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'Top Chef: New Orleans' Recap - Episode 13

Legendary chef Jacques Pépin joins the cheftestants.

Tom Colicchio and Jacques Pépin

Courtesy of Bravo

The theme of this week's episode of "Top Chef" is Spanish vs. French, or rather a competition between the two main culinary influences of our enigmatic city, New Orleans.

During the episode, Emeril Lagasse tweeted to the interwebs, “Which cuisine do you prefer #Spanish or #French?”



Another question could perhaps be, “What would you do if you have immunity but clearly lost the challenge for your team?” If you stay, yes, you have a one in five chance to win $150,000 and a life supply of foil and cream cheese, but the people in your profession will always remember how you got there. If you resign, you can still watch the episodes where you say you "cook with integrity" with a straight face and still have the chance to duke it out with Louis in "Last Chance Kitchen."

I totally get that the money and competition is important, but a lot of the chefs from the show who have gone on to be super successful did not win the ultimate title. For season five, for example, Hosea won, but he is not the person you remember the most from that season and at the end of the day, probably hasn't made the most money from his exposure. You remember Carla (hootie hoo) and Fabio. Obviously, there are other ways to "win" a reality show.

I suppose there is no good answer, but for me, if the famous chef Jacques Pépin implies you should resign, you should probably go ahead and resign. And Nick chose to remain, citing his performance in the Quickfire as reason enough to stay. Okay, fine. Totally. He won that fair and square and it's a competition and thems the rules. But do you feel good about it?

And Stephanie, wow does my heart go out to her. She started the competition as a nervous wreck, afraid that she'd be voted off first for a second time and then surprised each week when she made it through. She was even more surprised when she won challenges. After several weeks, you could see the self-confidence grow in her and she's been by far the funniest person in the cast with her dry deadpan sense of humor, a much needed addition. To go out when you made a great dish… That's just messed up. But what could she do? Physically wrestle Nick from putting those weird cornhusk nests on the plate?

But I digress. Aside from the elimination, this episode of “Top Chef” is a great one. We have some pretty distinguished guests beginning with Pépin for the Quickfire and then Julian Serrano and Dominique Crenn for the Elimination Challenge.

As most know, Pépin is a living legend in the culinary world. For the episode, he gives a quick demonstration to the chefs on how to cook his favorite meal of artichokes and fish, which I'm sure is incredibly more challenging than the effortless way in which the he makes it look. It seemed as though all he did was make a few cuts and stirs and magically created a stunning plate of food. He even turned a few scrapes of butter into a rose. Afterwards, the chefs have 30 minutes to recreate it. The two who do the best are naturally the chefs who were trained in French technique, Nick and Shirley. The others don't do so well and Nick snags first Quickfire win.

For the Elimination Challenge, we're introduced to two chefs with two Michelin stars, one Spanish, one French, to represent the two major European influences in New Orleans cuisine. Dominique Crenn, who is the only woman in the U.S. with two stars, helps out the French team and Julian Serrano mentors the Spanish team. Miraculously, the two French-trained cheftestants, Nick and Shirley, are both put on the French team. They are very pleased with this and consider themselves lucky, but history repeats itself and in the past, when teams assume they're going to win because they happen to be uber-familiar with the cuisine, it usually means everything will eventually fall apart.

Both teams have fun conceptualizing with their respective mentors, using ingredients found in both Spanish and French foods, like chocolate, olives and chicken. Crenn is strikingly beautiful and charismatic while Serrano is stern and knowledgeable. Both seem to be excellent teachers and the chefs eat up the experience, though I wonder if the Spanish team thinks Serrano is a little anal and that the food is too simple. It doesn't matter though because it is his guidance that gets them the win. He insists that simple is best, and it serves his team well.

The best part though is the interaction between the two mentors. During service at Restaurant R'evolution, Crenn and Serrano are sitting across from each other, engaged in some of the most awkward stares and remarks in "Top Chef" history. It is awesome. And I have to say that Serrano is my new hero because when he takes one look at Nick's plate of Cornish hen with chocolate and corn silk nests, he throws up his hands and is like, "What in the hell is this?” It's kind of like when I take a non-Ohioan to a Skyline Chili (a very unique tasting chili over spaghetti with a pile of neon-orange cheese on top). He shakes his head, he stares in bewilderment. I think it is the only time the whole season where I laughed with my whole belly ... Well, that and a few of the more awesome Tom Colicchio snark-faces. Needless to say, it is one of the more interesting dinner services I've seen on this show with what looks like mostly excellent food, save for Nick's dishes, which heartbreakingly had immunity.

In the end, Nina wins for her contribution and Spanish potato salad that she actually feared would send her home. Oh ye of little faith. And Stephanie goes home for… Well, Stephanie goes home for no real good reason.

And a last word on Nick: I know why he did what he did. He obviously wants to win, as does everyone on the show, but I don't want to hear him whine and complain anymore. He's lost the privilege to me. His cockiness and thoughtlessness for his team as a whole got a girl who made a great dish sent home. Fine. It's a competition, but don't wear out your welcome. I also don't want to see any more crap with Carlos (though judging from the previews it looks like we'll see more of it next week). I'm just not convinced that Carlos is a bad guy and you could have told him to clean your knife instead of acting like a martyr about it. End rant.

Next week: Jon Favreau and poor boy sandwiches! The finale is getting close.


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