‘Top Chef’ recap: The All-Stars cook up their dream restaurant concepts in ‘Pitch Perfect’

On last week’s episode of “Top Chef,” best friends Nini Nguyen and Karen Akunowicz both were eliminated after their shared sour-and-umami dish failed to fully please the judges’ palates. Mere minutes afterwards they both went up against Lisa Fernandes in “Last Chance Kitchen.” Karen had Tom’s favorite dish, so she was allowed to rejoin the game, while Nini is still in “LCK” limbo and alas, Lisa will have to join the peanut gallery of “LCK” losers. So what happened this week? Read on for our minute-by-minute takes on the seventh episode of Season 17, “Pitch Perfect.”

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10:02 p.m. “It’s so quiet,” says Melissa King. “I miss Nini.” Stephanie Cmar is upset that her fellow culinary crime fighters aka Padma’s Angels, Nini and Karen, are duking it out in “Last Chance Kitchen.” She thinks she might be the last angel standing. Then we optimistically hear her say, “But you never know who will fight back through ‘Last Chance Kitchen’” — indeed! A humbled Bryan Voltaggio says he was shaken up by being on the bottom along with his teammate Eric Adjepong. He adds, “I have a lot to prove here still.”

10:04 p.m. The chefs stride into the kitchen while host Padma Lakshmi stands next to a rather large box. Padma asks them, “Are you ready to find out who won ‘Last Chance Kitchen’?” In strides Karen to a round of applause from her peers. I think a few of them thought the returnee from “LCK” would pop up from those crates like a jack-in-the-box.

THE QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE

10:06 p.m. Padma welcomes the next guest judge. She reveals, “He is a critically acclaimed actor whose TV and film credits are as lengthy as his … line at his Trejo’s Tacos empire.” Yes, it’s action star Danny Trejo. Lee Anne Wong says, “I’m freaking out. I’ve seen all his movies. He’s got such an iconic face.” Padma says Trejo’s Tacos is booming in L.A. and the guy even has a doughnut shop.

10:07 p.m. The quickfire requires the chefs to make a perfect taco. Danny says, “The good thing about a taco is that it is really versatile. You can vegan it, you can vegetarian it, you bite into a cow if you want to. If you want to be creative, you can.” Finally, Padma is ready to reveal what is in the box: there are some lethal-looking machetes, a weapon that shares its name with the star’s most famous character. Yep, a machete will be their only knife.

10:08 p.m. Danny opens his jacket and reveals versions of the lethal tool bedazzled in the lining. Whoever impresses Danny and Padma the most will get immunity in the next elimination challenge. Padma then adds that immunity from “here on out is off the table.” I am just hoping chef fingers aren’t on anyone’s menu.

10:09 p.m. There’s 30 minutes on the clock and off they go. They store their knife bags and pick up their machetes. Lee Anne declares, “I making a taco for Danny f**king Trejo so like I need to like make sure it’s awesome. She makes fish tacos at home that have tequila masa batter. “They are so delicious because they are super crisp.” She wants to put a cheesy crust on it too.

10:10 p.m. Gregory Gourdet gives a high-five to Karen and welcomes her back. Brian Malarkey says down in San Diego “there is great Asian culture down in Tijuana.” He wants to make a Baja Asian mole with tempura shrimp. “Check that, huh,” he says to the camera. Brian can’t use a blender for his mole so he goes old school with a mortar and pestle. Gregory says it is absolutely nuts to use a machete to do delicate knife work. Eric wants to make something easy to dice and get around the machete. He is making a rockfish and chorizo taco with a mango crema.

10:12 p.m. Lee Anne runs towards the burners and warns, “Behind you with a machete.” But Melissa loves using a machete. We hear her say, “I’ve always wanted a machete. I feel like a ninja with this thing.” She makes karate hand moves just in case we weren’t sure. Karen is utilizing Korean flavors with her rockfish taco with kimchee sesame salsa. “Now that I’m back, I definitely have renewed energy.” She is really keen on getting immunity – something she’s never had previously — after spending nearly 24 hours cooking on the show.

10:14 p.m. Stephanie makes tortillas all the time at work, “so I feel good about that.” She is going to use lamb as her meat, especially since everyone else looks like they are making fish tacos and she wants to stand out from the pack. With just 12 minutes left, Gregory makes his own tortillas but admits he has never made one before as he uses the press. Kevin Gillespie is going to use store-bought tortillas and focus on his filling instead. He’s making a variation of tacos al pastor with pork and pineapple. He is going to substitute banana as his fruit.

10:15 p.m. Five minutes are left. Brian asks Bryan how he likes the machete, and Bryan thinks it’s “fantastic.” Brian then notices the other Bryan is putting beautiful French-technique knife cuts with this machete. His taco type? A miso roasted salmon taco. Meanwhile, Gregory’s tortillas aren’t quite what they should be. He hasn’t even made his salsa yet. He admits, “I’m not winning this one.”

10:17 p.m. “Times up! Machetes down!” Lee Anne starts to fangirl-out as Danny and Padma stop by. Hers will be the first of several variations of a fish taco. When asked how it was working with a machete, she tells them, “I live in Hawaii. So we always have a machete in the back of the car.” Danny likes the texture and the host says, “Really nice work.”

10:18 p.m. Next is Gregory, who smiles despite his fish taco flaws. Padma just asks about salting his tortilla flour and moves on. Melissa has her take on a fish taco featuring mahi mahi. Karen follows with her Korean take on a taco. Danny makes a series of yummy noises – that can’t be bad. Eric serves yet another fish taco, one that includes caviar. Stephanie is an outlier with her lamb tortilla and Padma seems to appreciate her meat version.

10:19 p.m. Bryan V. is next with his salmon variation sprinkled with caviar. Padma calls it “pretty fancy. I liked what you did with the avocado.” Next is Brian M. who is pushing his Baha Asian street taco. Kevin chose to make his with pork. He gets a brisk “Thank you so much” from Ms. P.

10:20 p.m. Decision time. Who will get the last immunity of the season? Danny says the chefs did “great” and he would “buy every one of those tacos.” But who had their least favorites? Danny says Gregory, which is no surprise to him or us. His sin was saltiness. Eric also is on the bottom too for having too big a tortilla for too little filling.

10:21 p.m. Whose dishes most impressed? They loved Lee Anne’s and Danny calls it “a party of taste.” Padma thought “it was popping.” Karen is also on top as Danny liked her kimchee. And Danny calls out Stephanie because “it was completely different. I love lamb.” And the winner is …  Stephanie! Good for her. She has progressively improved throughout the season, and it’s her first time to win immunity. She says, “I have been waiting to win something. This quickfire is the greatest thing to ever win.” Padma then shares some news: “Restaurant Wars will be next week. But this week the battle will begin.”

THE ELIMINATION CHALLENGE

10:23 p.m. Joining the chefs is owner and executive chef of four Chicago restaurants: namely, James Beard Award winner and winner of “Top Chef: Chicago” Stephanie Izard. Lee Anne says Stephanie is just an awesome person and that they have done events together over the years. Also participating is James Beard Award winner and restaurateur Kevin Boehm.

10:24 p.m. Stephanie is about to open a new restaurant in L.A., but Kevin Boehm has opened 30 in the last 25 years. So he knows what it takes to make an eatery into a success. Padma says, “Restaurant Wars is a rite of passage,” but in order to compete this season, “you will have to make it through the pitch.” Each chef will have to design a concept, a creative menu and a mood board. They also will cook dishes as examples of their cuisine. Since many of the players have restaurants already, Stephanie suggests they go for their dream restaurant.

10:26 p.m. The chefs get $150, 30 minutes to shop and three hours to prep and cook their food. Then they will get a chance to pitch their concept. Padma explains, “We will choose our two favorite restaurant concepts and those will be the two for Restaurant Wars.” Let the battle begin, indeed.

10:27 p.m. Stephanie, Lee Anne and Karen share a car to go back to their domicile. Lee Anne reveals she is in the process of getting her two restaurants open, but she has never had to pitch a plan to an investor. Meanwhile, as Kevin, Bryan and Brian are traveling together, Brian remarks that they are the most established restaurateurs. Bryan gives him a look from the backseat that seems to say, “Don’t get cocky.” Brian daydreams about concepts, adding, “I just did the restaurant in the Danny Trejo challenge. I want the world to know that Baja Asian is going to be insanity.” Um, we will see.

10:30 p.m. Kevin is “going to do a fried chicken joint called Fluster Clucks.” I would be onboard with that but the judges might disagree. After her brush with elimination, Karen walk backs in their roomy mansion and states, “Good to be home, guys.” The nine remaining chefs spy materials to use to portray their ideas. Eric explains, “The mood board is important to me. It’s going to allow me to relay the thoughts and emotions and the feelings  that I want people to have when they step into the restaurant.” The name of his restaurant is Middle Passage, which he explains is another name for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. He says the concept has been in his head for some time, but when he made an African dish last season in the finale he was eliminated. His downfall? Too many ingredients.

10:33 p.m. Karen tries to create a mood board that feels modern and vintage, “definitely Asian inspired.” She wants to create a modern dim sum restaurant. Her reason? “I’ve never seen a dim sum concept at Restaurant Wars before.” Lee Anne makes a board with a Hawaiian theme, natch. She remembers about the Restaurant Wars challenge that the executive chef in charge often faces the chopping block, so winning this challenge would come with its on risks. But she adds, “If I’m not successful, it can definitely get me sent home. I just have to sell it.”

10:35 p.m. “Guys, I’m having some roadblocks in my thought process,” Brian admits. His solution: “Bowling, my friend. That sounds fun.” And off the chefs go to engage in a bit of 10-pin action. Most of them strike out at the sport, and not in a good way. While they discuss the challenge at hand, Mr. Malarkey notes that has opened the most restaurants – 19 in the past five years. Kevin has opened eight. Bryan V. can claim 10. Stephanie is feeling a bit insecure since she is a private chef, so “I don’t know how to pitch something.” She hasn’t come up with a fully formed idea, and she is nervous. Gregory at least gets a strike before they leave.

10:38 p.m. Eric is exhausted from waking up early to finish everything, including picking flowers from the garden for his mood board. But he is really determined to win this challenge. Kevin asks if he cut some succulents for his presentation, but when Eric looks over he points out, “Voltaggio glued an entire plate to his board.”

10:40 p.m. Stephanie is on edge as she stares at the pork loin: “This is not my perfect challenge. Not something I think a lot about.” Good thing she has immunity, right? But she has picked a concept: namely, modern contemporary American cuisine. “Sort of like a neighborhood place.” She wants to do a fish dip with a salt and vinegar potato chip and a schnitzel. Kevin asks for chicken breasts and feet at Whole Foods; he is going to call his place the Country Captain instead of Fluster Clucks. Oh well.

10:42 p.m. Brian calls, “10 minutes!” Gregory grabs red snapper and soon they all are checked out. They race to their stations in the kitchen and begin preparing their sample dishes. Gregory is making a rub for his fish. He says that back home he is working on his own restaurant concept, with a heavy emphasis on Haitian cuisine. Gregory’s also grilling oxtails.

10:43 p.m. Gregory has a bunch of green and red peppers and is taking every moment “very, very seriously.” Karen says her restaurant concept is Three Black Crowes. Turns out, her grandparents’ last name is Crowe. She makes a scallion pancake and will also make sweet potato dumplings. She then whispers, “I’ve never made this before.” First time for everything.

10:44 p.m. Lee Anne prepares hard-boiled eggs for her restaurant, Hanai Mama. “The word ‘hanai’ in Hawaiian means to adopt. I’ve been adopted by the Hawaiian community.” She is salt curing her egg yolks – looks like she used all the salt that Brian didn’t put on her crudité and hummus dish a few weeks ago. She will use it for her mahi mahi salt curry bites. Melissa has never opened up her own eatery before, but she explains that she has been working on a concept for a while: modern Californian food with Asian flavors. The restaurant’s name is Serena, in honor of her grandmother.

FOOD SERVICE

10:45 p.m. The judges arrive, and the race to finish is on as they take their seats. Chef Kevin Boehm is hoping the concepts are personal. Head judge Tom Colicchio adds, “We’re looking for authenticity.” Kevin G. feels the challenge plays to his strengths as he slices his chicken. He brings his homey-looking dish over and Tom gleefully says, “Look at the num nums.” His concept is family-style Southern and his restaurant shares its name with the dish he cooked – Country Captain. He says, “It’s highly influenced by the spice trade and America’s first taste of curry.” Kevin seems to know his stuff. And, yes, the judges are duly impressed by Kevin’s tight concept.

10:47 p.m. Eric might have bitten off more than he can plate as he drops ingredients on the floor. He recruits Lee Anne to help him put the food out. Bryan pitches in as well. But when the judges get a taste, Kevin B. states that his duck “is a bit of a mess.” Tom agrees, saying, “This is overcooked duck. This is over-salted broth. This is bad technique.” It doesn’t look good for Eric, and he knows it.

10:49 p.m. Next is Gregory, who says, “You have to be a great cook and you have to be a great salesman. And not all of us are great salesmen.” The food certainly looks good as he tells the judges his restaurant has a Haitian wood-fired cuisine. The restaurant’s name, Kann, comes from the sugar cane salesman he remembers from his childhood. The judges can’t stop eating his food, especially the oxtail.

10:50 p.m. Bryan V. is next. His concept is rooted in Mid-Atlantic cuisine. He calls the restaurant Thatcher and the Rye. Get it? His dishes feature crab and game hen with a shellfish broth. He says he wants the restaurant to be “a lot more accessible, so that more diners can come in and taste our food.” While Tom likes the food, he doesn’t think it matches the concept. This is a running flaw in what Bryan prepares – his dishes are almost always good, but they often don’t reflect the theme.

10:51 p.m. Karen explains that Three Black Crowes is a modern dim sum restaurant with Asian inspiration. Gail Simmons says, “I like both of these dishes, but I did not feel it was Chinese or Asian in any way.” Although Tom’s evil side comes out as he thinks how tempting it would be to see Karen rolling dim sum carts around during Restaurant Wars.

10:52 p.m. Lee Anne knows she has to nail her pitch. She explains the name of her modern Hawaiian restaurant, her mahi mahi bites and beer-braised pork belly. Sadly, Tom says, “I’m not feeling this.” Seasoning is an issue in both her plates — one too salty and the other not spicy enough. Gail like the salted egg dish but didn’t think her concept was unique enough from other Hawaiian restaurants.

10:53 p.m. Stephanie, aka Ms. Immunity, is racing around and wished she thought matters through better. She calls her eatery Lucy C’s. It’s named for a dog she had for 15 years. She serves her salmon pate with vinegar chips and her schnitzel. Padma says she likes the sides, but is nay on the schnitzel. Tom says, “This is what is representing your restaurant? I’m going to pass.”

10:55 p.m. It’s Malarkey time! Let’s see what this Brian is up to. His concept for D2 is Baja Asian street. “What I am aiming for is something to entice the Millennial. Really fine, lower price point.” His plates are a shrimp and hamachi aguachile and a braised oxtail with gochujang mole. Next he weaves a tale of two different people coming together who fall in love. Even though they are not supposed to be together, they cannot deny it. All of a sudden, he mentions the animated film “Shrek” and the love connection between the two D’s – “the donkey and the dragon.” Tom can’t help but put his head in his hands. Performance over. Gail says she didn’t taste the gochujang, but thinks “the concept is brilliant.”

10:56 p.m. Melissa is last but likely not least to give her pitch. She tells the judges that Sabrina is a restaurant with a modern Asian Californian cuisine and that she named it for her grandmother. “She saw life in a very romantic way,” she says and that vision is reflected in her food. She serves ahi tuna and pear and corn agnolotti. Stephanie declares Melissa’s corn dish to be the most well-crafted dish served. Tom describes it as elegant, understated and quite beautiful – just like her food. The judges think Kevin G. had the best concept, but Tom, for one, wants to see more of Melissa’s food.

JUDGES’ TABLE

10:57 p.m. Padma ticks off the judges’ favorites of the day: Gregory, Kevin, Malarkey and Melissa. Their first choice is … Kevin’s Country Captain. And the second is … Gregory’s Kann. They will get to fulfill their visions next week. On the bottom are Eric, Lee Anne and Stephanie, who is darn lucky to have immunity. Eric’s concept was at odds with his upscale food and his dishes were not well done. Lee Anne says she wanted big, bright flavors but her Hawaiian concept didn’t quite work.

10:58 p.m. And the chef who will be packing their proverbial knives and going is … Eric. He owned up to his poor performance and as he states, “This season has taught me a new humility. I am still the student, I always knew that. But I learned a lot on the fly.”

Next week on “Top Chef”:  Kevin and Gregory’s restaurant concepts are about to come to life. Alas, so are the usual pitfalls of Restaurant Wars as shown in the preview– impatient customers, missing plates and slowdowns in the service.

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