Top Chef Duels recap: 'Shirley Chung vs. Brooke Williamson'

Two chefs who made it this close in their respective seasons return for a head-to-head.
Ep. 02 | Aired Aug 13, 2014

SECOND CHANCES Chefs Brooke Williamson and Shirley Chung face off in two self-serving quickfires.

Nicole Wilder/Bravo

Top Chef loves a narrative, and Shirley's coming-of-culinary-age-with-the-help-of-friendly-"Uncle"-Emeril was one of New Orleans' lasting story lines. She's still a storyteller, and the circus challenge—where the first dish is prepared tableside, the second inspired by three rings, and the third a high-wire act of sorts—does play to her strengths over Brooke's more workwomanlike cuisine.

From the outset, though, Brooke acts defeated, complaining that "intricate, high-concept challenges" are not something she looks forward to, though if memory serves, she had a similar issue with chicken wings. Even the debut of her much-talked-about husband and business partner, Nick, and the most "babys" in a Top Chef kitchen since Michael Sichel left in New Orleans have her sweating in what seems to be quite a hot kitchen.

After last week's trio of new guest judges, it's nice to see familiar faces in Dana Cowin and Daniel Boulud. But the headline-grabbing name is P!nk, who acquits herself quite well at a top table while providing insight and laughs (Wolfie is at it again, calling her "spicy")—and allowing for puns on her song names left and right.

Shirley the storyteller is at it again, with her lobster-and-spotted-prawn broth poured over glass noodles allegedly representing waves, or something. The guests eat the story and the food up, though. Brooke's first course—Dungeness crab, fava beans, and poached mussels with fiery absinthe and mussel broth poured tableside—seems to underwhelm the judges because it's lukewarm. (Kind of how I feel about Brooke, in general).

The Shirley story continues into round two, where she does three separate "fire phoenix" dishes: deviled egg aioli with chicken skin, milk-poached tandoori chicken breast, and gochujang chicken wings, which the judges see as disparate elements. But it's Brooke's second course that seems to win points with the judges Though I'm failing to see the difference between "turf" and "earth" in the crispy chicken skin, halibut cheeks, and roasted artichokes, morels, and sea beans, she deservedly takes that round.

And despite her earlier triumph, dessert becomes Brooke's undoing when Shirley's pastry chef blows a big-top sugar ball and fills it with Earl Grey ice cream and orange blossom honey panna cotta. Brooke's rustic beet parfait appears to taste good, but execution-wise, she's outmatched. It seems a little unfair for Shirley to rely so heavily on another chef's work for the competition, but, like Brooke earlier, she's just playing within the rules.

So Shirley moves on, and like last week, it's not all that surprising (or undeserved) a victory. Top Chef loves redemption, and like a phoenix she rises from the ranks of the defeated for another chance. Who doesn't love that story?

Follow me on Twitter: @JohnVilanova

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