When Alex Reznik made a deconstructed version of his mother’s borscht on last week’s season premiere of Top Chef D.C., it was charming (and, by all accounts, delicious). When Amanda Baumgarten, the program’s other Jewish contestant, made braised chicken thigh in a sherry jus—for middle-schoolers—in this week’s episode, it was dumb and apparently gross, and got her within inches of the boot.
The elimination challenge gives each of four groups of four chefs a paltry $130 budget at something called “Restaurant Depot” (no Whole Foods this week) to make a delicious and nutritious school lunch for 50 middle-schoolers. In other words: $2.60 per child. “I could make a dessert,” Amanda confides, “but I don’t want to, because people who make desserts go home.” A longtime Top Chef viewer, this one! “Take one for the team is not in my vocabulary,” she adds. Her group-mate Jacqueline has to cut back on her, yes, dessert because her ingredients took the group to over $170. “Kinda looks like Jacqueline thought the $130 was the individual’s budget,” Amanda snarks.
They go to cook at the Hilton—which the locals call the Reagan Hilton, because—and then head to the middle school, which is Alice Deal Middle School, in upper northwest D.C., which, in a funny coincidence, is no more than a quarter mile from Politics & Prose (it is also my father’s alma mater). Meanwhile, Amanda’s teammates have realized that, y’know, she is making something with sherry for middle-schoolers. “Alcohol is inappropriate for the kids,” says one; another suggests tomato paste instead. But Amanda presses on, the way young lemmings do. SPOILERS FOLLOW.
The judges dig in to Amanda’s dish, and shockingly find it inappropriate. “Sherry jus doesn’t usually come into the lunchroom scenario,” is the lovely Gail Simmons’s polite way of putting it. (Speaking as someone who pronounced the word “jus” phonetically until about a year ago, I feel compelled to agree.) Later, and admittedly out of Amanda’s earshot, head judge Tom Colicchio notes of Amanda’s chicken: “It looks like someone put a big piece of turd on the table.”
(Oh, by the way, Alex also makes chicken, only he makes his with apple cider, which is delicious and good for you, and he gets a nice pat on the back from the judges for his troubles.)
Amanda’s group and one other are singled out for being the bottom two. At this point, something that I think is unprecedented happens: The invisible wall between the two groups is shattered, as they bicker at each other over their meals. (Among other things, there is a complicated bit of gamesmanship involving the two members of the other group who won immunity and may have decided to strategically kill off one of their teammates. Let’s just say that Angelo Sosa may be the best villain Top Chef has ever had.)
Amanda’s main polemical point in this pissing contest is: Who gives processed peanut butter to kids!? I mean, do you even know how much sugar is in processed peanut butter? “It’s horrible!” In response, a member of the other team goes for the easy left jab: Yo, you served middle-schoolers sherry jus! “I wasn’t serving it by the glass!” is Amanda’s entirely accurate and entirely inapposite response.
In the end, the four on the chopping block are Amanda; Jacqueline, her team’s dessert-maker, who prepared some sugar with a few bananas thrown in; and the two members of the other team (which, the judges agreed, presented the worst overall meal) who didn’t have immunity.
And the loser is … Jacqueline! Rewind, if you would, to Amanda’s comment at the beginning of the episode: “I could make a dessert, but I don’t want to, because people who make desserts go home.”