Top Chef Recap: Return of Ripert

We’re in love with this man.

We’ve been waiting breathlessly all week for last night’s episode—or at least for the sultry Eric Ripert to play guest judge. We’re not sure whether it’s his French accent and signature pout or Padma’s barely-there tank top, but the chefs quiet down and behave for the visiting chef. Or maybe they’re just burnt out. Even Jamie, the last member of Team Rainbow, blushes a little bit.

For the Quickfire Challenge, there’s a March Madness-style tournament of fish fileting in honor of Ripert, master of all things oceanic. First, the chefs have to butterfly two sardines, the tiniest of fish. “I should just go home now,” says Leah. When Ripert and Padma come over to inspect Carla’s work, she cutesily just shoos them on—she knows she’s failed. Jamie says she’s never cleaned a sardine in her life—and it shows.
The other four—Hosea, Stefan, Fabio, and Leah—are on to round two, which requires fileting an Arctic char. Leah, who’s been about excited as a dead sardine the entire season, quickly gives up. “I just shut down,” she says.

Stefan and Hosea make it to the final round: skin and fillet an eel that’s dead but still moving. Stefan immediately nails (yep, nails—with a hammer) the squirming eel’s head onto a wooden cutting board and peels the skin back. “In Germany, skinning an eel is like riding a bike,” he says. Naturally. He wins the Quickfire but not immunity.

The Brangelina of the culinary world? Not if we kill Padma. (Also Ripert is married. Sigh.)

Ripert invites the whole group to have lunch with him the next day at his New York restaurant, the famed Le Bernardin. We’re not sure which is better—Ripert at the Quickfire in his black shirt or Ripert at the restaurant in his chef whites. Plus, all the servers seem to have his accent. The chefs eat their way through six dishes. At the end of the meal, they’re told that each one of them will have to recreate one of its courses. It’s a task, Carla says, “like recreating the Garden of Eden.” And they’ll be doing it in the Le Bernardin kitchen, which “can scare the chef pants off anyone,” according to Tom.

As Quickfire winner, Stefan gets to choose which dish he wants to make. He goes for the baked lobster (a.k.a. the easy one). Lobster + hollandaise = culinary school 101. Everyone else draws knives, and Jamie grumbles that she’s stuck with the one dish she didn’t like—black bass with braised celery. It doesn’t help that she’s never braised celery or made a sauce from Serrano ham. Fabio is angling to get some love from Ripert because, as he says, France and Italy share a border. That’ll do it.
Like math students going into a final exam, the chefs have the formulas in their heads but now have to figure out how to translate them onto their trays of ingredients. A few hours in, Ripert swings through the kitchen to offer advice (he’s the most helpful, gently teacherlike guest judge we’ve ever seen). Then they’re on their own to fire four portions for the judges.

Fabio’s up first with a sourdough-crusted red snapper. Ripert says he’s “impressed.” Tom says it’s like Fabio is forging a painting, but “it’s good forgery.” Next is Leah. Wait, she’s still here? Somehow, mahi mahi with a miso-matustake sauce seems more breakdown-inducing than fileting a fish. Alas, Tom thinks its overcooked and says there’s no real flavor, while Toby likens it to “dull fish that I have had in the Caribbean.” Pack-up-your-knives time, right?

Carla’s facial expressions? Priceless.

Padma loves Stefan’s lobster so much that she tells Ripert he’s got someone “dangerously nipping at his heels.” Flirty! Ripert is married, but they’d be the Brangelina of the culinary world.

Despite Carla’s earlier fussing over a potato-crisp garnish on her escolar, Ripert praises her for staying faithful to the original. Hosea, who talks the talk—he’s executive chef at a seafood restaurant, he tells us over and over—couldn’t figure out the riddle of za’atar-crusted monkfish. The judges say his black-garlic sauce is close but his cooking is not.

But its Jamie who seems doomed when her braised celery comes out. Tom calls it “a salt lick.” Ripert’s a little nicer, deeming it “hard core.” But we can always count on Toby: “She fell flat on her face from the high wire.”

Stefan, Carla, and Fabio end up on top, and it’s no surprise that Stefan takes home the prize—a copy of Ripert’s new book, On the Line, and the chance to hang out with him at Le Bernardin and at a food-and-wine festival.
On the chopping block, Hosea gets nailed for not letting the monkfish rest and not knowing how to apply the za’atar to the fish. Leah asks Ripert how he makes the miso sauce, marveling at him as if he’s Houdini. Toby quickly shuts her up when he announces that her dull fish is still stuck in his teeth. Padma tells Jamie she would have sent her black bass back if she could have.

Tom reminds the judges that Leah gave up in the Quickfire and chefs don’t do that—she should go home. Hey, she said it.

But Padma announces the biggest upset of the season—it’s Jamie who’s sent packing? Maybe it’s because, as Padma said, her dish “wasn’t appealing to look at or eat.” But Jamie knew the mistakes she made—doesn’t that count for something?

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