To date, 181 chefs have drawn their knives, buttoned their chef jackets, and vied for the title of Top Chef. Only 11 have won.
How, then, have the other 94 percent stood out? Some are fan favorites—the soft-spoken Sheldon Simeons, pretty boys like Chris Crary, and forces-of-personality such as Carla Hall. Others have been villains—the Lisa Fernandeses, Sarah Gruenenbergs, and Robin Leventhals—who terrorized the kitchens around them while other chefs stewed in various rooms over their attitudes and performances. (And many—like Nimma Osman, Suyai Steinhauer, and Ken Lee—who have been forgotten altogether.)
With all these characters, it takes a lot for a chef to stand out purely on the strength of their cooking rather than how strong a camera edit they’re getting week-to-week. It’s an old crutch for reality TV personalities to say that the camera was their undoing, but Top Chef’s production team does seek narratives, heroes, and villains to fill their 40-plus minutes of TV time each week. They want compelling television, and it’s all about the stories.
But this week’s Top Chef Duels is all about competency and redemption: Shirley Chung and Brooke Williamson are two chefs most memorable for being good cooks and progressing deep into the competition only to fall short. Despite the producers’ surprising claim that Brooke was the “favorite” in the Season 10 finale, she saw her hopes dashed by Last Chance Kitchen returnee Kristen Kish, who was clearly the best chef in the relatively weak Seattle class and had only been eliminated due to the vagaries of Restaurant Wars. Shirley, on the other hand bowed out in a surprising third place in New Orleans; at the time she seemed like the judges’ favorite and the apple of “Uncle Emeril’s” eye. For both, the pain of defeat is still fresh.
One of Top Chef’s greatest exports has to be bringing geoduck into the popular consciousness. Once we’d gotten past the particulars—it’s not a duck, but it is gooey—the shellfish would usually rear its ugly, always-phallic head (or body, or whatever that part is) once a season, so it’s fitting to see it here for Shirley’s quickfire offering.
Although neither of these chefs strives for the culinary fireworks we saw last week, their geoduck salads (with or without bellies) do satisfy the stomachs of the trio of judges. It seems like this comes down to Shirley’s “aggressively salty” clam-belly croutons (yum) versus Brooke’s passionfruit vinaigrette, and despite Curtis’ strange assertion that the fruit seeds were a bad choice because it might make him think that he’s eating sand, he and Wolfie pick passionfruit, leaving Gail the croutons and Shirley the third straight chef to lose his or her own quickfire challenge.
NEXT: Save room for dessert