When you’re a child, the most important thing any given adult wants to impress upon you is the importance of following directions. Teachers would repeat themselves over and over to ensure you’d heed their instructions. Some would even institute special activities which involved a blank piece of paper and a list of dictated directions, trying to gauge your listening abilities and your skill at ending up with a square containing a seven in the right hand corner and three small circles underneath. It didn’t matter how well you did any given task necessarily, as much more credit was awarded if you at least tried your best to adhere to the letter of the law.
Obviously things change as you grow older. Following the directions isn’t enough anymore, you also have to execute your tasks with basic competence and something akin to flair. In a perfect world, every task is accomplished correctly, yes, but also with the insight and creativity that only you can bring to it.
That said, this week’s episode of Top Chef featured a major decision centering around two dishes that fell well short of the platonic ideal. Two dishes that, force the issue: Is it better to follow the directions and swing for the fences or ignore the challenge at hand and bunt a run home?
But before we get to the greater philosophical questions of reality cooking shows, let’s start from the beginning and take a look at how the last episode before the chefs ship out to Mexico for the home stretch. We open with Mei talking about how she suspects Gregory is slipping and if last week’s episode had featured an elimination it likely would have been him. While I understand where Mei’s coming from with this comment and while Gregory did have a pretty underwhelming dish last week, it seems mind-blowing to think that he would miss out on the finals after his dominance in the first half of this season. That said, throughout this episode Gregory is nowhere near the top of his game and it remains unclear what exactly will have to happen to force him to refocus.
The guest judge is the talented Wylie Dufresne, renowned chef and molecular gastronomist and, as summarized by Anthony Bourdain in a previous episode of Top Chef, a “notorious egg slut.” Today’s Quickfire Challenge celebrates the final Quickfire in Boston and requires the chefs to create a Boston-worthy dish featuring beans, in honor of the city’s “Bean Town” moniker. The winner of the challenge will be awarded a trip to Napa and the contestants have an hour to prepare something innovative from the decidedly humble ingredient.
The Quickfire itself seems to encapsulate the strength and weakness of each chef as we enter the final stretch of episodes. George thinks the bean challenge is easy, as it’s not difficult to incorporate beans into Greek cuisine. Gregory thinks the bean challenge is hard because it’s difficult to incorporate beans into Asian cuisine. Neither really stops to think much about making a dish that doesn’t stick exclusively to their wheelhouse and it’s a restrictive thought process that isn’t doing them any favors this late in the game. Melissa also falls a bit short in this challenge (though with her position in the finale already locked, she’s under much less pressure than anyone else) as her bean dish seems less about the beans and more about the pork tenderloin. It’s Mei who really stands out in this challenge daring to prepare beans two ways, with one of the preparations being a foam, which against all odds was apparently not a terrible idea. It’s also worth mentioning that Mei has done her guest judge homework and sneaks a poached egg into her dish, hugely exploiting Dufresne’s weak spot. Regardless, Mei gets the win and the momentum heading into the Elimination Challenge.
Innovation is the watchword and Wylie actually sticks around to serve as the guest judge for the final round as well, informing the chefs that they’re to create an innovative dish that pushes the culinary boundaries of both food and themselves, a particularly difficult thing to ask of contestants at the end of a grueling competition that taxes both their bodies and their minds. This close to the end it’s clear that the chefs are getting tired and both their nerve and imagination are getting rather shaky.
Immediately the chefs begin to reveal their confidence levels heading into this final challenge. Melissa, the safe, feels comfortable playing around a bit more than the others, even while its important to her to perform well. She focuses her efforts on a seared duck breast with farro, walnut miso, and pickled cherries, which, on the surface doesn’t seem to be a particularly innovative effort but the judges seem largely charmed.
Mei attempts something that also seems deceptively simple on the surface but ended up being weirdly complex. She prepares a duck curry with vadouvan and a yuzu yogurt. How she prepares it though is worlds away from a typical heavy curry, utilizing a strong but sparse broth and layering in more lightness with the aerated yogurt. The judges responses are muted but all are in adamant agreement that the dish is about as complex and innovative as they come.
The boys fare less well. George runs into trouble the second he steps up to the Whole Foods meat counter, where he is informed that they are all out of pork belly. This stymies him, as his he is building his entire dish around an octopus/pork belly combination. He adapts and decides to move forward with octopus alone, choosing to utilize it in a number of ways. It’s hard to tell if his original iteration of the dish would have been preferable because it’s difficult to imagine what an octopus/pork belly dish looks like on the plate. That said, his rattled nerves are reflected on the plate where the judges appreciate the creative endeavor that is his ground octopus head fritter, but cannot abide by the overly bitter charred octopus and number of extraneous ingredients.
And then there’s Gregory. Gregory decides that his best bet for this final challenge is to prepare Asian food (Sigh.) and that his innovation will be to add a crispy element to his soup-like dish. (SIGH.) He’s not wrong to feel like soup is the perfect place to feature a bit of a crunch. Why, I’ve been adding crackers to my soup since I was but a wee child. However, I have to imagine that when a panel of elite judges asks you to push the boundaries of your imagination and you come with with the high culinary equivalent of a can of Campbell’s and a sleeve of saltines there’s going to be a bit of a disconnect. Despite that bit of dismissive shade, Gregory ended up with an exquisite dish of salmon in tom kha broth that utilized both crispy chicken and salmon skin. But is that innovative?
Winning the challenge, in somewhat of a surprising decision, was Melissa’s duck breast, shocking not because it wasn’t good but rather because it didn’t seem like the best execution of true creativity, a distinction that seemed to belong to Mei. Despite Melissa going home with the $10,000 prize for winning the challenge, Mei gets the distinction of being in the top two and safely advancing to the finale. Both Mei and Melissa are ending the season on a distinct high and both seem excited to make the most of that in Mexico.
But the final decision must be made between Gregory and George. While Gregory’s dish was superior, it was a decidedly safe choice. Though George’s octopus was inexpertly prepared and not as expertly crafted, it was definitely something that showcased how he was pushing himself as a chef, which was exactly what the challenge asked for. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that it’s George that is eliminated despite his adhering to the spirit of the challenge and maybe it’s even the right call. Being as this is a cooking show, maybe it’s always preferable to go for the best food. But this late in the game it sure would be nice to know if they’re judging by the spirit or the letter of the law.
Quickfire Challenge Winner: Mei
Elimination Challenge Winner: Melissa
Elimination Challenge Loser: George
Bitchin’ ‘Bout Blais:
- I seriously don’t understand what’s happening anymore. He was at the judge’s table but then wasn’t on the judge’s panel? What? Oh my God, did I get him demoted? I had no idea how much power I had…
- Just kidding, I assume he’s less available because I think he has his own show or something now? Also, I’ve heard he’s a chef.
- That said, it’s still weird he wasn’t on the final panel.
LAST CHANCE KITCHEN, “The Last Chance Kitchen Finals”
(Spoilers. Please scroll to Stray Observations if necessary.)
- This was pretty fun this week and it was amusing to have Doug choose between clams and octopus, the two different ingredients responsible for eliminating George this season.
- I enjoyed the cross-cutting between the cooking action and the other remaining contestants arriving at the villa in Mexico, being rightfully suspicious.
- Both Mexican clam dishes looked really good but I have to assume this is going to Doug, right?
- Prediction: The decision comes down to the salsa verde-ish clams being too spicy.
- Gregory, dude, get it together. You’re better than this.
- I would not have expected that Melissa is older than Mei.
- I also would not have expected that Melissa is the frontrunner heading into the finale but apparently I’m bad at this.
- This year’s “It’s Top Chef not Top Scallop” award goes to Melissa for this bit of shade regarding Gregory’s Asian addiction: “You can’t win Top Chef just making curries.”
- Padma tells the chefs to “Make this dish count!” Thanks Padma. Solid tip.