It's a shame that here, near the end of the season, Top Chef seems to be losing some of its momentum. Normally, the show ramps up as it approaches the end. If the Top Chef universe is in order, the worse chefs are eliminated, and the show becomes stronger because the competition gets harder. This season's early challenges were so strong, though, that the show's experiencing a leveling off here at the end as the challenges wane. Each week is theoretically harder (even with a few notable chefs being eliminated early on), but the quality of the challenges has tapered off, resulting in a few episodes that seem to be coasting. It's like I hit snooze and am killing an hour every week while waiting for the finale to roll around.
Our four remaining chefs—Sheldon, Lizzie, Brooke, and Josh—dock in Alaska to compete in an episode largely focused on seafood. The Quickfire has them working with Alaskan crab for Southern chef Sean Brock, and the elimination challenge requires the chefs to work with salmon and sourdough. The setup produces some perfectly fine meals and some sweet family backstory, but nothing even remotely resembling a late-season nail-biter. Part of this is because we're out of villains. John Tesar bit it in episode nine, and Josie in episode 12, and with those two gone, there's no one to actively root against. Josh is a poor excuse for a villain; he just has a silly mustache and makes bacon too often. Sheldon's sweet and plays the ukelele. Brooke even jokes around during this episode about not sharing because "it's a competition."
In the absence of any real drama, the payoff is a fair amount of time this week spent on the dishes. Brooke takes the win for the crab toast she makes, using two types of crab and making a compound butter for her crab toast. Sheldon works the innards into a soup. It doesn't sound appetizing, but they end up creating an effective miso along with his crab and pine-smoked asparagus tips.
For the elimination round, the chefs must work with salmon and sourdough—two Alaskan staples and the first time (as far as I can tell) bread has played an integral role in a challenge. I thought this was going to be the big twist—bread as the new dessert?—that the chefs would have to grapple with. And though the chefs appear nervous at the onset, they handle it well. I've got to think that an exception was made, and that the chefs were allowed to use recipes. They don't say it outright, but certainly these guys don't have bread recipes committed to memory, right? They certainly gave zero screen-time to any of the chefs talking about their bread-making techniques, other than kneading and rising. In any case, no one seems to hit trouble with the sourdough. Lizzie's individual rolls get a bunch of recognition, but it's not enough to save her under-seasoned salmon, and she's the one who's sent packing this week.
The judges also docked Lizzie points for simplicity, saying that at this stage of the game, they'd expect something refined instead of salmon sliders. It's no wonder she was confused, though: Refinement doesn't typically go hand-in-hand with an Alaskan salmon bake set in the forest with a bunch of black bears looking on. This is where Lizzie and the other three chefs get short-changed at this late-stage episode. Instead of letting them cook in a professional kitchen, making them plate a full serving, the producers ask the chefs to make small plates for 200 diners. Cooking for that many people doesn't give them the space they deserve at this late stage. It doesn't allow them enough room to be creative. One of the biggest challenges becomes quantity, causing them to lose focus on quality. I'd have loved to see the same challenge played out in a dining room—taking salmon and sourdough and "elevating it," as Padma likes to say. The hints we got here—like Josh's infusing the sourdough into his soup—could have played at a higher level. Instead, each of the chefs makes mistakes, which again, during this endgame, would typically get someone sent home. Lizzie's fish was under-seasoned, Sheldon's bread made Padma's face go lopsided, and Josh's garlic overpowered his salmon. Brooke took the win even though Gail's fish was overcooked. I can't fault Lizzie for making a salmon slider. She played it safer than everyone else, but for a salmon bake for 200, it's not a terrible choice.
- Judge's table felt exactly like Survivor. I wish they'd just gone ahead and made everyone carry torches and cast a ballot.
- Brooke all the way! This makes four wins for her. The only other chef with four wins… is Kristen. Kristen all the way!
- Proof this episode didn't have enough drama: The judges venturing awkwardly into the crowd to ask about their meals made the cut. Yeesh.
- Next week: Josh has a baby, then gets to go home and see her. I predict he misses his child's birth to become Top Chef, only to be eliminated the very day the child is born.
- The promo for next week mentions someone has a panic attack. There also appears to be some sledding.