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'Top Chef: New Orleans' Recap - Episode 7

The cheftestants have to impress a few New Orleans musicians, including Kermit Ruffins.

Kermit Ruffins and Padma Lakshmi

The cool thing that I noticed while watching this episode is that we're starting to get to know these people and it seems like they're getting more comfortable with each other and the process, so they're showing their personalities more. For instance, Stephanie and Justin's dry sense of humor is starting to shine through (which makes me love them), and Louis and Brian are starting to seem like actual people instead of chefs who get to say a line here and there.

I'm also struck by how nice all of these guys are to each other. In the past, there has usually been some kind of resident asshole that everyone loves to hate. Perhaps the would-be asshole was booted out early or maybe Bravo has decided that all the drama can be left with their other reality gems like "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" or "The Shahs of Sunset."

I'm also pleasantly surprised by how New Orleans hasn't been getting the dumbed-down tourist treatment that I've seen it get while featured on other kinds of shows. The clichés aren't quite as cringe inducing as "The Originals" on The CW where our city is depicted as only consisting of the French Quarter and where people are constantly hanging out in cemeteries and bars around Jackson Square. As if a local would pay $5 per Bud Light all night.

Instead we've been treated to seeing the things that we all actually like to do, like going to Vaughan’s for a night out or to the West Bank for Vietnamese food. I'm so proud of you, “Top Chef!”

Anyways, in this episode we begin with Nina missing Bene because he was her fellow "Gossip Girl" and Nick is being treated at Urgent Care for strep throat. He's been quarantined and is not fit to compete for the time being. At the “Top Chef” kitchens, Padma informs us that if he isn't better by the Elimination Challenge, he'll have to forfeit.

But we don't have time to be too sad about Bene and Nick because the chefs are introduced to the one and only Kermit Ruffins, beloved jazz musician, cook and owner of Kermit's Treme Speakeasy. Padma informs the chefs that New Orleans is a "Jazz Mecca" and Kermit is carrying his trumpet so we know that music is somehow going to play a part in this challenge.


Quickfire Challenge

We're told that one of the things cooking and jazz music have in common is "improvisation.” In the middle of the kitchen are stations with some of Kermit's favorite foods and cooking utensils where the chefs will start their dishes. BUT – and this is a good one – when Kermit starts playing his trumpet, the chefs have to rotate to a different station in a game of musical chairs, or musical cooking. The chefs all look pretty nervous about it, mainly I think because there's a station with a microwave on it and no one wants to get stuck with that. Nothing offends a chef like a microwave, except maybe ordering a steak well done.

Kermit starts playing and it's really fun to watch grown adults circling around a game of musical chairs with really awkward looks on their faces like they're thinking, “Should I be grooving to the music?” When the trumpet stops, Shirley gets stuck with the microwave station that also has bacon and tofu. A microwave, bacon and tofu. That's hilarious.

As the chefs work on their first round they start getting comfortable even though they realize they probably won't be finishing these dishes and after a few minutes Kermit starts playing again. Travis ends up at Nina's old station where she was making a classic French dish, but he's flummoxed over her overlooking all the awesome Asian ingredients provided, because he's Travis. Brian lands on a station with frog legs and just sautés a few random vegetables because he has no idea what to do with them.

The chefs end up rotating about four times and some are luckier than others. Louis is disappointed that he was at two stations with great potential and ended up at the frog legs station where Brian sautéed some half-ass vegetables. Justin ends up at the microwave station and finds a couscous concoction that he throws out since it was so terrible and has to start over with a few minutes left on the clock.

Carlos ends up at a good station with some nice fish and it looks like Brian lands on a dish that's already awesome because of Nina and Sara and all he has to do is finish a sauce and plate it up.

As Kermit starts making his rounds, it looks like Louis and Justin are completely screwed while Brian and Patty magically land on great stations. Kermit's least favorites are Justin's Tofu Salad with Crispy Bacon and Louis's Confit Potatoes with Frog Legs and Queso Fresco. His favorites are Carlos's Pan Seared Redfish with the nice crispy skin and Brian's Duck and Mussels. Kermit also loves Patty's pork chops that Louis mainly created and he sure isn't smiling about it. Brian ends up winning the immunity however, and Sara who worked on it the most seems pretty broken-hearted about it but she takes it well. Damn, these chefs are so nice! On previous seasons they'd be calling each other bitches behind their backs by now.


Brian's Duck and Mussels

Elimination Challenge

To announce the next challenge, Padma uses all sorts of musical analogies to explain that they'll be working in teams. She says that, "Just as musicians have to collaborate to make incredible music, chefs also have to work together to produce fabulous food.” She then says that they'll have to BAND together (face palm) to make a potluck style meal. They'll be serving dinner at Kermit's Treme Speakeasy for some of his musician friends before their show.

Louis, Shirley, Justin and Sara form a team, as do Stephanie, Carrie, Nina and Carlos. Those are both solid teams. Travis, Patty and Brian get stuck with the three-person team and a potential guy with strep throat. Travis is worried about not having that fourth person to help out, but sometimes it's nice not having too many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak.

Kermit then invites them all to Vaughan’s Lounge in the Bywater (yay, my hood!) where he played for more than 20 years while serving barbecue between sets. (And sadly, that is past tense because he recently stopped his Thursday night shows there, although you can still catch him at lots of other places.)

On the way to the store to buy ingredients, the chefs start firing off ideas in the car. Nick is on the mend and able to chime in via mobile phone and the rest of his team takes orders. I'm not sure why they let the guy with strep throat be the team leader, but that’s what happens. At Whole Foods, Nick is commanding Travis from his cell in his back pocket and he's all like, "Yeah yeah, sure sure" and it's actually pretty funny. Travis is growing on me.

We then cut back to the “Top Chef” pad where all the chefs are getting ready for their night out at Vaughan's. As Justin puts on a nice shirt and a hat, it hits me that it's got to be weird for him to compete in the city he lives in, but he can't go home. He still has to live in this house with everyone else and is probably not allowed to leave production.


Cheftestants at Vaughan's

The morning after Kermit's show, everyone is prepping for the potluck. Nick decides to make up for missing the Quickfire by doing twice the amount of work and dominates most of his team's prep list. He says that in order for it to get done right, he'd rather do it all himself. Brian is all like, “Whatever dude, run yourself ragged if you want, I have immunity.”

Amidst the food flurry we see Nina making gnocchi, Stephanie making artichokes, Carrie making a summer tiramisu for her team's Italian-inspired menu and Carlos making sponge cake in a microwave while chefs tuning in everywhere are clutching their pearls.

Later at Kermit's, they only have 30 minutes before they serve a gathering of the local New Orleans music scene, including Davis Rogan (the inspiration for Steve Zahn's character on “Treme”), Charmaine Neville, Jason Marsalis and head judge Tom Colicchio who seems to be in the best mood we've seen him in all season. He's smiling and laughing and I didn't notice him give the stink-eye once, well at least not until the Judges’ Table.

The chefs present Louis's Grilled and Pickled Vegetables, Sara and Shirley's Glazed Beef and Justin's Shrimp & Grits. Everyone seems to love it all.

Next up is the gray team with Tomato Watermelon Salad, Caramel Glazed BBQ Ribs and Fried Chicken with Bee Pollen and Ponzu, all single-handedly done by Nick. Patty however, is blamed for not sprinkling chile on the watermelon salad.

And finally on the green team we have Nina's Semolina Gnocchetti with Sausage, Carrie and Carlos's Summer Tiramisu, and Stephanie's Fried Baby Artichoke, Preserved Lemon, and Anchovy Aioli.

Everyone loves the artichokes, even the people who don't normally like artichokes and Aaron Wilkinson of the Honey Island Swamp Band loves the gnocchi and says it tastes like "fancy Hamburger Helper," which he insists isn't an insult because he loves Hamburger Helper. (This is totally something my husband would say, like the other day we were at Mariza and he was eating this amazing Lamb Belly over Polenta and he said it was as good as his Stouffer's Mac & Cheese. Face palm.)

At the end of the meal, Tom says that it's going to be tough figuring out who has the "best set and the worst set,” HAHA! Just like in music! He says it with a smirk, like the line was fed to him from a producer and he could barely say it with a straight face.


Judges' Table

The chefs file into the stew room and they watch the judges (Tom, Padma, Gail Simmons and Sue Zemanick) discuss the dishes over their web cam. At the beginning, the judges say that the chefs did a great job and Gail gushes that everyone gave her rave reviews. But then they start to trash the food and everyone gets confused. I'm confused too. I thought they enjoyed everything? Even while they were eating, they seemed to love it all. Well, I guess not! The dessert was weird, the shrimp and grits were strange, the ribs had too much rub on them, the watermelon salad was bland (kiss of death, bland food) and the fish was overcooked and dry. However, the judges somehow allow themselves to like the fried chicken.

The chefs in the stew room are dumbfounded, they're like, “What just happened? They liked our food but they actually hated everything?”

Padma walks in and solemnly calls in the gray team. This confuses everyone and gives the gray team false hope because they usually announce the winner first. It's soon revealed, however, that they are the losers and someone is going home. They fire off some criticisms and tell them to send in the winners. Harsh.

The green team gets sent to the judges and the team members are told they are the favorites. They love the artichokes and gnocchi, but the tiramisu is wrong because, by definition, it should have coffee in it. I bet they would have loved it if they had called it "Summer Cake" instead of "Summer Tiramisu.”

The win goes to Stephanie this week for her awesome artichokes and she's stunned. She's so happy that she finally won something and it's great to see her get some gratification and hopefully this will be a nice big shot in the arm of confidence for her.

The judges bring back someone to knife and finally put Patty out of her misery for that watermelon salad. It's sad because she's upset and crying, but she says she'll continue to fight to get better everyday. I wonder who would have gone home if she'd just sprinkled the chile onto the watermelon? I guess we'll never know.

Next week:  Dr. John comes by for a visit and the chefs get to break down a whole 300-pound hog. This one isn't going to be for the vegans and vegetarians, you guys.

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