'Top Chef Just Desserts' recap: Top Chef Is Burning
For yet another week, we open on Seth, who is getting ready for his day. He interviews that he's the most stressed he's ever been in his life. Oh, come on. I'm not saying this process is a cake walk (ba dum bum), but man alive! Get it together. To his credit, he at least has the self-awareness to acknowledge he's a bit of a (fluffer)nutter. Zac notes Seth's bipolar personalities and says that Seth freaks out (and is unbearable) when he encounters difficulty in life. He thinks Seth's days in the competition are numbered. Seth thinks his problems are purely psychological and that his emotions will be the end of him. For her part, Malika is also having doubts. She reveals that she's growing to hate cooking because the competition is bringing out her OCD and sapping all the fun from cooking. She no longer knows where she fits in the competition but vows to stick it out because she doesn't want to make a decision based on emotion.
This week's Quickfire is ice cream-based! Gale Gand, Executive Pastry Chef of Tru in Chicago, joins Gail in welcoming the chefs. Yigit, my little Turkish Delight, says that Gale is known for putting her own twist on American classics. In fitting with that, the chefs are tasked with using Breyers ice cream to create the ultimate ice cream sundae. As usual, Seth comes out the gate with plenty of bluster to go around, saying he'll definitely win. Then Gail tells him that he can't make his own ice cream. Duh. It's a Breyers challenge, nimrod. He's predictably surly about it, which shows what a classy guy he is. Then things turn scary when he starts shaking, sighing, and generally being a crazypants. Heather can't help but say, "Wow." Except for maybe "Fruitcake." But then I wouldn't have a job, so thanks for helping me out there, H-Bomb.
Ohhhh, but there's more! For the first time, we get to see the teams go back to the stew room while the crew sets up the challenge. As the producers make sure the contestants are clear on the rules, Seth wigs out because a rule changed some time ago that has robbed him of some magical ingredient he will need to win this challenge. Was that ingredient sanity, perhaps? According to Morgan, the ingredient was paper cups, which makes even less sense. So there's Seth for you.
The producer tries to assure him that his lack of paper cups won't affect this challenge, at which point Seth gets actively belligerent (for the millionth time). Seth cries foul, and the producers tell him to suck it up already because he was the one who actually threw away these mystical paper cups. Zac notes with no small amount of judgment that grapefruit juice and paper cups are all it takes to trigger a breakdown in Seth. Man, if he doesn't go home this week, I might just swear off baking. He actually seems to have some talent and ingenuity, but it's not worth it if you have to slough through all the crazy to get there. It's not even good TV at this point because his crazy is tempered by an endless stream of puff-chested whining.
It might just be our lucky day, kids. Seth calls the producers liars and asks for his belongings and a flight back home. Quoth Zac, "And then... he disappeared." Eric says Seth isn't going through anything worse than anyone else there, and Yigit calls for a vote of who's sick of Seth's antics. It's unanimous! They agree that Seth is a total spoil sport with insufficient maturity to be in this competition. And then the sirens start, and we go to commercials.
When we return, we see Seth flat-out on the ground. He has literally worked himself into a frenzy. Over paper cups. It's like a tempest in a tea cup, but more annoying. Because of the anxiety attack, he's no longer medically clear to compete. He admits that he's crushed, primarily because he did this to himself. So now let's all join together and say, "Farewell, Seth. You were 100 times as sour as grapefruit juice, and your presence has rotted our minds like your desserts would surely rot our teeth."
Johnny joins the cheftestants in the stew room to update them on Seth's untimely -- but entirely necessary -- end. Everyone pretty much agrees that they feel bad for him but are pretty relieved to be rid of his stank vibes. And so the competition begins anew!
Each chef pulls an ice cream scoop to determine the flavor he or she will be building an ice cream sundae upon. Morgan pulls mint chocolate chip. Yigit gets my favorite flavor chocolate chip cookie dough, which I will take as a sign that we are going to meet, fall in love, and make beautiful food together. Erika appropriately pulls chocolate, Zac gets cherry vanilla, Danielle picks rocky road, Eric pulls natural vanilla, Heather gets vanilla fudge twirl, and Malika scoops up cookies and cream. Gail reminds them that they have 30 minutes, and the winner will receive immunity.
Eric plans to play it safe and simple, recalling that this tack worked well for him in the last quickfire. Malika says the chaos surrounding Seth's departure reminded her to chill out (pun intended, suckas) and have fun. Not so much for Morgan, who is running around like a crazy man. He explains that he's not doing a "sundae," but rather a mint chocolate chip cookies and milk "Sunday" because he's recently divorced, and he spends Sundays with his son, who loves Oreos and mint chocolate chip ice cream. He hopes to win for his son. Danielle, who dreams of opening up an old-fashioned soda shop, is doing a take-off on Neapolitan with her rocky road ice cream. Yigit says that he's keeping his emotions in check after Seth's abrupt withdrawal because the name of the game is professionalism. He says that he's been obsessed with ice cream since he grew up in Turkey, but he never had chocolate chip cookie dough, so he's designing his dessert with things he didn't have growing up that he's come to love now. Donuts are fried, sauces are drizzled, scoops are shaped, and the clock finally ticks down.
Zac is first to present his dessert to "Ga(i)l(e) Squared." He makes the show even gayer than before by creating a "Black Forest Is Burning" sundae of panko-crusted, deep-fried cherry vanilla ice cream. Oh, Zac-y, I love you more than words can say. Next, Erika offers up her Chocolate Banana S'Mores Frangelico sundae with peanuts and Godiva semi-sweet chocolate on top of a graham cracker. Morgan chokes up as he explains his "Sunday Snack" of an Oreo mint chocolate chip ice cream sandwich with warm and foamy, mint syrup-infused chocolate milk. Heather made a Vanilla Fudge Twirl Bananas Foster sundae, with a brown sugar-butter rum sauce, fried bananas, and cinnamon cream. Next is Eric's Natural Vanilla with Sautéed Peaches, Brandy & Crisp. Malika embellished her cookies and cream with malted chocolate caramel sauce and bananas. Yigit has plated a decadent and luscious Peanut Butter & S'Mores Cookie Dough sundae. Finally, Danielle shows her elegant Rocky Road Meets Neapolitan sundae in a wine glass, with toasted almonds, honey-and cinnamon-roasted strawberries, and a meringue on top.
All said and done, Gale names her bottom three: Eric because his sundae didn't stand out or make her want to meet him, Danielle because she didn't get the Neapolitan reference, and Erika because she stayed too close to the typical nuts and bananas sundaes we're used to. As for the top three: Zac for his "interesting" panko crumbs, Yigit for combining ganache and sauce, and Morgan for its contrast in textures and temperatures. And the winner is... Morgan! It's Morgan's first win on the show, and he tears up again at the thought of winning with a dessert for his son. Call me a spoil sport, but I kind of wish he'd gotten the rocky road scoop so he could have named his dessert "Sunday Muddy Son Day."
This week's elimination challenge will break up the cheftestants into three teams of three. Since Seth left and f***ed up the numbers, the producers decided to bring back Heather C., she of the maligned peanut butter cookie. Despite her misgivings about team challenges, Heather is pumped to rejoin the competition. The rest of the chefs are pretty much all like, "Well, you're not Seth, so come on down!" Because they were the top three in the quickfire, Gail names Zac, Yigit, and Morgan team captains. Morgan jokes that he wants Gale Gand before choosing Heather H. and Eric because he thinks the three of them balance each other out. Yigit taps Erika and Danielle. Zac picks Malika and Heather C., dubbing their group "Team Breakdown" in light of their tendency to cry.
Gail explains that the teams will be creating desserts inspired by performance art group The Lucent Dossier Experience, then serving those desserts at a party for LDE devotees. Morgan says that, like most of us (I'm guessing), he's never heard of LDE, but their act involves swinging, fire-wielding, and aerial acrobatics. Flambe anyone? And I called it! Gail further adds that the desserts must incorporate both fire and a "magnificent showpiece" for their station. With a look of stress on his face, Yigit explains that a showpiece is a time-consuming, labor-intensive architectural structure that represents a certain theme of the room in which it stands. Zac nervously admits he hasn't created a showpiece since culinary school. Finally, says Gail, each member of the team must put his or her own unique stamp on a specific dessert that echoes the concept and theme of the showpiece. Eric thinks this task is crazily intricate.
The gang arrives at LDE to glean inspiration. Heather H. describes what follows as " Mad Max meets Cirque du Soleil," which pretty much sums it up. No amount of verbiage -- and trust me, I've got plenty up my sleeve -- could fully depict the particular vintage of nonsense that is this now-well-worn trope of circus theater, so I won't even try. Hey look! There's Jay Manuel. Paychecks that consist of rib buffet and self-tanner coupons only go so far in covering one's monthly expenses, you know.
After the show, the teams head back to strategize. Team Turkish Delight decides on a chocolate dessert, a fruit dessert, and one that is "crunchy and yummy." Over on Team Divorced Dad, Morgan offers to make a mango panna cotta, and Heather H. volunteers to make the showpiece. Morgan lets her, despite his experience with showpieces, because he has immunity and is perfectly happy to coast by this week. Great strategy, big man. Sheesh. Team Breakdown lives up to its name when Heather C. proves as emotional and frazzled as she was during the last challenge, forcing Zac to marginalize her and Malika to doubt her.
With four hours left in the prep period, Team Divorced Dad dubs itself Team Exotic because of its aggressive flavors and colors. Heather H. is preparing a triple chocolate torte; Eric is making a lemon roulade with caramel, Morgan's got the mango panna cotta covered, and their flaming dessert will be an almond cream with spiced cherry flambé. Team Breakdown (a.k.a. Team Naughty & Nice) is offering up a banana bread with red curry courtesy of Zac, a saffron panna cotta with candied ginger from Malika, a chocolate sorbet with meringue and peppered pineapple from Heather C., and a black forest cake with flambéed cherries. Heather C. flits around asking everyone in earshot questions about her methods and techniques, supporting Zac's opinion that her disorganization and lack of independence is why she was eliminated already. Team Turkish Delight goes all alliterative up in here, choosing the theme of Sassy, Sexy & Sultry. They will serve Yigit's sexy raspberry lime Bavarian, Erika's sassy pineapple with almond ice cream, Danielle's sultry chocolate cake with basil ice cream, and an almond mirliton flambéed with bourbon peaches.
Just under three hours to go, Yigit has fully taken the reins of his team. Zac, meanwhile, is pressing his face into a pan. Lest you think it's all dramatics, he's actually creating a mold for the chocolate mask he'll use in his showpiece. Elsewhere, Eric worries that his team is going too traditional and that Morgan's immunity and Heather H.'s proven talent will render him the scapegoat. Speaking of scapegoats, Heather H. has disappeared and whipped herself into a tizzy because her meringue isn't working. She picks up right where Seth left off by threatening to leave, so Malika gives her some busy work. She empathizes with Heather's doubts, but she still wants her to get it together. Meanwhile, Danielle nearly botches a dessert, and Yigit worries he'll go home because he spent more time attending to her than on his own desserts. I know we're on episode four already, y'all, but it continues to surprise me how frantic pastry chef-ery is. Then again, spending your entire day breathing in sugar like you're mainlining eight balls must have a dangerously narcotic-like effect.
After prep ends, Malika calls home to assure her sons she's coming home soon. She tearfully vows to win because otherwise her entering the competition was for nothing. Heather C. is similarly upset, but she's gone the other way, losing all resolve and wearing sunglasses inside to cover her puffy, sob-stained eyes. Morgan encourages her to see the task through, and Heather H. takes a tough love approach in saying Heather is letting her teammates down and should suck it up before she squanders a great opportunity. As you might expect, Heather C. is not cut out for tough love. She spitefully hopes Heather H. is eliminated so she can feel the pain of self-doubt and rejection. Yeah... don't hold your breath, sweets.
Two hours before the event, the teams head to LDE's studio to set up. There's trouble all around as Eric can't see his desserts clearly in the ambient light, and Morgan worries that Heather H.'s showpiece is not as grandiose or exotic as it needs to be. While Zac thinks his team's showpiece is most thematically on-point, Yigit thinks his team's is simultaneously the most architecturally innovative and structurally risky. Five minutes before the party begins, the freaks are already pouring in, and Team Turkish Delight is struggling to plate all its desserts.
The party kicks into gear, and Zac best sums up the explosion of contortion, sword-eating, and fire that follows when he quips, "Talk about the 'Black Forest Is Burning!'" He thinks his team's bold flavors of saffron, curry, and pepper caters to the crowd better than the other teams' boring mango panna cottas and chocolate-basil cakes. Gail approaches Morgan's team first with fellow judges Johnny Iuzzini, Gale Gand, and Hubert Keller. Heather H. explains the showpiece, which is basically a square chocolate column with a chocolate sphere on top and some cutouts, all of which she claims is designed to play into the shapes in both the room and the LDE's costumes. Morgan presents his mango panna cotta with açaí fluid gel (ew?), passion fruit sorbet, and milk chocolate crescents that evoke the apparatus the LDE acrobats use in their aerial routines. Heather puts forth a triple chocolate chai tea mousse torte with round shapes like the sphere of their showpiece, and Eric placed his lemon caramel roulade with pomegranate sauce and candied kumquats on a crescent-shaped plate. Finally, they flambé the almond cream with cherries cooked in star anise. It kind of looks like disproportionate fruit on the bottom yogurt. On fire. In a shot glass. Meh.
The judges think Heather H.'s showpiece stood out impressively and appreciated Morgan's thoughtfulness with his dish considering he has immunity. Cut to a really awkward conversation between Morgan and one of the LDE guys, who says that, since the desserts are inspired by his troupe, he wonders what he tastes like. Morgan humors him, then the guy gets a little touchy-feely, and I suspect Morgan took an extra-long shower that night. Back to the judges, who think Eric's dessert was whimsical, but not very sexy. They do appreciate the sultry, exotic chai flavor in Heather H.'s dessert. When they get to the flaming dessert, Johnny gets a piece of star anise in his shot, thanks to Eric's vision impairment earlier, and they are none too pleased.
Onward ho to Team Breakdown. Zac tries to couch the love-it-or-hate-it aesthetic of their showpiece by saying none of his team is accustomed to doing showpieces. It's a tulle-infested, Mardi Gras mask-embellished hot mess of a showpiece, so I'm not sure how well that ass-covering will go over. Then again, this show is a tulle-infested, Mardi Gras mask-embellished hot mess... Zac describes his banana crème fraîche cake with red curry frosting, saying how it conveys the naughty/nice, sour/sweet, spicy/sweet juxtapositions they were going for. Heather C. presents her spiced black pepper pineapple with chocolate sherbet and meringue shards. Malika offers her sweet saffron-infused panna cotta with feuilletine crunch and spicy candied ginger. Zac introduces the flaming dessert by saying they decided to reinterpret his quickfire dessert (the one that didn't quite win, mind you) into a "Black Forest Is Burning" dark chocolate crème fraîche cake with flambéed cherries. By the time the judges leave, Heather is barely keeping it together because she once again doesn't think her dish is good enough.
Johnny kicks off discussion by saying how much the showpiece evokes the LDE's costumes with its burlesque feel. Cut to Heather C., who dismisses their presentation as "weird." Zac rightly points out that they're all weirdos. Also? Hello! Consider the context, dear. You're in freak central. Apple pie a la mode ain't gonna cut it. Back to the judges, who think Heather's dessert was the least cohesive and visually playful. Johnny thinks Malika's saffron panna cotta represents the delicate, feminine aspects of the show. Gail thinks it's the best dessert Malika's made yet. The judges enjoy the look and flavor of Zac's curried banana cake. They also enjoy this risky new spin on black forest cake. Cue token bedazzled carnie: "It went down easier than a sword!"
The judges finally head over to Team Turkish Delight. They too decided to play on the shapes from the show, particularly the ovals, only their showpiece has multiple textures and sizes within their discs and columns that makes it a lot more dynamic than Team Divorced Dad. Danielle offers her sultry chocolate mousse cake with basil ice cream, saying the angular elements of the show inspired her plating. Yigit's crème fraîche and sweet lime Bavarian with Tonka bean sorbet adds a savory element to the mix. Erika presents her almond ice cream bar with roasted pineapple. And the last dessert up in flames will be an almond citrus mirliton cake flambéed with bourbon. Much to the judges' consternation, the chefs pre-fired their dessert, even though they flambéed them to order for the other customers. And with that, the window for tableside disasters has officially closed.
Johnny thinks the team brought a lot of different elements from the show into their showpiece. They like the lightness of the basil in Danielle's dessert but don't think it balanced out the density of her cake. Johnny appreciates Erika's technical savvy in putting her frozen dessert on a frozen plate. That this is something worth noting explains a lot about a season in which Seth and Heather C. are tolerated for this long. Hubert thinks the acidity of the pineapple melds well with the ice cream. Cut to an LDE member offering to give Erika babies because such is the extent of his love for her ice cream bar. Hubert and Johnny agree Yigit's dish interprets the feminine elements of the show. As for the flaming dessert that wasn't, the judges are disappointed across the board that this team was the only one that couldn't be bothered to light that shit up for them. Rookie mistake, guys.
During clean-up, Heather H. is inexplicably upset, though claims she's being stoic, and Heather C. is just as much a mess as ever. Malika tries to encourage her, but Zac figures they might as well let her wallow. For her part, Heather's already resigned to the fact that Zac will probably throw her under the bus and that she'll likely go home if they end up in the bottom.
Bonus: While everyone else runs around like a maniac, Eric does yoga and meditates, thus earning the nickname "The Zen Baker." But does he make Buddha cookies?
In the stew room, Heather C. doesn't think she's strong enough for Judges' Table. Whether she'll have to is still in question because Gail enters and calls Morgan, Eric, and Heather H. As they walk in, the other teams immediately turn surly that this team had the most simplistic showpiece. No matter, though, because this team won. Johnny says Morgan's dessert was his best yet, both flavor- and texture-wise. Heather's torte had a "supple smoothness," and her showpiece was thematically spectacular. Johnny compliments Eric's progression from plain ol' baker to nuanced dessert chef, and Gale appreciated his idea to turn the roulade on its side. It falls to Gale to announce the winner, who is... Morgan! He's happy to win but, since he has immunity, chooses to focus on the next challenge. As the winners exit, Morgan notes that Gail didn't tell them which team was in the bottom.
Back in the stew room, Heather H. pissily tells Morgan "You're welcome." She thinks he didn't deserve to win since his time wasn't divided like hers. A dynamic she aggressively set up, it's worth noting. She refuses to "carry anybody ever again," a.k.a. be a team player. Sour grapes much?
Gail interrupts the shit slinging to say both of the remaining two teams had hits and misses. She calls in Yigit's team for questioning first. Johnny starts the ball rolling by asking Yigit to restate the rules of the challenge. All of which is to say, "Why the eff didn't you set something on fire?" Yigit tries to excuse his team, saying they actually did flambé their final dessert in real time for the other guests. Which totally misses the point because those people are not at judges' table. That one oversight is pretty much the only reason this team is in this position, and Yigit recognizes his responsibility in the matter.
Next, the other team goes before the judges. Everyone appreciated the edginess and flair of Zac's dessert, though Gale thought it didn't look fully finished. Attentions turn to Malika. Gale says the saffron panna cotta was her favorite of the night. Malika cuts off Gale's commentary to suggest that they should eliminate her. Gail reminds her how well she's done and tries to talk her out of it, but Malika's mind is made up. She interviews that only two things drive her in life -- her kids and cooking. She doesn't love cooking, however, in a competitive environment. She insists she's not sad about leaving because her heart is with her kids. She looks forward to challenging herself at home, at her own pace... in a couple of weeks! Everyone knows they keep these people holed up in a hotel for the duration of the filming. That's why they got Heather C. back so quickly. Sheesh. What a worthless self-sacrifice. But there is a silver lining to this cloud: Seth is still gone.
Next week: Battle lines are officially drawn when Yigit, Heather H., and Zac christen themselves "Team Go Diva!" Even Morgan's somewhat unnerving appreciation for women's shoes (which provide the inspiration for the next challenge) won't gain him the keys to the clique-dom. Plus, a dangerous bonbon!
Photo credit: Bravo