Welcome to Talking Top Chef, a weekly blog where we review the latest episode from the best reality show on TV. Shortly after the season premiere last month, I discovered Top Chef is extremely popular at Sports Illustrated. From The Crossover writers to our very own managing editor, this show is loved by so many over here. (Even Rob Gronkowski's been on it!)
And why shouldn’t it be? It has everything: Amazing food, intense competition, plus the chefs are insanely talented but more often than not they can also be erratic and unpredictable, which makes for great entertainment.
As a result, we decided the logical move would to be start reviewing the show here at SI Eats. So let’s get down to business.
Season 15, Episode Five; “This is not Glamping”
One of my favorite things about this show is how it throws a curve ball every single season. And in this episode, there were quite a few.
As the chefs entered the Top Chef kitchen, they were caught in the middle of an all-out Last Chance Kitchen battle as three contestants (Kwame Onwuachi from season 13, Lee Anne Wong from season one, and Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, who was eliminated in the second week of this current season) were cooking to get back in. The challenge? “Cook with your guts” and make a dish using internal organs and entrails.
WHAT. IS. HAPPENING.
Each one of them was laser-focused, especially Lee Anne, who, by the way, is three-months pregnant. Don’t mess with a pregnant woman's willpower.
Once they were done, Tom Colicchio had a really tough time picking a winner from Claudette’s Picadillo tetela with chicken livers, cherries and Oaxacan mole mother sauce, Kwame’s chicken heart sofrito with crispy shallots, confit potatoes, potato tostones and chicken gremolata or Lee Anne’s beef river dumplings with garlic, shallots, Shoyu, ginger and chili oil.
This was an insane LCK task so major props to all three, but in the end there can only be one winner….or maybe not?
After eliminating Kwame, Tom picked both Claudette AND Lee Anne to get back in the competition. Things just got REAL. Claudette is a machine and really driven but personally, I think Lee Anne has a genuine chance to win it all. Her experience and legend status makes her an immediate favorite.
Since both ladies just went through hell and back, Padma announces there is no quick-fire challenge this week.
[WIDE SHOT ON EVERYONE EXHALING]
But after finding out that the main challenge is camping and cooking in the woods, the excitement level dropped to a minus.
Cue Tanya: “I hate camping. I’ve already been sleeping in bunk beds for weeks, and now I gotta sleep on the ground? This is not how I roll.”
Did I mention that I love Tanya?
In all honesty, though, this challenge seems extremely difficult. Contestants have to create a five-star meal using only limited ingredients and camping equipment. Aside from the fact that the outdoors come with their own problems already, the limit on what you can cook in the first place makes it that much harder.
Oh and then Padma ends it with, “stay warm, because it’s looking like it’s going to snow.”
Yeah, this isn’t going to be fun.
After Padma and Tom leave, contestants have 20 minutes to pick their ingredients from the pantry and once the clock starts, it’s an all-out race. Eggs break, things fall on the floor and Brother crashes into the table knocking everything down. Game on, folks.
As food is collected and menus created, Carrie announces she is making a cake.
I love Carrie so much, but this is a major gamble, especially, since…you know…there’s no oven to work with! Carrie seems confident, though, and the fact that she’s familiar with the outdoors due to her Idaho upbringing, it could give her a huge advantage.
After collecting everything they need, the chefs head to the Colorado Mountains and the first thing Fatima notices (now my favorite contestant after overtaking Chris ever so slightly) is that there is a lot of snow, and you can sense she is not feeling great about this one.
The first stop is the outdoor gear store (is that what you call it? I don’t know, guys. I’m Latino, I don’t do camping in the snow) and Fatima’s patience is thinning by the second.
“I’m not looking forward to going camping” she says. “Camping is so not a thing in Pakistan. I mean, I’m sure people do it. I haven’t done it.”
“I don’t like the snow.”
“I don’t like bugs.”
“I’ve never slept in a sleeping bag.”
“Can I back out? Is it too late.”
Did I mention that Fatima rules all?
The contestants arrive in the camping site and it's covered in snow (at least three feet deep) so before anything else, they have to clean up their cooking areas and put up their tents.
PRODUCER: Have you ever set up a tent before?
FATIMA (deadpan, straight face): WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Carrie, by the way, is helping everyone get set up as she’s surrounded by city folk. Claudette does not take her help for granted. “I’m pretty sure that if she wasn’t here, we’d be sleeping outside on the ground.”
As the sun falls, the chefs begin their prep work and as if things couldn’t get more annoying for them, good ol' Tom shows up with the guest judges. That’s always been the toughest part for a chef in the show, in my opinion. You’re sweating away, freaking out over your meal, second-guessing every single ingredient while nervously staring at the clock and just when you’re about to scream because you don’t think you can take it anymore….Tom shows up.
And remember when I said I was worried about Carrie and her cake? Well, she’s completely MacGyvering this one as she created an oven underground in the snow.
WE ARE NOT WORTHY, CARRIE.
A special shout out to Bruce who is making cavatelli pasta, but because he doesn’t have his special board in order to roll them, he uses the ridges on the mandoline slicer. They look amazing. We’ll see if they live up to its aesthetic appeal.
The time is here and the judges arrive at Estes Park. Today’s decision makers include Padma, Tom, Gail Simmons (my favorite judge), Naomi Pomeroy from Oregon’s BEAST restaurant, and Zenda Smith, the park’s campgrounds manager and Leif Andersen, a park representative. Both have good palates.
In the end, Carrie’s cake came out great. She made a maple and pine nut upside down cake with strawberry, rhubarb, raspberry and blueberry jam and the judges loved it.
Bruce’s egg yolk cavatelli, wild boar sugo, roasted ramps, carrots and fresh ricotta was also a huge winner. So happy for him, it’s been a rough few weeks for one of the Bears, but this should be a huge confidence booster. Lee Anne’s goose confit, goose cracklings, fiddlehead ferns with black garlic and fruit sauce also killed it.
The winner? BRUCE!
“I feel like I’ve broken a bad streak. Every day I’m gonna come in and I’m gonna cook the food the way I know how to cook it,” he said, “and everybody needs to watch out cause now I’m gonna be on fire.”
Tu, unfortunately, lost this one. He made a rabbit in three ways (soy poached hind leg with carrot duxelles, loin medallions, fried foreleg with Szechuan gastrique) and the judges felt it was just too much at a time when simplicity was the name of the game. Cooking rabbit is not easy, but doing it outside? Man, that’s just torture.
All in all, this was a tough challenge and really tested everyone’s skills, but as Gail said afterwards, the more limits you give them, the better they cook.
My top three favorites after episode five:
See y’all next week.