Last night was a fairly uneventful “Top Chef” week 5, meaning O.C.’s Shirley Chung survived to stay in the game, but didn’t win either the Quickfire or the elimination challenge. We’ll take it. The Quickfire at first flummoxed the cheftestants, when they entered the kitchen to find themselves alone with only ingredients, no Padma Lakshmi delivering instructions. Realizing that what they had before them was biscuit makings, soon everyone was up to his or her elbows in dough. Over a loudspeaker—reminiscent of, as one competitor observed, the wizard of Oz speaking from behind the curtain—Padma confirmed the biscuit challenge and noted, approvingly, that it didn’t take them long to get to work.
Chung made a good-looking black pepper mascarpone biscuit with blackberry compote, but never felt on firm footing, telling the camera, “I always try to avoid baking as much as possible, because I’m not a baker,” adding that she even steams the cheesecake served at Twenty Eight, her Irvine restaurant. Her biscuit was deemed dense—and the immunity-conferring win went to Brooke Williamson, for a “lox and bagel” riff: black pepper and poppy seed biscuit, smoked salmon salad, and avocado mousse.
The elimination challenge centered on whole-hog barbecue, which falls into Shirley’s bailiwick—she likened the low-and-slow cooking process to one she uses for suckling pig at Twenty Eight, and the side dish she contributed, braised cabbage with apple, was singled out for high praise by the judges. But Chung’s team came in a (very close) second—if they’d won, I think Shirley would have been a contender for the overall top spot. Maybe next week. As it was, John Tesar’s macaroni and cheese, rescued by a bit of molecular gastronomy when flour for a roux failed to materialize, made him the pick this week. I was surprised at the reminder that this was Tesar’s first individual win, in either of his “Top Chef” seasons. I bet it won’t be his last.
The losing chef was Italian Silvia Barban, who made an Italianate version of potato salad that didn’t satisfy the judges’ vision of a barbecue accompaniment. Her loss sent her to face Sam Talbot in “Last Chance Kitchen,” where she accomplished what others before her were unable to do: beat him. So, Talbot’s out, but will Barban battle all the way back? Doesn’t seem likely, but then, neither did her “Last Chance Kitchen” upset.
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