Wednesday, December 6, 2023

‘Top Chef’ 20 episode 4 recap: ‘Spurred Lines’ was a team challenge that pitted friends against each other

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Last week’s “Top Chef” episode, “Cheeky Pints and Pub Bites,” ended with the tense double elimination of Dale MacKay and May Phattanant Thongthong. But episode four was no less tense, no less emotional, and no less competitive. So what happened when the chefs competed on the soccer pitch in “Spurred Lines”? Read on to find out.

The 12 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), Sylwia Stachyra (Poland), Luciana Berry (Brazil), Begoña Rodrigo (Spain), Buddha Lo (Houston), Tom Goetter (Germany), Gabriel Rodriguez (Mexico), Amar Santana (California), and Nicole Gomes (Canada).

Quickfire Challenge

Not much time to recover from the double elimination. The following morning they’re thrown right back into the kitchen with guest judge Paul A. Young, a pastry chef and chocolatier whose “Austin Powers” vibe makes Gabri swoon. For their Quickfire Challenge they’ll have to make a traditional British treat. A biscuit … actually two biscuits, one sweet and one savory. And not those nonsense American biscuits that Buddha thinks are really scones. These will be English biscuits, which are more like cookies thank you very much.

“There’s a process to it that takes time,” says Amar, who isn’t sure how they’ll manage to prepare the dough and bake them properly in only 45 minutes. But somehow they’ll have to manage. They all do so differently, though. Luciana plans on a buttery Brazilian cookie with both sweet and savory biscuits coming from the same dough. Tom takes a risk, making a dough that will need to be frozen — enough time for that?

“We don’t bake in Congo,” protests Victoire, who thus takes her inspiration from Italy. Nicole takes a chance with rose, realizing that she needs to find just the right balance because too much of it is like eating soap. Looking around, Ali worries about all the complex flavors he sees taking shape all around him. He makes biscuits with a simpler profile, hoping that will distinguish him, and he stares intently at the oven until he’s sure they’re baked perfectly. Like, he stands inches away from the oven staring at them. He looks like he’s stalking his own biscuits.

But maybe he has the right idea. Nicole has to hope her second dough is thin enough that it bakes in under 15 minutes. And Victoire switches ovens because her biscuits aren’t cooking fast enough — and then she overcooks them. The biscuit watcher doesn’t seem so crazy now, does he?

Indeed, when the judges taste Victoire’s biscuits, one needs more gluten to hold it together while the other is overcooked bordering on burnt. Amar’s, however, makes just the right sound for an English biscuit. Tom is another story, though. He hates dry cookies, so he made what is essentially a cake. “It’s a nice cake, but we asked for a biscuit,” Young scolds. Charbel indirectly throws a bit of shade right after; he’s not a fan of biscuits either, “but we’re on ‘Top Chef,’ we have to adapt.”

Ali’s biscuits go over well; they’re nice and dunkable and have good crunch. Luciana’s gives them a nice cheesy cookie. Begoña’s is “very fresh.” Nicole’s have just the right look and “melts in the mouth.” In the end, Victoire had one of the worst pairs of biscuits, as did Gabri with his too-soft and too-sweet corn biscuits, and of course Tom, who seemed to ignore the challenge entirely. The best were Nicole, Ali, and Luciana, with the ultimate victor being … Ali! That gives him immunity for the Elimination Challenge and much-needed redemption.

“I almost lost, and then I won again,” says Ali, who was on the bottom last week and almost eliminated. “To be honest, guys, I have no idea how to explain it. When it comes to ‘Top Chef’ I’m always speechless because it means a lot to me.”

Elimination Challenge

Time for the main event, which is introduced with a bouncing soccer ball — or football to those who live anywhere besides the United States. After a much-needed night off tonight, they will meet Padma Lakshmi and company at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

The competitors bond over dinner — Sara revealing she actually has a degree in statistics and psychology, Charbel confessing that he got his start as a hairdresser, and Victoire revealing the rampant racism she experienced when she started cooking school in Italy after moving there from Congo. The other cheftestants marvel at her telling that story of her life in a language — English — that she has only known for a few months. “It’s amazing and so impressive that we’re here today,” says Charbel. “Cheers for that!”

Okay, fun’s over. The following morning the chefs arrive at the stadium, “the largest club football stadium in London,” Padma tells us. Then she explains the actual parameters of the elimination challenge, which are a little complicated.

The 12 chefs will break off into four teams of three. The chefs get to choose their own teammates, so they divide into Begoña, Luciana, and Gabri; Charbel, Sylwia, and Sara; Victoire, Amar, and Nicole; and Buddha, Tom, and Ali. Everyone tried to avoid Ali like the plague. “I actually didn’t want Ali on the team even though I do like him,” Buddha confesses after the other groups have formed. “He’s got immunity, and it’s going to suck if we end up on the bottom.”

Then Padma explains the rules. There will be three rounds of 45-minute matches.

Round One: Two head-to-head team battles where the chefs have to cook with a traditional British ingredient. In each case, the winning team is totally safe from elimination and can rest easy.

Round Two: The two losing teams will face each other. Whichever one wins will also be safe from elimination.

Round Three: Here’s where things get really dicey. The members of the last losing team will have to cook against each other, with the weakest dish being eliminated from the competition.

That’s an especially tough proposition for Begoña, Luciana, and Gabri, who grouped together in large part because of their friendship and might ultimately have to defeat each other for survival. You know, there was a “Squid Game” challenge exactly like that. There were marbles involved. And a lot of crying. Slightly more bloodshed than I’d expect from “Top Chef,” depending on how badly the losing chefs want to stick around.

The teams draw knives to determine the ingredient they’ll be working with, and those ingredients will also determine which team they’re going up against. The green and red teams draw the strong Stilton cheese, so they’ll battle it out. The purple and yellow teams draw the milder Wensleydale cheese, putting them in direct competition with each other.

There’s a little conflict on the red team, with Nicole remembering how aggressive she’s been on “Top Chef” team challenges in the past. “I’m not like that anymore. I’ve kind of matured,” she assures us, though Victoire is a little put off by her intensity.

Victoire is put off a lot more, though, by the walnuts Nicole is preparing, which no one told her about. Victoire is allergic, you see, so she ends up having a sneezing fit and losing her voice. But she’s determined not to stop. “Finish your dish, and you can die,” she says. As time runs out she’s ushered away from the deadly ingredient by medical professionals and gets what I presume is a quick shot of epinephrine. On the plus side, she gets to wait on the sidelines and not have to stand before the judges.

The red and green Stilton teams are the first to present to the judges, red with duck breast, roasted fruit, and Stilton butter jus (plus those walnuts), and green with poached egg with Stilton foam. The red team wins by unanimous decision; the greens’ flavors got a little “muddled” and it was all too much of the same texture.

Then the yellow and purple Wensleydale teams present. Yellow comes with braised onion with Wensleydale cheese puree. Purple presents Cauliflower Welsh rarebit with cheese sauce and cheese puree — cheese, cheese, cheese! That heavy emphasis on the cheese results in a win for the purple team. Padma voted for yellow, but the other judges thought that dish had too much spice that took away from the flavor of the main ingredient.

So Buddha and Tom are in that terrifying position they didn’t want to be in, at risk of landing at the very bottom and having to go head-to-head while Ali cashes in his Quickfire immunity. Tom looks over at his opponents, who are “a beast of a team: three ‘Top Chef’ winners, and one runs a Michelin star restaurant in Spain. F*ck my life!”

Bramley apples are the main ingredient for round two. Green decides to load up on the fruit since they didn’t use enough Stilton in the previous round. The yellow team, which had the same problem in round one, has the same idea for round two, though the teams are otherwise quite different in their preparations. Green goes savory with a crab and apple cannelloni, while yellow opts for dessert with a Bramley apple tart. The result by a unanimous decision: yellow wins!

So the good news is that Tom and Buddha have escaped their worst nightmare. The bad news is that Begoña, Luciana, and Gabri have entered their worst nightmare. I like all three of them and all three of them like each other, so this is a particularly tough final round to watch. Begoña, for instance, feels “like shit. I don’t want either one of them going home.”

Someone must, though, so they do their best with the final key ingredient: English peas. And it’s a tough call for the judges between Begoña’s cream of peas with creme fraiche, Luciana’s scallop carpaccio, and Gabri’s sautéed peas and cured beets. On one hand, Begoña and Gabri undercooked their peas while Luciana prepared the main ingredient just right. On the other hand, Luciana’s dish didn’t highlight enough of the flavor of the peas. In the end, the judges decide to eliminate Luciana. It’s the saddest elimination so far, because we’re getting to know these chefs better each week and because it’s clear how close this group has become.

“Today for me was a bit hard,” says Luciana in her exit interview. “Being so close with Gabri and Begoña, this last challenge was a bit difficult. In brazil, we don’t eat much peas. But it’s still with a bit of hope because I’m going to ‘Last Chance Kitchen’ … My knives are all sharpened and I’m ready to remove my earrings and to start chopping.”

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