‘Top Chef: Wisconsin’ Recap, Episode 6: ‘Chaos Cuisine’


Top Chef

Chaos Cuisine

Season 21

Episode 6

Editor’s Rating

3 stars

Photo: Bravo

I sympathized with Michelle this week. I’ve seen The Bear, I love The Bear, and I have and will continue to watch Matthy Matheson and Ebon Moss-Bachrach heckle each other in the show and celebratorily kiss each other in real life for many, many minutes of my life. But what the hell is Matty talking about in “Chaos Cuisine”? What is it??? My beloved Neil Fak used a lot of words to basically tell the cheftestants, “Cook something weird and make it look fucked up,” but that kind of oblique freedom can be more constrictive than liberating if it’s not precisely communicated, and I don’t think it was. Michelle’s confusion is my confusion, and I really believe that she didn’t get sent home (despite being in the bottom two for serving Kristen raw pork and Tom burnt pita) because she pinpointed the episode’s inherent vagaries and reflected how her uncertainty was really a larger flaw of the Elimination’s structure.

Of course, the judges can do whatever they want. I am old enough to remember when Nicholas Elmi won season 11 for some reason! But I’m not a fan of Top Chef unleashing an Elimination challenge on the cheftestants that host Kristen can’t even really explain. Nor am I a fan of the challenge being so broad that it allows for the judges to seemingly criticize at random whatever they want about the dishes when I don’t think it was clear that the judges expected many different kinds of chaos all in one dish, from conception to execution to plating. Recall that “The Wright Way” Elimination challenge was also this amorphous, and the judging in that episode felt wacky, too. So do I think Michelle probably should have gone home for her dish, which looked like a sad you-pick-two duo from a Panera in a Vietnamese airport and which Tom described as “meh”? Yes, probably. But this season of Top Chef is really trying to swerve us, and sending home early frontrunner Rasika is a swerve.

Let’s back up to talk about how the episode starts, which is Kaleena and Soo showing up at the cheftestants’ hotel to oppositional responses. People seem happy to see Kaleena again (Savannah especially; I did not realize they were tight?) but immediately suspicious of Soo (particularly Danny, who the editors keep cutting to for his obvious stank face). Dan recognizes Soo from the Chicago restaurant scene, and he’s friendly and welcoming, but overall, the response to the “secret surprise 16th chef” is understandably muted! Here’s another person they all have to beat, and in the Top Chef kitchen for the Quickfire challenge, Kristen explains that the stakes are actually higher now because Soo and Kaleena both being back in the competition means that the judges can in the future decide to send two judges home at the same time to balance the numbers out.

Everyone’s freaked out, and it’s a jarring transition from that anxiety to Christina Tosi of Milk Bar showing up in a baby-pink jumpsuit and wheeling out a tray of dairy-based desserts popular in the Midwest, like cream puffs, kringle pastry, and frozen custard. (My personal thoughts on Milk Bar: It’s fine. I, too, love sprinkles, but I don’t enjoy that their mass-produced grocery-store items heavily use palm oil, an ingredient which for years was pretty crummy for the environment.) The Quickfire challenge from Christina and Kristen is to make a dessert featuring dairy, and the cheftestants can use it for flavor or texture; the winner gets $7,500. It’s long been a Top Chef trope that the contestants struggle when it comes to dessert. We get some of that through Manny, who admits that desserts are a personal challenge for him, but he’s been practicing churros, and Dan, who has a go-to chocolate pudding recipe, but it’s vegan and doesn’t use dairy. More optimistic are Danny, whose wife is a pastry chef and who he’s using as an inspiration, and Amanda, who’s working on a cheddar biscuit and bananas foster mashup. But after 45 minutes of cooking and Christina and Kristen’s judging, on the bottom are Danny’s cream puff with black sesame pastry cream (his choux pastry needed more time in the oven), Dan’s dark chocolate pudding with macerated plums and fried baguette (pudding texture too thick, like peanut butter), and Manny’s fried churro with orange blossom and lemon whipped cream (churro dough was too moist and didn’t fry crispy enough). On the top are Kaleena’s salted caramel and rum custard with mascarpone and creme fraiche, Michelle’s corn cake with mascarpone cheese and basil cream (Christina was impressed by Michelle pulling off a cake in 45 minutes), and Amanda’s cheddar biscuit shortcake with banana pastry cream and vanilla chantilly. Kévin, who owns a pastry shop in Austin, is open-mouth surprised not to make it into the top three for his shortbread cookie with strawberry and basil jam and cream cheese, but he gives Michelle a hug when she wins the challenge, which is gracious enough.

Then it’s time to say bye to Christina and hi to Matty, who says things like “Life is wild, right? How crazy can it get?”, “Chaos is every single day,” and “Do whatever you feel. Dream the biggest dream,” a collection of ideas and instructions that lead into Kristen explaining that the challenge is to create dishes that “break the mold of culinary convention.” When the cheftestants still don’t really get it, Amanda volunteers her interpretation of “cooking without borders and limitations,” which Kristen approves of. Sure. Okay. The judges have 20 minutes and $150 to shop at a specialty shop of their choosing, and then they’ll cook in the Top Chef kitchen and use its pantry. The group is divided between Asian, African, and Latin markets, and almost everyone seems to have a specific dish in mind. Amanda says her food has often been called chaotic because of its fusion style, so she’s confident in her black garlic pappardelle idea. Savannah had an interaction with Matty a decade ago, and he questioned/insulted her dessert for having mustard greens on it, so she’s reinventing that dish to essentially show him up. Dan is making a Japanese pancake funnel cake, which sounds delightful; Kaleena wants to take the Americanized Mexican flavors of her childhood and put them into a stuffed pasta. The only person really struggling (well, aside from when Kévin mistakes cosmetic cocoa butter for a food product and tries to buy it) is Soo, who says that the benefit of coming up through Last Chance Kitchen was that he never had enough time to second-guess a decision or pivot his dish. He’s floundering a bit with so much time to think, and his initial idea for “General Soo’s chicken” feels a bit like settling on an idea instead of being tied to it.

When Tom and Matty walk through the kitchen later, they question the chefs’ grasp of chaos, which reiterates that, you know, maybe this challenge wasn’t well-delineated! Manny says he’ll probably criticize Savannah’s dish, again, for featuring mustard greens, again. They wonder whether Danny’s French- and Japanese-inspired cabbage dish, chou farci (scallop mousse wrapped in cabbage leaves), could be gummy, and Matty doubts Manny’s esquites-inspired risotto and how he’s using burned tortillas for flavor: “There is no chaos here, it’s just a fond memory.” By the final cook the next day, it’s clear that Rasika and Michelle are particularly struggling, Rasika with how to best cook her eggplant stuffed with crab (she decides to sous vide and abandons the flattop sear she had told Matty and Tom about) and Michelle with whether stuffing her pita halves with her meat mixture the day before was the right call. And it’s telling that some of the cheftestants like Soo, while plating, purposely mess up the looks of their dish to try to get a final note of chaos in there — and it works! This is a challenge where you can succeed by only smearing some sauce on a plate but suffer because your dish didn’t fit the judges’ exact idea of zany, and that imbalance doesn’t feel really tied to the food itself.

Here’s how judging goes down. The judges doubt the “chaos” level of: Laura’s crispy tahdig with Asian flavors like quail egg yolks, salmon, and seaweed salad (not flavorful or harmonious enough and the plating is too contemporary); Amanda’s black garlic pappardelle with cumin lamb ragu, XO sauce, and crispy shrimp chips (not new or unique enough, and the pasta texture is too dry). They like the big swings of: Soo’s “General Soo’s shrimp” battered in chicken skin and served with salsa verde and salsa roja (good chaos because eating the dish requires wiping the plate); Manny’s esquites risotto with burnt tortilla aioli (Manny says of the dish that “maybe the chaos is that simplicity,” which feels tellingly farcical); Dan’s okonomiyaki funnel cake with a million toppings, including crabs, pickles, caviar, herbs, and clams (good because Dan turned a traditional dessert savory); Danny’s scallop chou farci with yuzu kosho foam (Kristen calls his update of something classically French with Japanese flavors “luscious” and “technical”); and Savannah’s potato souffle with golden milk, tropical fruit, and mustard greens (Matty: “It’s nice!”). Sliding through the middle are Kevin’s potato with raspberry, tarragon, and white chocolate (it doesn’t seem tasty, but Matty says “This is chaos because I’m confused, actually”) and Kaleena’s “trash burrito”-inspired agnolotti (positively compared flavor-wise with Hamburger Helper, but not technically impressive). And fairly reviled are Michelle’s Vietnamese shrimp and pork arayes sandwich with puffed rice and herb salad and Rasika’s crab and eggplant with mushroom conserva, dukka, and garlic tahini.

At judges’ table (after Soo, Danny, Dan, and Savannah are called out as the top chefs, and Danny wins immunity for next week), Michelle and Rasika are brought forward, with Kristen threatening that one or both of them could be sent home. The judges ask Michelle about her difficulty grasping the challenge, bring up her inconsistent cooking on the arayes, and say her dish had no “wow factor.” But they have more negativity toward Rasika, whose dish Kristen said had no flavor, Gail said was slimy, and Tom calls “as bland as bland can be.” Michelle didn’t dream big enough, but Rasika dreamed big and didn’t deliver, which the judges see as the bigger sin. When Kristen announces that only Rasika is going home, Michelle looks shocked, and so does everyone else when Rasika walks into the stew room and announces it to the other chefs. But it certainly seems like a path is being laid for Danny, doesn’t it?

• Tom hat watch: I’m sorry, folks. This blank spot every week … we don’t deserve this heartache. But Kristen’s wildly oversized three-piece suit in the Quickfire was fun in an absurd, only-meant-for-model-physiques way, and I’m somewhat obsessed with guest judge Sophia Roe’s giant-sleeved green blouse.

• Laura not volunteering that the dark chocolate was on her station: Let me quote Ben Affleck in the enduring cinematic masterpiece Good Will Hunting and say, with all the venom in my heart, “Ya suspect.” Also, Laura calling her dish “California tahdig” because it mixes Persian crispy rice with sushi-style toppings … when there’s already a significant Persian population in California doing their own unique versions of tahdig … I’m grasping for another reason here to justify my dislike of Laura, I know, but if you’re going to say you’re reinventing tahdig, you better actually be reinventing tahdig.

• Amanda’s bald recitation of the Pokémon theme song’s lyrics was endearing. Who are your top three Pokémon? I’m going with Psyduck, Bulbasaur, and Geodude.

• “This country, if you want it, you can have whatever you want. That’s the beauty of America.” Kévin, please.

• Danny has now made scallop mousse twice, and he also won for it in “The Wright Way,” in the double win with Rasika. It’s an interesting coincidence that he made a version of the same dish for another somewhat murkily defined challenge, but it’s sort of weird that neither Tom, Gail, nor Kristen seemed to notice that he made very similar things in two of three weeks.

• As soon as we got that Tree of Life montage edit of Danny re-hearing Matty’s instructions while imagining moments from his life, I assumed he was going to win the Elimination and was disappointed to be proved right. I get that this episode was trying to evoke The Bear with that edit (and the previous imagery of a plate splattered with sauce and then stacked with slices of what looked like deli meat and cheese, which were then replaced by a hot dog and bun), but the former tipped the episode’s outcome too early.

• The dishes I most wanted to eat this episode: From the Quickfire, Dan’s dark chocolate pudding with macerated plums and fried baguette (the overly thick pudding texture Kristen criticized does not deter me), and from the Elimination, Dan’s loaded okonomiyaki savory funnel cake. The first time I’ve wanted both dishes a contestant has made! Call me Dr. Ian Malcolm because I want that chaos! I also know that Manny’s churros were unsuccessful, but their flat disc-like shape reminded me of zoolbia and bamieh, Persian deep-fried honey sweets. They’re good, you should try them.

• So much focus this season on the chefs’ fitness: Danny and Rasika jogged together before her elimination, now Manny and Kévin are working out together. Is Top Chef attempting to shame me, a humble recapper, for my own lack of work-life balance?

• LAST CHANCE KITCHEN SPOILERS AHEAD: No episode this week after our mid-season two-parter last week, and I’m still shocked that we’ll see Rasika there next time. You know she’s going to raid that spice rack when she gets there.

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