‘Top Chef’ season 21 episode 9 recap: ‘The Good Land’ honored Native American cuisine, so hands off the dairy!

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Last week was “Restaurant Wars” on “Top Chef,” one of the most hotly anticipated and punishingly difficult challenges of every season. This year it resulted in the second elimination of cheftestant Kaleena Bliss, who decided to forego “Last Chance Kitchen” to protect her mental health, taking her out of the competition for good.

That leaves eight competitors on the main show competing for a chance to win a feature in Food and Wine magazine; an appearance at the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen, Colorado; and $250,000 in prize money: Soo Ahn, Manny Barella, Danny GarciaDan JacobsSavannah Miller, Laura Ozyilmaz, Amanda Turner and Michelle Wallace. So what happened in “The Good Land”?

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“To have the mental fortitude to continue to push yourself is the biggest part of this competition,” says Amanda coming out of “Restaurant Wars.” It’s especially tough for Manny, who feels like he let down Kaleena and played “a big part” in her ultimately being eliminated from the competition. “I just know what I could have done better.” But the judges could have sent two people home and didn’t, which is a testament to Manny’s value as a chef in this competition.

Speaking of mental fortitude, the next morning we see Savannah’s “war mirror,” where she has written down dish ideas and challenge predictions. “More than anything it’s just to get myself brainstorming. It’s hard. You’ve really got to mentally stay in the game, and for me, being inspired, even if it’s me inspiring myself, is helpful.” Let’s see how well that mirror has prepared her for this week’s challenges.

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Quickfire Challenge

For instance, did Savannah anticipate that she’d be seeing host Kristen Kish with judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons standing in a bog of cranberries? Also, how long did they have to be standing there before the chefs came in? Kristen tells them she’s “raising the stakes even higher.” Tom explains, “Gail and I usually only taste your Elimination Challenge dishes every week, but that’s all changing.” They’ll be joining Kristen for Quickfires for the rest of the season, and those Quickfire dishes will help the judges decide who will be sent home.

As for this week’s particular challenge, cranberry farmer Rochelle Hoffman appears to discuss how they’re harvested before Kristen reveals what they’ll be doing: make a dish featuring cranberries, but in an original way, not just in a sauce or in a pastry. “Just don’t get bogged down,” says Tom, which elicits a sort of laugh-groan from the cheftestants, who have 30 minutes to cook with $10,000 up for grabs.

Soo grabs other berries to offset the intense tartness of the cranberries; he’s making a jam with beef tartare on top. Dan, who worried about this competition twist because he’s not so good at Quickfires, is trying to prepare a Thai-inspired chutney. “This is not something I’ve done before,” he admits, but he thinks it’ll work. Savannah, however, has been R&D-ing cranberries for two months, so she seems to have a handle on the ingredient; she’s getting some scallops going. Michelle is mixing it up with beets and bacon for something like a borscht soup — “I’m flying by the seat of my pants right now,” she says.

Manny doesn’t spend a lot of time with cranberries in Mexico; his experience with the ingredient is mostly cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving. Danny struggles to squeeze some juice out of his berries; he’s going to cook fish in cranberry butter. Amanda thinks he’s taking a risk trying to pair the flavors of cranberries with fish; she thinks her dish, Southern cake and chicken with cranberry sauce, is going to be more “straightforward.” When it’s done, though, she thinks it looks a little “basic,” so she hopes the flavors save her.

Laura: Cranberry and Walnut Fesenjan with Pork

Manny: Pork Tenderloin with Brandy and Cranberry Sabayon, Roasted Radicchio, Cranberry and Orange Vinaigrette

Dan: Salt and Pepper Scallops with Cranberry Red Curry and Herbs

Soo: Beef Carpaccio with Beet, Blackberry and Cranberry Chutney

Danny: Cranberry-Poached Sea Bass with Cranberry Panade

Amanda: Corn and Cranberry Hoe Cake with Fried Chicken and Cranberry-Maple Sauce

Michelle: Cranberry Beet Soup with Seared Foi Gras and Maple Mascarpone

Savannah: Seared Scallop with Cranberry-Nori Relish and Cranberry Hot Sauce

“That was some of the most delicious cranberries I have ever had,” says Rochelle. But they can’t all be winners. The best chefs were Dan (took a cranberry sauce texture and flipped it on its head), Danny (perfectly cooked sea bass, and impressive multiple uses of cranberries) and Michelle (great sweetness in the beets, foie gras richness was a good balance with the cranberry tartness). And the winner is Danny, who is relieved at the possibility that this dish could potentially save him from elimination later on. The money’s nice too. His total winnings for the season are up to $43,000.

But who had the worst dishes, putting them at greater risk of elimination in the next challenge? Laura (too much honey, and the sauce was kind of sandy because of the gritty walnuts), Manny (the salad with the cranberry vinaigrette was nice, but Kristen got “lost” in the sabayon) and Amanda (the cranberry sauce was too basic, needed to be more creative with the ingredient). Amanda realizes she made a mistake going too simple, and she just hopes that her Elimination Challenge dish makes up for it so she doesn’t have to worry about going home.

SEE‘Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen’ recap: Shocking decision leads to unexpected head-to-head after ‘Restaurant Wars’

Elimination Challenge

“I think it’s time we get back to the land,” says Kristen. Milwaukee means “the good land,” hence the episode’s title. She introduces chefs Elena Terry and Sean Sherman. Elena promotes traditional farming techniques and founded Wild Bearies. Sean is an educator, activist and three-time James Beard Award winner. They will join the judges to evaluate the chefs after they make modern dishes using only Native American ingredients. That means no dairy, wheat flower, cane sugar, pork, beef or chicken. And there’s no shopping today. Instead, the chefs will have a pantry full of Indigenous ingredients curated with the help of Elena and Sean.

But first, the chefs are treated to a meal highlighting those native ingredients. “It’s like going to a candy store,” says an enthusiastic Laura about the opportunity to cook with these ingredients. But none of the cheftestants have ever been to a Native American restaurant before. “And that’s a problem,” says Sean. “We should be normalizing Indigenous foods, not just here but on a global scale, and celebrating these diversities everywhere instead of trying to homogenize everything.” Amanda admits that the culinary world sees things through a lens of colonization.

Michelle is “nervous” when she looks at the ingredient list they’ll be working with. She was excited to hear that smoking food was an option for flavoring dishes. That’s right up her alley. But she’d feel better with a little butter. Back at the chef’s loft, they continue to brainstorm. Dan is thinking something sunflower-based; he wants to focus on an ingredient no one really uses. Savannah is making a dessert even though she doesn’t have formal pastry experience; she had a top dish the last time she made a dessert, though, so she’s “just gonna go for it.”

Soo also opens up about growing up in Korea, where corporal punishment was allowed in elementary school. “I feel like everybody had to follow the same path. I think that’s why my dad and my mom sacrificed so much to get us to the States so we could have options,” he says. He moved to the US with most of his family while his father stayed behind to work in Korea. “It was tough, honestly. I had big moments in my life where he couldn’t come, but he provided us an opportunity to live that American dream, and I’m here now competing to be the next Top Chef.” And Danny talks about marrying a Muslim woman and converting to Islam, about which his Catholic family was actually quite supportive.

The morning comes, and the chefs have three hours to prepare their meals at Milwaukee’s Il Cervo Italian restaurant. “This is madness,” says Soo as everyone wrestles to get their ingredients from the pantry. “It’s like being in a mosh pit almost.” Savannah’s is trying to get as many naturally sweet items as she can so she can make her dessert because she has no dairy to fall back on. Danny grabs a giant web of elk caul fat; he has used caul fat before, but never from an elk. Like Savannah, Danny misses being able to use dairy, but Laura likes the idea of using ingredients you don’t have to manipulate too much. She’ll be cooking a kind of tamale.

Tom, Sean and Elena arrive to inspect the chefs’ progress. They’re a little bit worried that Soo’s wild rice gnocchi will fall apart. Elena hopes that Amanda’s elk tataki will taste like elk and not have its unique flavor covered up. And Savannah sure is in for a challenge making a dessert without dairy, wheat flour or cane sugar. Meanwhile, Dan’s body is feeling the wear and tear of the competition. His Kennedy’s disease is making it difficult to use his hands. “I’m just getting tired,” he admits. As the chefs get to the end of their cooking time, Soo does indeed find that he has trouble binding his gnocchi together, so he’s reinforcing it with duck eggs. Michelle is putting her well-cooked rabbit into the pizza oven to give it a little crisp — but unfortunately she dries it out. I was afraid that would happen.

SEE‘Top Chef’ 21 episode 8 recap: Kitchen mix-ups, long wait times and confused concepts – must be ‘Restaurant Wars’

Meal Service

Michelle: Acorn Squash Polenta Cake, Braised Rabbit, Smoked Onion and Mushrooms

Amanda: Elk Tataki Tartare, Confit Mushrooms, Pipian Rojo and Duck Fat Tortilla

The texture of Michelle’s cake is a little bit soft. The rabbit is tasty, but a little bit dry. Tons of flavor. But the smoky quality gets lost amid the salt. Amanda’s corn cakes are confusing, the dish is disjointed, but Gail loves the mushrooms.

Danny: Pheasant Crepinette with Mole and Roasted Sunchokes

Laura: Duck Tamal Wrapped in Mustard Greens with Huckleberry Sauce and Haroset

Danny’s dish has beautiful sunchokes with a lot of flavor. The pheasant was beautifully cooked. But you can’t taste it enough because of the sauce. Danny seemed to be trying to incorporate as many ingredients as possible. Speaking of which, Laura’s dish had “way too much happening,” according to Tom. The haroset didn’t come across. The flavors all blend together so you can’t really taste the individual components.

Dan: Sunflower Choke with Braised Goose and Aronia Berry Puree

Soo: Roasted Butternut Squash, Huitlacoche Puree and Wild Rice Gnocchi

Soo’s dish has brightness, a “beautiful simplicity,” according to Gail. You just can’t really call it gnocchi. Dan’s dish honors his one central ingredient, the foam serves a purpose by melting into the sunflower. Kristen says, “Texturally it’s such a fun bite to eat.”

Manny: Duck Breast with Braised Mustard Greens, Wild Rice Cake, Ancho, Guajillo and Plum Sauce

Savannah: Squash and Maple Jelly Cake with Aronia Berries, Grapes and Plum Jelly

Kristen curses at how “amazing” Savannah’s dessert is. It comes together beautifully when you swirl the cake around the sauces. She used a lot of ingredients, but it’s very subtle. Gail is scraping her plate clean. She sounds like the clear winner of the challenge. Manny’s rice cake is nice, but the duck is too chewy. And it’s very similar to a lot of what he’s served before; Gail wonders if he can break out of his one signature style.

SEE‘Top Chef’ 21 episode 7 recap: ‘Sausage Race’ was a ball field battle of the wieners

Judges’ Table

Savannah, Soo and Dan are first up. Clearly the top three dishes. The judges reiterate how good Dan’s foam was — a rarity for foam on dishes. Tom raves about Soo’s squash and glaze, which he calls the star of the show. Savannah was on her toes the whole time; Kristen got an impression of pumpkin pie and gingerbread from her dish, and then the sauces made it something completely new. The winner of the challenge is, no surprise here, Savannah!

Next up with the bottom dishes are Michelle, Amanda and Laura. I’m a little surprised Manny didn’t land at the bottom. I thought he’d get dinged for being repetitive. Michelle is aware of some of her dish’s shortcomings: the falling-apart softness of the cake, the dryness of the rabbit. She also lacked a smoky flavor. Amanda admits her sauce was too heavy for her elk. And Laura’s soft texture was too one-note, with too much going on in the dish overall. But of the three chefs Michelle had the best Quickfire, so I suspect she’ll be safe.

The judges call the chefs back in to get their final results, and it’s kind of a shocker: Laura and Amanda are both eliminated! We knew there’d be a double elimination coming, but it didn’t seem like the dishes were so bad it would warrant a double. I guess it had to come sometime. But I was right that Michelle’s Quickfire dish was her salvation.

“Of course, the emotion is happening,” says a tearful Laura during her exit interview. “These circumstances make you push on a different level. It’s intense.” Amanda says, “I feel like I let myself down. I made a bad choice, and those decisions are on me. But I do have one more life to live. In ‘Last Chance Kitchen,’ I’m going to go as hard as I possibly can.”

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