Top Chef: “Leaving New Orleans”
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Top Chef: “Leaving New Orleans”

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Top Chef

"Leaving New Orleans" 

Season 11, Episode 15

It's fitting that the two chefs who lost the Quickfire ended up winning the elimination challenge—that’s the kind of backwards logic that makes sense for Top Chef, where it often feels like the contestants are tested on very different skills from challenge to challenge. I mentioned this briefly last week in the comments, but it bears repeating: The Last Chance Kitchen challenges are typically much more thoughtful than the main competition’s challenges. And the Quickfire challenges are the worst of all. They’re the ones most likely to be dominated by a corporate sponsor and the ones most likely to create weird immunity issues that effect the primary competition. I guess it is all a competition, but I don’t know. A lot of them this season felt like they made the process of finding the best chef among these contestants harder, not easier.

So Carlos winning the Quickfire—as Nick won it two weeks ago—basically ensures that he'll end up in the bottom this week. The primary exception to this rule—ye who wins the Quickfire will end up at the bottom of the challenge—is Shirley, who usually circumvents it by winning both. It was sad to see Carlos go—as inept as he could sometimes be, I found his story one of the most interesting on the show. And as much as the other contestants complained that he stuck within his Mexican oeuvre, I’m happy that the judges didn't make a production out of it. Mexican food is a damn complex cuisine, and if you can do it really well, who cares if you haven’t been formally trained?

That being said, I’m not sure we got the whole story as to why Carlos was eliminated. There was very little negative said about his dish—Emeril said it was a little cold, and there was a bit of talk about how the mousse and the “masa” didn't quite work together, but that seemed trivial next to the praise he got for reinventing the tamale in an interesting way that still tasted like New Orleans. And Padma—ice queen Padma Lakshmi—was rather upset about sending him home. Maybe she just doesn’t like Nick very much (who seems to have a fraught relationship with salt?), and maybe this was a production decision of some variety. I doubt it’s anything so sophisticated as a “conspiracy,” but the show’s producers seem more enamored of Nick than the judges do. Meanwhile, I can’t remember anything interesting about Nick’s dish except that it had broth, so you know.

The elimination challenge this week is another one of these “search your feelings” challenges that give the contestants a chance to shine: Make a dish that encapsulates what you’ve learned from cooking in Louisiana. Shirley already kind of did this, but it’s fun to see her do it again—and super cute, the way she and Emeril both tear up when she wins the competition. She’s done a good job of incorporating her Chinese roots into her cooking without making that dominant (as Carlos was often accused of doing); additionally, she’s one of the nicest, chillest winners out there. She’s somehow able to be humble while also being confident and never seems to get full of herself with the other chefs. Everything we see about Shirley suggests that she's good stuff, and it's really awesome to her rewarded for that.

The primary drama this week, though, was that Nina forgot to put her fresh Italian dumplings on the plate with her barbecue shrimp, trout, and vegetables. She was inspired by Emeril’s own barbecue shrimp, which he served with a rosemary biscuit (which looked heavenly). Nina’s fantastic with homemade pasta, so it is not surprising that she would lean on that to round out her dish. But the mistake, which was heavily promoed all week, turns out to be rather anticlimactic—the rest of her dish impressed the judges.

This is the last episode in New Orleans before the two-part finale, and it’s a sad hour, in many ways. Emeril isn’t going to Hawaii, so he treats the final four to a meal he cooks himself in his restaurant’s kitchen—which so moves the contestants that they are sort of speechless. Emeril has surprised me by having such a big heart, and he clearly cares a lot about New Orleans, too, which is darling. There are so few chefs left that the show feels empty, and though we’re getting to know everyone a little more, it’s also underscoring that we keep losing these people we’ve spent so much time with.

Hawaii is an odd feint from Louisiana—I guess there is great seafood there, as in New Orleans, but otherwise, the cuisines don’t immediately have much in common. Maybe Padma just really wanted to go to Hawaii. See you next week for finale, part one, where we see how this season shakes down in a promised double-elimination.

Stray observations:

  • Between Gail’s challenge (“perfect bites” on cocktail forks) and Tom’s (make either eggplant or bell pepper interesting), which would you choose? Gail’s struck me very much as a challenge a food critic would create. Tom’s is a chef’s challenge. I’m not that good of a cook. I would go for Gail’s.
  • Padma’s purple-and-white dress is lovely. And while we’re talking about clothes, I think Nina’s got great fashion sense. (I’ll remove myself to the Project Runway ghetto now.)
  • Has Last Chance Kitchen been significantly better than the actual show this season? Hearing about Louis’ exploits has certainly sounded more interesting. Carlos and Louis’ showdown might draw me to watch it online, even though the Bravo website drives me a little crazy.
  • With four contestants left, even if one of them is still up in the air, my money is on Shirley for the win. It’s like betting on Michael Jordan in 1996, but whatever. I like her, and she’s got a great attitude. Who’s your pick?