I miss TiVo. Also, I bought a house last month and currently do not own a television—I’ve been relying on the kindness of friends to watch Top Chef every week. I mention all this because right about now I wish I had some DVR action to go back and write down the long, long names of the complicated dishes the five remaining contestants were made to create this week. But, dizzying whirligig of ingredients aside, am I alone in thinking this week’s Top Chef challenges were the most difficult ever? Probably too difficult?
The remaining quintet—Kevin, Eli, BrosVo, and Jen—walk into the TC Kitchen for their last Vegas challenge, and they find Padma waiting for them alongside a compact, serious-looking fellow named Gavin Kaysen, who happens to be the executive chef for Daniel Boulud’s Cafe Boulud in Manhattan. Kaysen is here because he competed in Bocuse D’or, which Mike V., now officially the overconfident bouchedag of the season, says is “like being selected to represent the United States in the Olympics.” More to the point, Bocuse d’Or is an international culinary competition that is held every other year in Lyon, France. It’s named after chef extraordinaire Paul Bocuse, who started the competition in 1987. (I’m betting that, right about now, bocusedorusa.org is getting the most hits it has ever received.)
OK, so: Kaysen says that one of dishes he had to make was a ballotine—a protein in a protein in a protein. Which is what the chefs must create in 90 minutes for their Quickfire Challenge. My girl Jen quips, “I’m going to make a turducken.” Yay, she still has some spunk!
And, actually, there’s a nice (albeit showbizzy) moment when Padma and Kaysen get to Jen’s dish on their tasting tour. Jen has stuck to seafood, her métier, with calamari “steak,” salmon, and scallops. Padma tastes her dish, fixes her eyes on Jen, smiles, and says, “Welcome back.” Aw, yeah, a little sisterhood solidarity.
Our golden boy Kevin, shockingly, gets called to the bottom for his fried catfish creation. Mike V. gets his cockiness deflated when Kaysen also dogs his poultry terrine, which didn’t really follow the tenants of the challenge.
Jen wins—welcome back, indeed. And she gets thirty extra minutes in the Elimination Challenge: Present a protein (either Atlantic salmon or lamb) and two appropriate, finessed garnishes on these grand Bocuse D’or mirrored platters. The judges? Oh, just twelve random folks, like Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, a very articulate and vocal Traci Des Jardin, and Paul Bocuse’s grave-looking son, Jerome.
Each chef freaks, and each falters in their own way. Jen invests mightily in her “unilaterally cooked” salmon, but the pieces are cooked very unevenly. Kevin makes food that tastes good—and he goes out of his element by cooking the lamb sous vide, with instructions gleaned from Bryan the Good BroVo the night before—but all the judges feel the dish is too simple for the Bocuse D’or level of cooking.
Mike the Bad BroVo makes some impressively complex elements for his salmon-based presentation, but the flavors don’t coalesce and—karma, baby—there’s a bone in one of the dishes. Bryan and Eli both undercook their lamb, Eli more egregiously, and his garnishes don’t impress as much as Bryan’s. (Keller admires his garlic chips, made with garlic puree and acetate. Mmm, acetate.) Gail Simmons is all kind and says how proud she is of the chefs. It’s a quandary, this kind of challenge: It really is too much for the time they have allotted, and though it’s fun to watch something fresh, I think the producers overshot this one. These are some of the best chefs the show has ever had (after last season, we needed skillful cooks to watch), and they all flubbed. I’d ultimately rather watch solid chefs in a challenge where they can truly dazzle. What do you think?
So who wins is the lesser of evils, really. I genuinely thought Bryan would take this one, but our boy Kevin gets the nod! Another reminder that simplicity can be a beautiful thing. I loved earlier in the episode when Kevin said that he and Eli cook homestyle food because “we believe in the food we grew up eating.” His win earns him a chance to compete in Bocuse d’Or (with coaching included) and, best of all, THIRTY THOUSAND BUCKS, care of the M Resort.
But as one Atlantan ascends, another descends. Eli is told to pack his knives and go. Eli tears up a bit in the Stew Room, but not in an icky way. There are sincere hugs; he’ll be missed. Great run, Eli. The Pickle Brothers made it to the top five together, we’re proud.
So Jen, BrosVo, and, of course, Kevin, all move into the finals round. But wait? Isn’t it always three who go at it in the finals? Why, yes. And in the preview for the next episode, we get the picture that someone will be knocked out before the final rounds truly begin. Let’s pray it ain’t Kevin, who grew his hair out in the back and trimmed his beard to change up his look for the finals.