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'Top Chef: New Orleans' Recap - Episode 4

Captain Vietnam

courtesy of Bravo

So this is the first "Top Chef" elimination of the season that I didn't agree with, not that I was there, but at the same time, neither were the judges. They didn't see how the chefs interacted with each other during the challenge, they just got to see the end product. And yes, at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the food, but after seeing how that food got to the table, I wonder if they would have come to the same conclusion.

From the get-go, as soon as Travis's eyes lit up at the announcement of a Vietnamese challenge, I knew that he'd be in the bottom somehow. How could he not be? As soon as anyone on these kinds of shows find that they get to work on a challenge with something that they are uber-familiar with, and they boast, "I KNOW THIS," it usually means they are going to crash and burn, because they are hell-bent on doing things their way instead of just letting the challenge flow organically. And when you have two "experts" on one team, things are going to clash as you have an immovable object (Travis) and an unstoppable force (Sara). And who gets caught up in the middle of it? Bene, Stephanie and poor Janine. I never thought I'd be here feeling sorry for poor Janine, but I do.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We begin our episode with Emeril moseying on into the "Top Chef" pad with his pal Eddie Huang. All the cheftestants are just doing their thing, hanging out and then all of a sudden, oh hey, Emeril just appears out of thin air. That would scare the hell out of me. Everyone gathers around to hear what the next challenge is: Vietnamese food. Also, there will be no "quickfire" today. Emeril goes on to explain that in the 1970s, tens of thousands of Vietnamese people immigrated to New Orleans. You see Travis nodding enthusiastically (who, if you remember from the first episode, only dates Asians) and is all like, "Hell yeah they immigrated to New Orleans!" Like, seriously as soon as Travis hears this he can't sit still. He's got ants in his pants. He's like, "I've been to Vietnam, my boyfriend is from Vietnam, I've cooked with his grandma who is from Vietnam. THIS IS MY FOOD."

Okay buddy, simmer down. This is your food? Only yours? No one else's? Not even the thousands of Vietnamese people in the New Orleans area?

Emeril breaks everyone down into three groups. On the green team is Travis, Sara (who is also an "expert" in Vietnamese food), Stephanie, Bene and Janine. Travis says, "No offense to Emeril or Eddie, but I could probably give them a crash course in Vietnam." LOLOLOL. Bless his little heart. I bet his Vietnamese boyfriend is so proud right now.

On the red team is Shirley, Carrie, Patty, Nina and Justin, and on the orange team is Nicholas, Carlos, Brian, Louis and Michael. I immediately think that the red team is going to win because it's all ladies plus our New Orleans darling pudding pop Justin. Also, Carlos is freaking out because he's never had Vietnamese food before.

Emeril and Eddie (sounds like a good name for a sitcom) tell the chefs that their Vietnamese dishes must feature shrimp and that they will be visiting a shrimp dock. Also, they'll be taking one of those party buses that usually come with a stripper pole all over New Orleans to see the highlights.

On the way to eastern New Orleans, Shirley starts firing off menu ideas a mile a minute. (She reminds me of that friend of Vanessa's on "The Cosby Show" that talked really fast but was also kind of adorable. Shirley is all kinds of adorable.) As the bus rolls past the Dong Phuong Bakery, Michael is all like, "You guys! Let me remind you how knowledgeable I am about the city and tell you that this place is the best!" Emeril is like, "Um yeah. This is our first stop, duh." Nina, by the way, does not like Michael. She thinks he's faker than Pamela Anderson's breasts. Ouch. Michael is so fake that he's as fake as someone who isn't even relevant anymore.

After they climb out of the bus, it looks like everyone gets free rein to try everything at the bakery and it all looks so good it's making me hungry. They have bahn mi, they have dumplings, they have a whole bunch of heavenly looking morsels of goodness. (I must drive out to this place. I've only been to eastern New Orleans once and went over this really scary tall bridge to get there and I've been scared to drive over there ever since. But this Vietnamese food might make me face my fear.)

Next up is a shrimp dock in what I believe is Plaquemines Parish (please correct me if I'm wrong) where Shirley is being intelligent and asks the fishermen and all the workers how they prepare their shrimp. She's a smart one. She's allowing people to give her input and ideas, unlike Sara and Travis who are arguing about whether or not it's authentic to put romaine in a dish. As in lettuce. A hipster food argument about the authenticity of lettuce. Ugh.

Also, Janine seems concerned that Travis is insisting there is totally a tomato sauce in central Vietnam, even though she's never heard of such a thing. Go with your gut, Janine! I try to say this to her through the television screen but she doesn't listen to me. Over on the orange team, Carlos is still freaking out about the Asian flavors and Nicholas asks him what he thinks he can do. Carlos says that he likes the soup. Nicholas is like, "Fine. Shut up and do the soup." Ass. You shouldn't patronize the kind Mexican guy with the Michelin star.

Next on the tour is Kim Ahn's Noodle House in Harahan. Shirley adorably tries to make Patty try everything by shoving food down her throat and Patty is like, "Yo you're tiny and eat like a crazy woman but I can't eat like you!" Patty is totally growing on me. Across the table Emeril asks how everyone likes the food and Travis exclaims that it feels like home. When they all try to say a toast, Travis corrects them on how to do it the Vietnamese way. Everyone pulls a muscle in their head from rolling their eyes so hard.

Now that the chefs are stuffed to the brim, the party bus drops them off at Hong Kong Market on the West Bank to go shopping for their menus. And I have to pause for a second to reiterate the journey that they just took, which will only make sense to the local folks. They went from their pad in the French Quarter to eastern New Orleans to Plaquemines Parish to Harahan to Gretna. I was thinking maybe it was broken up over two days, but they're all wearing the same clothes throughout. Damn, that's a trek. And a long time to be couped up in a party bus with Travis.

While at the Hong Kong Market (where you'll find lots of New Orleans chefs shopping for their restaurants) the cheftestants run through to grab all their ingredients. During the flurry Travis and Janine throw some things in the green team's cart and Sara seems to think some stuff needs to be put back. I don't know if it has to do with the romaine argument but somehow the lemongrass gets put back. I think in trying to push back at Travis for being pushy, she got a little overzealous and made a mistake. This team is so doomed. There's just too much negative energy surrounding them.

The next day they prepare their menus in the Tan Dinh kitchen in Gretna. The green team is very confident in their Fresh Gulf Shrimp in Spicy Tomato Sauce (doesn't that just scream "Vietnamese" to you?), Grilled Pork Sausage Wraps, Dim Sum "Duo" Pork and Shrimp, and Coconut Coffee Macaroon.

Over on the orange team they have Black Pepper Squid with Cabbage, Fish Head Soup with Pineapple and Tamarind, Pork Belly Spring Rolls and Dipping Sauce, and Beef Pho. Michael says he's not creating a dish today but helping out his teammates execute theirs. It's probably smart for Michael to hang back a little and let Travis be the asshole of the week this time. While Brian is making his dish he says he's just as worried as everyone else even though he's Asian and that just because he's Korean, it doesn't mean he knows all about Vietnam. Maybe it would be something like if there was a cooking competition on a Japanese show and they asked me to cook up an authentic British meal I probably wouldn't be too confident either. Bangers and Mash? Beans on Toast?

Over on the green team they can't find the lemongrass and Travis offers up the information to Emeril and Eddie when they walk through to see how everyone is doing. Sara is like, "Shhhh! Zip it!" But Travis says the lemongrass got "lost in translation," which was a really stupid thing to say. Eddie pokes a little fun at Travis and he doesn't take too kindly to it, saying that Eddie is "kind of a douchebag" and doesn't really know what he's talking about because he's not Vietnamese. Um. Neither are you. Also, do you think Eddie's not going to watch this show? I don't get trashing people like that on television. Especially if it could affect your future career.

Over in Justin's world it looks like he's having a grand old time just keeping his mouth shut. First, he says that if they had just asked him, he totally would have given the green team some of his lemongrass because he bought too much of it. Also, Louis's beef pho doesn't look too great and Janine is making the mistake of piling sauce on top of fried shrimp, which will make it mushy. He then sort-of quotes Napoleon saying, "Brilliance is winning, but also not telling your opponent they're losing." How cute is this guy. And I have to say that Justin and Michael both could have probably done just as must posturing as Travis and Sara seeing as they are from New Orleans and obviously have a familiarity with Vietnamese cuisine, but they chose to hang back and concentrate on making good food. Kudos to them.

As time runs out for the chefs, the guests start piling in Tan Dinh and service starts with the orange team first. They're not too impressed with anything except for Brian's spring rolls. Carlos's soup was better during Emeril and Eddie's walk-through and Louis's pho was pretty terrible. At this point I'm not sure Louis has made anything good at all.

Next up is the red team. Shirley presents their raw beef salad with pickled vegetables, Vietnamese BBQ Shrimp with Creole Spice Butter, Beef Pho with Rice Noodles and Lettuce, and Lemon Custard with Caramelized Banh Mi. The judges love everything, saying that Justin's Pho is way better than Louis's. Though they're not crazy about the texture of the raw beef salad and Carrie's presentation of the custard was not that great. Okay, nitpickers.

And finally Sara presents the red team's dishes and before she even says anything, Eddie already has a bad impression from earlier and I can't say that I blame him. They're not pleased with anything except for Stephanie's macaroon dessert. There were some bad textures and they really messed up the rice and overcooked the shrimp. So much for Captain Vietnam and co.

At the Judges' Table, Padma calls in the red team to tell them that they've won. They tell Justin that his pho was pretty great and Shirley's BBQ shrimp was innovative and flavorful. Shirley wins. So far the only people who have won anything have been Carrie, Shirley and Justin. There's your top three right there folks, I'd bet on it. Shirley is given the task of telling the green team that they have been summoned, i.e., they're the losers.

Sara is pretty upset because they love Asian food so much and it sucks to be there. Tom Coliccio starts off by asking what in the world was the story with the strange Italian tomato sauce and Travis insists that he had it in central Vietnam. Tom tells him that if this was a challenge about Parisian food that just because there's probably a McDonald's in Paris it doesn't mean he should make McDonald's. Oooo, burn. He invoked McDonald's. Janine admits that she had never heard of a Vietnamese tomato sauce and also copped to the overcooked shrimp. She's also partially responsible for the terrible rice along with Sara. Finally the judges say something nice about Stephanie's macaroon, but Tom is on a roll and tells her it wasn't that exciting. Tom loves his salt so much that he'll even pour it into open wounds. Bene just stands there trying to make it seem like he doesn't know any of these people.

In the end, they knife Janine for not being able to cook shrimp. Okay. I understand why they did it. It just sucks. She was sent home for doing dishes that were not her creations and were doomed from the beginning. I feel like Travis should have gone home for derailing the whole thing with his obscure central Vietnam Italian food. Or Sara for playing a who's-more-Asian tug-of-war and making things worse.

I'm rooting for Janine in Last Chance Kitchen.

Next week: It's Halloween! The chefs cook for a costume party. 

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