Top Chef Recap: And Then There Were 10

The Top 10 is solidified, and Karen Akunowicz and Carl Dooley remain the two to beat. On 'Back in the Day,' they reflect on formative experiences in their Boston careers.

Phillip Frankland Lee (left) and Carl Dooley present their reminiscient dishes to 10 judges. / Photo by Dale Berman / Bravo

Phillip Frankland Lee (left) and Carl Dooley present their reminiscient dishes to 10 judges. / Photo by Dale Berman / Bravo

In the spirit of last night’s emotional, reminiscent Top Chef episode, let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that Boston has two local chefs competing in what judge Tom Colicchio said is “probably the strongest group we’ve ever brought in,” and they’ve both made it to the Top 10.

This week, the chefs brought it back “home” to Los Angeles. The challenges took place in the Top Chef kitchen, and the panel of judges included several past winners. This year marks the 10th anniversary the show.

Coming off of her first win in San Diego, Myers + Chang chef Karen Akunowicz said she is feeling like her food is really her own, “but I can’t coast on that win. You have to bring it every day.”

All the nostalgia got to some of the competitors’ heads: They were challenged to cook something inspired by where they were 10 years before, and while some—including Carl Dooley and Akunowicz—were able to show how far they have come as chefs, others got caught up in the story. Despite the 10 best chefs remaining, the judges populated their Bottom 3 because of bad dishes, Colicchio said. It was Jason Stratton who was sent home.


First, congratulations on making the Top 10. What does that milestone mean for you?

Thank you! It really felt like an accomplishment. All of the chefs being so strong in very different ways, and being so accomplished in their own right, it made it even more meaningful to make it to the Top 10.

During the Quickfire, you each had to choose one ingredient for the pantry. What did you select, and why?

I chose olive oil. Somebody had to! I could have also chosen—well, a million other things. For me, salt and olive oil are two of the things I’m always going to cook with. If you were going to make something like a salad, you’re going to need something to make a vinaigrette out of. Especially if I’m cooking at home—I loved what Carl said, like, it’s a Tuesday night [and there’s nothing in your fridge], because that’s always what my fridge looks like. Like, ‘What do we have I can actually make a meal out of?’ I’m always going to start with salt, olive oil, and garlic. You can do anything if you have those things.

You made a grilled steak salad, and the feedback we heard was that it was heavy on meat for a salad. With the ingredients on hand, why did you make that dish?

I love a chilled steak salad. We [Myers + Chang] have steak salad on the menu called Tiger’s Tears. I also thought the tomatoes were so beautiful. I love grilled celery, which I added to my vinaigrette.

When I was watching last night, I laughed; thought I probably eat a little more meat on my salad than Padma does. [Laughter] I understood that, but I was happy they thought the flavors of my dish were good as well. I make fairly substantial food in general. But that was a fair comment. [Laughter]

Where were you 10 years ago, and how did you dish reflect that?

I had been a line cook at Via Matta about a year and a half. That was really formative for my cooking career. That is where I met Christopher Myers [co-owner of Myers + Chang]. I was really young. In that period of my life, I was in love with everything: learning to cook, learning to make Italian food and pasta, and I was in a relationship where I was very much in love. And we were very, very poor. I had off on Sundays, and we would close off the entry way to the kitchen with a beach towel, and I would cook because the heat from the oven would warm up the kitchen, because we couldn’t afford to turn the heat on. You know how much it costs to heat an apartment in Boston! It was February, we were wearing jackets in the house. My dream was to go to Italy and and make pasta, and that was the gateway.

When that relationship broke up, that was a tough time for me, and it’s when I left and moved to Italy. The challenge in general was meaningful and bittersweet, and I think a lot of us felt that way. That reflection was very intense.

Yeah, Tom said this challenge brought up “the emotional side of cooking:” Despite the fire and knives, everyone is a little fragile. 

Absolutely. Jeremy and I talked a little about it. When you make pasta, that’s love. You’re putting your heart and soul into that. One of the reasons I made orecchiette, you put your thumbprint on every single one of those. That’s a lot of giving of yourself. That’s really how I remember that time.

We were already at the point where seven great chefs had been eliminated and we were in the Top 10. It felt monumental, and to have this really personal challenge, phew. It really required us to dig deep, and also to remember the reason we started cooking. You start cooking because it feeds something in your own soul. That was really brought up for a lot of us.

I just have to say, I really thought this was Carl’s week. I was excited for Marjorie to take this win, but that dish was really representative of an important time of his life. And there were 10 judges; one of their comments was, ‘he gave us 10 perfect eggs.’ He did some really outstanding cooking.

In homage to next week’s guest, Chef Jacques la Merde, what’s your favorite junk food?

Yaasss! I’m so excited. I think I say this all the time, but I loved this challenge. I guess it depends what you consider “junk food.” Pizza?

Processed food.

I’m not a junk food eater, but my staff can be. Every now and then, I’m like, ‘why are there Doritos here?’ So, I would say Doritos. They don’t taste like cheese or anything real. I definitely go for the savory side of junk food rather than the sweet.


First, congratulations on making the Top 10. What does that milestone mean for you?

When I started the competition, I was just hoping to get through the first day, honestly. It was a crazy experience, so different from being in a restaurant. As the season’s gone on, I felt my confidence building and building. Being in the Top 10 is really exciting and I feel like my food is just getting better. There are nine [other] amazing chefs.

Were you hoarding the tomatoes, like Jeremy and Amar accused you of?

I guess so! I don’t remember that in the moment. It was a mad dash. But watching it, man, I was really hoarding all those tomatoes! [Laughter] It didn’t work out for me. But in the moment, maybe it was gamesmanship. I really wanted to use tomatoes; that’s why I took them. I should have hoarded less, and used less on the dish, apparently.

Where were you 10 years ago, and how did you dish reflect that?

I was this young, cocky cook who thought I knew everything, and I brazenly went into [Craigie Street Bistrot,] what I thought was the best restaurant in Boston at the time, and I said, ‘Tony [Maws], I want to work here, I’m an amazing cook.’ Little did I know, I didn’t know shit about cooking, or being a restaurant professional, but he took a chance on me. It was a huge point in my career. I am the chef I am today because he gave me that opportunity to work my butt off for him. That was 10 years ago. I feel very grateful to work for Tony and a bunch of other amazing chefs. It’s such a process to become a chef, and it really all started when I walked into Craigie Street Bistrot.

And I thought the [fricasse of California vegetables, burgundy snails, and egg] was a very Craigie dish. The first time I had snails, it was with Tony Maws. Before everyone was putting an egg on everything, Tony was doing this really sexy ragu with the egg, snails, and different vegetables. It was fun to go back to that memory and use the ingredients Tony exposed me to and the technique, and be able to execute it on a stage like that.

Did you feel this was an emotional challenge?

It’s cliche, but you have to put love into food. You have to put care into food to make it personal. What I learned at [Craigie Street] is that no matter how hard it is, no matter how many things you have to do every day, it’s all about putting something in front of the guest that’s amazing. Old-school French cuisine is about tradition, care, really putting a lot of soul into your food, and that was running through my mind as I was making that dish.

In homage to next week’s guest, Chef Jacques la Merde, what’s your favorite junk food?

I eat a lot of ice cream. I don’t know if that qualifies as junk food, but I’ll come home from work and plow through a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. A pint, no problem.

Bravo Top Chef has moved to a new time: It airs Thursdays at 9 p.m.