Can The Top Chef Chefs Cook Better Than Edna?
The chefs pay tribute to revered Southern chef Edna Lewis, and get a blessing from the Surgeon General.
Two Candidates For Elimination?
We begin by unpacking John's win, which includes a pit stop with Katsuji wanting some credit for it, since he provided the xantham gum. He seems like he's kidding, but I'm not buying it one hundred percent. Yes, Katsuji, you provided him with the ingredient that allowed him to make his amazing mac and cheese, but it took his expertise to make it great. At worst it's a wash. That said, Katsuji wanting a piece of the victory is very on-brand for Katsuji.
Then it's the traditional offering of the potential sacrifices. This week we only get two: Jim and Sheldon. It is here that we learn Jim is married, and to a lady. Color me surprised on both counts. The other personal story we spend time on is Sheldon's ongoing back problems. It seems unlikely that either of these chefs will go home this week, unless Sheldon does for medical reasons. But we'll keep them at the top of the pile until someone usurps them.
Padma walks in with her special guest, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. He's in full surgeon general regalia, which leads Casey to assume he's a boat captain and that they might be going on a ship. You're pretty close, Casey. As a prelude to their as yet undescribed Quickfire Challenge, Dr. Murthy says, "You can transform fruits and vegetables and whole grains from something that can be boring into a dish that's delicious." Nice work basically admitting that fruits and vegetables aren't inherently delicious, Dr. Murthy. You had ONE JOB. Actually, you probably have several. But my point still stands.
For the Quickfire Challenge, the chefs must create healthy versions of traditional comfort food. "Wait," Shirley says. "Comfort food is comfort food, the fattier the better. This sucks." She has never been more right than this moment. The chefs draw knives to see which comfort foods each will be making. The list includes: beef stroganoff, spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, chicken pot pie, a hamburger, chicken and dumplings, chicken fried steak, sloppy joe, and meatloaf. Sheldon draws the tuna casserole knife, and his response is the best: "I have no idea what the hell tuna casserole is."
Padma adds two more twists. All of the dishes need to be remade as vegetarian dishes, and the chefs can only grab one thing from the pantry at a time, so there's more running, which is better for their health. Yay! Also, I can't think of anywhere safer for a bunch of people to be running than a kitchen. Not one place. I bet you can't either. That's because a kitchen is a super-safe place for people to run. Sheldon admits that he doesn't exercise much: "I just love eating roasted pork belly, and pot roast, and macaroni salad. That's the Hawaiian life right there." And then Sheldon falls, which the producers milk for maximum drama. Did he destroy his back? Is this the end of Sheldon? Probably not. As painful as the fall looks, Sheldon seems okay. "I'm running like a bat out of hell," Emily says, maybe misunderstanding what sort of creature a bat might be, and how it might get around.
Sylva, Casey, and Katsuji end up at the bottom, while Emily, Jamie, and (no surprise) Brooke end up on top. But it's Jamie's vegetarian sloppy joe that earns him the win and immunity.
Elimination Challenge: Prep/Cooking
For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs will pay tribute to revered Southern chef Edna Lewis. I had never heard of Edna Lewis, which puts me in exactly the same boat as all of the chefs but Jim. The fact that he might be the only chef in attendance who has heard of Edna Lewis blows Jim's mind. "She has her own freaking postage stamp!" he says. Oh, Jim, nobody in this kitchen remembers what one of those is either.
To help educate the chefs on the subject of Edna Lewis, Padma has invited author Toni Tipton-Martin and guest judge Alexander Smalls, who is hilariously not small at all. Tipton-Martin and Smalls sit the chefs down and walk them through Edna's cookbook, adding some history and historical context to her life. Then the chefs are off to Whole Foods to shop for the dishes they're inspired to make.
During the prep work, we revisit Amanda's comeback story from her three back surgeries. She's excited to be cooking again, she says. "Damn, these livers are beautiful," Emily enthuses about her main ingredient. (She's totally wrong about that, by the way. They are disgusting.) Emily chops up her chicken livers with scissors, like a monster, which just adds another horror to the already horrible sight of chicken livers.
In a confessional moment, Sylva calls Katsuji out on his fried chicken and watermelon idea. He's offended at the stereotypical choice. Then, back at the house, he adds a story about how his dad wouldn't let him go to the Culinary Institute of America, even though he won a scholarship there, because he didn't want any son of his to be a "domestic." For the sake of the show, I hope Sylva continues to make good enough food to stick around. Because he has some really good points to make about being an African-American chef. It's a good POV to have in the show during any season, but it's especially valuable while the episodes have the chefs gallivanting around the South.
Elimination Challenge: Service
Jim and Katsuji kick off the service. Jim's dish wows the table of judges and guests pretty effectively. And Katsuji's gamble totally pays off. The Southern experts love his elevation of fried chicken and watermelon. In a bit of a panic in the kitchen, Emily makes a last-minute, time-saving decision to deep fry rather than pan fry her chicken livers. Ah, the last-minute change of plans: always a strong move. While plating, Brooke wondered if she had too many components on her plate, but thought the flavors were good and worked together. We find out she was right about too many components, but wrong about how well they worked together. "That wasn't a very interesting dish," says Hugh Acheson. "I didn't think either of them were." Gail calls out Emily's chicken livers for being under-seasoned, but no one calls them out for being disgusting? Really? That seems impossible.
In what is fast becoming an uncomfortable trend this season, John links his upbringing with the struggles of people of color in America. Once again, the connection comes through his mother, who marched on Selma. And, okay, his mom and Edna Lewis were both strong women. Fine. But no, John. Just no. Sylva talks about Edna's struggle and sees a parallel with his struggle -- the struggle of African-American chefs to get recognition. But Sylva can do that, John, because there's a big difference between you and Sylva -- one that should be super-obvious.
Sheldon's happy and confident about his dish because it reminds him of his grandma and a dish she used to cook. Sheldon's emotional connection to cooking might be the most charming thing about him. It's certainly one of the things that continues to impress the judges. Casey thinks her dish is a winning dish. "Rustic and refined," she calls it. Amanda flies around the kitchen like a crazy person, and then describes her style of cooking as "keeping things simple." The juxtaposition makes for pretty good comedy. Amanda also describes how she cut her sweet potatoes as "rustic," but others might call it "haphazard" or "terrible." Hugh says of her dish, "It's food. I don't know if it's Southern food." There's a parallel universe in which Hugh simply says, "It's food." And stops at that. I wish that were the universe we were all living in. Jamie somehow plates one dish less than the number than he needs to serve. Luckily he has immunity, because his dish also underwhelms the table.
Jim, Sylva, and Sheldon get the nod for the depth of flavor in all of their dishes. Alexander gives the win to Sylva, which is fitting since he's the only African-American chef in the competition and, for the most part, as he said, in every kitchen he's worked in.
Amanda, Emily, and Brooke fill out the bottom three. And right from the jump, Amanda breaks one of the cardinal rules of Top Chef: when your dish is terrible, own it. Instead, Amanda goes right into defense mode: "I stand behind my dish. I didn't think that I made bad food today." It's the equivalent of saying, "I stand behind my burning car. I don't think I did any bad driving today." Tom tells Amanda that her dish wasn't very interesting and that it lacked soul and depth. The judges make Emily cry with their criticisms of her dish, and call Brooke out for not editing herself better. But, as it should be obvious by now, Amanda is the one Padma asks to pack her knives and go home.
There's no good reason this episode isn't more interesting, but somehow, it ends up a real snoozer. Since there are still so many great chefs left, I have faith that next week's episode will bounce back, especially considering the arguing and complaining shown in the teaser. Maybe, if we're lucky, we'll get to hear John tell the story of his mom's connection to the civil rights movement again!