"Final three" doesn't quite mean what it used to. In previous seasons of Top Chef, tonight's episode would have been the finale, naming the new top chef from a final round of three. Stretching things as thin as they could possibly go, though, the producers have turned "final three" in three episodes—an elimination tonight in Alaska, the return of a Last Chance Kitchen chef next week for a slightly reconfigured "final three," followed by the actual finale, in which two chefs compete for the title. Even Tom Colicchio describes the season as a "real grind;" by this point, we've seen these guys jump through nearly 20 challenges. Top Chef Seattle's comeback after a particularly terrible turnout in Texas during season 9 has delivered a set of challenges flexible enough to give us a real sense of our remaining chefs. Tonight's episode sets them up explicitly—we're left with a total-pro wunderkind from LA, Brooke, pitted against Sheldon and Josh, "two small-town chefs struggling to make it in the big leagues." The three of them travel to a glacier to cook at an Iditarod training camp where "mush" puns abound, then to the governor's mansion for a stellar elimination round.
The drawn-out conclusion to the season robs the show of some of its momentum, slowing things down considerably just as we're supposed to be gearing up to the finale, but this also gives the show some breathing room. In this episode in particular, it really paid off, balancing character development and in-kitchen time. And for all that I've been knocking Josh, the whole birth-of-his-baby thing got to me. Well played, producers, successfully getting me to empathize with another chef just before giving him the boot. (Note: I had a baby recently, and that baby made me have feelings.) It's almost as if they were keeping him around just long enough to cash in on the big event.
But first, the quickfire—maybe the lowest-stakes quickfire of the season, unless you're Brooke and have to overcome a fear of boats, planes, small spaces and heights. She takes the helicopter ride like a champ, with some silent crying that never approaches some of the ridiculous shrieking of, say, an ANTM contestant having to pose with a spider. The show does well here to stand down on the antics front—while they include a dogsled and running through snow, it's nothing resembling the disaster of last year's "shoot your ingredient." The challenge is innocuous—cook from the existing coolers. Josh makes another breakfast, Brooke and Sheldon serve halibut. Brooke takes the win on account of the texture delivered by her delicious croutons.
For the elimination challenge, the group travels to the governor's mansion, tasked with a dish that defines the moment the chefs knew they would be chefs. This is one of my favorite type of challenge—giving the chefs complete freedom and pinning it to a memory that might inspire them—and they don't give us the ham-fisted version where they fly in family and/or significant others to ensure a blubberfest. (Though maybe that's still to come in Los Angeles.) I suppose that wouldn't be fair to Josh, who spends much of the episode chatting with his wife, who at one point is crying for him in between contractions. We get additional nice moments from the judges thinking back on their beginnings—who doesn't love picturing Emeril as a dishwasher?—though I have to say, Roy Choi's monologue about Emeril coming out of the TV and hitting him over the head was a little muddled. But maybe an equally beautiful image if taken literally.
All three chefs really turn it out for this challenge, but the pressure causes each of them to stumble. Brooke struggles conceptually, but manages a beautiful plate of food incorporating chicken and quail—a nod to her mother's cooking and how she's evolved over time. Largely the judges rave over the subtle complexity of flavor in her seemingly simple dish. Wolfgang harps on his overcooked quail, this really seems inconsequential—just an effort to create some tension over who goes home. She wins handily, and is easily the frontrunner heading into the finale. The editors succeeded this episode in humanizing Josh (though for some reason his smile this episode looked like a chipmunk to me, every single time) to the extent that I was almost rooting for him heading into the elimination. After all, to his mind this challenge was enough reason for him to miss out on the birth of their child. His desire to be here is clear too in his choice of ingredient for the elimination challenge. He goes all out, as he says, balls to the wall, leaving behind his sacred bacon and eggs. He runs instead toward an ingredient that, to him, represents elevated dining—one that got him interested in cooking to begin with, but one that belies his style of cooking. It was a sincere move, but a foolish one. Foie gras three ways isn't what got him here, and it's not what's gotten him this far. He attempts a foie gras torchon, which can't be done in the time allotted, and from the moment Tom visits him in the kitchen and delivers that information, Josh is on a fool's journey. And that's where I really ended up being a sucker tonight—something about watching him head into the challenge and attempt the impossible got to me.
But then, I saw Sheldon: sweet, pot-smoking, ukelele-playing Sheldon, who reduced his broth too much and knew it was salty. Tom was right again here—eliminating Josh was maybe a tough decision, but it was certainly the right one. Throughout the competition, Sheldon's performed more consistently. His relative inexperience in the "big leagues," as Tom says, pushed him in the right direction. He plated and elevated version of his food (albeit with a major flaw)—not food that he understood to be what the judges wanted. If he can keep his head here in the finale and escape the anxiety that plagues the chefs during the last two episodes, perhaps he'll give Brooke a run for her money.
- Brooke… and Lizzie or Kristen, who will be joining him next episode. I'd forgotten the stupid LCK cliffhanger for last season and yelled at my computer. Not revealing the winner after you invest the time makes me rage. That said, LCK rivaled the main episode this week. A completely open challenge allowed Kristen to craft a plate of food that was perhaps one of the most beautiful I've seen all season. Those colors were gorgeous.
- A more rational version of myself could just as easily pan Josh for missing the birth of his child for a challenge he was destined to fail.