosenberg like the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Of course, that season had just one obvious favorite. This time around, there’s at least two, possibly three, and it’s so close between them that the show manages to be both predictable and exciting at the same time.
Anyway, this week began with a Chipotle challenge. As Padma explained it, “Our friends at Chipotle have provided these 53 real ingredients that they use to make their food fresh every day.”
Wow, real ingredients? Count me in, dude. The only thing I hate more than fake ingredients are fake friends.
Whereas the challenges seemed pretty straightforward this week, the show tried to compensate with EVER MORE COMPLICATED JUDGING SCHEMES! This meant that not only would the chefs “use these ingredients to make something unique for us,” the six of them would be doing a series of three head-to-head battles. Two would make something “tangy and crunchy” for Tom, two would cook something “smokey and charred” for Gail, and two something “spicy and tart” for Padma, that spicy tart (just kidding, please don’t cancel me).
That was kind of a fun twist, though part of me wishes they’d just gone full Cafe Gratitude with it and forced the chefs to design a dish based on how the judges were feeling that day. “I want something that says ‘heroic.” “I’m still trying to process my relationship with my dad.” “I’m feeling very temporary about myself right now,” and so forth. It could be like the Derek Delgaudio special of cooking battles (what would The Rouletista eat?).
Meanwhile, if you’ve been following the judges on Instagram, you may have noticed them posting their “Top Chef journeys,” a meme which I have to think was inspired by Steve’s meditation on what fame does to dorky chefs and their personas in this column from a few weeks ago. Whatever the case, please enjoy Richard Blais’s pasta hands and Dale Talde’s camo hoodie.
Oh, Richard Blais. It seems like he has a bit of that David Spade thing going on, where every hairstyle feels like a temporary experiment. The faux hawk though… man. People forget how many faux hawks there used to be on Top Chef. Top Chef used to be America’s number one source of faux hawks.
Anyhoo, after that it was time for a tofu battle. The chefs got to visit Ota Tofu to learn how the vegan sausage is made, then got together for another tournament-style challenge. This three-round format, in which the goal was more not to lose rather than to win (the better they cooked the fewer rounds they had to participate in), required lots of judging. In this house, there is no winner! There are only “not losers!”
Luckily, Tom brought his most serious hat for the occasion:
There’s a little room up there for extra thinkin’. I’d like to imagine that if you could see inside Tom’s mind in this shot it would just look like Jackie Treehorn’s notepad in The Big Lebowski.
Quickfire Challenge Top Three: Shota, Dawn*, Gabe. (*winner)
Round One: Shota d. Maria (5-5 tiebreaker). Gabe d. Dawn (5-5 tiebreaker). Jamie d. Byron (9-1)
Round Two: Maria d. Byron and Dawn. (9-1 over Byron, Dawn via DQ)
Round Three: Dawn d. Byron
6. (even) ((Eliminated)) Byron Gomez
AKA: Manolo. Burger King. Goldblum.
It was looking like it was curtains for Byron early on in this episode and he ended up fulfilling expectations. In an episode defined by razor-thin margins of victory, where the first two head-to-head battles in the elimination challenge came down to tiebreakers, Byron got trounced 9-1 by Jamie and then 9-1 by Maria.
Still, that only sounds bad because the other matches came out to ties. Even in his own lopsided losses two professional chefs still thought Byron’s dishes were the winner. It’s pretty amazing that there were no unanimous winners in that context. The dissenting judges should’ve been forced to explain their decisions. Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant knows that no matter how perfect a dish you put out there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t like it for completely arcane and arbitrary reasons.
“Yeah, this dish was great… it’s just that I only eat chicken in the shape of dinosaurs.”
In any case, pour one out for Rico Suave, the Costa Rican sensation. I’ll be rooting for him to take down Sara in the Last Chance Kitchen finale if only so I don’t have to hear her anxiously laugh at herself for two more episodes.
5. (-1) Maria Mazon
AKA: Gas Can. Backdraft. James Brown. Mole Maria.
Maria opened this episode thinking she had the tools to dominate the Mexican challenge, only to lose to Shota. I have to think that was because she fried her avocado. Does anyone else have a strong aversion to cooked avocado? It’s perfect raw. Or maybe I’m just the dumb baby in my own joke about chicken shaped like dinosaurs?
Maria had a chance for revenge against Shota on Shota’s turf, and it was looking like it was going to be a disaster. First Maria’s chosen filling, the okara chorizo, didn’t pan out and she had to toss it in the trash. Imagine that? The gritty byproduct of ground soybeans that they strain out of tofu to keep it from being gritty turned out… gritty. I think she probably should’ve figured that out without having to cook it first, but oh well. Maria pivoted to a tofu-dough masa, which didn’t set in time.
Again, did she not test her own masa?? That was like the main component!
Even with all that working against her, you have to consider it a moral victory that Maria still managed to battle the tofu king Shota to a 5-5 tie in a tofu battle. She lost the tiebreaker, but also: don’t we deserve to know how that tiebreaker worked? The judges just shout at each other until one judge admits that they were wrong, or what? Where is that footage? “My bad, guys, I actually have bad taste and am a dumb baby.” -Richard Blaise
Maria’s instincts and ability to make tasty food have taken her this far, but it feels like some of the holes in her food knowledge are starting to get exposed this far into the competition. She’s looking like the plucky underdog going into the final challenges.
“I’m like a kid in a candy store with all these Mexican ingredients.”
“I thought the masa was just mush. The tofu wasn’t treated well at all.”
4. (+1) Jamie Tran
Aka: Splat. Police Academy. Womp Womp. Hello Kitty.
Speaking of underdogs, there was the previously eliminated Jamie, who came into this looking like one of the weaker chefs and ended up making what sounded like the best dish of the episode, her tofu-stuffed banh xeo (Vietnamese crispy crepe). That was a straightforward dish that sounded like something I’d order. Jamie has come a long way since her broccoli couscous curry disaster (also the name of my punk band’s obscure side project).
“You can eat like 12 of these.”
3. (even) Shota Nakajima
AKA: Beavis. Big Gulps.
Big Gulps came out of the gate hot, or at least spicily, beating Maria at her own Mexican food game and nearly burning Padma’s pants off in the process (would love to see that R-rated episode of Top Chef, by the way. Top Chef After Dark: Bottomless Judging Edition.) He solidified his top contender status in the process, but then solidified his bottom-of-the-top-three status by nearly getting beaten by Maria at his own game in the tofu challenge.
That being said, doing food two or three or four different ways has traditionally been the kiss of death on Top Chef, and Shota managed to win while doing tofu six ways. Buddy, that’s too many ways. You don’t get bonus points for self-sabotage. Cook smarter, not harder.
“While Shota used tofu six different ways, it all tasted the same.”
2. (even) Gabe Erales
AKA: Good Gabe. Canelo. Fozzy. The Foz. The Masa Father. Jamón.
For the second or third week straight it feels like a tough choice at the top of the rankings. On the one hand, Dawn looked like she narrowly escaped going home and Big Fozzy came through near the top of both challenges. On the other, she beat Gabe at his own game in the quickfire and I think I have to give her some of the benefit of losing via injury in the elimination second round.
The Foz busted out all the weird tricks this week, too — like roasting his pork loin in “bay leaf oil” and choosing not to smoke the components of his sauce but the finished sauce itself. That’s some galaxy brain-ass cooking technique right there. That wasn’t quite good enough to win the quickfire but he did barely edge out Dawn in the elimination challenge first round. This one is basically a pick-em.
“He didn’t braise it. He dropped it in a sauce and brought it up.”
1. (even) Dawn Burrell
AKA: Hothead. ‘Sheed. Legs. Breaking Dawn. Milk Carton. The Sphynx. Zeus. Flamethrower.
Rollercoaster of an episode for my odds-on favorite this week. She won a Mexican food challenge and then leading up to the tofu battle revealed that she has experience working in a modern Japanese restaurant. For a second there it sounded like she was about to run away with this thing, but then it seemed like she might be back to her self-sabotaging ways from the first two episodes.
I wince a little every time the chefs go ham on the mandolin slicers in this show (they go so fast! and seemingly carelessly!) so when Dawn actually sliced her finger on one it was borderline traumatizing. She ended up having to throw out some components and her “Nashville hot tofu” (which sounded like one of the best dishes of the episode) was disqualified on account of not having 10 completed portions. Come on, you pussies, man up and eat some blood.
For a second there it seemed like the injury may have gotten in Dawn’s head, but when Dawn and Byron put up two strikingly similar dessert dishes (both tofu mousses with mango) the judges probably realized that choosing an underdog like Byron over the winner of like seven out of the last 10 challenges (I don’t know the actual stat, I’m not looking this up) would incite a viewer revolt and gave Dawn the narrow victory.
My galaxy brain take is that getting eliminated might’ve actually been better for Dawn. That way she could’ve popped down to Last Chance Kitchen and had a chance to beat Sara in a one-off battle, then returned to the show just in time for the finale, rather than have to wait for Sara (presumably) to win Last Chance Kitchen and then have to keep beating her and everyone else until the end of the show.
That’s just the kind of genius thinking you can expect from a cooking show expert like me. I’d probably be out there solving cold fusion if I wasn’t here trying to think up new nicknames that rhyme with “Saucier.”
Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.