Top Chef - Season 11, Episode 12
Previously on Top Chef: A drumline brought us a drumstick Quickfire. Carrie got down with her bad self, then got back up and won immunity. In the Elimination Challenge, the chefs got carted off to college, but instead of playing frisbee golf on the quad, they were forced to serve their food to 500 students simultaneously. Carlos offhandedly implicated Nicholas in an oven-stealing scandal, which raised Nicholas' fury level from zero to nonplussed. Shirley continued her streak of winning when it matters most, scoring a car with nothing more than some Grade-A roast beef. Justin stumbled for the last time, and no amount of self-confidence could save him when his bland plate of flavorless shrimp got him expelled. Seven chefs remain. Who will be eliminated tonight?
Quickfire. The chefs are welcomed into the Kitchen by Padma, guest judge John Besh, and a bucket of live crawfish who are all making desperate bids for freedom. Seriously, it's like a scene in a horror movie, with oceanic cockroaches swarming all over everything. Today's challenge is for each chef to create their own version of an étouffée. I enjoy a good étouffée, but haven't had one in a while. It's a stew made up of a slow-cooked roux and something like andouille (or crawfish in this case) that smothers rice (traditionally), though I presume the chefs are free to do whatever they'd like for now. Winner gets immunity. Ready? Go!
We learn that Stephanie has a violent allergic reaction to particular types of shellfish, so she can't even touch the crawfish. As someone with a misery-inducing allergy to scallops, I empathize. Carrie graciously offers to prep the critters for Stephanie, and Nicholas promises to taste her dish to offer seasoning adjustment advice. Carlos interviews that he's never heard of étouffée, so he's making some bullshit shrimp soup. Um, I believe Carlos may have heard of étouffée once before. Like thirty seconds ago. Dishes begin to come together. Standouts include Shirley's crab étouffée, which uses crawfish stock, and includes cucumber and egg, and Brian's Korean chili paste étouffée with corn, crab meat, crawfish, peppers, and andouille. Yuuuuuum to both of those. Stephanie makes gnocchi, because if someone on this season doesn't make it every twenty minutes, a penguin is executed.
Time runs out. Padma and Besh go down the line. Carrie falls to the bottom with muddled flavors, Nicholas and Carlos didn't sufficiently smother anything, and Stephanie's dish is more of a bisque. That leaves Shirley, Brian, and Nina's spicy Italian-style étouffée (with pasta in a tomato crawfish broth) as the top three. The winner of the challenge and immunity is... Shirley! Yay! I don't know if she's got it in her to win the season, but I'd like to see her go as far as possible.
Elimination Challenge. Padma explains that the chefs will be making dishes that highlight two different kinds of seafood for a shore-side festival at which there will be...1,000 guests. Various chefs have heart attacks before Padma giggles that she's just joshing them, and there will only be 200. Heh. Solid burn, Padma. Before the challenge starts, the guests get to have dinner at Besh's house, which looks lovely.
The next day, the chefs ride to the challenge. Upon hearing that Carlos plans to make a crudo, Brian asks him if he made sure to sharpen his knives to get a consistent cut. Carlos assures him that he has. There's isn't a shot of a vulture circling overhead, but there may as well be. When the chefs arrive at the festival site, they pick their duo of seafood out of a giant truck. The tuna, oysters, and shrimp are snapped up, though I see a lot of people selecting amberjack as well. I don't believe I've ever tried that fish; I'm curious to know how it tastes. As Nicholas shucks oysters, Carlos asks to borrow his sushi knife, because wait for it, his knife isn't sharp enough to get even cuts. At first, Nicholas hardly feels like doing Carlos any favors, and says no. He can't force himself to be a vindictive guy for long, though, and relents. He does plead with Carlos to treat the knife with respect, as it's a special one he got as a wedding present. I hope he and missus were careful unwrapping that one. Carlos is still short on time, and winds up cutting his fish portions in half in order to have enough for all the guests.
Service. A long line immediately piles up at Stephanie's station, because she is frying oysters to order, as well as topping them with some elaborate garnish. The guests are less than gracious about it, like, just drink your free wine and enjoy your free gourmet food and shut the hell up, jerks. Her secondary seafood is raw tuna, and the whole dish is served with pickled chili and mushrooms. Hmm. I've long maintained that I don't like mushrooms, but I do like anything pickled. It'd be interesting to see which side would win out in this case. Brian has made a grilled swordfish, which looks good until he piles fennel relish on top. Nicholas' dish is a bit too frou-frou, and looks like green oyster parfait. Carlos has an amberjack ceviche, and he learned his smothering lesson too late, as the whole thing is buried in peaches. Nina has marinated wahoo tuna (another fish I've never tried) with some salsa verde and pickled vegetables. Carrie has shredded her flounder and oyster emulsion into croquettes with pickled cucumber. That sounds good, but she rightfully worries that she hasn't highlighted the seafood, which is the entire point of the challenge. Shirley has made a ceviche with amberjack and tuna. Her accompanying components (aged soya sauce, lime dressing, toasted pecans, and crispy fried shallots) have me clawing at the screen to get some.
When service is over, Nicholas goes looking for the Knife That Solidified a Marriage, and finds it, covered in crusty bits of dried fish. The show would like you to think this is akin to Carlos casually tossing it into a vat of sulfuric acid. Nicholas is pissed that Carlos treated the knife he loaned him as a favor so cavalierly, especially after the bullshit Carlos pulled in the last challenge. Nicholas is close to the boiling point. Hey, I'm on your side, man. Carlos definitely should have treated the knife more respectfully. But let's just bring the horrors perpetrated on the innocent cutting implement down a few notches.
Fret 'n sweat. Besh thinks the ceviches were too much of a "safe" choice, but that didn't stop the judges from liking Shirley's quite a bit. Stephanie, Nina, and Brian also get some nice praise for their dishes. On the flip side, Carlos' peach/shrimp topping was nice, but completely overwhelmed the fish. Nicholas' dish was overly ambitious. Carrie's croquettes could have been made out of anything, and didn't feature the fish in any way, shape, or form. So we know the bottom three and the top four. The only question is, who's going to occupy the safe middle spot this week? It's Shirley, so Nina, Brian, and Stephanie go to Judges' Table to see who will pull down the win. Stephanie's fried oyster was perfectly elevated by the salad, and nobody even gives her shit for the time it took her to execute them. Brian's sauce was amazing, and Nina gets credit for using wahoo in a creative and delicious way. The chef who highlight their seafood the best is... Stephanie. I don't doubt it; a good fried oyster is about the best thing in the world.
Carlos, Nicholas, and Carrie come out to face the music. Carlos' fish portions were way too small and nobody could taste it under all that peach. Nicholas' dish was too soft and lacked acid. Carrie completely whiffed the point of the challenge, and didn't feature her fish at all. It's actually Carrie's first appearance in the bottom three tonight, but she makes it count, as Padma tells her to pack her knives and go. It was a rough one for the judges, and Padma makes sure to say how much Carrie will be missed in the competition. Carrie is sad, of course, but takes her loss with grace. She has enjoyed every step of the competition, and is proud of how much she learned. Damn. It's getting down to the wire, now. I'm sorry to see Carrie go, but after that episode, I'm even sorrier that I don't have any fish in the place. Me want oyster.
Overall Grade: B