‘Top Chef’ Week 9 Recap—Did Shirley Survive?

With just seven cheftestants remaining, the competition on “Top Chef” should be intensifying. Or so we’d be forgiven for thinking. The cooking we saw last night, however, ran a broad gamut from excellent to, well, totally lame.

To start, the Quickfire wasn’t a cooking task, but a tasting. Blindfolded, the chefs were asked to identify various food items, and most did quite poorly. Confusing sherry and balsamic vinegars, as Brooke Williamson did, seems understandable, as does Shirley Chung’s guessing shrimp paste instead of anchovy paste. But guessing oyster for clam (Sylva Senat), or not recognizing scallop (Casey Thompson)? In the end, Williamson correctly identified the most items, 16: five more than her closest competitor. She also realized her vinegar mistake mere nanoseconds after making it, but too late to correct. There was no cooking, so no judging—only a numerical ranking of correct identifications, and immunity was not on offer.

We’d hoped the elimination challenge would be more substantive. Cooking for 100 guests for a children’s hospital fundraiser, the chef were given somewhat hackneyed instructions to make dishes inspired by their childhoods. Shirley invoked the Beijing street food she sneaked out for behind her physician mother’s back, and cooked lamb sou vide with “Beijing spices,” to be seared a la minute at her station. The judges seemed to like her flavors, but it was the service that did in the dish—Chung had cut super-thick slices of the very rare meat, to be served on small, disposable plates common at walkaround cocktail tastings. Basically, impossible to eat. I watched in disbelief, honestly. There is no way a chef with Chung’s refined sensibilities and common sense, not to mention experience, would have made such a misstep. Was there maybe a little outside interference to goose the drama? We’ll never know. But despite ending up in the bottom three, Shirley survived, which is the important thing.

After creating a squishy mess of broken cake layers and whipped mascarpone putatively representing her grandfather’s chocolate-wafer and Cool Whip ice box cake, Emily Hahn was sent to “Last Chance Kitchen”—many viewers would say it’s about time—which made for a southern chef cook-off with Jamie Lynch. Even though he managed to somehow not have salt to season his dish, Lynch prevailed. Kind of a surprising result, considering what an advocate for proper salt use judge Tom Colicchio is known to be. Do we assume that Hahn’s (properly salted) dish was just that bad? Or was the invisible hand of Reality TV intervening? Either way, Lynch inches closer to returning as one of the final four. Watch this “Last Chance Kitchen” episode and see what you think.

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

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