Last week 16 “Top Chef” All-Stars from all over the world flew to London for the show’s first ever international competition. “Top Chef France” champion Samuel Albert was the first out after he failed to devein the prawns in his vegetable dish. If a champion like that can fall so quickly, there truly is no room for error. So who brought their A game in episode two, “Rice, Rice Baby,” and who was next to pack their knives and go?
The 15 remaining competitors playing for the $250,000 grand prize are Ali Ghzawi (Middle East and North Africa), Sara Bradley (Kentucky), Charbel Hayek (Middle East and North Africa), Victoire Gouloubi (Italy), Dale MacKay (Canada), Sylwia Stachyra (Poland), Luciana Berry (Brazil), May Phattanant Thongthong (Thailand), Begoña Rodrigo (Spain), Buddha Lo (Houston), Tom Goetter (Germany), Gabriel Rodriguez (Mexico), Dawn Burrell (Portland), Amar Santana (California), and Nicole Gomes (Canada).
“Samuel leaving really speaks a lot about what this competition is about,” says Buddha right after the first elimination. “You have to be on the ball every challenge.” He and the rest of the field suddenly realize that with a cast full of international finalists and winners, you have to treat every challenge like you’re in the finals.
Host Padma Lakshmi brings out the special guest judge for this week’s first challenge: chef Santiago Lastra, who runs the only Michelin-star Mexican restaurant in the UK. But there’s also another special guest for this challenge … Ritz crackers! The mission, should they choose to accept it (not that they have a choice), is be to make the perfect amuse-bouche using a selection of unique and unexpected ingredients. Each chef can only choose one ingredient, and their bite of food needs to be served on a Ritz.
But there’s a twist — because of course there is. After the chefs choose their ingredients, Padma groups them into teams of three, and those teams would have to use the three ingredients chosen by the team members: Sara, Nicole, and Sylwia (horseradish, goat cheese, guajillo peppers); Tom, Amar, and Begoña (bottarga, piquillo peppers, oyster leaves); Charbel, Luciana, and Dale (wasabi, plantains, capers); Ali, Victoire, and May (yeast extract, hibiscus, kumquat); and Gabri, Dawn, and Buddha (tamarind, jackfruit, caviar cream).
But there’s one more twist! Those teams aren’t working together. They’re competing against each other. From each team, the judges will select one winner, and then from those winners they will select one victor for the entire challenge. That ultimate victor would get immunity in the Elimination Challenge and a $10,000 prize. Sylwia is kind of confused. Too many twists.
Tom and Amar are pretty happy with their team’s combo of ingredients, while Dale has no idea what to do with plantains; he ultimately decides on a fish-and-chips-style preparation. Nicole may be the most confident, though, since she owned an upscale catering company and was therefore used to making small bites with lots of flavor. Poor Begoña, however, runs out of time before she can prepare the second of her two bites.
After tasting Sara, Nicole, and Sylwia’s bites, Padma says, “These are all delicious. This is going to be really hard.” But ultimately she and Santiago decide that the winner is Nicole‘s grilled bavette with goat cheese and horseradish black garlic jam and salsa macha. Of Begoña, Tom, and Amar, Begoña is automatically out for her incompletion, so the winner is Tom for his shrimp tartare, avocado roulade, oyster leaf, and bottarga persillade. Then Dale wins his group with plantain fried cod with wasabi caper aioli. May prevails for her spicy kumquat jam with hibiscus juice and yeast extract. And Gabri gets the nod for his jackfruit a la Mexicana with caviar paste and tamarind butter. The ultimate winner after all that was “surprising, unexpected, delicious” and belonged to … May!
“This next challenge could get a little sticky,” Padma jokes. The directive is fairly simple, though. The chefs need to prepare a rice dish in any way they see fit — savory, sweet, risotto (Victoire is like, hell no, after last week’s Quickfire risotto fail) — but the rice needs to be the focal point of the dish. The one catch: They’d be cooking for 100 people at Alexandra Palace in addition to the regular judges and “Top Chef South Africa” host Lorna Maseko.
Simplicity can be deceptive, though. As Padma points out, “No ingredient has caused more chefs to pack their knives than rice.”
Ali is fairly confident right out of the gate; he’s always “gentle, sweet, and nice” with rice; he’s making Middle Eastern ouzi with lamb. Luciana, meanwhile, has lived in England for 19 years, but there’s a lot of rice in her Brazilian background, so she has plenty of experience too, which she intends to put into practice with a kedgeree in honor of the UK. Victoire shops around to make a West African stew called maafe. May strategically decides to make a dessert so that she stands out from all the chefs cooking savory dishes.
Gabri will attempt a mole with risotto. The problem for him is that his mole requires a lot of ingredients. Like, a lot of ingredients. And on “Top Chef Mexico” the chefs don’t do their own shopping, so budgeting isn’t exactly his strong suit. By the time he gets to the register, he has far more groceries than he can afford to pay for. He asks May, who underspent for her meal, if he can use the rest of her allotted money, which I didn’t realize was a thing you could do. She graciously agrees, though she has immunity so she really has nothing to lose.
Mole usually takes two days to prepare, but Gabri needs to complete it in one. Also with time not on her side is Dawn, who is attempting a black rice congee. Black rice takes a long time to cook, so she’ll need a pressure cooker in order to get it done and even then she ends up with underdone rice at the end of the night that will need to finish cooking in the morning. Dale is also making a congee, though not with black rice. His challenge is the fact that he’s never made congee before. There’s a first time for everything, but maybe that first time shouldn’t be in the middle of “Top Chef.”
Nevertheless, “everything looks great. Who knew rice could be so exciting?” says judge Tom Colicchio after checking in on the chefs’ progress.
Then comes a brief bit of drama. Amar and Dawn need to use the stove. He notices pots of water on the burners. He loudly asks if they belong to anyone, and no one answers. He asks again if they belong to anyone, and still no one answers. So he and Dawn take those burners for themselves. In comes Luciana, who needs to boil her eggs and she’s furious that someone moved her pots. Dawn apologizes, and Luciana decides to let it go, as well she should because she didn’t answer when Amar asked. That concludes this week’s episode of “The Pots and the Restless.”
On the day of, the chefs take their stations and start feeding the ravenous crowd, including the hungry judges. Luciana’s kedgeree, Sara’s everything rice (inspired by an everything bagel), and Nicole’s crispy furikake rice are the first to be evaluated. Sara’s meal has great crunch and the salmon is cooked well. Nicole’s is tasty, but there’s too much rice for the fish — not necessarily the worst problem to have in a rice challenge. Luciana was the most flawed of the three: her rice seemed both undercooked and overcooked at the same time, though she smoked her fish well.
Begoña’s lemon rice, Sylwia’s coconut rice, and Victoire’s Basmati rice with maafe are next. Begoña is “out there,” but her dish works with its mellow lemon flavor and “alluring” pop of horseradish. Victoire’s sauce is successful, but she shouldn’t have formed her rice into a ball because it breaks the rice. Sylwia’s problem is that her rice is too sweet and feels too much like a side dish to the stew she cooked to go with it.
Buddha’s Hainanese chicken rice, Gabri’s green risotto and mole negro, and Dale’s congee with short rib were a mostly successful trio. Buddha’s was expertly cooked, though his rice didn’t feel like the star of the show like it was supposed to. Dale’s dish had “great balance,” but Padma wanted more of the congee; that’s not entirely a bad thing since she devoured the congee that she did get. And Gabri, coming off last week’s near-elimination, greatly impresses the judges with his flavors and the consistency of his mole. Way to go!
Tom’s Sri Lankan lamb biryani, May’s rice pudding, and Charbel’s Lebanese spiced basmati rice with grilled chicken are served up. Colicchio is starting to notice how much chicken they’re being served, though Charbel’s rice is very well cooked. Tom’s dish showed precision. And May is the standout of this course, really spotlighting the rice and delivering great texture and the right level of sweetness. She’s on a roll after winning the Quickfire Challenge. She could be on her way to winning this challenge too.
The final course consists of Ali’s lamb ouzi, Amar’s pomegranate beef stew with arancini, and Dawn’s black Venus congee. Ali’s dish is a big hit with its smokiness and well-flavored rice. The other two weren’t so great. Amar didn’t highlight the rice enough, and his meat is tough. And while Dawn’s oxtail is great, her congee is nothing like a congee as her rice, despite all her efforts, is still way too crispy. To add insult to injury, it also lacks flavor.
Padma calls Gabri, Dawn, Luciana, Ali, May, and Sylwia before the judges, and it’s not hard to guess who landed where. The three top chefs for this challenge were Gabri, Ali, and May, while the bottom chefs were Dawn, Luciana, and Sylwia.
“It was just a beautiful plate of food that I would have any day,” says guest judge Lorna to Gabri. “The first thing that hit me was that smokiness, in the most beautiful way,” Gail Simmons tells Ali. And Colicchio continues to heap on the praise to May about her balance of textures and flavors; she starts to get choked up since she dedicated the dish to her mother. But after all is said and done, the winner of the challenge is Ali. That means both of the Elimination Challenges this season so far have been won by contestants from “Top Chef Middle East and North Africa” since Charbel prevailed in “London Calling.”
For the bottom chefs, the judges specifically chose the ones who prepared their rice the most poorly. Luciana’s fish was perfect and her eggs were great, but her rice didn’t have flavor and was cooked too quickly. Dawn’s rice was all crunchy and no creamy. And Sylwia’s use of vanilla salt in her rice made it too sweet for her savory dish, despite being accompanied by “incredible” stew. In the end, it’s no surprise that Dawn is eliminated since Luciana and Sylwia’s dishes had other strong elements despite the flaws with their rice components.
“I was not expecting to go home this early,” says Dawn in her exit interview. “It wasn’t in the cards for me. I made some mistakes and I have to respect that. To be included in ‘Top Chef’ season 20 World All-Stars is amazing. I lost here on this world stage, but I’m not done. I will do the absolute best I can in ‘Last Chance Kitchen.’ Tom, bring it.”
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