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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Top Chef: “Holy Escamoly”

Mei Lin
Mei Lin
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The reason that reality television makes for such satisfying low-stakes viewing is that, to a certain extent, things proceed pretty predictably. We’ve talked previously in these reviews about selective editing and how people working behind the scenes are hand-crafting the most appealing storyline for the audience at home and because of that, seasons of reality shows usually settle into a pretty standard story patten, especially coming into the final stretch of episodes.

With that said, I have no fucking clue what happened tonight.

We open the episode in the aftermath of last week’s episode, with Mei smarting from both being in the bottom and her friend Melissa being eliminated. She vows to not allow herself to be complacent moving forward and to not hold back moving forward, which seems like a resolution that would have better implemented several episodes ago


The chefs are shuttled out to an absolutely idyllic organic farm, replete with a greenhouse bursting with herbs and tiny white butterflies fluttering about. The farm provides produce for local restaurants and its executive chef, Enrique Farjeat, is with Padma to administer the final Quickfire Challenge. For this final challenge, the chefs will be cooking with chocolate, tasked with preparing not one, but two dishes for tasting, one sweet and one savory. In addition, they’ll also need to harvest their fresh vegetables from the surrounding fields and manage it all in a mere 45 minutes.

Mei and Gregory both seem confident with the challenge, ideal for both of them since they both got soundly trounced by Doug last episode. Doug, on the other hand, seems shaken. He’s not one for desserts (Which, listen, I realize that in the greater culinary world there are chefs specifically responsible for desserts but this is Top Chef. You know you’re going to have to make a dessert at some point. Figure out some kind of custard recipe before you show up. Sheesh.) and it shows. Not only does Doug opt for using a protein that doesn’t naturally meld well with chocolate (chicken, where Gregory chooses lamb and Mei chooses duck), he literally serves the judges a bowl of melted chocolate for dessert. It may have been the single saddest attempt at a dish in the history of Top Chef. Needless to say, Doug did not win the Quickfire Challenge. Instead it was Gregory, who used his dark (chocolate) magic to make turmeric baby carrots a viable dessert.


The Elimination Challenge proves to be a doozy, as the chefs will have to work together to create a six course progressive meal centered around six different mystery Mexican ingredients. Each chef will have two dishes and, therefore, two key ingredients. Thanks to winning the Quickfire, Gregory is able to pick his sous chef first, a great advantage seeing as the sous chefs will be able to shop and cook the entire time during this challenge, thanks to the immensity of the task. Gregory chooses George, which seems like a surprise (so much so that Padma seems slightly boggled by it) but looking back at the season it seems like Gregory never really made that significant of a connection with any of the other chefs. Mei chooses Melissa, as she’d been determined to do, in the hopes that even though the dream of the two proceeding to the finals together was dead, at least they can work together to advance Mei. Last to choose, Dougie chooses Katsuji, which comes as a slight shock but given the challenge and Mexican locale, ultimately seems like the wisest choice of all.

The mystery ingredients are a mixed bag, featuring pretty straightforward things like guava and avocado, poblano and Mexican quest, to batshit insane things like corn smut and ant eggs (huitlacoche and escamoles, respectively). As the chefs attempt to divvy up who gets what, there’s not even a feint towards conversation or randomization as Gregory and Mei immediately choose what they want leaving Doug with the leftovers, effectively the reality show equivalent of “down low, too slow.” Dougie isn’t happy with ending up with cheese and ant eggs and he lets the other chefs know it but his complaints are dismissed out of hand and he lets it go, too nice to raise much of a fuss, a choice that may have well been his undoing.


That said, Doug’s in good hands with Katsuji, who knows all about cooking with ant eggs, a Mexican delicacy akin to caviar. At the fantastically elaborate market they visit, Katsuji is able to navigate and negotiate with ease, thanks to his language skills and Doug’s fate seems more promising as he decides to prepare a tortilla with escamoles and escamol aioli along with a smoked queso fresco dish. It turns out that Gregory spent all of his free time before the finale researching Mexican cuisine and feels very confident making a pork and poblano stew, a nostalgic nod to the stews his mother made when he was young, and a spicy guava soup. He and Invisible George (No one gets less screen time/has less of a discernible personality than George) seem to be a seamless pair and quickly get to work. Mei and Melissa are obviously well-paired as well and Mei quickly determines the dishes she wants to make with her ingredients. For the huitlacoche, she’ll prepare an agnolotti in a broth and for the avocado, she’ll prepare… fancy guacamole. What the shit? As someone who has admittedly stanned for Mei since day one, her choice, after resolving to not play it safe earlier in the day, to make a dish that fancy chain Mexican restaurants make table-side seems unthinkable. Coupled with this decision is a moment in which Mei speaks at length about her parents and how they’ve never been proud of her. These things, plus her repeated assertions that Top Chef deserves another female Top Chef, feel intensely foreboding in terms of reality show editing.

The day of the Elimination Challenge, everything goes smoothly, unsurprising considering the caliber of chef still competing. Gregory’s dishes go first and fifth, with the meal opening with his guava soup and the pork stew being served later. They are highly received and the praise they garner is exceptional, with one of the famed chefs dining at the table remarking simply that “This is Mexico,” with regards to the stew. Mei’s dishes are served second and fourth, the second course featuring her guacamole, which, while tasty, is received about as well as you might expect, and the fourth entailing her huitlacoche agnolotti, which the judges seemed to like. Doug, then, has courses three and six, with his escamoles being served in the third course, needing to taste more like escamoles (despite one judge saying the dish, with tweaking, could be exceptional) and his queso fresco finishing up the meal.


It’s clear by the time Judge’s Table rolls around that Gregory is the winner and the frontrunner heading into the (actual) Top Chef finale next week. And at this point, the loser seems relatively clear, too. Despite an extended debate between the judges about who should move forward, it seems self-evident, based wholly on dish feedback, who will be joining Gregory in next week. And that person is Doug.

And, honestly, I was a little mad about it. Not because I don’t love Doug or because he wasn’t deserving. But because Mei was my favorite and it was going to be really hard to watch yet another Top Chef finale that didn’t feature a woman. Moreover, I was irritated by Tom Colicchio’s extended speech about how whoever is eliminated should be so proud about making it this far and that it was a huge accomplishment on it’s own, a speech that seemed to painfully mirror the earlier moments with Mei reflecting on her parents.


But it wasn’t Doug. It was Mei.

The decision, despite how much one might have wanted it, doesn’t seem to make much sense given what the show chose to reveal to its audience through its episodic narrative. Traditional reality show narrative dictates that Doug moves on and the Portland chefs and friends fight it out on the main stage. It dictates that Mei, though a remarkable talent who made a valiant effort, would fall just short and have to hope that her accomplishments were enough to impress her parents. But Top Chef through traditional reality show narrative out the window tonight and because of it, I am at a loss.


Mei and Gregory, your Top Chef season 12 final two. Where the hell do we go from here?

Quickfire Challenge Winner: Gregory

Elimination Challenge Winner: Gregory

Elimination Challenge Loser: Doug

Bitchin’ ‘Bout Blais:

  • I’ll admit it: When Padma announced Blais would be at Judge’s Table I squealed a little bit.
  • My enthusiasm was immediately quashed when one of the first things he said was a joke about huevos.
  • Goddammit Blais.

Stray observations:

  • I don’t think I’ve ever been as disheartened or surprised about a chef I like moving forward. I guess I would have wanted Doug and Mei in the finale but at this point I’m finding it impossibly difficult to choose between the three.
  • Not softening the blow is the fact that Katsuji and Doug working together was my favorite thing in a long time.
  • Heh. Corn smut.
  • White chocolate is not real chocolate because white chocolate is an abomination.
  • My sexual orientation is Padma speaking Spanish.
  • As much as I shittalked Mei’s guacamole I was amused that she incorporated the xoconostle from last episode into it.
  • When Doug compared cooking the escamoles for Mexican chefs to cooking foie gras for a French chef I should have seen the writing on the wall.
  • “You’re a great cheese chef.” “YOU’RE A CHEESE CHEF.” RIP Dougie.
  • Were you guys as surprised as I was or am I just out of touch?

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