‘Top Chef’ Week 7 Recap—Breakout Time for Chef Shirley Chung?

What’s the opposite of burying the lede? Here you go. Chef Shirley Chung of Irvine’s Twenty Eight won the elimination challenge on last night’s “Top Chef.” Finally! Could it be a sign that Chung’s breaking out of the pack on her march to the final? I’m hopeful, but remind myself that it is, after all, Reality TV, where (almost literally) anything can happen.

The preceding Quickfire instantly acquired an extra layer of fraughtness when Padma Lakshmi announced it would mean sudden death for the loser. The inevitable was drawn out a bit, first with exposition on a silly astrological-sign theme, then in choosing three losers who then went through a round-robin sudden-death. Neck-tatted Jamie Lynch scored the immunity-conferring win, with a simple-seeming sautéed lamb chop spiked with chile hotness that expressed, apparently, his Aries birthdate. Alabama governor’s mansion chef and nice guy Jim Smith lost, twice, in quick succession: first, as one of the three least-favorites and then, as the ultimate loser.

As we know, though, on “Top Chef,” losing means repairing to “Last Chance Kitchen.” So Smith will face Silvia Barban there later, under the watchful eye of Tom Colicchio and Hidden Valley Ranch products. But wait… at this point, there was still the elimination challenge ahead, which will produce its own loser—I think we’re going to need a bigger “Last Chance Kitchen.” Immunity-protected Lynch found himself on the losing team, and moreover, had the least successful dish. Visibly stricken, he honorably offered to give up the immunity won in the Quickfire round, stand with his team, and let the chips fall where they may. The judges took him at his word, and handed him the loss. “Last Chance Kitchen” for three it is, then.

Now, about that winner… guest judge this episode was chef Michael Cimarusti, whose Los Angeles restaurant, Providence, exalts all things from the sea. His reputation and expertise made it all the more meaningful that he chose Shirley’s dish, a mussel stew, to be the best. Maybe the problem has been not-great judges—that seems way more likely than Shirley committing sub-par cooking! Here’s hoping next week’s judge is as discerning.

Three competitors made it a little more crowded than usual down in “Last Chance Kitchen,” and meant two separate cook-offs. In the first, Smith ended Barban’s mini-streak, but then couldn’t keep it going when he was beat by Lynch in the second round. It was kind of a curious denouement—Colicchio doled out fairly severe criticism of Lynch’s dish before choosing it for the win, leaving the impression that Smith hadn’t really had a chance. You can watch the first “Last Chance Kitchen” showdown here and the second here.

Click here to read all my Taste of Orange County “Top Chef” coverage.

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