You have to give Top Chef some credit. Whereas last week’s episode had a movie tie-in that came out last summer, this episode, in the midst of a pandemic, managed to tie into the only initially theatrical major movie release on the schedule, opening the same day. That’s pretty impressive, especially for a show that filmed almost a year ago and has to be shot sequentially, right? Granted, the movie was Trolls World Tour, but still. Hey, remember when time had meaning? Those were the days.
Kelly Clarkson, who does a voice in Trolls World Tour, introduced the quickfire challenge, in which the contestants all had to incorporate an ingredient from every color in the rainbow. At this point, my fiancee pointed out that Padma looks like a Na’avi from Avatar and Kelly Clarkson looks like a gnome and now it’s all I can see. I’m sharing this curse with you in the hopes I can rid myself of it.
After the quickfire, the contestants split into teams for a progressive dinner, vegetarian style. And guess what! We had our first big Judge’s Table Beef of the season! Did someone get thrown under the bus? Were they not here to make friends? You bet your food-related forearm tattoo!
12. (-1) ((Eliminated)) Lisa Fernandes
AKA: Salty. Aka: Grimes.
Surprise elimination! After narrowly losing out to Gregory (the quickfire king) in the quickfire challenge (which would’ve given her immunity), Lisa ended up at the bottom in the elimination challenge — thanks to some dry brussels sprouts. Most of the judge’s table segment was spent litigating whether Lee Anne’s crudité was underseasoned because of Lee Anne or because of SABOTAGE, with Lisa mostly flying under the radar. Which was why the outcome, Lisa going home, felt like such a shocking, Shyamalanian twist.
Her dish, incidentally, was a fried brussels sprout with raw apples dish that Lisa tried to defend on the grounds of rusticity. Tom wasn’t having that. It’s always a bad sign when a judge asks you whether your dish was supposed to be warm or not. It seemed like a bit of a cruel twist after Lisa nearly won the quickfire, but as I said last week, it was a pick-em race between Lee Anne and Lisa for who’d go home first. Turns out it was Lisa, the latest victim of when keeping it rustic goes wrong. Pour out some ceviche broth for Lisa, it looks like Top Chef Heaven just gained another eyebrow ring.
11. (+1) Lee Anne Wong
AKA: Frazzle. Aka Loud Mom. Aka Queasy. Aka Anomaleeanne.
Let me just say what we’re all thinking: How the hell is Lee Anne still in this competition?
To recap: the big fight in this episode was over whether it was Lee Anne’s or Shenanigans’ (aka Brian Malarkey’s) responsibility to season Lee Anne’s dish. Which, by the way, was a crudité with butternut squash hummus. Leaving aside the question of why you would want squash in a hummus (a dish which is already vegan), there’s the question of whether you think you’re going to win this competition with crudité.
Really, a crudite? You’re going to win a chef competition with cut up raw vegetables? Who’s the judge, a horse? Leaving that aside, the one part of that dish that would seem to require actual “cooking” (sort of) — the seasoning — Lee Anne managed to delegate to someone else. Which allowed Lee Anne to somehow play the victim when Shenanigans (correctly) pointed out that he couldn’t have been responsible for the hummus being underseasoned. “Do you see the bus tracks on my back??” Lee Anne asked, in the promo soundbite repeated at every commercial break.
The conspiracy-minded might point out that Lee Anne was a producer on the show in between her runs as a contestant and say that that may account for the apparent special treatment. I don’t know. But the promo for next week’s episode showed Lee Anne’s mom fainting, so at least they’re getting some entertainment miles out her. The saving grace of this entire segment (and of Top Chef generally) is Tom Colicchio’s complete inability to play along with any traditional reality show drama.
He knows he’s supposed to pander here but he can’t even pretend. I feel seen. Tom Colicchio is, as the kids say, a whole dang mood.
10. (-3) Brian Malarkey
AKA: Grandpa Fancy. Aka Shenanigans. Aka Squirrelly Bird. Aka The Emperor.
Did anyone else notice that Shenanigans seems to have bleached his dentures in between last week and this week? It looked like he had his veneers set to “halogen.” People, I’m saying his teeth looked white. Anyway, Shenanigans spent the whole quickfire alternately cackling as he blew up the ice cream machine by dumping skittles and pine cones into it and stuffing his face with cotton candy, which was perfectly on-brand for a guy who mostly reminds me of a metrosexual Buddy the Elf. Thank God for Grandpa Fancy, what would I even write about without him?
Later, Malarkey (Joe Biden hates this one weird contestant!) basically overcompensated for the relative failure of his overcomplicated curdled “curry pumpkin ice cream” in the quickfire challenge (which, it bears pointing out, for all the screen time it got, didn’t actually land him in the bottom three) and turned in an undercomplicated burrata salad in the elimination challenge. Too boring! You really have to thread the needle between “brave” simplicity and “boring” simplicity on this show. Gail Simmons said Brian’s Burrata was “a beautiful version of a dish we’ve seen a million times.” Meanwhile, much was made of his team’s decision to serve “two raw dishes in a row.”
But do you even think of burrata as a “raw dish?” All the damn crudités, crudos, and ceviches on this show and you’re going to complain about a Caprese salad? I think what’s actually at work here is something I call the Sopranos factor. You have to remember that Tom is an Italian from New Jersey, meaning any Italian dish you’ve seen someone eat on that show, Tom has probably had eight trillion times and possibly been force-fed by an antagonistic mother figure. It triggers Tom’s inner Jersey shame and he projects his anger onto the chef — see: him sending Grayson home for “Jersey red sauce” and the time he asked, “Did Snooki cook this?” One of the unspoken rules of Top Chef is that you can never make Tom feel like he’s at Il Vesuvio.
Anyway, Malarkey made a boring burrata and was kind of a spaz like always, but it seems like the show overplayed how bad he actually did in this episode. I’m interested to see what headwear/frame combo he brings to the next episode.
9. (even) Jennifer Carroll
AKA: Calamity Jenn
Once again, Calamity Jenn made neither the top nor the bottom three in either challenge, so it’s anyone’s guess as to where she really belongs in these rankings. Hell, she didn’t even make the “Padma’s Angels” joke segment in the beginning of the episode. To be fair, it’s hard to imagine someone as sneeringly cynical as Calamity Jenn participating in any uplifting yaas qween girlpower stuff anyway. Jenn is punk as fuck and I can’t tell if she even knows it. Have you ever seen anyone look so comfortable in a chef’s coat and so uncomfortable out of one?
This week she had some minor drama when someone maybe turned up the burner on her cashew cream (SABOTAGE PART 2). It looked like she was about to lose it (which was relatable, I almost punched a hole in my wall when spilled an entire pizza the other night while attempt to transfer it to the oven), but instead she simply calmly remade the cashew cream and everything seemed hunky-dory. She went head to head with Bryan Voltaggio and it was unclear who came out ahead. Honestly, who knows where the hell Jenn really stands right now. Nonetheless, I eagerly await the moment something truly pisses her off and she finally hulks out.
8. (+2) Stephanie CMar
AKA: C-Monster. Aka Underdog.
Once again in the quickfire, the C-Monster seemed to envision a smart dish — a fried spring roll with colorful interior dipped in peanut sauce — but couldn’t muster the technique to make it work. She got dinged for it being too sweet and not tightly wrapped and landed in the bottom three.
Then in the elimination challenge she went head to head with Gregory (undoubtedly one of the favorites) and seemed to pull off a win — with her cauliflower a la plancha with peri-peri sauce. Padma gushed “I love this dish” (as we’ve seen, Padma like-a da spice) and Beard Judge (I refuse to look up this guy’s name) said it was one of his favorites of the night. Sadly, she was on team Frazzle and the crudité/caprese combo dragged the C-Monster down like an anchor. She was ineligible for a top finish even if the dish warranted it. It was either a solid comeback episode and proof of resilience, or just Stephanie’s usual up-down pattern. Hard to say at this point.
7. (-2) Eric Adjepong
AKA: Ghana. Aka Thesis. Aka Uncle Rico. Aka Kanye West Africa.
Speaking of streaky, there’s Eric. I think Eric is on a bit of a roll and starting to look like the favorite we thought he was, but he didn’t quite manage a top three finish in the quickfire and him ending up on the winning team in the elimination challenge seemed partly coincidental. He received high marks for his “butternut squash and goat milk pudding with chocolate hazelnut soil” (any time you can get rated highly for a dish named after dirt it’s a feather in your cap) but hard to say if he would’ve beaten Nini straight up. Eric is drafting in the middle of the pack like the dude Jenn Carroll right now but I have to think his Kanye-esque delusions of greatness give him the edge.
6. (even) Nini Nguyen
AKA: Broad City. Aka Quipz. Aka Bolo.
I’m still keeping the Nini faith but is it more religion than science at this point? This human emoji turned out a frankly pretty weak ass-looking purple potato gnocchi in the elimination challenge and ended in the bottom three. But she busted out her dessert skills in the elimination challenge with a peaches and cream creampuff, which looked good as hell and seemed to match her personality. It was hard to tell if she would’ve beaten Eric straight up, but the judges liked both of their dishes and Nini being on the losing team seemed mostly coincidental. “I want this dessert every day,” said Gail Simmons.
5. (+3) Karen Akunowicz
AKA: Good Witch. Aka Glenda. Aka Aunt Kitty. Aka Rosie The Triveter
The Good Witch was thrilled to cook for lesbian icon Kelly Clarkson this week and she showed up for it, landing in the top three with a crunchy tartare. Then in the elimination challenge she was the only one to make a pasta dish for the vegetarian challenge, which honestly, seems like kind of a no-brainer.
That’s a top three and a top-five finish in the same episode, if you’re keeping score at home. She easily squeaks into my top five. You never want to bet against a well put together lesbian in a cooking competition.
4. (even) Kevin Gillespie
AKA: Hops. Aka Oops All Kevins. Aka Bachelor Fried Rice.
For his vegetarian dish, Kevin made an “heirloom tomato and melon salad with avocado tofu, fresh dates, and a California togarashi” which I will now sum up with a classic Simpsons gif:
I know what those words mean, but together they’re just a mess. Yo, dawg, is that a melon salad or a word salad?
Regardless, the judges seemed to like it, and anyway Kevin was paired against Brian Malarkey, whose dish Tom dynamited on the launch pad, asking pointedly, “Why did you serve us mozzarella and tomatoes [you fucking IDIOT]?”
That being said, Kevin didn’t make any identifiable mistakes this week so I’m keeping him locked in that the number four spot.
3. (-2) Bryan Voltaggio
AKA: Flatbill Dad. Aka Bry Voltage. Aka Kyle Shanahan. Aka Linkin Clark Griswold.
Bry Voltage really let us down this week. He landed in the bottom three in the quickfire with his “mushy” shrimp and uni ceviche. “Looks like we’re both making ceviche, huh? Ha Ha ha,” Bryan said to Kevin during prep, dadly.
I mean two Top Chef contestants both making a ceviche at the same time? Imagine that! Anyway, the Dadliest Catch here made a classic Top Chef error: trying to cook for a celebrity guest judge the same way you would a professional food judge. Remember that country twerp from last season who dinged a tomato dish because “I’m really cautious about acidic things” and gave the win to an oatmeal? Kelly Clarkson wasn’t that much of a baby, but still, I got the feeling she wasn’t feeling that uni.
In the elimination challenge, Bry did a smoked beet with sprouted legumes (Bry Voltage lists sprouted legumes in the “hobbies” section of his social media profiles) going head to head against Jenn Carroll, with an inconclusive outcome. He ended up on the losing team, but on a team with Lisa, Lee Anne, and Brian Malarkey you know there was no way Voltaggio was ever in danger of going home. It was a bad week but I see him turning it around.
2. (+1) Gregory Gourdet
AKA: Kravitz. Aka Hepcat. Aka Lids.
With Dad faltering this week, Gregory and Melissa solidified their one-two positions. Gregory edged out Melissa in the quickfire and won high marks for his charred carrots (with various other charred vegetable oils ) in the elimination challenge. But ultimately he lost out to Melissa’s corn soup. The quickfire win gave him both immunity and Top Chef‘s most coveted prize of all time: a trip to the Trolls World Tour world premiere! It’s unclear if he was ever able to collect on that prize after the movie was downgraded to a digital release, but some things are just too good to be true.
On the one hand, you would expect the avowed healthy yoga guy to crush a vegetarian challenge, but on the other, he had two top finishes to Melissa’s one, even if he didn’t win in the end. Gregory seems like the most consistently competent chef in this competition but he almost seems too chill to win it all.
1. (+1) Melissa King
AKA: Zen Master. Aka Dimples. Aka Shutterstock.
Melissa is nearly as chill as Gregory and just as well put together, but also seems to lap the rest of the field in Big Dick Energy. Stop being so comfortable with yourself, it’s weirding me out. Melissa’s corn soup in the elimination challenge made me want to lick the screen (usually only Padma’s cleav– uh, never mind) and she seems to be peaking. Is she peaking too early? Is that even a thing? All I know is that every episode should dedicate five or 10 minutes to Melissa roasting Brian Malarkey.