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Shirley Chung's From Outer Space

Two past finalists have to join the circus in the latest Top Chef Duels.

The showdown between Shirley Chung (Top Chef New Orleans) and Brooke Williamson (the Seattle season) should have had more sizzle than it did. Shirley's challenge is a "weird shellfish" dish, and both chefs chose to work with the extremely phallic geoduck; Brooke's is a vegan dessert, meant to trip up French-trained (and therefore butter-dependent) Shirley. And the central duel challenge, a circus theme, is surprisingly clever, with a "ringside" first course (the chefs must prepare it in part at table), a "three-ring" main course, and a "high wire" dessert standing a minimum six inches off the plate.

But whether it's the relatively even match-up, the relatively even dispositions of the participants, a guest judge in Pink who's trying a little too hard and not really matching the tone of the franchise, or something else, the second Duel is a bit dull. By the time a winner is declared, I've forgotten most of the dishes that led up to the final result and don't have a strong feeling about the choice either way.

How typical is the episode? Not very, one hopes. Let's pour some flaming absinthe into the Duel-o-Matic.

Top Chef-ic Element Present?
Contrivalry Finalists in their respective seasons, but no personal animus, even when each reveals that she researched the other to find her weak points (read: "was told by producers to aim for specific soft spots").
New tricks My stomach gurgles approvingly at Brooke's plum/black-pepper granita in her gin cocktail, and especially at Shirley's deviled-egg aioli. She could do a land-office business bottling that for home use.
Plat du bore Absinthe is pretty played out, but less so as a plating element, and Shirley boomerangs the points I took off for having a macaroon by filling it with Earl Grey ice cream and urging the judges to crack it like a Kinder Egg.
Pressure cooker The show clearly hoped for marital dramz when Brooke's husband Nick -- introduced by Brooke as her "co-chef" but chyroned as her sous; hmm -- joins her wingman team for the Duel, but they've worked together forever, so no joy there.
Dun! After the fourth time Brooke mentions that it's only her second geoduck experience, you pretty much know she's got that one in the bag. The kitchen-heat-related swooning of a couple of dessert elements doesn't go anywhere either.
…What? Shut up. "I love taking ingredients and turning them into things that people love." That's great, Brooke. [checks watch]
…What? Shut Up II: Electric Judge-a-loo I'd like to take a moment to acknowledge that Gail, whom I've historically disliked, is much more amiable and positive lately, but still insightful. ...Moment over. Let's move on to Wolfgang Puck, who really needs to stop it with the lechy comments (as he watches the lady sword-swallower who helps intro the circus theme, he burbles, "I'm liking her!", but his creepy "Spicy Pink!" comment is even worse, and explaining it won't help, trusssst me). Pink herself is straining to relate every single comment the chefs make to her own experience somehow, and as it's apples and Wusthofs, her comments just lie there. Bringing up the rear is Food & Wine EIC Dana Cowin with the following meaningless comment about A COCKTAIL: "I found it boozy." I found your mom boozy, Dana. Go lie down.
Vom/poo presentation Strictly speaking, the geoduck's resemblance to an irradiated turkey peen doesn't qualify.
Correct winner? I think so. Shirley is slightly more inventive and on-theme.
4 / 9
Final Score
Top Chef
Shirley Chung's From Outer Space

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