As “Top Chef” season 14 rolls on, chef Shirley Chung of Irvine’s Twenty Eight has been cooking very well. No surprise there—we know she has mad skills. But she’s been cruising in the middle of the pack, safe from elimination but also, hasn’t yet been singled out for a win. While we’re eager to see Shirley dominate, a bit of hiding one’s light under a bushel basket is a smart strategy in early episodes—the act of sheerly staying alive in the competition is paramount. How much of this seeming reticence is Reality TV magic and how much plain old reality, is anyone’s guess.
In this week’s Quickfire, presided over by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, cheftestants were charged with giving familiar comfort foods a vegetarian makeover. Interpretations of familiar, calorific dishes had varying success; chicken and dumplings from Sylva Senat employed seitan vegetable-protein strips, and looked every bit deserving of its near-last-place finish. Jamie Lynch’s Sloppy Joes, by contrast, were smartly made with firm tofu standing in for ground beef, and gleaned him the win, which included immunity in the elimination challenge.
We saw Shirley draw pepperoni pizza as her to-be-made-over dish, but weren’t treated to its judging, for reasons of time or plot development. We did get the details on her elimination challenge, for which the competitors were given background on late cookbook author and southern cooking doyenne Edna Lewis, then instructed to cook a meal honoring her pioneering garden-to-table sensibility. It was a little dismaying to see how few, notably the southern chefs, knew of Lewis before this. Shirley, for her part, seemed seriously inspired by Lewis’ evocative descriptions and dishes, saying, “She’s like a poet. You just feel her love for nature and for people.” The judges loved Chung’s confit chicken wing and collard greens-rice dish, but chose a perfunctory-looking fried fish fillet from Senat for the win, taking him from “Top Chef” nadir to pinnacle in one episode. Amanda Baumgarten cooked an oddly chunky sweet potato and duck dish that made it pretty easy to guess she’d be the eliminatee, and indeed, she headed to “Last Chance Kitchen” to face Silvia Barban. Barban won! Yes, a little surprising, though less so than her dispatch of Sam Talbot last week. Does this make it a wee bit more plausible that she’ll be the one vaulting back into regular competition? Maybe. But we’ve got a ways to go yet.
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