Top Chef Duels recap: 'CJ Jacobsen vs. Stefan Richter'

After sourcing their ingredients from the forest floor, two past players face off in a battle for the culinary soul of Scandinavia.
Ep. 04 | Aired Aug 27, 2014

FORAGERS' FIGHT CJ Jacobsen is a natural in the forest-focused duel, but will it be enough to overcome Stefan Richter's classic cuisine?

Nicole Wilder/Bravo

Before he strolls off into the Scandinavian sunset, though, Stefan's brings a taste of Denmark to the Top Chef kitchen with a smoked-food challenge that is another successful use of the new quickfire format. His quick-cured smoked salmon with fingerling potatoes, egg mousse, and dill mustard is a pretty plate that oozes his personality. (I know I've said that a lot this year, but with many chefs making their third appearance on the show, I really do feel like I sometimes recognize them by their cuisine.) It's subtly smoked, recalling a classicism as he explains that the dish is, in fact, one of his mother's specialties. The problem, though, is that there's a fine line between disaffection and not caring, and Stefan is downright sloppy, plating pin bones on two of the judges' dishes. Unfortunately, just because there's smoke doesn't mean there's fire.

I'm not sure what exactly CJ means when he describes the onion and potato "aspects" that are infusing his mussel broth, but despite his undercooked smoked pike-perch, the dish impresses guest judge Vinny Dotolo, one half of Top Chef favorite Animal in Los Angeles. It's a more of-the-moment dish, with dill and Persian cucumber informing his aesthetic and vision far more than the weak pickles he served up alongside his bad burger two years ago. Though Curtis sides with Stefan, Gail is the deciding vote and CJ is $10,000 richer.

After reading four of these recaps you can probably tell by now that I love a good (bad) pun, but for the sake of maintaining some sense of authorial maturity, I am choosing to refrain from making "butt jokes" when discussing CJ's quickfire challenge. The chefs make more than enough of them on their own. It's a funny idea, and the battle to become "butt champion" is an interesting one, with Stefan's Thai-(semi-)inspired coconut curry bisque with pork-and-potato dumplings and Kaffir lime drawing some approving slurps from the judges.

Again, though, I can't help but conclude that CJ's simply trying harder with his bird butt sauce (quail, chicken, and squab) and sliced pork with its BFFs morels and fava beans. Though the whole sorrel leaf is somewhat unappetizing, CJ goes on the offensive, criticizing Stefan's unfocused cooking-without-conviction. It's not particularly nice, but as Stefan notes, it's not the first time we've seen this side of Big Ceej. Animal's Jon Shook and Gail were probably leaning toward CJ's butt sauce anyway, and CJ gets $10,000 more to pay for the time he spent at Noma.

Ah… yes. The epicenter of the contemporary culinary world. Throughout the years, trends in cuisine from foams to food trucks have all taken their turn on Top Chef, and this week, New Nordic cuisine and the foraged food movement take center stage. It's an interesting meeting-in-the-middle for the dueling chefs: Stefan's style is rooted in the same geographical region as the movement (though in an entirely different time period) and CJ's has drank the found food Kool-Aid. Foraging for their three-course sea, air, and land duel is more than forced screen-time for the latest Lexus automobile—it's an acknowledgment of a pervasive and powerful idea changing cuisine worldwide.

It certainly helps that the show has found a striking culinary ambassadress in Shailene Woodley, the neo-hippie starlet who can casually munch on Manzanita berries while planning a weekend rewilding trip. She and Los Angeles magazine's Lesley Suter are a nice change-up from the boys' club that the judges' table often becomes.

NEXT: A "perfect" plate

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