In the world of scripted TV, the term “bottle episode” refers to a show that’s primarily set in only one location. Sometimes done out of a desire to conserve a season’s production budget, they also produce drama that makes for memorable television, as in Mad Men’s famous “The Suitcase” or Breaking Bad’s memorable “Fly.”
It’s impossible to know whether Top Chef’s producers made a similar financial decision when they planned Episode 4, but it certainly felt like a very intimate affair. After last week’s night market-inspired Elimination Challenge that required the cheftestants to feed 100 hungry Houstonians, this week’s show took place entirely in the Top Chef kitchen (save for a trip to the grocery store) with a meal served to only five judges.
The Elimination Challenge tasked teams of two chefs each to create dishes that looked identical but tasted completely different. Both members of the losing had to pack their knives. While the task had nothing at all to do with Houston — guest judge Wylie Dufresne led New York's legendary modernist restaurant wd-50 — it did knock out two chefs who seemed to be in it for the long haul.
Let’s break down the show from a Houston perspective by highlighting the local people and places who appeared in the episode. Then we’ll check in on the progress of local cheftestant Evelyn Garcia and keep track of the overall competition.
The only local to appear in this week’s episode is Lucille’s Hospitality Group chef-owner Chris Williams, who judges this week’s Quickfire Challenge. In introducing him, host Padma Lakshmi hails the charitable work Williams has done throughout the pandemic via the Lucille’s 1913 non-profit that feeds needy Houstonians.
Inspired by his great-grandmother Lucille B. Smith’s signature chili biscuits, Williams tasks the chefs with creating a dish that utilizes scratch-made biscuits and another component in just 45 minutes.
CultureMap had the opportunity to witness this challenge and spoke to Williams before he sampled the contestants’ creations. Asked about his judging criteria, Williams knew what to look for.
“Biscuits is more like a feeling. I’m not that serious about the technique. It’s true comfort food,” he said. “What’s interesting is maybe only 40 percent of the people have made them before. That sucks for you. I know there’s going to be a bunch of overworked biscuits.”
As Williams predicted, some of the cheftestants displayed very poor technique. Ashleigh Shanti made the bizarre decision to fry her biscuits, and Buddha Lo, already criticized for last week’s poorly executed puff pastry, earned Williams’ ire for a too-crumbly texture. They’re joined in the bottom by chef Jae Jung.
Williams awarded first place to Jackson Kalb, who continues his winning ways despite not having his full sense of taste or smell. Instead of immunity, he won the right to pick his partner and an extra 30 minutes to complete the Elimination Challenge.
How did Evelyn Garcia do
The episode starts off well for the only Houstonian in the competition. Williams tells chef Evelyn her biscuits with poached egg and chorizo gravy were “wonderful.” She finished just behind chef Jackson in the Quickfire.
Unfortunately, it’s all down hill from there. Teaming up with fellow Texan Jo Chan, the duo struggled in the Elimination Challenge. Evelyn prepared a goat cheese cheesecake with cardamom chocolate sauce, sesame crumble, apples, and matcha that matched the look of Jo’s crispy pork belly with cauliflower puree, crispy garlic, and daikon relish with five spice glaze. Although the two dishes look similar, Evelyn’s cheesecake gets flagged as too sweet, while Colicchio described Jo’s dish as “pork belly leather.” They’re named as one of the two worst teams and face elimination.
Not surprisingly, chefs with fine dining pedigrees shined. Chefs Luke Kolpin and Ashleigh Shanti earned praise for their duo of king oyster mushroom with pickled cucumber, carrot puree, and mushroom seaweed oil broth matched with scallop with compressed honeydew, kanzuri, toasted walnut and apple cider broth.
After struggling with biscuits, Buddha Lo bounced back. Working with Jackson, they created a duo of salmon tartare with capers, shallots, cream cheese bavarois, marinated tomato, and buttermilk-scallion dressing paired with white chocolate panna cotta with strawberry jelly, strawberry bon bons, and cream and basil dressing. Not only do the dishes look alike, the judges raved about the creative flavors and complex textures in each dish. They’re the night’s big winners.
Who goes home
Typically, the winners of the first Elimination Challenge are chefs to watch, but problematic technique led to two of week one's winners packing their knives. Chef Sarah Welch’s shrimp sausage terrine with brown butter brioche crumble and compressed cucumber and pepper sauce looked similar enough to chef Robert Hernandez’s strawberry panna cotta with creme fraiche and Japanese brown sugar crumble, but the judges found fault with the texture of both dishes. Sarah’s terrine was too tight, and Robert’s panna cotta didn’t set properly. Their technical flaws allow Evenlyn and Jo to remain in the competition.
Who exceeded expectations
Outside of the winners, Damarr Brown remains one of this season’s chefs to watch. He already won both the Quickfire and Elimination Challenge in episode two. His dish of chicken liver mousse sandwiched between slices of cornbread with dukkah and tomato chili jam looked to be one of the night’s most intriguing bites.