Kristen’s absence hangs like a druid’s shadow over the Top Chef kitchen. The chefs still can’t believe Kristen refused to throw Josie under the bus. Meanwhile, Josie picks at her sock while justifying her behavior during last week’s elimination — she admits she feels a little guilty. On the other hand, she reminds us “I’m not here to lose,” which is said by all reality-show contestants to justify their ungodly behavior. Just once I’d like to hear someone try this line on St. Peter. They’d be sent straight to hell in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.
Anyway, our gang walks into the kitchen and sees a bunch of fish and sea creatures lying on a bed of ice. Is it a mafia-style warning? Padma, wearing her best outfit of the season, introduces the chefs to Katsuya Uechi, a man who gets paid to make sushi — which is to say, he gets paid to put pieces of uncooked fish on little balls of rice.
The chefs have 30 minutes to make sushi for Mr. Uechi, who is a “sushi master.” Mr. Uechi shares some professional advice: The chefs could “keep sushi simple” and “keep people happy.” This is what passes for wisdom in the sushi world.
Brooke starts cutting up a cartoonishly pink octopus tentacle. Josh says he never craves sushi like he craves bacon. Did you know Josh likes bacon? It’s kind of his “thing.” He decides to make a bacon-omelette sushi roll, which he could probably license to the NIH as an emetic. (Indeed, Josh’s dish gets the “wacky music” treatment — never a good sign.)
Sheldon does something crazy — he lights lemons on fire and then throws them in a blender, where they spark like fireflies. His sushi will be explosive! Josie talks about hosting sushi parties where you serve sushi on naked women. If this is a thing that actually happens on our planet, we should be destroyed by an asteroid as soon as possible.
The chefs are careful not to touch the fish too much, because fingerprints will smudge the fish. Also, the fish are dead so they probably have lots of germs on them.
Stefan serves raw lobster as one of his two dishes. Is that legal? Mr. Uechi says everyone “worked very hard; thank you.” Alas, Lizzie’s tempura-sushi was gooey and pouring warm sauce over the uncooked fish made it unappetizing. Josh’s bacon was too greasy (big surprise). (My notes: “Why does this idiot keep making bacon?”)
Brooke’s octopus was very clean. Stefan’s yellowtail and sauce was delicious. And Stefan wins the Quickfire! He pockets $5,000 furnished by Healthy Choice! It’s his first Quickfire win in decades; his hometown will probably take a week off to celebrate.
Then Tom Collichio introduces our friends to a man named David Chang. He’s a hot chef who owns Momofoko Grill and My Peche, where I once had lunch. David Chang is famous for refusing to serve vegetarian options, because he’s just too much of a badass, and also because his sense of masculinity is contingent upon the suffering of animals. Tom and David are living together in a rented house for the night and Tom wants the chefs to cook fried chicken for their guests. Who are these guests? Apparently they’re a bunch of fried-chicken experts. “Just make it crispy, make it delicious,” says Tom, displaying his sushi-master-level knowledge about fried chicken.
Brooke is worried about this challenge. She’s making a chicken pie-yard(?) with Egyptian spices. It sounds complicated. Stefan is stuffing his chicken with cheese and ham, à la Chicken Cordon Bleu! Josh decides to “cook from his heart,” and celebrate his grandfather, who made the best fried chicken in the world. He injects brine (sea water) into raw chicken using a syringe; it looks like something from Human Centipede. Josie thinks she’s got this challenge in the bag — she even says, “I’ve got this one in the bag!” She has a long history with fried chicken and dumps about 3,000 herbs and spices in a blender.
Time is running out, so the chefs jump in their Toyota Applebongs and use Bing to find Tom’s party-house address. There are deep-fryers set up in the yard. (My host: “You have to comment on the industrial barrels they’re using to transport their chickens.”)
On the party-house patio, Wolfgang Puck holds Emeril’s chair for him: “Ladies first!” (Wolfgang Puck seems to be getting dumber with each episode.) Two guys from a restaurant called “Animal, Son & Gun” join the chefs for some banter about fried chicken. There are a few sweet memories of grandparents making fried chicken, but not enough to compensate for all the dumb jokes and self-congratulatory remarks about how much they all love fried chicken and how the chefs better bring them some good fried chicken. We get it, guys, you’re all authentic because you like high-calorie food associated with politically disenfranchised populations.
Speaking of high-calorie food, at this point we stopped the DVR so I could tell my hosts about my idea for a four-tiered nacho platter, and whether our friend’s bar could be convinced to add it to their menu. This conversation lasted for about twenty minutes.
When we returned to Top Chef, we were rewarded with the nicest shot of the season: Shafts of late-afternoon light streaming through the house’s kitchen as contestants scrambled around in a panic. It’s lovely. I’m not kidding!
Here’s what everyone fried:
Sheldon: Umami drumsticks and thighs, wings with usukuchi and grapeseed oil (“Momofoko-style”). Sheldon’s chicken is a success, but the judges notice he didn’t have enough for everyone. (His fryer wasn’t working properly, so he threw out some of the subpar pieces.)
Lizzie: Chicken with coriander, black pepper, and brown sugar rub with peach-cabbage slaw. These things look like enormous chicken tenders. One of the guys from Animal, Son & Gun, who’s disguised as Inspector Gadget going undercover at a Bon Iver concert, thinks it’s delicious — but Tom would never just take a breast, bone it, and fry it. They’re pissed that Lizzie only did the breast. But that’s the best part! I think Lizzie is smart.
Josie: Southern-fried chicken with black garlic, cayenne, thume(?), and hot sauce with daikon salad. (My notes: “Chicken looks nice and dark, but salad looks deflated, like it just lost a relay race.”) Josie’s chicken wasn’t hot enough — Michelle Bernstein can’t even eat it. (She’s a judge who sent Josie home last time.)
Stefan: Chicken cordon bleu with garlic aïoli and lemon. This gets my vote for strangest presentation of fried chicken I’ve ever seen: The lemon wedges on top make the chicken look like fish. Sure enough, the judges hate it. Emeril says the dish gave him the “cordon blues,” which according to Tom Colicchio’s Twitter feed is the “line of the night.”
Emeril gets the line of the night— Tom Colicchio (@tomcolicchio) January 17, 2013
Josh: Smoked fried chicken with hot sauce and blue cheese. He announces: “I made fried chicken,” which gets an appreciative guffaw from the judges after everyone else’s fancy reimagined fried chicken. But my host is skeptical: “He’s trying to do hot wings, which isn’t fried chicken.” The judges think Josh’s chicken is so flavorful it doesn’t matter if it’s not really crispy. Did I mention that Josh shook up his chicken in a paper bag before frying it? It’s an old folk remedy to remove evil spirits from birds.
Brooke: Dukkah-crusted chicken breast with wilted escarole and tomato salad. The two guys from Animal remind Brooke that they once interviewed for her; she doesn’t remember. She’s mortified. Everyone hates Brooke’s dried-out chicken. Why did she try to make it complicated? Wolfgang says, “In the end, keep it fucking simple.” (My notes: “Everyone seems pretty wasted.”)
Josh, Sheldon, and Lizzie served the best chicken. They are compelled to say what an honor it was to cook for all the amazing chefs Tom had invited to his orgy. David Chang announces the winner, who “demonstrated originality and lip-smacking goodness.” It’s Josh! He wins 365 bottles of wine from Charlotto(?) wines, enough wine to last a whole year if you drink one bottle each day.
Stefan, Josie, and Brooke are next hauled before the fry-lateral commission. Josie can’t do anything right — wasn’t this supposed to be her event? Why did Brooke take the chicken off the bone? The judges act like that’s a bad idea, but who wants to eat a bone? Bones are one of the main reasons I avoid eating chicken. Tom says the bone has flavor, but that’s impossible. Why? Because it’s a bone. Sorry, I don’t go around licking cow skulls, dude. Josie’s (boneless) chicken was too greasy and she had to go straight from the fryer to the plate — Tom calls her out, finally, for horrible time management as a nation of Top Chef enthusiasts breathes a sigh of relief. (But Josie’s fryer broke, so really, how can we blame her?) Stefan says he doesn’t know fried chicken since he’s from Europe. Wolfgang calls bullshit on this excuse: He’s from Austria, which is known for its fried chicken(?!?). The judges seem truly offended that Stefan didn’t serve simple fried chicken. In fact, after he leaves, Padma says, “he’s such a bullshitter!” Are the judges still drunk from last night, or do they always get this loose near the end of a season? (Back in the locker room, Stefan admits “I eat fried chicken but I have no interest in learning about it,” which is disarmingly honest and charming and should be everybody’s attitude about food, if you ask me.)
The judges have said “fried chicken” at least 200 times this episode, by the way. I wonder if Healthy Choice is offended? Or perhaps this is all a way of ramping up to the introduction of Healthy Choice Fried-Chicken-Flavored Yogurt with Real Bones in the Bottom?
Enough of my yogurt fantasies: Josie is kicked off the show. If the other chefs are popping open Champagne, they’re kind enough to do it discreetly. There’s a weird moment between Stefan and Josie, when he goes in to hug her, but she gives him a high five instead. Josie thinks getting the boot for fried chicken is “stupid,” since she’s so good at making fried chicken. But I’m starting to think that maybe Josie isn’t the most objective judge of her own abilities.