Though Stefan is clearly in a funk, his lobster bisque with California fennel, morels, lobster stock, and Mormon Tea feels like a comfortable opening-round offering, though the idea of his cuisine ever "hugging" anyone is surprising. On the other hand, CJ's dish—a black bass crudo "marinated" in foraged foliage and served on rocks—is, to me, inspiration to the point of caricature. Sure, the idea of the waves breaking on rocks is attractive, but simply put, it's the ugliest plate we've seen so far this year. I can't help but think CJ's been spending entirely too much time with his Noma cookbook, which does, in fact include a recipe that provides detailed instructions on what to feed your snails before cooking them. As a wise man once said, "CJ… what's wrong with a good burger?"
With round two, though, Ceej settles in better and presents a pan-roasted duck breast with currants, chickweed, grilled wild nettles, and a charred juniper berry sauce that wows the judges, who seem almost ready to pull chickweed from between the concrete blocks of Hollywood Boulevard. However, Stefan's phucken (that's pheasant-and-duck) galantine with mustard flowers, currants, and a cumberland is probably the prettiest dish of the duel and right in his classical culinary wheelhouse. You can almost feel the momentum shift despite Gail's praise of his phucken texture. He's as unapologetically skilled as ever, but his moment has passed. His food's time is up.
Watching the judges wax rhapsodically about CJ's "perfect" charred braised rabbit with wild mustard, leeched acorns, elderflower, and rabbit tobacco (which the show somehow neglects to mention can be smoked), it's clear that his food wows them in a way that Stefan's no longer can. At one point Curtis even concludes that CJ's dish's ingredients were the ones the rabbit might've eaten. For Stefan, goat loin with acorn mash, sage jus, and elderberry flowers is an appropriately "wild" effort. Despite Gail's proclamations that this was the closest Top Chef battle she'd ever been a part of, it became obvious quickly that CJ would be the one moving on. He has grown immensely even in the two years since we saw him last. Although he's not the progenitor of anything new, he's enthusiastically devoted to the sensibilities that are defining this culinary moment. I'm excited to see what he'll bring to the finale.
Stefan, on the other hand, makes food that is out of fashion. It's that simple. In the past, he survived because of a killer instinct that pushed him forward despite his shortcomings. It's an unfortunate reality of his time on Top Chef that as he has grown more likable, his food has suffered. But with his mother's illness clearly impacting his performance, I can't help but think of CJ's words early in the episode: You do have to care about something to be a great chef. I think Stefan would agree.