Tournament of Champions Season 5 Qualifiers round 2: Celebrating versatility

As the next set of four chefs battle for the eighth seed in the East A bracket, these Tournament of Champions Season 5 qualifiers brought big, bold flavors to the table. Will their culinary creativity give them an edge in the main bracket?
Tournament of Champions Season 5 qualifiers
Tournament of Champions Season 5 qualifiers / Food Network

With these Tournament of Champions Season 5 qualifying rounds, Food Network builds excitement for the competition. The next set of four chefs have earned praise in culinary competitions, restaurant circles, and have legions of fans. All those accolades mean nothing to the Randomizer and the judges. The food on the plate better impress or their time in the competition is over.  

Battling for the eighth seed in the East A bracket are Leah Cohen, Ilan Hall, Nini Nguyen, and Gerald Sombright. While some Top Chef alums have had success on TOC, this group did not fare well in previous seasons. Getting into the competition is an accomplishment, but chefs would prefer to make it deeper into the tournament.  

In the first battle, the Randomizer offered ground turkey, celery, handheld mixer, poached and 30 minutes. Whether or not 30 minutes will be the timeframe for all the first rounds remains to be seen, but 30 minutes and poached is not an easy task. More importantly, poached is not the cooking technique showcased on culinary food television. It might not be conducive to fast and furious cooking.  

Additionally, celery is a curious ingredient. While it might be part of the trinity or a garnish in a Bloody Mary, it is not often a highlighted flavor in a dish. Making that supporting element a primary flavor would be key.  

Leah stuck to her preferred flavor profiles. The arroz caldo with a poached egg in celery juice was smart. Combined with a turkey meatball, the savory dish had a nice freshness. The judges appreciated the celery forward flavor.  

Gerald offered a turkey nduja Salsbury steak. While there was good texture from the celery, the sauce was clearly over reduced and the judges commented on the gelatinous nature. Also, the dish needed a little acidic note to break up the richness.  

Ilan made turkey arayes with poached pickled celery. His dish was the only offering that used celery seed, which was applauded by the judges. Unfortunately, the poached pickled celery did not meet the judges’ expectations, nor did it really capture the idea of a poached element.  

Nini presented a Vietnamese grilled sausage. According to the judges, it was a mike drop moment with flavor on flavor. Playing the randomizer well, the dish had dynamic flavors and was well focused.  

Before the scores were revealed, it was clear that Nini would move into the final round. The judges loved her dish. She would face Leah, who came in a close second. Both Gerald and Ilan had too many mis-steps to make the last round.  

In the final battle, the Randomizer offered chicken cutlet, red cabbage, microwave pressure cooker, smoky, and 35 minutes. While the chicken cutlet might not be a chef’s favorite protein, it was the microwave pressure cooker that had the chefs confused. Although a regular pressure cooker might be a standard kitchen essential in a culinary competition, the microwave version is not as common.

Leah was ambitious and made a curry. While her chicken cutlet was nicely cooked and her cabbage curry was vibrant, the judges missed a key element in her dish, smoke. The char flavor was clear, but char is not smoke. That element was her downfall.  

Nini channeled her New Orleans roots with a red beans and rice dish. She used the microwave pressure cooker in two ways. More importantly, she was able to highlight the smoke flavor with both a ham hock and some liquid smoke. While that liquid smoke can be divisive, it worked to her advantage in this challenge. Overall, the dish was quite delicious and the judges raved about it.  

Winning the eighth seed in Tournament of Champions Season 5 was Nini Nguyen. She will give Maneet Chauhan a tough battle. Could the dancing spice queen fall to the new guard? 

Be sure to watch new episodes of Tournament of Champions Season 5 Wednesday nights on Food Network. Episodes can be streamed the next day on MAX.