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Top Chef: Wisconsin Recap: Family Reunion Time

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Photo: David Moir/Bravo

I love broth. Give me pho; give me a loaf of bread to sop up mussel juice; give me French onion soup, which is almost good enough to make me forgive the French for their rampant Islamophobia. I also love an episode of Top Chef in which the chefs are experiencing new challenges together. As the audience, we really get a sense of what flavors and techniques they gravitate toward when they’re approaching something they’ve never done before. “Door County Fish Boil” had broth content and chef-creativity content, which made for a pretty solid episode.

More than two months in, we’re getting the most distinctly Wisconsin-influenced of the season so far, and it starts off with a Quickfire inspired by the local tradition of the “meat raffle.” (Here’s some more about the tavern tradition.) Guest judge Art Smith (or, as Michelle calls him, a “fancy Santa Claus full of food knowledge”) rolls out a mini spinner wheel and a table of different meat options. In this challenge inspired by the “meat raffle” tradition, Kristen will pull a name from the wheel, that person gets to choose a meat from the table, and they’ll need to make a dish for Kristen, Tom, and Gail that focuses on the protein. In order: Manny takes wagyu ribeye; Dan, chateaubriand beef; Michelle, ground chicken; Savannah, corned beef tin (a decision that shocks everyone); Danny, lamb chop; and Soo, luncheon meat.

Savannah, who compares corned beef with dog food, has the most uphill battle, but she’s convinced she can improve the texture. (Full disclosure: I love corned beef, but only in a diner scenario; I am not brave enough to cook it at home.) Elsewhere, there are little problems throughout the kitchen: Michelle gets her chicken nugget in the fryer very late; Danny is struggling to cut his lamb chops; Manny is doing aguachile, because WHY. Why??? There was nothing else to do with wagyu ribeye than turn it into I Think You Should Leave’s sloppy steaks? Tim Robinson, what have you wrought? (All judgments aside, I respect Manny for saying he chose what he cooked based on wanting to eat the leftovers himself; relatable king.)

All dishes get sorted into “high” and “low” categories; there’s no hiding in the middle anymore. In the former category are Soo’s take on the Korean dosirak, or packed lunch, with jasmine rice, luncheon meat, brussel sprouts kimchi, and marinated egg yolks, and Savannah’s crispy corned beef with golden beets and pickled celery. Tom is amazed by how crispy Savannah got the beef, and she ends up with the win and $10,000. Everyone else is on the least favorite side of things. Kristen says Manny’s wagyu ribeye aguachile had too much acid, and they couldn’t taste the meat. Danny’s za’atar lamb was over-rested, and Tom criticizes Danny for trying to turn the naturally sweet Jimmy Nardello pepper into a spicy condiment instead of just using an actual spicy pepper. Kristen criticizes Dan’s Sichuan chateaubriand noodle dumpling for not having enough meat, and she doesn’t even eat Michelle’s jerk chicken nugget because hers was raw in the middle.

The majority of chefs are on their back foot going into the Elimination challenge, which — like the meat raffle — most of them are unfamiliar with, save for local boy Dan. As soon as Kristen says the words “fish boil,” Dan’s reaction is immediate disdain, but she has to explain it for everyone else. A fish boil is basically similar to a shrimp boil, crawfish boil, or any other low country boil, but with whitefish instead of shellfish, and it used to be an economical way to feed large groups of workers. Potatoes, onions, and fresh whitefish are all boiled together, and then a bunch of kerosene is thrown on the flame to make the kettle boil over and dump out all the scum from the fish that would otherwise remain on top of the mixture. There is a “fish boil master” named Torch who will help the chefs with the boiling-over part of the Elimination challenge, and this man is treating this episode like his Olympics. He is taking it so seriously, I don’t think he ever takes off his sunglasses. (I am not sure he actually got to eat the fish boils? He should have been on the judging panel!)

Everyone looks a little wary of this challenge, because there’s not much to hide behind; they all have to cook the same whitefish the same way. But I think this is a great Elimination for how it equalizes the chefs. They each get the opportunity to differentiate themselves via two side dishes, but otherwise they have to plan a meal that puts their own culinary style forward while still operating within firm restrictions; they can’t get too fancy with techniques in only two or so hours of cooking on the beach. And look! Six Top Chef All Stars are there to help the chefs plan and shop: Gregory Gourdet from seasons 12 and 17; Shota Nakajima from season 18; Mei Lin, winner of season 12; Sara Bradley from seasons 16 and 20; Justin Sutherland from season 16; and Jeremy Ford, winner of season 13. The All Stars draw knives randomly, pairing off Gregory and Soo, Mei and Manny, Sara and Michelle, Justin and Danny, Jeremy and Dan, and Savannah and Shota. Because the All Stars will shop for the chefs, the latter group won’t know if they got all the ingredients they wanted until they get to Grant Park Beach the next day. Dramatic!

Most everyone is focused on making a flavorful broth so their fish is well-seasoned. The side dishes present more difficulty, though: Mei thinks Manny isn’t being ambitious enough by using store-bought tortillas for his chips and guacamole, while Gregory can’t wrap his head around Soo pairing Thai flavors with a fennel and apple slaw. The next day at the beach, everyone unpacks their groceries, and Soo realizes that Gregory didn’t get a few of the ingredients he was banking on — Gregory got him curry powder instead of curry paste, which means his broth won’t be as densely flavored, and Whole Foods didn’t have fennel, so a main component in his slaw is absent. Things aren’t looking great for Soo or Savannah, who slices her hand open while deboning the fish, injuring herself badly enough that she’s totally thrown off from her cooking groove.

Two hours fly by, and suddenly Torch is on the scene, lighting firebombs and boiling over kettle after kettle so the chefs can serve their food to the six All Stars; Kristen, Tom, Gail, and Art; and 100 diners. It’s a very up-and-down service, with three clear standouts. Danny is the only chef to brine his fish before boiling it, which turns out to be a very smart move to pack it with flavor; his sofrito boil with salsa verde, carrot slaw, and french bean and bonito mayo salad is a big hit. The judges also like Dan’s red curry boil, slaw with coconut milk, herbs, and peanuts, and his fingerling potatoes with duck fat and shirodashi oil. Dan may hate fish boils from his years of working them, but he overcomes his own dislike to succeed here. And Gail says Michelle’s fish and sides have a cohesion that the other dishes did not; her Cajun-spiced boil with peach and garlic butter sauce, potatoes and sausage, and charred corn salad is well-received by everyone.

But where there’s good, there must also be … not so good. Savannah’s fish with baby potatoes covered in kimchi gochujang butter and smashed tofu salad with Asian pear are a mess; deboning the fish meant it fell apart when boiled, and Gail says the salad “disintegrates.” Soo also gets mixed marks for his fish with pineapple curry, twice-cooked potatoes, and crispy corn miso slaw. Gail loves his charred pineapple and fish sauce beurre blanc (and we see diners toasting with it), but the judges compare his slaw with sawdust, and Kristen says nothing about his plate “looked appetizing.” And while Manny gets some praise for putting beer into his boiling liquid and being the only chef to serve citrus wedges to squeeze over his fish, nearly everyone thinks his Mexican rice with corn, butter with chipotle and lime, and tortilla chips and guacamole were too safe.

At Judges’ Table, Danny, Michelle, and Dan are praised and certainly seem like they could be our three finalists; I thought Michelle was going to pull this one out for her dish being called a “perfect summer story,” but instead, Danny gets the win, and Tom says his dish was the “unanimously the favorite” among the judges and All Stars. Of the bottom three, Savannah’s winning Quickfire saves her from elimination; Tom gives Manny a stern “swing for the fences” talking-to; and Kristen tells Soo to pack his knives. Kudos to Soo for poker-facing through some of the meanest things the judges have said this season: Tom calls his dish “a potluck,” Kristen says it resembled “a raw casserole.” Yikes. I didn’t vibe with a lot of what Soo made (and I stand by my “it was clearly a conspiracy that he kept winning in Last Chance Kitchen” theory), but ultimately, I think he got a tough deal. Rather than being forced to compete through LCK, he should have been part of the pool of competitors from the beginning, and I hope Top Chef doesn’t keep this change for future seasons. Start with 16 chefs, it’s really fine.

Assorted amuse-bouche

• Tom hat watch: The beach was such a perfect opportunity. ???

• The cook-on-the-beach aspect of this week’s Quickfire challenge really took me back to the All-Stars L.A. season, the premiere of which included a broadly similar task — the chefs had to divide into two teams and cook a multi-course seafood feast on the beach with no access to electricity. I simply could not do this; the threat of getting sand in your food is too high! This is why beach snacks, I think, should be entirely self-contained things, like snack-size bags of chips, fun-size candy bars, or grapes on the vine so you can chomp them off with your teeth. Or the Choco Taco, a perfect beach food that will apparently be reborn this summer at … Taco Bell?

• The dishes I most wanted to eat this episode: Savannah’s corned beef salad and Dan’s fish boil.

• Gail’s mushroom-patterned blouse: I want it. I must find it.

• Don’t get gout, Manny! We need you healthy! (Remember when Kyle Kinane had gout? We need him healthy, too!)

• Justin getting Danny a bath bomb and himself a candle using the Quickfire’s $500 budget was hilarious.

• LAST CHANCE KITCHEN SPOILERS AHEAD: It’s finale time, and it’s a two-parter. Soo joins Laura and Amanda, and Kristen joins Tom on the judging panel for “Part 1”: The chefs must use ingredients and techniques from seven Quickfire challenges in one dish. Hops, cherries, a sauce, cranberries, dairy, and meat from this episode’s meat raffle options all have to be featured, and flambé has to be used … in 30 minutes. Amanda serves a wagyu ribeye smoked with hops and cherrywood, a potato puree, and cherry and cranberry relish. Soo does a play on Thanksgiving with a sourdough puree with hops, chateaubriand rolled in porcini and hop dust, cranberry and cherry sauce, and compressed carrots and celery. And Laura makes wagyu kabobs, with a baba ganoush made with cheese and yogurt, cranberry relish, and zhoug sauce made with hops. Of the three, Soo seems the most scattered in approach (Kristen makes a hilariously disgusted face as he describes “bread puree”; Tom doesn’t like the raw vegetables on top of his dish), and he ends up eliminated. In “Part 2,” Laura and Amanda have an easier go of it: They just have to make the best dish they can and serve it to Tom, Kristen, and third judge Mei. Amanda uses her already-made potato puree for a gnocchi dough, which she pairs with a shrimp boil-inspired sauce featuring corn, onions, and scallops. Laura mimics a dish from her restaurant menu, cooking artichokes, mushrooms, and other vegetables in olive oil (Turkish style, or zeytinyağlı) and serving them alongside a crab salad. The judges compliment both dishes, but ultimately choose Laura to return to Top Chef because Amanda’s gnocchi had a gummy, chewy texture that they didn’t like.

• The crab in Laura’s dish is described as “gently dressed,” and now I am imagining a little well-to-do cartoon crab with a cardigan and a monocle. He could hang out with Frog and Toad!

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Roxana Hadadi , 2024-05-23 04:46:20

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