'Top Chef: New Orleans' Recap - Episode 6

Campfires, Cream Cheese and Countryside

John Besh and Padma Lakshmi

courtesy of Bravo

So last week I was calling Nina by the wrong name and I've been kicking myself about it all week because she's one of my favorites. You can always tell when I'm not sleeping very well because I start calling people by the wrong names. I call my cats the wrong name, my husband... I start calling my mom "dad", etc. So I made sure to get plenty of sleep last night and my memory is in stealth-mode.

Anyways, this week on "Top Chef" we open with Nina being relieved that Boo Boo (New Orleans' own Michael) was knifed. It doesn't seem like anyone is that broken up about it like they were with Janine two weeks ago. Hell, even obnoxious Sexy Surfer Jason had a friend that was sad when he left. And as soon as Michael leaves it seems like the show has lost its "creep" factor. There's no one calling people irritating pet names in the kitchen or talking about how they got laid while wearing a pregnant nun costume. Cool with me.

I'm also kind of surprised how out of everyone that's left (still quite a few), I pretty much like everyone. Travis is the only one I'm not crazy about, but in previous seasons there were always at least one or two chefs that I straight up couldn't stand. I think the way to put a wrench in that would be if Jason or Michael came back and won "Last Chance Kitchen," but I'm rooting for Janine.

The next morning, everyone is getting ready for the day at the "Top Chef" pad. It looks like the chefs are settling down into a comfortable rhythm and becoming friends. It's nice to see. Sara is confiding in the girls that she needs to get her shit together and stop hanging out in the middle during these challenges. She's really itching to win at least something, so she's either going to be at the very top or the very bottom this week.

Shortly after, this week’s guest super chef is introduced by Padma: the one and only John Besh. I've been wondering when he was going to show up. He's been on "Top Chef Masters" and "Iron Chef," and he has a show on PBS. He's written a few cookbooks and has nine restaurants, eight of which are in and around New Orleans. Stephanie tells us that she studied one of Besh's cookbooks before coming to Louisiana to do the show. Smart girl! Unlike some of the other cheftestants that didn't know how to make a roux or what spices to put in Cajun seasoning. Stephanie also likes his hair a lot and Bravo actually conducts a poll at the bottom of the screen about whether or not John Besh has great hair. Turns out America only thinks it's so-so.

Padma tells everyone to pack an overnight bag and head out to their cars because Besh is going to take them on a little field trip to Covey Rise Farm on the Northshore. As soon as they arrive they are given their "Quickfire Challenge."

 

Quickfire

The chefs walk up to a big table covered with the "Creole tomato," which is a special sort of tomato that was designed to flourish in the crazy summer heat and thrive in the distinctive soil. Padma tells them they have 20 minutes to create a dish that showcases the creole tomato and Besh warns to do the tomato justice. There is nothing worse than a great vegetable or fruit being sliced up in vain and put into a terrible dish. The winner will get immunity in the Elimination Challenge.

Justin explains to us that the Creole tomato has a thin skin and high acid content which means there's a lot you can do with them. Everyone assumes that Bene has the advantage with tomatoes because he's Italian, but I'm pretty sure that Justin actually does. He's automatically familiar with everything.

The chefs start sweating away at their makeshift stations under the Louisiana sun. Most of them go with some kind of salad or soup as I'm sure cooking anything in that heat sounds like absolute torture. Also, they don't exactly have that much time. Some of them seem to have no idea what to do and they're just randomly slicing things to appear like they're at least doing something. I think it's just too damn hot for them out there to think straight.

For the least favorite, we have Patty's Roasted Tomatoes Marinated in Olive Oil and Cherry Vinegar, which is a bit of a mess. We also have Travis and his Seared Creole Tomato with Steak because it doesn't feature the tomato front and center and also, his steak is pretty rare. He tries to talk his way out of it by saying he likes rare meat on hot days but... yuck. Bad bullshitter. And finally we have Stephanie's Creole Tomato Steaks with Vinaigrette and Olive Oil for being too simple and unimaginative. I'd put her in the bottom just for calling a tomato slice a "steak."

For Besh's favorites, we have Nina's Chilled Watermelon and Tomato Soup, Carlos's Olive Oil Poached Tomato and Louis's Tomato Seed Bouillon, Marinated Tomato, Watermelon Cucumber and Zucchini. Louis looks floored that he's actually in the top for something and Bene looks defeated because the guy who's been consistently on the bottom and only kept around for his stunning smile beat the resident Italian in the tomato challenge.

Besh announces that Nina is the winner and grants her immunity. You can tell there are a few chefs getting tired of Nina winning all the damn time, but no one comes out and says it. Carlos calls her a "monster chef," but he's too much of a class act to say anything negative about her. I think this is the nicest group of chefs on this show yet.

COURTESY OF BRAVO

Nina's chilled tomato and watermelon soup

Elimination Challenge

In keeping with the farm theme, the chefs are given a 90-minute "farm to table" challenge where they'll cook with the local seasonal produce and proteins. They'll also be allowed to use fresh milk and cream, but no butter. The real kicker, though, is that they have to showcase Philadelphia Cream Cheese in their dish, because that stuff actually comes from a farm in Philly. It's right next to the cheese steak farm. The chefs will be cooking the next day at John Besh's Northshore restaurant, La Provence, and will be serving the executive chefs from his restaurant group "family style," which just means they present their dish on really big plates and everyone serves themselves. Like on Thanksgiving.

Nina is allowed to pick which course she wants to work with but all the other chefs have to draw knives. She chooses "appetizer." Travis gets "entree" and he's kind of peeved about it saying that cream cheese goes best with dessert. Come on Travis, I'm sure there's a Central Vietnamese dish that uses cream cheese in its tomato sauce. I'd be more worried about no butter, especially for the desserts. Padma then announces that the winner of the challenge will receive $10,000 courtesy of, wait for it ... Philadelphia Cream Cheese! They also get to relax all night at the Covey Rise Lodge, which looks quite lovely.

The chefs unwind by jumping in the pool, drinking some beers, grilling out and enjoying the sunset. They later make some s'mores around a campfire and Nina confides that Bene and Travis are her two best friends and are dubbed "gossip girls." How much you wanna bet one of them is going home? Nina goes on to gush over Bene and how great he is and I really wish the show focused a bit more on him. He does seem like a cool guy but he's had almost zero screen time.

The next day at La Provence, the chefs arrive and find they have a limited pantry due to the nature of the challenge being all about local and seasonal ingredients. They rush and fight over the few choices but there is one thing that they have plenty of and that is Philadelphia Cream Cheese.

During prep Bene wonders how to cook his chicken without butter. I'm not sure if they're banned from using other fats like olive oil, but it doesn't seem so. Over at Travis's station he rambles on about cutting his vegetables in a weird way and Shirley's redoing her custard because the first one was overdone. Louis isn't that great at desserts but he's making some kind of graham cracker bread pudding that in theory sounds pretty awesome, but this is Louis we're talking about. Nicholas can't find any yeast so he's improvising by making a funnel cake with "carrot cake mousse." Um, YUM. Sara is having trouble stuffing her lamb with her cream cheese mixture and Justin is wanting to bring his "A" game because he knows a lot of the executive chefs they'll be serving later so the pressure is on.

Team Appetizer is naturally up first and Besh, Padma and everyone is at the table, including Tom Colicchio's snarky facial expressions. The highlight is Nina's squash blossom and the low point is Sara's undercooked lamb chop. She spent too much time fiddling with stuffing cream cheese into the lamb with a piping bag and she couldn't cook it long enough. At this point she's expecting to go home.

COURTESY OF BRAVO

Chef Besh's Tom Colicchio impression

Next up is Team Entree. Tom stares at Bene's chicken in disbelief and not in a good way. His vegetables are a hot mess. And then when Besh says that Travis's lamb chops are pretty good, Tom is just like, "Really?" The look he gives Besh is priceless. It's like a combination eye roll/sneer. They even have something bad to say about Carrie's dish, and Carrie has consistently been at the top from the beginning. The only entree they seem to like is Justin's duck.

Team Dessert doesn't do much better. The judges seem to only like Nicholas's funnel cake, which looks damn tasty. Stephanie's dessert is strangely separated, Shirley's custard is overdone and one of Besh's executive chefs says that Louis's graham cracker dessert is a soggy mess. But has she seen him smile? I bet his smile would crisp that cracker right up.

 

Judges' Table

Over in the stew room the chefs watch the initial reactions from the judges over their dishes and they seem generally disappointed. They didn't do too well with the fresh seasonal ingredients that were bestowed upon them. I wonder why that is. These are some very talented chefs and you'd think they'd be able to do better. Is it really because of the no butter issue? Were they not allowed to use other fats? Also maybe the tight space and time constraints played a part in it. Ninety minutes sounds like a reasonable amount of time, but not if some of that time is spent correcting mistakes. Cooking a dish you're not familiar with takes a little trial and error, like Sara's trouble with her piping bag. You can't predict all that stuff, so 90 minutes ends up going by pretty damn fast.

Padma calls in Nina, Justin and Nicolas to be told they are winners. Actually, they are pretty much the only ones with dishes that the judges liked. Everything else sucked. Congrats guys, you didn't suck. John Besh gets the honor of announcing Nina as the winner of 10,000 big ones. She goes back into the stew room to the smiling faces of her fellow cheftestants, but you can tell they're all firing mind-bullets at her.

COURTESY OF BRAVO

Nina's fried zucchini blossom

Sara, Bene and Travis get called in next to be told they are the losers. Losers with a big huge L because even the people who skated by in the middle sucked royally in this challenge. Bene and Travis had crappy vegetables and Sara's lamb was undercooked and ultimately Bene is the one to get knifed.

I really feel like we didn't have enough time with good old Benedetto. He seemed really interesting and funny and actually talented, but just couldn't work within the confines of some of the challenges. I think he was also too much of a nice guy stepping back and not refusing to go along with stupid ideas like Travis's tomato-based Vietnamese sauce. I think I have a new guy to root for in "Last Chance Kitchen." Go Bene!

Next week: Kermit Ruffins plays "Do Watcha Wanna," a song that has a tendency to get stuck in my head whenever I hear it (which around here is often), and as I write this, it's definitely there. Do watcha wanna!

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