It might be a couple of days before my blood pressure returns to normal. Tonight's lead-in to the finale was—for the most part—Top Chef at its best. With only five chefs left in the competition, this intensely stressful episode had plenty of time to linger on both the chefs and the food. And despite my grumblings the past couple of weeks about who went home, the remaining chefs stepped it up, leading into one of the most anxiety-ridden judge's table in memory.
Which brings me to tonight's first major eyesore. Can we just forget about the Quickfire? I certainly wish the producers had. Top Chef brings in Dan Barber of Blue Hill Farm, focused on local foods and sustainability… to judge a quickfire involving only processed food prepared on a ferry heading out to Ellis Island. It's a ridiculous challenge this late in the game. We watch Tiffany assemble nachos like a concession-stand pro, and others flail when attempting to step up to this non-challenge. Mike delivers a soup out of a hot dog roll and pork rinds. Antonia (put on your Blais voice) takes the bread from one sandwich and the cheese from another sandwich and toasts it. Blais' contempt is palpable, and he's right. Everyone thinks everyone else's dish is bullshit because the whole challenge is bullshit. Nothing is at stake here; not elimination, and certainly not the chefs' pride. Tiffany says being on the bottom was "embarrassing," but really? The whole challenge is a throwaway. Who's going to be ashamed for losing a challenge like this? Let's just forget this ever happened and unpack the rest of the episode.
For the elimination challenge, Top Chef pulls out a few reliable reality-show tropes to warm us to the chefs before sending most of them home. Raise our emotional investment in these folks, and we'll watch with renewed conviction. Scarred by memories of reality-show contestants everywhere melting into a hot, teary mess the moment mothers show up, I was rolling my eyes as the chefs' family members walked across the lawn. What can I say, though: It didn't take too long before I was sucked in. The extended episode allowed us to see family dynamics and a few seemingly candid moments, and these folks were all perfect for each other. Mike's passive aggressiveness surfaced in his mother joking at the table; Blais' wife pumped him up after the meal like an expert cornerman, feeding his neurosis; Carla’s husband lovingly explained that she likes to “create food memories."
The family members were here, of course, to complement a Top Chef staple challenge: Cook your life story. This season’s twist leans on the chefs' backstory; the show hired a genealogist to research the chefs’ heritage. (Though this world-renowned genealogist didn’t seem to get much farther than the great-great level.) The concept’s a good one, I thought: Pushing them to think concretely about their family—with their family present—would inspire them beyond what we’d expect: Italian folks cooking Italian food, and Southern folks cooking Southern food, and, well, Blais being Blais. Of course, that’s what happened anyway, but the dishes ended up being more nuanced or at least rooted in a specific idea. So the inspiration worked, to a certain extent. Richard pulled together the most cohesive narrative, analyzing the challenge successfully and seizing on threads in the folder that would translate to the kitchen: chemistry; meat; the marriage of Ireland, England, and the Midwest.
Inspiring the chefs and giving them complete creative license pays off. The chefs cook their hearts out and not without risk: Tiffany sets out to make stewed okra, knowing Tom hates okra. Antonia attempts a risotto, having watched Tre go home for one that wasn’t well executed. Carla breaks out a new technique, liquid nitrogen, having lost her season for trying out sous-vide during a challenge. Each chef imagines and executes a near-perfect dish to rave reviews.
And then Antonia’s mom pulls Chekhov’s gun out of her bag and starts waving it around wildly. Have you ever had five at the finale? “Hahaha,” says Padma, in her best condescending laugh. “Five at the finale. What a joker you are, Antonia’s mom.” Surely, I thought, that’s just planted there to lead us astray. Then after dinner, there it was again. Antonia’s mom repeated it. With subtitles. And yet, as we entered judge's table, I didn't think it was possible. It’s the guiding light of Top Chef. Someone has to go home, and this late in the season, very small mistakes can be cause for elimination.
As the critiques came in, my money was on Carla to go home. She may have created one of the best broths Tom’s ever tried, but her vegetables weren’t perfectly cooked. In Top Chef history, that’s grounds for dismissal. Shoot—“could have used a little more salt” has been grounds for dismissal. But from the moment Padma pulls out a joke at judge's table, it was all over. She nearly gives Richard (and me, for that matter) a heart attack by pulling a Tyra, switching from a stern “pack your knives…” to a triumphant “for the Bahamas.” At that moment, all was lost. If someone were going home, Padma wouldn't play around during the elimination. Antonia took the win with her risotto, everyone’s going to the Bahamas, and I'd like to call bullshit on this episode. Who cares if the decision is tough—not everyone executed perfectly. We didn’t get any evidence of the deliberations that took place at judge’s table, just a lot of agreeing that the food was excellent. In the end, though, judges, that’s your job: to judge and rank.
So I feel a little cheated. On the other hand, I feel every bit as strongly that this was one of the better episodes of the season, notwithstanding the blight of the Quickfire, which along with the non-judging brought the grade down a notch. I’m not sure I’ve sat so tensely through any elimination, which is a testament to the structure of the challenge and the caliber of the dishes delivered by the chefs. Of course, that hand-wringing hinged on the false assumption that someone was going to be eliminated. I’m eager to read all of your thoughts on this.
- Just one tonight, but it’s an exciting one: the reveal that the chefs will go head to head with the chef that won their original season. What a lovely, diabolical bookend to the first challenge of this season, when the chefs had to recreate the dish that got them eliminated. Bring on the bloated finale.