Hello, everyone. Emily Withrow couldn’t be with you tonight, so she asked me to dust off my Top Chef reviewing apron for this season’s penultimate episode. Before I dig into “Last Supper,” some thoughts heading in: This is the only Top Chef season I can remember where the most exciting episodes were at the beginning, and the show seemed to deflate as fewer contestants remained. The reason this never happens, of course, is that there’s usually so much chaff in the earlygoing that you have to wait an agonizingly long time for the best chefs to finally square off against each other. But since this is an “All Star” season, the weak links weren’t as apparent—okay, Jaime kind of sucked, but you catch my meaning—and, more importantly, the challenges were much more inventive early on, starting with that amazingly sadistic first-episode Elimination round where the chefs had to cook the dishes that got them booted from their respective seasons. Add to that the absence of strong personalities like Fabio, and Top Chef: All Stars has been atypically weak down the homestretch.
Happily, “Last Supper” found Top Chef regaining a lot of that flagging momentum. It helps that the three most consistently strong chefs have all survived and that they’re all so heavily invested in winning. Each has different ways of dealing with the stress—Mike hyper-competitive; Antonia anxiety and weepy; Richard a ball of neuroses—but none would be satisfied with runner-up status, and their engagement raises the stakes. The episode was also helped by excellent Quickfire and Elimination challenges: Both lifted (with twists) from past Top Chef seasons but seemed appropriate this late in the game. (Unlike, say, another catering challenge or the bullshit “King of Junkanoo” challenge from two weeks ago.)
This week’s Quickfire brings in Wolfgang Puck to judge a fun two-tiered twist on previous Quickfires. (Sadly, I only know Mr. Puck from a couple of grim airport meals at his restaurant chain and cans of soup I have no interest in buying. That’s what happens when a chef of repute sells out. What also happens: He gets stinking rich in the process.) The first tier of the Quickfire asked chefs to assign their competitors with one of seven previous challenges: Mike gives Antonia canned foods (which everyone seems to agree is the toughest one); Antonia makes Richard cook store-bought hot dogs; and Richard sticks Mike with one pot. Then just when they’re in the middle of getting it done, Padma hits them with the second tier: They must assign each other one of three “twists.” This ends with Mike cooking without utensils, Richard cooking with one hand, and Antonia doing a double-apron with Carla. Richard seems like the only one bothered by his new limitations, but then again, Richard only seems comfortable in the interview segments, when he’s touting his superior skills. Due to the limited ingredients and Byzantine rules governing the Quickfire, the resulting dishes all seem competent but fairly forgettable, and I’m thinking Mike’s close win has to do with his being allowed to plate his dish properly. The others were too hamstrung.
The origins of the “Last Supper” Elimination come from the amazing finale of Top Chef Masters’ first season, when the chefs were asked to create a meal that tells their story. [Note: As many commenters have pointed out below, this challenge was in fact a repeat of a Season Five challenge and not a modification of that Top Chef Masters challenge. Sorry about that.] This was fundamentally an evocative and revealing challenge about telling a story through food. Michelle Bernstein wants Mike to recreate the fried chicken and biscuits that knocked her out as a chicken-deprived five-year-old; Wolfgang Puck recalls for Richard the goulash and apple strudel of his youth; and Iron Chef Morimoto wants Antonia to play the mother who meticulously prepared miso soup and sashimi for him while he was out playing baseball. It’s a tricky challenge on at least two levels: The chefs have to please extremely discriminating guests with their favorite food while also putting their own stamp on it. Mike, for example, can’t just whip up some old-fashioned, greasy fried chicken and expect to get away with it.
Of the three, Antonia has it the worst, thanks to Mike, who figured Morimoto would trip up whoever was assigned to him. Just cooking rice properly has always been an issue on Top Chef—when's the last decent batch you can remember?—and that’s before the precision required of doing a good sashimi without being too simple about it. When Antonia’s hamachi turned out to be near-rotten, I thought her part of the challenge went from being difficult to downright unfair; if she’s not able to shop for ingredients herself, then it’s only right that the proteins on offer be in good condition. It was a relief, then, that Antonia’s replacement fish wasn’t the problem—and neither was the rice—and a bigger relief that she had a chance to redeem herself in the second, head-to-head, “single bite” challenge against Mike.
Though Mike is peaking at the right time—adding a Quickfire win and a good showing in both Elimination rounds—Top Chef: All Stars is still looking like Richard’s to lose. His solution to Wolfgang’s goulash and strudel dinner proved the range of his abilities—he claimed never to have made a strudel, yet earned nothing but high marks for it—and his talent for subtly fusing classic dishes with his own not-so-mad-scientist techniques. Mike’s fried chicken sounded reasonably inventive—the yolk-filled empanada especially—but the decision to cook the chicken sous-vide smacked of a desperate to do something different for its own sake, rather than serving the dish well.
Overall, a proper lead-up to the finale: Tense, twist-filled, yet ultimately generous enough to allow the chefs the time and space to cook something great, which is what they should be doing at this stage of the game. All of them delivered; Antonia just delivered a little less. Bet you she’s not buying any of Wolfgang Puck’s crappy soup, either.
- Love Richard, but his swagger in the interview segments has reflected poorly on him. It sounds like he’s trying to talk himself into confidence, like Stuart Smalley or something.
- Squeezing three challenges into one hour really served the show’s pacing well. Much as I like to spend time at judges table, shortening that discussion while adding the “one-bite” elimination at the end gave the episode a nice boost.
- Who do you like in the finale? Richard has been the favorite all along, but Mike’s hot streak of late has the effect of legitimizing his claim to the title should he perform well. (Still, my money’s on Richard not to choke this time.)
- And one more time, here’s Padma in that bikini from last week.