Last week “Top Chef” went to summer camp where 200 hungry moms brunched and munched while Bryan Voltaggio won his first elimination challenge of the season. Alas, Lee Anne Wong was done in by not checking the setting of the oven, causing her clafoutis to be steamed instead of baked. After the show she faced Kevin Gillespie in “Last Chance Kitchen” and lost in a battle involving eggs cooked three ways. What happened this week when the six remaining All-Stars headed to a coliseum to make a traditional Japanese Kaiseki meal in honor of the Tokyo Olympics, which have now been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic? Read on for our minute-by-minute takes on the 10th episode of Season 17.
10:02 p.m. After being on a hot streak with three wins and no low scores, Melissa King has landed on the bottom two weeks in a row. She says her “Restaurant Wars” loss threw off her game. Stephanie Cmar is in a funk as well: “I want to do better. In order to do better, my food has to taste better, and I haven’t been able to achieve a win or even be in the top.” We learn her brother died a year and a half earlier because of his drug addiction, which “was absolute hell” for her and her family. But it made her stronger, and that is a big reason why she is in the competition.
THE QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE
10:04 p.m. Pastry super-chef Sherry Yard joins Padma Lakshmi in the kitchen. Karen Akunowicz knows Sherry is an amazing pastry chef — who we learn has served desserts at the Oscars, the Emmys and the Grammys. Yes, she has her sights on the Tonys, hoping to win an edible EGOT in the future. So Karen deduces this will be a dessert challenge — a course that is not her strong suit. She’s not wrong. Padma assures them the challenge will be “a piece of cake.” Ha, ha. We doubt it.
10:06 p.m. “We’ve seen what you guys can do with savory food. Now we want to see what you can do with desserts,” Padma says. Sherry adds, “There’s really no difference between an executive chef and an executive pastry chef. It’s all about times, temperatures, tastes and methodology. So I’m excited to see what y’all can come up with.” Padma tells them they will have a basic pantry available to them — dairy, powder, sugar and eggs. But there is a twist. In order to earn ingredients that add flavor to their desserts, they have to guess them correctly while blindfolded. That Sherry looks cute, but she definitely puts the devil in devil’s food cake.
10:08 p.m. Each chef will have five minutes to taste 20 ingredients. Everything they guess right, they can use. But they don’t have to use all the ingredients they win. The two chefs with the most correct answers will get an hour to cook. The next two chefs will get 45 minutes. And the two chefs who guess the fewest will only get a half-hour. As a bonus, the winner of the quickfire will get a huge advantage in the elimination challenge.
10:10 p.m. Bryan V. is up first. He gets peaches and ricotta cheese right immediately but misses on almond butter and prosciutto. Gregory Gourdet figures out lavender, dried cherries, guava paste and tarragon. Melissa gets tarragon and blackberries. Everyone gets lychees right except Brian Malarkey, who thinks they’re grapes. He was a host of the TV show “The Taste,” so his taste buds should be epic, but he also misses on the almond butter and tarragon. Stephanie goes on a streak, though, rightly calling out peach, blue cheese, thyme and tarragon with 12 seconds left. “Yeah, I crushed it. No big deal,” she says. She got 15 correct answers and gets an hour to cook. For second place there was a tie, with Gregory and Melissa both getting 13 right. But because Melissa didn’t finish all her tasting samples, Gregory gets an hour and Melissa gets 45 minutes. Bryan got 11 correct, so he gets 45 minutes as well. Karen only got eight while Malarkey brought up the rear with seven right answers. They only have a half-hour.
10:13 p.m. Karen decides to do a panna cotta with peaches and tarragon. Brian has “a little cake recipe” and that in order to pull his dish off, he is going to use the woodfire oven and give a little smoke to it. And, once again, he will try to make an ice cream, this time pink peppercorn flavored.
10:14 p.m. Melissa is determined to get back on track and get the win, so she is making an olive oil pistachio cake. Bryan is using coconut, flour, butter and sugar to make a sand texture on top of his curd. Gregory is making a chocolate curd with cherries and frozen coconut ice; because he has an hour, he wants to get ambitious. Stephanie is using ricotta, peaches, tarragon and white chocolate that will go on a crostata. Then Karen pulls her panna cotta out of the blast chiller, but she pronounces it “not good,” so it looks like that gambit didn’t pay off.
10:16 p.m. Bryan and Melissa have a little more than 15 minutes left. Stephanie and Gregory have about 30 minutes to go. But Karen and Malarkey are out of time, so it’s time to serve Sherry and Padma. Sherry asks what Karen used to set her not-quite-set panna cotta, and she says gelatin. Brian serves the ladies his woodfire cake and peppercorn ice cream.
10:18 p.m. Melissa’s olive oil cakes are finished, so she uses her remaining time to make an egg custard going and uses liquid nitrogen to turn it into ice cream at the last second and declares herself a ninja. Bryan serves his lychee curd with macerated peaches and coconut sand. Sherry comments, “These are three very strong flavors.” Hard to tel if she means that in a good way or a bad way. I’m guessing bad.
10:19 p.m. Stephanie wants to make ice cream, but she can’t use the ice cream machine after Brian used it for his odd concoction. So she too relies on science with liquid nitrogen. And Gregory has two minutes left: he’s worried that with so many ingredients, his dish will be heavy and unfocused. Time is up!
10:20 p.m. Padma asks Gregory what’s in there as she chows down on his coconut and milk chocolate curd with multiple toppings. Or as Sherry puts it, “Everything but the kitchen sink.” Stephanie’s peach and tarragon crostata looks well made. Padma makes an off-hand remark about her not removing the peach skins, but Stephanie counters that she “loves the texture of the peach skins.” At least, now she does.
10:22 p.m. Sherry tells the chefs, “I loved to see the use of all the ingredients and your creativity.” One of their least favorite dishes? Karen, which is no surprise to her. Sherry liked her flavors but there wasn’t time for it to properly set. She also didn’t like Bryan’s effort. She liked each of the components but “they all fought with one another on the plate.”
10:24 p.m. The good news: Sherry loved Brian’s woodfire cake. “It was soft and spongy and I really loved the gastrique.” She then compliments Melissa, telling her “Your olive oil pistachio cake with the beautiful fanning of the meringue so delicate — really well done.” And the winner is … Melissa, pocketing her first quickfire win. She’s happy to get her mojo back. Plus, as Padma reminds her, she gets a very important advantage in the elimination challenge.
THE ELIMINATION CHALLENGE
10:26 p.m. Padma announces, “It’s time that we let the games begin.” But Stephanie asks, “What have we been doing?” Our host continues: “For this elimination challenge, you’ll be cooking for an elite group of Olympic athletes. In honor of the Tokyo games, what would be better than making food inspired by Japan.” And helping the judge this challenge will be Michelin-starred chefs Niki Nakayama and Carole Iidi-Nakayama, co-owners of the restaurant n/Naka. Each of the chefs will be responsible for one dish in a six-course progressive Kaiseki meal. Some jaws drop when they get that news from these esteemed gourmets. Gregory says, “This is insane. They are such iconic legendary figures. You literally can’t get a table at their restaurant. I’m really freaking out.”
10:30 p.m. Niki tells the chefs, “It is the most formal way of dining in Japanese cuisine. It’s a celebration of nature. It’s about doing your best to protect the integrity of an ingredient and cooking with restraint.” Malarkey is beside himself at the sound of that, explaining in a confessional, “That’s not the kind of food I cook.” No fooling! “I like loud, fun, boom, vibrant not ‘tweezer, tweezer, tweezer.'” Padma notices all the chefs look uncomfortable and nervous — especially Malarkey.
10:32 p.m. Melissa says the Kaeseki meals she has eaten in Japan “are some of the best meals I had in my life. It’s almost like a tasting menu and it sounds simple but there is so much thought behind it.” The chefs take their places at a counter to sample the kind of food they must serve. The meal is a progression. The first course is a sakzuke (appetizer). Niki says,” In Japanese cuisine, cutting is one of the most important techniques that define the chef.” Carole adds, “Everything matters. If you cut this mint for me carelessly and it’s crooked, it’s going to impact the overall dish.”
10:34 p.m. Brian asks if this course is “always a fish preparation.” But Niki tells him, “It’s safe to say there’s always some element of vinegar.” The second course is an owan dish (soup). Carole says, “The first sip of the soup tastes under-seasoned. By the end, it’s just perfect. In the beginning, if it is already slightly salty, that’s too much.” The third course is yakimono (flame-grilled) and is mostly about the cooking method. Niki says her teacher told her to plate Japanese food “like mountain, river and then valley in that kind of level so that it’s reflective of nature.”
10:36 p.m. The fourth course is mushimono (steamed), and the fifth course is rice. Gregory asks, “Is it just plain steamed rice.” Niki tells him, “Yes, but it also depends on the rest of your menu. If you felt your whole menu was really light, it’s okay to end heavy.” The final course is mizumono (dessert). Karen says, “This challenge is very difficult, because it feels very different from the way that most of us try to cook. We always look for the next ingredient to really make our dishes pop.“
10:38 p.m. Then Melissa learns her quickfire reward. She gets her pick of the courses. Her choice is the steamed fourth course, mushimono. But that’s not all. She gets to assign her competitors their courses. Gregory gets the rice course. Stephanie gets dessert. Bryan wants the appetizer. Karen is good with the flame-grilled third course. Malarkey is gifted with the soup. They will have two hours to prep and cook the next day before service begins at Los Angeles Coliseum. The winner will get tickets for two to attend the Olympics in Tokyo, though none of them could have guessed that those Olympics would be postponed until 2021 — hopefully they’ll still get to go next year.
10:40 p.m. Whole Foods Market awaits as the chefs have 30 minutes to spend $200. Karen buys duck breasts at the meat counter. Malarkey mistakenly calls Bryan by his brother Michael’s name — burn! Says Bryan: “For real?” Melissa is making a savory Japanese egg custard. But the muted flavors of Kaiseki are pushing Gregory out of his comfort zone.
10:42 p.m. Karen starts the next day by doing some powerlifting. It’s her meditation — and that’s some meditation, check out those guns! Then the chefs arrive at the Coliseum, which makes it feel to Bryan like the culinary Olympics. He’s doing a scallop dish with a tomato dashi, avocado and some citrus caviar and aioli. Brian gets to work on “a light little poach on his prawns in salted water exactly as the chefs told me how to do it.” As he notes, “It’s so few ingredients but everything has to be handled exactly perfect.”
10:43 p.m. Karen prepares her duck breasts, which will be accompanied by roasted and fresh grapes. But she’s worried her cooking surface won’t be able to handle duck for 13 plates. Melissa is getting her clam dashi stock going as the base of her Dungeness crab chawanmushi. Gregory is making a traditional rice course with sable fish. He says, “Making rice is truly an art form in Japan so I really need to make sure this rice cooks perfectly.” He and Brian both realize that execution is key for this kind of minimalist cuisine.
10:44 p.m. Stephanie is making a panna cotta for dessert, using scooped out lemons as her vessel. She admits, “My biggest concern, and it’s huge, is it doesn’t set.” Gee, where did we hear that before? Karen is still struggling to grill her duck breasts, so she decides to quickly hot-smoke the duck in jasmine tea. Melissa tastes it and tells Karen to crisp it up. She doesn’t, which will likely come back to bite her.
10:45 p.m. The judges arrive including Tom Colicchio and his “What Would Tom Do?” sidekick Nilou Motamed. The athletes show up as well. The medalists at the meal are Diana Taurasi, Rai Benjamin, Nastia Liukin, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Christian Coleman and Kerri Walsh Jennings, plus NBC Olympics host Mike Tirico.
10:47 p.m. Bryan greets the guests and tells them his scallop is served with an avocado confit, tomato dashi and caviar and aioli. Carole says, “What he selected here really brought out the beautiful colors of the scallop and balanced it out with those little hints of green.” Gymnastics gold medal winner Nastia really liked it. Niki praises the use of avocado to add richness. Brian is next with his soup and he calls his plating “spectacular.” Mike says the prawns were so spot on that he actually saved one for the end. Carole, however, observes, “His sizing and cutting techniques were a little bit off.” Tom delivers the most damning comment, observing that the soup was downright cold.
10:49 p.m. Karen is next with her jasmine tea-soaked duck breast served with grapes. Tom notes the meat was cut unevenly. Carole says, “There was a little too much richness and sweetness and not enough acid.” Melissa serves her crab egg custard. Carole has one big issue: a piece of shell in her crab, which is “a very, very critical mistake.” Meanwhile, Gregory frets over his rice not having enough salt. It’s too late to fix that, and sure enough, those who eat it say it lacked flavor.
10:52 p.m. Stephanie arrives with her panna cotta dessert course. Niki gives her dish high marks and appreciates she used the lemon skin shells as a vessel. Tom declares her dish “really successful.” It’s about time Stephanie stepped up her game and gained more confidence. Sounds like they saved the best for last course in this challenge.
10:54 p.m. Niki tells the chefs that they all did a wonderful job. “It was really, really impressive and the one dish that really stood out for us was the incredible balance of flavor as well as ingredients. And that chef is … Stephanie!” She looks like she might pass out. Everyone is happy for her. Carole pays her one more compliment: “You brought California to Kaiseki.”
10:56 p.m. Padma adds, “There was another favorite dish, and that chef is Bryan Voltaggio.” Good for him as well, especially after that rough quickfire. Nikki says, “How you cut the scallops, that texture, was perfectly balanced with the rest of the ingredients you had.” The other four are all on the bottom. The judges criticize the poorly rendered fat and uneven cut of Karen’s duck breasts. Padma tells Melissa, “The flavor of your dish was spectacular. It was just the texture was a little bit off.” Carole also informs her about that offending shell. Tom can’t help but ask Malarkey if it was hard to restrain himself; Nilou tells him the dashi flavor was wonderful, but the temperature of the broth wasn’t “super hot.” Padma asks Gregory if he was happy with his dish. He admits it could have been seasoned more, but he wanted it as clean as possible.
10:58 p.m. Padma notes it will be a difficult cut because “the problems they had weren’t in concept but more technical.” Malarkey’s soup course left Nilou “lukewarm, as was the soup.” Gregory’s rice needed a flake or two of salt.” Tom sort of disagrees, and says the dish was satisfying. As for Karen’s duck, he observes, “I don’t think it was grilled properly.” And Padma says, despite the shell, Melissa’s dish was “yummy.” And the chef packing their knives is … Karen. Yes, it is back to “Last Chance Kitchen” for her.
Next week: For the first time ever, “Top Chef” is headed for Europe, so says a highly excited Padma about the upcoming finale. She adds, “There is just one more elimination challenge standing between you and Italy.” A sneak peek at the judges’ table seems to suggest Malarkey might just up and quit by saying “Ciao!” next week.
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