There are a few rules in Top Chef: Don’t make risotto if you don’t have enough time, don’t make dessert if you don’t make dessert on a regular basis, don’t cook Indian for Padma Lakshmi if you can’t execute it well, and don’t cook okra for Tom Colicchio.
This week on Last Chance Kitchen, two of the chefs break that rule, with one emerging victorious.
On the main show, Ashleigh Shanti gets the boot for bad brisket. Tom dings her for overcomplicating things and adding too many ingredients to her dish.
Her failures inspire this week’s two-part Last Chance Kitchen challenge, which is to not overthink things and create a dish using only the ingredients the chefs gather from the pantry. And because nothing is ever easy, the twist is they have only 3 minutes to get what they need.
Ashleigh, Leia, and Sarah, of Detroit restaurant Marrow, start shopping. Sarah has a sound approach and thinks of trying to get as many varied ingredients as she can, food that can add acid, salt, sweetness, and fat because she knows whatever the challenge is will depend on the pantry she puts together. She knows the assignment (unless Tom does something cruel like make them switch their baskets after they get the perfect baskets for them).
Leia doesn’t know what she’s making but grabs vegetables like purple cauliflower, butternut squash, apples, fennel, and onions as well as chicken thighs. She does not grab salt and pepper.
Ashleigh decides to forgo protein and decides to create “a homey, comforting dish with grits and gravy.” She throws okra into her basket. While cooking, Stephanie from the sidelines reminds Ashleigh that Tom hates okra. Ashleigh leans in more and starts picking through the membranes to get the seeds, which will add texture to the dish.
“I definitely want to be that person that wins Tom over with an okra dish. That’s a badge of honor right there,” Ashleigh says.
Their 30 minutes are up, and it’s judgment time.
Sarah’s dish of seared salmon in sesame oil with preserved lemon, yogurt, and apple fennel slaw is up first. Tom doesn’t say anything and moves on.
Ashleigh offers up grits with okra gravy, okra seed, and chili relish. Tom asks ominously, “are these just seeds?” Tom must win a lot of poker games because he gives nothing away with that stoic dad look.
Leia is last with her (salt and pepper free) woodfire roasted chicken thigh, butternut squash, and fennel puree with roasted cauliflower and hazelnut relish.
Tom deems Sarah’s the best of round one. The fish is perfectly cooked, with perfectly crisp skin and flavorful yogurt. She moves on to the second part. Ashleigh, the one bold enough to make okra for Tom, is also moving on. Leia’s win streak and her time on Top Chef comes to an end.
In part two, Sarah and Ashleigh now have to switch stations, so Sarah has to make something other than okra and grits with essentially a pantry of okra and grits and some random things like chicken fat and pastry flour. Ashleigh, who gets nearly twice as many ingredients from Sarah’s pantry, says she feels like Sarah has the leg up because she has to clean up Sarah’s station. It’s one of several comments made about Sarah’s messiness, and I 100 percent feel that. After I cook ram-don, which is essentially boiling instant noodles and stir-frying sirloin, my kitchen looks like I just finished making Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings.
Sarah has never cooked with okra, which is Tom’s most hated ingredient, so it doesn’t sound like she has any type of advantage.
“How do you make a dish that isn’t grits and okra when your only ingredients are grits and okra?” she says.
Ashleigh says she feels lucky with the basket she got, which has things like eggs, butter, and salmon, so she has plenty more options than grits and okra, grits and okra, and grits and okra.
Ashleigh serves her salmon tartare with spiced yogurt, crispy skin, fennel stock, grated apple, and walnut to Tom, who asks her why she went in that direction. Again, you don’t know if he’s being judgmental or curious with that poker face and voice.
Sarah offers up her chicken-fat okra misti with polenta and fried onion. Tom loves the fried onion.
Before crowning the winner, Tom says Ashleigh’s tartare excels where others fail with a well-balanced dish that’s not over garnished. Sarah’s okra, despite never cooking okra, wasn’t slimy and Tom actually enjoyed it.
And after being out of the competition not even one challenge, Ashleigh is back in. Sarah’s still not out though, and while the road back to the title just got tougher, she still has a chance at being Top Chef.
Catch this season of Top Chef at 8 p.m. on Thursdays on Bravo, and stream Last Chance Kitchen on YouTube following each episode. For more information, visit bravotv.com.