‘Top Chef’ 20 episode 3 recap: Chefs tried traditional dishes in ‘Cheeky Pints and Pub Bites,’ but a few had a crunch crisis

After the elimination of Dawn Burrell at the end of “Rice, Rice Baby,” the remaining 14 “Top Chef” contestants know that nobody is safe. “Second week, and we lose a very good chef,” laments Sylwia Stachyra. But there’s no rest for the weary in season 20, episode 3, “Cheeky Pints and Pub Bites.”

The 14 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), Amar Santana (California), and Nicole Gomes (Canada).

“We have a little surprise for you,” says Tom Colicchio, who talks to the gathered chefs with his fellow judge Gail Simmons. “There’s no Quickfire tomorrow.” A sense of dread rises in the room. “That’s a good thing!”

“You say so,” says an incredulous Gabri, who knows better than to expect anything as simple as a day off on “Top Chef.” “I’m afraid right now,” Charbel concurs.

“Tom and I are going to be taking you around the city to taste some of the most traditional food in London,” Gail explains. It’s going to be a pub crawl!

Luciana is excited, having lived in England for almost two decades. She’s sure this will be a challenge surrounding pub foods. But there are still nerves all around. “If you learn one thing in ‘Top Chef,’ it’s that you don’t go and have a good time. The moment you feel comfortable, they throw you in the kitchen and start screaming at you and say, ‘Cook!'” says Tom Goetter. Sara adds, “They’re not that nice. This is going to become an elimination challenge.”

Quickfire Challenge Pub Crawl

The gang gets started at the Lamb and Flag, which used to be called the Bucket of Blood because of the bare-knuckle boxing that once took place there. They’re served three dishes there: fish and chips, fisherman’s pie, and Sunday roast. The key to fish and chips is that the batter needs to be crispy — the crispier the better. Remember that, it’s going to be important later.

Charbel has his guard up. He’s taking notes instead of drinking. Tom Goetter notices the rest of the contestants are also a little wary too, “just waiting for something to happen.”

Then it’s off to the Jack Horner for their next three dishes: shepherd’s pie, steak and ale pie, and a toad in the hole. Victoire definitely doesn’t like that last one: she can hardly formulate an answer when asked about it.

Finally they visit Trafalgar Tavern for bangers and mash and a Scotch egg. Sylwia is in heaven during this pub crawl what with all the potatoes going around. She could eat mashed potatoes with everything. She could brush her teeth with potatoes.

But that’s enough jollity for the day. “It’s time to get down to business,” says Gail.

Elimination Challenge

The chefs will need to take the pub foods they’ve tried and create elevated variations of them. But wait, there’s more. Under their drinks at Trafalgar Tavern are coasters numbered one-through-seven. According to those numbers, the contestants will pair off for what is, yes, a team challenge. And both chefs on the losing team will be eliminated. So the chefs were right to brace themselves for an intense challenge.

The luck of the draw resulted in the following pairings:

Team 1: Dale and May
Team 2: Sara and Tom
Team 3: Nicole and Charbel
Team 4: Luciana and Buddha
Team 5: Ali and Amar
Team 6: Gabri and Begoña
Team 7: Victoire and Sylwia

The numbers on their coasters also determine the order in which they’ll select the dish they want to elevate. Dale and May are first up, and after some uncomfortable hesitation and hemming and hawing between them, they end up picking the Scotch egg. Dale really wanted the fish and chips, but May wasn’t budging from her preference, so he reluctantly went along with her.

Sara and Tom then pick the shepherd’s pie. Nicole and Charbel tackle the Sunday roast. Luciana and Buddha choose the fisherman’s pie. Ali and Amar are the ones who end up with the fish and chips. Gabri and Begoña take the bangers and mash. And Victoire and Sylwia opt for the toad in the hole; this last choice is also pretty contentious because Sylwia insisted on it despite Victoire not liking that dish whatsoever.

From the very beginning we can see differences in chemistry and communication. Dale and May don’t have much of either since they haven’t gotten to know each other very well this season so far. Victoire and Sylwia are also off to a bumpy start with their choice of dish. Sylwia reassures Victoire, but Victoire explains, “The last time someone said to me, don’t worry, I lost my house.”

Meanwhile, Gabri and Begoña feel perfectly matched with each other — their respective Mexican and Spanish backgrounds even give them a common language to communicate in. Amar is also overjoyed to be working with Ali. This is why I’m ambivalent about luck-of-the-draw team challenges. Collaboration is an important skill for a chef to demonstrate, but you might lose good contestants to an unlucky mismatch rather than simply a failure of cooking. Doomed by a roll of the dice — or a roll of the coasters, as it were.

There are some minor dustups as the teams plan on day one and cook on day two. For starters, May wants to try something different with their Scotch egg, but Dale insists on a more straightforward preparation, something simple and safe to get them through the challenge. Alarm bells go off here for anyone who has ever watched reality television. In creative competitions, trying to play it safe is actually a dangerous risk; judges often prefer contestants who take a big swing and miss over contestants who play it safe and fail to impress.

On the day of the cook, a few other little dramas arise. Buddha and Luciana have a disagreement over potatoes: he thinks they need to be redone, but she thinks they’re fine. She ends up relenting and following Buddha’s lead. We’ll see how the judges receive their meal.

Elsewhere, Sylwia and Victoire work through their language barrier — “I don’t speak perfect English, but I speak food,” says Victoire. Nicole is upset because someone took her pre-heating muffin tins out of the oven and no one will respond to her when she asks them not to do that. Amar and Ali have no problems communicating with each other, but their fish is coming out too soft; the batter isn’t crispy enough. Remember what Tom Colicchio said about that earlier?

Meal Service

Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, and Gail Simmons sit down with guest judge Brett Graham, the director of London’s only Michelin-star pub. Sylwia and Victoire are first to serve them with their interpretation of a toad in the hole: African-spiced sausage and Yorkshire pancakes. It’s not a traditional presentation, but it’s flavorful. And while Tom thinks it’s a little too sweet, Brett considers it warm, delicious, and nicely seasoned.

Then come Gabri and Begoña with their “bangers and mash”: pork belly with potato foam mash. Their dish doesn’t resemble the inspiration at all, but the flavors are all there, and Padma practically licks her plate clean. Ali and Amar’s fish and chips-inspired dish is seaweed battered cod with malt vinegar fries. The only major problem — and it’s a big one — is indeed the cakey and dense batter. It’s not crispy at all, so to Tom, “The whole thing becomes disappointing.”

Luciana thinks her dish with Buddha “looks stunning, it looks like a piece of art,” which is par for the course for Buddha judging from his aesthetically pleasing work in season 19. Their fisherman’s pie take-off is cod with seafood and potatoes, pomme puree, and mussels. It’s a big hit with the judges. The fish was cooked amazingly well, it tastes just like fish pie, and the onions were pickled and flavorful. Perhaps these are our winners?

Tom and Sara’s shepherd’s pie has lamb dust, peas, and lamb stock-infused carrots. It’s totally delicious, though maybe a little over-seasoned. But it would be a great restaurant dish, isn’t too far from the original, and is well-balanced.

Then there are Dale and May. He looks around and sees that the other chefs have gone very fine-dining with their meals while his team delivered a very literal interpretation of a Scotch egg. He says he’s not worried about the contrast, but I think him saying that shows his worry. On the plus side, the judges love the beautifully cooked egg, but like Amar and Ali’s fish and chips, their crust isn’t crispy enough and needed to be cooked longer.

Charbel and Nicole are last. Their Sunday roast is pork tenderloin with leek fondue and Yorkshire pudding. The judges have mixed feelings about it, including the choice of pork tenderloin as their protein. But everything else is cooked well, and the pudding by itself saves the dish.

Judges’ Table

Padma calls the following teams before the tribunal: Dale and May, Luciana and Buddha, Amar and Ali, and Gabri and Begoña. Unsurprisingly, the teams with the best dishes were Luciana and Buddha and Gabri and Begoña. That means the poorest teams were Dale and May and Amar and Ali.

Brett praises Gabri and Begoña for transporting him back to childhood memories, and Padma marvels at how Luciana and Buddha make her like a dish she doesn’t normally like at all. But ultimately, the team with the winning dish was … Luciana and Buddha! That gives both of them their first win of the season. Three Elimination Challenges with four different champs. This season is indeed highly competitive.

It’s so competitive that the two losing teams actually made meals with good flavors and some strong technique. They both simply failed to execute one crucial detail: neither dish was crispy enough. That’s all it takes to get you axed from the competition at this elite level. And ultimately, as I kind of expected from the foreshadowing earlier in the episode, Dale and May are the team eliminated. Repeat after me: Playing. It. Safe. Is. Never. Safe.

Dale says in his exit interview, “Going home at this point is devastating and just so disappointing over something as stupid as a Scotch egg. But I always try to lead by example for my son, for my staff. I’m never scared to take risks, and this is essentially a big risk to come here. And I went for it, and this time it didn’t work out.”

May says upon her exit, “I’m sad because I didn’t show them all of my talent, all I have. I’m still proud of myself, standing among the great chefs of the ‘Top Chef’ world.”

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