Right out of the box, literally, it was semi-happy holidays on last night’s “Top Chef,” when cheftestants were given large, gift-wrapped containers and the instruction to use every single thing found inside, “Chopped”-fashion. The inventory: a melon baller and a pressure cooker, plus white chocolate-covered pretzels, cloves, fresh squab, pomegranate, wasabi, and a bottle of tequila. Marginally better than the vending-machine-snack challenge of a few seasons back, I suppose.
Orange County’s Shirley Chung was briefly stymied when her tequila went missing, ending up in Sheldon Simeon’s hands. That got sorted, but a slightly out-of-control alcohol flame in Chung’s sauté pan of squab charred the tiny birds. Later, when the judges cut into the flesh, we could see it was still properly rare, but the damage was done, exacerbated by failure to use the melon baller, which had quietly disappeared from her work area. How Chung’s melon baller ended up on Sheldon’s station, only the gods of Reality TV know. Casey Thompson’s smoked chile-squab-tequila soup impressed the judges enough to score her the Quickfire win, which also included immunity.
The elimination challenge was refreshingly topical, featuring so-called “trash fish,” the less-desirable by-catch fishermen haul in while pursuing target species. Using such fish more could help alleviate overfishing pressure on popular varieties. Chung and Simeon were paired as a team. Awkward? Not in the least. Even after the traveling tequila and missing melon baller, not only were there no hard feelings, there was obvious joy. Chung said the two were “jumping up and down” in happiness at the chance to cook together. And what a great team they made: Their elegant, Szechuan peppercorn-seasoned mullet dish easily got them into the top three finishers. In the end it was close, but the win went to veterans John Tesar and Katsuji Tanabe. It was exciting to see Shirley cooking at the very high level we expect; anticipation is heightened for next week, and beyond.
Click here to read all my Taste of Orange County “Top Chef” coverage.