“Top Chef: California” recap (13.1 & 13.2): Double the challenge, double the fun

Hello and welcome back to another season of Top Chefthe place where the queer women flow like wine and Padma Lakshmi one time wore overalls and crashed a shopping cart all over an unsuspecting supermarket. (Never over it.) Anyway, let’s dive right in!

The episode opens in the usual fashion—a montage of quick shots that consist of lots of flames, running, drama, and Tom proclaiming that this season’s group of chefs is “the most talented ever.”

The new chefs enter the kitchen for the very first time and Padma welcomes them to California. This season, the competition will take place all over the state and finally end up back where Top Chef started 10 (10?!) years ago: San Francisco. That fact makes me feel really old, by the way. I’ve been crushing on Padma for a decade! Ours is a forever type of love, you guys.

Some of the chefs start to introduce themselves. I’m not going to lie to y’all, the first few episodes of Top Chef are always a real struggle for me. I’m not great with names, and there are SO many of them! Here is a truth: it is very likely that I will refer to these chefs by some kind of (probably unfairly judgey) nickname until at least the third or fourth episode (and longer for any white dudes, due to my tragic case of white male face blindness). The first chef refers to herself as “Sassy,” which earns some colorful reactions from her colleagues.

“Same, girl.

A lot of the chefs this season are James Beard nominees, including Eye Roll Karen (see above), who happens to be from Boston! Yay! In other news, Grayson is back! I thought she looked familiar when she walked in. She was on the Texas season of Top Chef a few years ago. I think I remember liking her? I’ll withhold judgement for now. But I am judging the next guy who talks, a floppy-haired dude (Garrett?) who seems pretty full of himself. I’ve got my eye on you, Floppy.

Quickfire Challenge

It’s a two-parter, the first part being a classic Top Chef opener: the Mise en Place Challenge. On a first come, first served basis, the chefs select one California ingredient to prep. The nine fastest chefs will move onto the second part where immunity will be up for grabs.

The chefs dash around the kitchen, moving their knives faster than I ever have and ever will in my whole life. Sassy is the first one to finish! Okay, girl, I see you. I have a weakness for women who can wield a cleaver. (See as evidence: Mei attacking lobsters in her Mise en Place Challenge last season.) The guy who comes in second place actually just became the Executive Chef at Richard Blais’ old restaurant, so I’m’a call him Blaze Jr.

Floppy Hair thinks he’s all done separating eggs, but Tom comes over and points out that one of the yolks is broken. Tom tells him he can’t move him along until he gets one more full yolk, and Floppy thinks that’ll be easy. It is not, however, easy, and two other people (including Grayson) call check before he can do it.

Hilariously, as soon as the challenge is over some guy with a bun starts complaining about the fact that having an orange squirt in his eye kept him from making it to the next round. The woman next to him is like, “IDK bro, looks like you still had a lot left to do so maybe don’t blame it on an orange?” Lady, I don’t know who you are yet, but I like you. Also, Mr. Bunhead, it’s not like someone else squirted you in the eye? Just shut up.

“I have ACID in my eye, basically.”

In part two of this quickfire, the top nine chefs are split into three groups. They have 30 minutes to create a dish highlighting the ingredients they’ve already prepped and each chef can only work for 10 of the 30 minutes. Non-cooking chefs are blindfolded and no one is allowed to communicate with each other. Frances, who has great hair btw, claims that the last time she wore a blindfold was the first time she met her wife. I… I’m not sure… Well, there’s a story here and I’m definitely intrigued. Frances, you are a woman of mystery.

The challenge begins and there’s the usual pandemonium. All of the first chefs do their best to set things up for the rest of their team (with varying degrees of success). Chef Sassy has a lot of swagger and I’m kind of feeling it, y’all. She keeps this up and I may change her name to Chef Swagger.

Things seem to be going best for the blue team (Sassy, Frances and someone else)—I don’t think they’ve run into any major obstacles. The green team (Grayson and some people) changed direction from Cajun to Italian, but otherwise seem to be okay. Meanwhile, the red team is just a total mess. By the time Blaze Jr. gets up there all he can find is some carrots cooking in cream and some half-burnt, half-raw chicken thighs. If he can pull this one out, much respect.

Padma and Tom go around to taste the chicken and, sorry, Blaze Jr. they do not like your dish. Both the blue and green teams get positive remarks, but, in the end, the most flavorful dish belonged to blue! Frances, I hope this blindfold experience was almost as good as your last one! That means Frances, Sassy, and another guy have immunity.

Elimination Challenge

Ruh roh, there are actually two eliminations over the next few days. For the first one, the chefs will have to prepare a “stand out” dish for 200 people and lots of important critics. The critics will score the dishes to decide who is on top and who is on bottom, and the judges will ultimately decide. Gail Simmons is a guest judge! Hi Gail! Also, Emeril Lagasse will be there, which makes the Cajun dude hella nervous.

The chefs head to Whole Foods to stock up on ingredients and then make their way back into the kitchen to prep. Floppy Hair says some bullshit about philosophy or something else pretentious, I’m not 100% sure because I stopped listening. Blaze Jr. is one of the messiest chefs I’ve ever seen! It’s remarkable.

The chefs head back to their new digs for the night and start figuring out the rooming situations. Sassy and Frances are roommates! I’m sensing some hijinx, especially because Frances busts out a photo of her wife and she looks A LOT like Sassy. Hilarity ensues.

Grayson and Eye Roll Karen are also rooming together. Karen is missing the James Beard awards at that very moment to be on Top Chef, but she sent her spouse, L.J., in her place. More queers! Top Chef, I love you so much. Karen talks to L.J. on the phone and they seem very adorable.

Look at these cuties

The next day, the chefs set up and get ready before the 200 guests roll up. Bunhead uses some dry grass FROM THE GROUND NEXT TO HIM to smoke his crab. Duuuuude, no. The woman next to Bunhead agrees with me.

The judges arrive and start to taste the food. Generally, the chefs have done pretty well with the challenge. Blaze Jr. takes some shit from the judges for using a tasting spoon to plate. Don’t do that, man. They like his food though, so he’s probably safe. Padma and Tom are not big fans of Floppy Hair’s dish. Suck it, Flops.

The judges take the scores from the critics and talk through the top and bottom. Unfortunately both Sassy and Frances are on the bottom, which I was pretty surprised by! Luckily, they both have immunity. In the stew room, Bunhead keeps talking about how he knows everyone in L.A. and I think the other chefs are just as annoyed by him as I am.

The top three dishes are Amar’s meatball, Carl’s carrot soup, and Jeremy’s crudo. Emeril praises Jeremy for the cleanliness of his station, so Padma throws some serious shade at Blaze Jr. Padma, I love you so much. Anyway, Jeremy won.

On the bottom is Angelina, Grayson, and Floppy. Floppy’s dish was super inconsistent, even though Gail and Emeril liked it, Padma and especially Tom really did not. Grayson is very upset to be in the bottom (again) in the first round, and she’s pretty defensive. In the end, Floppy Hair is sent home because he made some actual mistakes instead of just being boring. Bye, Floppy!

The next morning the chefs are eating breakfast when Sassy finds a note from Padma asking to meet her on the roof. What I wouldn’t give for that note.

Pretty sure this isn’t the first time I’ve pretended Padma sent me a note…

Padma drops a bomb on the chefs: They are opening four pop-up restaurants across the city in just one day. Dang. Turns out Kwame is kind of a pop-up veteran, so he’ll likely be an asset on any team. Speaking of teams, Padma goes through them really quickly and I honestly don’t know who most of the people are yet. So there are four teams, I can tell you that much. And one of the teams has Sassy, Frances, Grayson, and Bunhead. And Karen is on a team with carrot soup guy.

Each pop-up will be in a neighborhood and the food will have to embody the culture. Since Bunhead has the bloodlife of L.A. flowing in his veins, he won’t shut up about the neighborhoods. Speaking of Bunhead, one of the other teams drives by his restaurant and they all laugh at the the fact he plastered a big ass picture of himself on the side. I now like all the chefs in that car (grey team.)

The grey team, by the way, is going to be cooking Persian food. The purple team (the one with Karen) has a Korean theme. The orange team (Sassy, Frances, Bunhead, Grayson) gets a vegan restaurant, which you’ll be downright shocked to know Bunhead knows EVERYTHING about. The blue team gets Mexican, and they’re pumped about it. All the teams get some background cultural information from the restaurant owners before doing menu planning and heading off to do shopping.

The judges head over toward the first pop-up, the grey team’s Persian restaurant. I was surprised because no one mentioned the make or model of the car yet, but Padma was snapchatting and Gail was tweeting so I think they reached their quota of awkwardly forced product placement by instead awkwardly attempting to be hip and social.

The grey team’s restaurant is hoppin’ and the judges order one of everything to try. Overall, the team did a really nice job— especially Marjorie’s dessert, which is great because as we all know dessert is usually the Top Chef kiss of death. I just found out that Marjorie was the chef at Ripple in Washington, DC, which was one of my favorite restaurants when I lived there. So now Marjorie has skyrocketed up to my faves list, y’all. It’s a wild ride around here.

The judges head to the blue team’s Mexican pop-up next. These guys seem too prepared and happy—I feel like something is going to go wrong. They also didn’t ask their Mexican expert any questions, and it looks like that was a mistake. The judges are not vibing on this food, except for maybe Kwame’s shrimp. And that’s why you always ask questions and don’t assume you know everything.

Next up is the orange team’s vegan restaurant. Grayson is still wishing she could use pork and Bunhead is still being lame, so we haven’t missed much while we were away. Frances’ chickpea dish is tasty, but Tom is mad that she didn’t use fresh produce. The rest of the dishes do not impress the judges at all. Ruh roh.

Lastly, the judges head to the purple team’s Korean pop-up. Some of the dishes are not totally authentic, but all the food is really tasty. Back at the Stew Room, Bunhead thinks his team is totally going to win. I think he is totally wrong. Padma calls all four teams to the Judges’ Table.

She announces the winner first—it’s the Persian team! The team that didn’t know much about their cuisine at all! This is great lesson about learning and growing as a person, I hope you’re all paying attention. Marjorie wins the challenge with her amazing dessert! Take that Top Chef, stereotypes!

The losing team is obviously the vegan team. Frances gets yelled at for using canned chickpeas, Grayson’s salad was boring, and Sassy’s beet was dry and not executed well. Bunhead tries to claim that they had the most difficult pop-up, but Padma shuts him down. JFC, I hope Bunhead goes home. He’s safe though, because his dish actually wasn’t that bad. Lame.
The second chef going home this season of Top Chef is Chef Sassy. Aw man, I’m actually kind of bummed about this because she was growing on me. Before she leaves, she lets us know that the competition did not break her of her sassiness, so we can rest easy knowing that.