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'Top Chef' recap, A Shock at the Space Needle

Chefs from past seasons return and stir up the kitchen

By Mary Alice Fallon Yeskey

8:39 AM EST, November 15, 2012

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Our 15 chef-testants enter the "Top Chef" kitchen. Micah admits to giving everyone the “waterfall look” which he demonstrates skillfully. RuPaul would be proud. Padma enters and behind her three familiar faces skulk in. What madness is this? Past contestants already?

Josie (Season 2), CJ (Season 3) and Stefan (Season 5) are introduced. My stomach turns when I see Stefan’s face. Chrissy reminds me why: “From what I remember, he has an accent, he looks like a thumb and he’s an evil villain.”

The three vets (none of whom won, by the way) will be judging the Quickfire Challenge. Padma asks the gang to grab colored aprons, dividing up into teams of three. Since no one really knows each other at this point they mostly just grab whoever is nearest, not concerned with the pairings. With the exception of John, who purposefully selects Kuniko’s team, because she’s Japanese, so she must have excellent knife skills. I’m honestly not sure if that’s a compliment, a safe assumption or kinda racist.

The challenge? Twenty minutes to make a dish that highlights one of the local shellfish swimming/scurrying about in tanks, ice and/or muddy sand pits. While Padma is explaining the way the challenge will work, John Tesar begins whispering to his teammates about who will do what. Padma spies him speaking in class and barks, “Excuse me! I’m not finished. Can you listen up?” And instantly, all across America, thousands of schoolmarm fantasies are realized. In 10 seasons, I have never heard Ms. Lakshmi raise her voice like that.

In interviews, John continually refers to himself as Most Hated Chef in Dallas, which is a quote from a magazine article that was published in August 2011. He is clearly clinging to that title. He admits in his interview that he’s “seen every single episode of 'Top Chef'.” I think he knows that the arrogant prick usually gets kept around a long time to ensure good TV. This guy is playing the producers.

The Quickfire goes to Blue Team (John, Kuniku and Sheldon) for their geoduck sashimi with ponzu, apple and cucumber. They draw knives to see who gets immunity, and it goes to John. I am utterly positive this was not random — not to get all conspiracy theory here, but the producers surely placed the chefs in the room a certain way and brought the knives in after the fact. It just seems too perfect that the smarmiest guy is immediately rewarded like that.

Here’s the shock the episode's title promised: Padma announces that the three "Top Chef" veterans will be joining the others as contestants. The three former judges all smirk delightedly. Tyler Wiard, who has established himself as a bit of a bohunk jock (“Go Broncos!”) responds right on point with a resounding, “Bulls--t. No way,” like he’d just seen a bad pass interference call. Joshua also mutters several bleeped out words under his breath. Only Micah seems to rise to the challenge, hissing, “I would love to whip their ass.”

Stefan: “Listen, I have nothing to prove. I drive a f---ing GT3 Porsche and I have eight restaurants.” Well Stefan, you certainly don’t have to prove that you are a tremendous douchebag.

For the elimination challenge, the chefs will stay in their current teams, and our new/old chefs will work as a team together. Dream Team? We shall see.

Each team will have 47 minutes to create one dish for the judges and guest judge, Seattle Chef Tom Douglas. They will be cooking in the Sky City Restaurant at the Top of the Seattle Space Needle, which rotates every 47 minutes. Get it?

Team Orange has four team members: Crissy, Elizabeth, Carla and Carla’s incredibly jarring and ear-splitting voice. Imagine an Italian Sofia Vergara barking out word salad like a drunken sorority girl teaching an aerobics class. It’s that annoying. (Side note: she is also making Facebook Fish Face in her head shot on the Top Chef website. Blargh.)

The chefs move into their posh digs. Cigarettes are lit, wine is poured and everyone’s personal life gets thrown out on the table. Jeffrey Jew explains he’s engaged, and quickly corrects someone’s pronoun (“What kind of ring does she wear?” “He.”). Great, you’re even cuter now.

Josie (Season 2) says she’s back because she wants to win. She advises her co-contestants to remember that whatever they did yesterday has no bearing on what they’ll do tomorrow. That’s a motto for life, Josie. A motto for life.

The next day, our first two teams start their dishes in the Space Needle kitchen. Interestingly, the other teams are crammed into the corner, watching the prep. I don’t recall this happening often, if ever — when the chefs next in line to cook get to watch the first ones go. As they’re watching, the veterans team decides to switch their dish from fish to quail since all the other teams are preparing fish (they just happened to bring quail, too?). Having all teams present probably makes the whole place seem more cramped and brings out some more color commentary as the cooking chefs are too busy to talk. It’s also good because Carla starts to go completely non compos mentis, in front of everyone.

John, Kuniku and Sheldon serve the judges a chili oil poached cod with dashi and spot prawn shabu shabu. The judges are unanimously pleased with the dish. Gayle chimes in, “The first thing I put in my mouth in Seattle? Not bad. That came out wrong.”

Chrissy, Carla and Elizabeth prepare a poached salmon with seasonal vegetables and beurre blanc. I hope it’s fantastic, because it looks like really bad wedding food. Luckily, the team prepared its dish flawlessly and Tom seems surprised at how much he enjoys it.

Our next two teams race to get started. On the Vets team, CJ’s cherry sauce is a flop (at least he recognizes it immediately) and Josie works quickly to come up with a substitute with the four remaining cherries in the kitchen. Meanwhile, Brooke is worried Jeffrey overcooked the halibut. Foreboding musical overtones indicate she’s probably right.  

Bart, Brooke and Jeffrey offer up the pan-roasted halibut, mushrooms, English peas and wheat beer with herb sabayon. Padma picks at her halibut and declares it’s a hockey puck.

Josie, Stefan and CJ serve a quail breast with confit spot prawn, cherries and porcini mushroom. Emeril and Tom both feel it’s overcooked, Tom Douglas thinks they’re being harsh and enjoyed the dish.

Finally, the last two teams are up for service. Josh, Eliza and Danyele had grabbed their fish in the kitchen not knowing what it is as it had no face on it (ask Carla, she’s good at Fish Face). It’s pretty impressive that they are going into this challenge not 100 percent sure what they’re cooking. Once they break it down for prep they confirm it’s cod. They present the judges with the cod pan-roasted with mushroom, fava beans, pickled green apple and garlic scape pistou. The judges love the apple and pistou but all wish there were more of those elements.

Micah, Tyler and Kristen work quickly and quietly. Their dish is a crispy seared salmon with local vegetables and spot prawn butter sauce. Is it just me or are all these dishes starting to sound exactly the same? I have always fantasized about being a judge on this show, but dear lord, not tonight. That's a lot of pan-seared seafood. Perhaps the vets were smart to make the game-time decision to switch to quail. The judges try the salmon dish, and Tom notes it’s essentially the same dish the Orange team prepared. He deems this one superior.

The vets do their best to shake up the others in the stew rooms with admonitions about just how bad things will be. Padma enters and calls the Blue team (John, Kuniku and Sheldon) back. That shuts everyone up right quick.

Blue team wins again. Emeril announces Kuniku as winner. She is utterly adorable in her interview, “This [is] gonna make everybody like, ‘Who is she? We didn’t notice she even was there!’”

Dear John Tesar, either wear your glasses, get some Croakies or take them off. Don’t prop them on your forehead. Is that your haute cuisine take on Guy Fieri’s backwards sunglasses? Because it’s just as irritating. Especially in front of the judges.

The Grey team (Bart, Brooke, Jeffrey) and — wha, wha, WHAT — the VETS get called back as the bottom two. Twist!

As the critique starts, it’s clear Tom and Emeril are reveling in the chance to be extra brutal to the vets. They rip into them and Stefan, in a rare moment of vulnerability, admits the quail was overcooked and he has no excuse. He apologizes to the judges.

Jeffrey seems up for axing since he overcooked the halibut for his team. It looks like it’s him or Stefan.

In the stew room, John asks Stefan if he’s scared. “This is nauseous. This is like throwing up. This is like giving birth.” Attention all men everywhere: Never, ever say anything is “like giving birth." Ever.

Padma apologetically asks Jeffrey to please pack his knives and go. Of course. They would never dismiss Stefan this early; he’s packs too much ego and drama. Jeffrey Jew was sweet, cute and unassuming. And thus, he leaves first. Boo. JJ, we hardly knew ya. He hugs the gang and declares, “Hey, I’m number one in something.” Ugh, charming even in his departure.

Coming up next week: Thanksgiving dinner (duh!), and Emeril and Tom join the gang in the kitchen.