Top Chef Recap: Carl’s on Top, Karen Forgets Padma’s Fish
Top Chef hit the road for episode 3. The remaining 15 chefs piled into a few minivans and headed north to Santa Barbara. They picked up spiny sea urchins right from the Harbor, then headed to Sanford Winery to meet host Padma Lakshmi and guest judge Dana Cowin, the 21-year veteran editor of Food & Wine (who announced last month she’s leaving that post). For the Quickfire Challenge, the chefs had 25 minutes to create a dish showcasing the fresh Pacific uni—the edible part of an urchin—paired with one of the vineyard’s lush wines.
“Going from the ocean for that beautiful sea urchin, to a beautiful vineyard in the mountains a half an hour later—that was the first time I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is an amazing, amazing place,'” Cambridge native Carl Dooley says.
His uni omelet—which will be on the menu at his forthcoming restaurant, the Table—and chardonnay pairing landed him in the Top 3 for the second week in a row. But Boston’s other local contender, Myers + Chang’s Karen Akunowicz, sank to the Bottom 3 with a scallion-forward soup that overpowered the uni’s delicate flavor.
For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs picked partners and shopped together under the impression they would make a cohesive, surf-and-turf dish. Then Tom Colicchio turned the tables: The chefs had two hours to ration their groceries and compete directly against the person they chose for their strengths. Dooley battled his roommate and friend chef Isaac Toups, and Akunowicz went up against her pal and last week’s winner, Marjorie Meek-Bradley.
Despite the stiff competition, both Boston chefs prevailed. In fact, Akunowicz’s seared rockfish might even have propelled her to an overall win, if not for the fishy omission.
Here’s what Akunowicz and Dooley thought about last night’s waves of emotion.
Knowing how last night’s episode went for you—a technical issue with your hot and sour soup, and the omitted fish on Padma’s plate—describe how you felt going into watching the episode.
I was really excited to watch the episode last night. I knew that my soup didn’t come out exactly the way I wanted, and I knew I had missed the piece of fish when the time went off, but I also knew I had one of the judge’s favorite dishes, and I ended up in the Top 3! It’s such a spoiler! It just makes watching it fun. You wonder how everything is going to play out. But I almost wish I could watch it with fresh eyes. I wish I was in your shoes.
The issue with your soup was framed as an equipment problem, that you had smaller bowls than you wanted.
I prioritized grabbing the ingredients and wine that I wanted. I didn’t grab my bowls until the end. I know that was one of the technical errors I made. You just chalk it up to, “I hope I don’t make that mistake again.”
But when Padma said she only tasted the scallion, and when Dana was judging it, she said it was “hard to find the uni.” That sounds like maybe a balance issue.
I know how precious and pristine uni are. I could have gone a much simpler route, but I thought I would use some of the funkiness in the uni, and pair it with a strongly flavored soup. I whipped the uni with the eggs to ribbon them to create an egg drop effect, essentially. If it worked, it would be beautiful. It was a good try, but it didn’t go the way I wanted it to. I garnished my dish with a little bit of chopped scallions, and that was not to Padma’s liking. Dana couldn’t find the uni, and that was just a mistake on my part. I was trying to use the uni in a different way, and it just didn’t work.
In the Elimination Challenge, you didn’t plate Padma’s fish, but you still made the Top 3, and she said the fish was moist, and that your sauce was delicious. Tell us what she tasted.
I pan-seared the rockfish and basted it with a bit of orange-infused brown butter. The carrot sauce was a bit spicy—it had some chili in it. I had beautiful carrots that I also roasted with blood orange, and I think the puree and the roasted carrots together were really beautiful. I actually had some great razorback shrimp, and I made a blood orange shrimp kind of salsa that went on top of the dish.
Had you not missed that piece of fish, do you think this challenge would have ended differently for you?
You can see on all of our faces how hard that twist was, to compete against someone who we thought was our teammate. So to come out in the Top 3 with an incredible bunch of chefs, [to hear the judges say] my fish was one of the best fish of the day, I can’t tell you how awesome that was. Would it have gone differently? Maybe. It could have, but you can’t dwell on that—you have to get back to cooking and get ready for the next challenge.
Congratulations on landing in the Top 3 of the Quickfire Challenge! It was pretty ironic that Giselle, who wanted to make what you did but couldn’t find the eggs, ended up the loser. Did you know at the time that she was looking to create a similar dish?
No, definitely not. They didn’t show it on the show, but I was running around like crazy. I totally wiped out! I was rushing from my station to grab everything and took a huge tumble. I dropped all my stuff. It was just chaos. These early Quickfires are like Lord of the Flies. You just grab what you can and make something delicious. You have no idea what anyone else is doing. I was just so focused. I had this beautiful sea urchin, and I wanted to make an omelet. I was going to find some eggs and just start going to town. But Giselle’s my girl. I feel bad, if I took the only eggs, but I think maybe she had to look a little harder. [Laughter]
Generally speaking, do you think about wine pairings when you cook?
Absolutely. As a chef, it’s always my goal to create a cohesive experience. I feel like I have a pretty good palate for wine, but it’s not something I know too much about. When I was at Craigie on Main, listening to the way [sommelier] Carl York talks about wine, the way he can pick out nuances in the wine and pair it with a dish that was funky on its own to create something that was really unique, that was always something I was in awe of.
The next night, we saw your salty side! When you learned you wouldn’t be working with Isaac but competing against him, you said, “I should have picked Giselle.”
[Laughter] It’s definitely a competition. I knew going up against Isaac was going to be a really tough battle, and Giselle had a rocky morning. I said it jokingly. Giselle’s a great cook. I thought Isaac and I working together would be a really strong team, and all of a sudden it turned into a really tough battle. That was the first time in the season if felt like gamesmanship comes into play. Plus, we were roommates on the show. It was like cooking against a friend.
The whole point of the challenge was to create something cohesive. Once we got split up, we had limited resources to cook with. If I was doing that dish on my own from scratch, I would have picked up some more acid, maybe some chili peppers, a few more things to round it out. But given the challenge and what I had to work with, I was excited to make something well-seasoned that overall, the judges enjoyed.
It was a huge treat for me to cook for that group of judges. Suzanne Goin from Lucques is someone I’ve looked up to for years. To put a perfectly roasted chicken thigh in front of her and have her enjoy it, that made me incredibly happy. And to cook for Dana Cowin, who’s one of the most influential women in the country when it comes to the food world. So, to think, “Oh, I wish I had this, I could have done something different,” that’s the challenge. I’m on Top Chef to see different judges in a situation that is difficult, but make something that’s well-executed.