Note: This is my second-to-last Top Chef Power Rankings post for Uproxx. Follow me on Twitter and/or Patreon for updates on how to find them after that! I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy writing them.
Every Top Chef season seems to have at least one thoroughly infuriating episode that makes you throw down the remote and swear you’re done with this foamy spectacle once and for all (before you inevitably come crawling back, apologizing to every veloute and gastrique along the way, begging them to once again amuse your bouche). That was this week.
For one thing, it didn’t even have an ending! After a “supersized” 75-minute episode, these bastards really had the gall to end on a cliffhanger. 75 minutes and no conclusion? You have broken the producer-viewer emulsion of trust once and for all, sirs. I said good day!
Okay I’m back. I chopped some shallots into miniscule cubes to help me calm down a bit. In fairness, this episode did have an elimination, it just occurred at the beginning of the show. That was in part two of the two-part finale of Last Chance Kitchen, part one of which aired (streamed?) last week, pulling exactly the same “tune into a different show to see the exciting conclusion” trick as this episode.
We learned this week, following a mostly unnecessary cold open in which Padma showed up at the cheftestant hotel to tell them to come down stairs for a surprise — oh my gosh, PADMA, HERE!? — the last two surviving chefs from Last Chance Kitchen — Dale aka Johnnycakes, and Begoña aka Tílde Thwintón — would be competing against each other for the honor of returning to the show, in an epic showdown pitting tea tower against tea tower. (Can you believe that was all one sentence? I may need to cube some more shallots).
And actually, this challenge was far more infuriating than the fact that this episode didn’t end with an elimination. The two chefs were given ONE HOUR to create a tea tower that included two finger sandwiches, a scone, and a pastry. I’m sorry, but what the hell kind of stupid ass challenge is this? One hour to make multiple pastries? I thought this was Top Chef, not World’s Speediest Baker.
I genuinely hate this as a challenge because it makes me wonder, who would ever need to make multiple pastries in an hour, and what would doing so even prove? This is the exception that proves the rule that “art thrives on limitation.” This limitation sucked the art right out of there. In the end the challenge hinged, naturally, not on who was the most creative or made the best food or had the best concept, but who could actually complete the stated challenge. A test of endurance!
That ended up being Johnnycakes. And sure, maybe I’m a little bitter that my week one top seed is out of the competition, thus proving me a fraud (let the record show that I did correctly pick the winner in episode one last season)… BUT. I think a lot of my annoyance stems from the genuine heartbreak I felt watching Begoña fail to get all of her food on her plates. I felt my stomach drop the same way it did when I’d drop a plate or burn something when I actually worked in a kitchen, which I haven’t done in almost 20 years. I don’t need this kind of verisimilitude in my life, thank you! I give the verisimiddle finger to that!
It genuinely hurt to watch an insanely talented chef who makes whimsical space food (the cream anemone, never forget) have to leave the show because she was 10 seconds late on making two pastries in an hour. Ughhhhh. I guess it’s a credit to the producers for making me care this much. I’ll never forgive the bastards.
After that it was off to Downton Abbey, which is actually called Highclere Castle, for a picnic challenge. British picnics are a lot like American ones, only without all the precocious bears trying to yoink your basket. This also allows me to post one of my all-time favorite SNL digital shorts, “Downton Abbey if it was on SpikeTV.”
Dear olden times, you’re boring.
The chefs split into teams, and, granted immunity, Dale got to choose which team he wanted to be on. They each had 200 pounds to spend at Fortnum & Mason, da personew grociah uv da qween! As well as another 250 pounds to spend at Whole Foods, more like Whole Paycheck! (sorry, had to) All with the goal of creating a team picnic meal, which would “hold well, serve at room temperature, and be easily eaten,” according to Tom Colicchio.
It ended up being fun challenge, mostly because Padma was drinking champagne the entire time. Sharp-eyed viewers may have noted that she seemed at least medium wreck’d for most of the segment. Champagne Padma was first introduced in 2020 and has become probably this show’s best recurring character — characterized by laughing at her own asides, barely getting through critiques without breaking into giggles, and demanding more champagne. I love Champagne Padma. Almost enough to forgive this being a “to be continued” episode.
Yellow: Gabri, Tom, Sylwia, Amar, Ali.
Blue: Sara, Charbel, Nicole, Victoire, Buddha, Dale.
“Quickfire” (not really) Top: Dale.
“Quickfire” Bottom: Begoña**.
Elimination Top: Nicole*.
Elimination Bottom: Sylwia. Tom.
12. (-1) ((Eliminated)) (((Again))) Begoña Rodrigo
AKA: Tílde Swintón. Beach Mom. Thtevie Nickth.
As I said above, I was legitimately sad about this elimination. Not necessarily because I like Begoña so much better than Johnnycakes, it just didn’t seem like she got a fair shake. She actually finished finger sandwiches, scones, and eclairs in an hour, and she didn’t even get to serve the eclairs, all because she couldn’t get them on those fussy stacked plates in time. She needed maybe 10 more seconds! That just seemed unnecessarily cruel. Besides, she’s Spanish. You can’t ask a Spaniard to do something on a schedule, that’s like asking a deer to ride a bike.
I admit, I did kind of get a kick out of Begoña frantically running towards her towers with an armful of plates, running into the cameraman, spilling the plates onto the floor where they broke, and then deadpanning “The plates are break.”
The plates are break indeed. I’ve never seen someone go from manic to dead calm in a split second like that, it was a little unnerving.
That being said, not only did Begoña not get her dishes plated in time, the judges didn’t seem to much care for her crab sandwiches either. “I couldn’t tell if this was crab or tuna at first, which seems like a bad thing,” said Padma.
I really hope that was lump crab meat from the fridge or the canned stuff from the pantry (presumably the latter, judging by the fact that it tasted like tuna), because if they made this lady deshell crab, bake scones, and make eclairs from scratch in an hour they should be in prison.
Ah, well, alas. Begoña is gone, supposedly, but I don’t quite believe it yet. I haven’t gotten to the acceptance phase of grief yet.
11. (-2) Sylwia Stachyra
AKA: Auntie Claus. Potato Girl. The Bone.
I didn’t want it to be true, but I can only ignore the writing on the wall for so long: it seems our precious Potato Girl is not long for this competition. She said she was making sü borek this week, which, if you have some Armenian ancestry like me, is a sort of baked mac-and-cheese kinda dish made with noodles or fillo dough. Polish Sylwia explained that the “sü” means “wet,” denoting some kind of wet pastry, which she then compared to the English sausage roll, which is notably not wet. “Only I’m gonna make it like a muffin,” she added.
“Sometimes when we’re eating sausage roll on picnic we think it would be nice to have a sauce what we can dip in,” she went on.
Okay, so wet pastry, which is like a sausage roll, that’s also going to be a muffin, but also it will have a built-in sauce? I think I’m following along, but juuuust barely.
Sylwia’s sauce? Lemon posset, which is apparently like lemon curd. Okay, now you’ve lost me.
“That’s weird,” said Tom.
“It tastes like lemon curd,” added a baffled Padma.
“Confounding,” commented Gail Simmons.
Potato Girl is usually the queen of comfort food, but this might’ve been one of the weirdest dishes ever served on this show, and there have been some doozies. She goes into a head-to-head showdown with Fuckboi Tom in Last Chance Kitchen, and I have to think he’s the favorite.
10. (-3) Victoire Gouloubi
AKA: Al Dente. Minute Rice. Steven Seagal. Three’s Company. Pulp Fiction. Backstory.
Victoire has been all over the place in this competition, and after consecutive episodes detailing her insane journey from refugee to dumpster diving culinary student to acclaimed chef and Top Chef winner who speaks seven languages, she didn’t get much screen time this week. Other than to denote that she would again be sharing a kitchen with chefs cooking with walnuts, which almost killed her two episodes ago. I hope she’s getting hazard pay.
Victoire made a foie gras cabbage roll, which looks elegant enough, but most of the judges found too dense. I love foie gras, but I don’t know if a big tube of it is its ideal form.
9. (-1) Gabri Rodriguez
AKA: The Black Pearl. The Mongoose. Wile Y. Coyote.
One of the low-key worst parts of this episode was watching Fuckboi Tom, who had just spent 160 of his team’s 200-pound budget on 20 pounds of seafood, caviar, and avocados, talk Gabri out of buying sesame seeds. Sesame seeds! How expensive could those have been?
Gabri ended up making this:
Those are some of the most adorably chopped shallots and cucumbers I’ve ever seen. It also looks pretty good. Unfortunately, Gabri had to explain its multiple-part construction to the judges, and the tostada ended up breaking the second they tried to bite in. I’ve had a lot of seafood tostadas, and in my experience, this basically always happens. Mexicans mostly just seem to accept that such is the way of tostadas. The tostada is break.
The stiff upper lips of limey land were making no such concessions, unfortunately, and Gabri only narrowly missed the chopping block. If I could play Monday Morning Chef here, I feel like if Gabri would’ve just served this as a ceviche and had the judges dip their crispy tortilla in there like chips and dip instead, they would’ve loved it. Have you watched this show before? Top Chef judges are demons for ceviche.
8. (+2) Nicole Gomes
AKA: Clawhoser. The Contessa. Kindergarten Cop.
Ay, check out the big win for Kindergarten Cop! This came as a huge surprise, because my first thought when Nicole decided she was going to make a nicoise salad was, “Wow, that sounds boring as hell.”
And my reaction was nothing compared to Tom Colicchio’s when he found out Nicole was making it with salmon instead of tuna. I thought he was going to start flipping over tables! Nothing makes these snoots madder than a petty squabble over nomenclature.
Instead the judges ended up loving it, which I have to think was partly a function of all Canadians knowing exactly how to cook a salmon, and partly that it sounded so boring that when it was actually good, everyone was pleasantly surprised. A big win for lowered expectations!
Maybe Nicole deserves a bigger bump in the rankings, but I’m not quite ready to give it to her. Probably it’s just misdirected anger towards all my elementary school teachers she reminds me of.
7. (-3) Tom Goetter
AKA: Meekus. Sprockets. F*ckboi Tom. Spotted Ox Hostel.
I can’t decided whether I love Tom or love to be annoyed by him. I actually rolled my eyes this week when he pulled out his junior high science fair molecular gastronomy kit again this week.
Tom’s justifications for all of it seemed even more ridiculous. Whomst among us could quibble with the unassailable logic that sometimes olive oil makes a salad too oily?! Solution? Turn it into a dust, of course. Everyone loves eating dust!
This was all in the service of a “cioppino salad” that Tom initially figured would “cost maybe 20 bucks.”
This “cioppino salad” (a what now?), which included such classic cioppino ingredients as caviar and avocados, ended up burning 160 of his team’s 200 pound budget, all for a baffling dish whose main ingredient seemed to be tomatoes. He turned the caviar, one of the most defined-by-its-delicate-texture ass ingredients in existence, into a chip. To top it all off, he introduced it with an even more baffling sentence, “When I do barbecues, usually we do cioppino…”
The judges were even angrier at this weird ass dish than I am. Tom goes up against Sylwia in a head-to-head elimination match he’s probably going to win.
6. (even) Charbel Hayek
AKA: Soup Nazi. Sir Davos.
The Onion Knight made some dips this week. Literally some dips, with a cute lil’ crudité platter. He seemed to think this was a “brave” choice, and amazingly, the judges agreed with him.
So, so brave.
I dunno, man. That must’ve been some pretty good goddamned hummus, because if someone served me that and called it lunch I’d be stomping off that picnic blanket in a huff.
5. (+7) Dale Mackaye
AKA: Johnnycakes. Lance Farmstrong. Minor Threat. Deviled Egg Dale.
Ayyy, check out the big win for Dale! Our favorite Sasketchawiener is back, baby!
Okay, I was maybe a bit unfair in characterizing Dale’s victory in the Last Chance Kitchen finale as a Begoña screwup. Dale did actually manage to do all of that in an hour, complete with a scone that actually looked pretty good. After that impressive showing, we were treated to a little “better know your Dale” editing package, complete with clips of a younger Dale being a bit of a tyrant in the kitchen. I call it the “I used to be a piece of shit” montage.
Spiked up blonde hair, little bitty jeans, chicken spaghetti at Chickelittis…
Luckily, Dale chilled out over the years, thanks to getting really into triathlons. As I always say, extreme distance running is a great way to take all that anger and really channel it into avoiding your family.
Anyway, Dale returns to the power rankings all the way up at number five. What can I say, he crushed it this week, first by working his ass off in the tea tower challenge and then by playing it smart. Knowing he had immunity, Dale made a deviled egg, arguably the greatest no-brainer picnic dish of all time. Even a bad deviled egg is still pretty good. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten less than six of them. Not only that, Dale symbolically exorcised his egg demons from week three, when he went home for a sub-par Scotch egg.
Now that the old egg magic is back, Dale looks to be a force to be reckoned with.
4. (-2) Ali Ghzawi
AKA: RRR. Maui Wowie. The Strain. The Ghizza. Muhammara Ali.
Ali telling the team he wanted to make a “nice mezze platter” was almost as predictable as Tom breaking out the agar-agar chemistry set. The difference being that everyone generally seems to enjoy Ali’s mezze. Much like Charbel, the Jordanian Heartthrob also basically made a dip, but at least Ali made a creative vessel for his.
A muhammara lettuce wrap? Hey, why not. Probably my biggest dilemma in this week’s ranking is who is on top between BFFs Ali and Amar.
3. (+2) Amar Santana
AKA: Big Sleazy. Laughtrack. Hibbert. Flava Flav.
Big Sleazy has spent most of this season bigging up his fellow contestants, laughing supportively at their crap jokes and hyping up Ali like Ali’s personal Flava Flav. He opened this week in much the same fashion, trying to counsel Chef Gabri from the perspective of an older guy who’s been there. Amar really does seem like the most care-free Top Chef contestant since Sheldon Simeon. When the other chefs started sprinting around the fancy grocery store, Amar just laughed. “Haha, I’m not running.”
You could do worse, in terms of mantras. All Americans could take a lesson from Amar.
He ended up dedicating a flan to his mother, which the judges loved, and there’s a good chance he would’ve won the challenge if he hadn’t been on a team with Sylwia and Tom. That’s two or three solid performances in a row for the Dominican Chillnado.
2. (+1) Sara Bradley
AKA: Party Mom. Reebok. Sassparilla.
Again, basically a dead heat between Sara, Amar, and Sylwia in terms of who on the show seems like the best hang. Whereas Sara has mostly avoided screwing up until now, this week seemed like a genuine triumph. If this week’s dishes had been a menu, my first order would’ve been Sara’s charcutified broccolini with a bullet.
That looks good, even if one bread pie eater thought it was “too big.” Sorry, Nigel, that there is a Kentucky small.
Anyway, normally I wouldn’t say I’m the world’s biggest broccoli fan, but broccoli as a vessel for aged cheese, pig fat, cured pig, and truffles? Giddy up. With this dish, Sara breaks into the top two.
1. (even) Buddha Lo
AKA: Moneyball. Double Down. Big Data. Buddha.
Another week without a win for Buddha, another week on top of my power rankings. How to explain? Well, last week I only had Buddha at number one, mostly for lack of anyone else to put there. If Buddha had had another bad week this week, I easily could’ve put Sara, Amar, or Ali in this spot.
Only this week, it felt like Buddha sleepwalked through the challenge and still easily could’ve won. In fact it seemed almost like they were giving him the Cate Blanchett treatment aka the Meryl Streep treatment aka the Olivia Colman treatment (some day it will be the Barry Keoghan treatment). That’s when Olivia Colman doesn’t win an Oscar because she’s so good always and in everything that people just sort of expect it now. Then when she does it again (like in Empire of Light, which was mostly average but she was incredible) it’s so unsurprising that no one really thinks to give her an award. That’s kind of the way it felt with Buddha this week.
He made a banoffee pie contained entirely inside a banana shape, which is somehow obvious, inspired, and too cute by half all rolled into one. Banoffee pie is such an easy, great dessert, and Buddha found such an easy, great way to reinvent it, which was novel and yet straightforward, that all anyone really had to say about it was “yep.”
Of course, no food is ever that obvious — it could’ve been soggy, underseasoned, overseasoned, hard to eat, etc, etc — and so it’s a testament to Buddha that he made it look that obvious. Moneyball, man. The other chefs are going to need a lot more comfort food challenges to take him down, and I don’t see that happening much in a London-based competition where they’ve already done pub food.