We’re down to the top five on Top Chef Masters, which means that there isn’t a weak contestant in the bunch. This is even less true than it was when we began with a crop of highly accomplished professional chefs. The underdog of the season so far has been Lorena, who got a chance to prove her mettle as someone who does more than “cook on TV and bake cookies,” as she put it. But all five had to go back to their prep chef days, as well as execute a meal under incredible audience pressure, Iron Chef style.
The standard Top Chef prepping relay is particularly interesting here, for kitchen professionals who have long ascended past cracking their own eggs. The task: Grate three pounds of Parmesan to the round, crack 18 eggs, and portion beef loin into pieces that weight between 7.5 and 8 ounces, without the aid of a scale. That last one is the crucial part of the challenge, because it requires precision and not just speed. You can’t uncut a steak, either, so anyone who blows through the butchering could end up with a disqualification on their hands if they don’t leave enough meat.
That’s exactly what happens. The eggs and cheese give no one any trouble, but the meat—there’s the rub. Chris flies through his prep, but his portions are too small, so he gets disqualified. Patricia makes the same mistake. The next two in, Takashi and Kerry, manage to squeak by, leaving Lorena still butchering. Then comes the interesting part of the Quickfire: Kerry and Takashi both cook dishes using the eggs, beef, and cheese, and the eliminated contestants judge. Kerry sweeps the house with a beef filet with Parmesan crust and gets immunity for the next round, automatically landing him in the top four. Kerry’s been the dark horse of the season. For a while, he kept toward the middle of the pack. It’s nice to see him break out so spectacularly.
You know things are about to get serious when Curtis brings in Sugar Ray Leonard. Though there’s no actual boxing involved, the chefs do have to go head-to-head in a cooking ring. In addition to all the usual pressures of the game—restricted time, limited ingredients—the audience watches every move the chefs make closely. The winners from each round battle for the winning spot, and the losers battle to avoid elimination. Easy enough.
Only the toughest chefs in the ring aren’t who you might expect. Chris and Takashi get paired up to battle, which makes for a fairly even clash. The secret ingredient—bacon—leans a bit in Chris’ favor, but it’s also not as if it’s so far out of the realm of Takashi’s expertise either. Chris edges Takashi out for the win, but narrowly.
The real surprise is the battle between Patricia and Lorena. They get the same ingredient, but it seems as though Patricia goes in a little overconfident. She even criticizes Lorena’s knife skills. “There’s a lot of loud chopping, and that’s not how you use a knife,” she sniffs. Perhaps it’s just editing, but there’s a sense that Patricia and the others think of Lorena as not quite in their league. Patricia even finishes early, leaving Lorena to sprinkle things on the plates at the last minute as she collects high fives from the audience. But Patricia’s leek, bacon, and tomato salad isn’t as appealing as Lorena’s rib-sticking potato and bacon soup. That means Lorena advances, and Patricia has to duke it out with Takashi for the final spot.
The championship round, Chris against Lorena, has the added challenge of having sugar as the main ingredient. Lorena looks excited, Chris less so. Chris comes up with a simple but lovely looking Zabaione, while Lorena goes whole hog, dishing out a flourless chocolate cake alongside a caramelized pineapple slice coated in dulce de leche. Doing a duo is a risky maneuver—one well-executed dish is better than two mediocre ones—but she pulls it off. Lorena prances around the ring with her championship belt while Chris looks mildly stunned.
The real heartbreaker is between Takashi and Patricia, two strong chefs who would both be amazing to see in the finale. Their ingredient is chicken liver, a blessing from the Top Chef Masters on high. Both whip up dishes that use prosciutto, but it’s Patricia’s number that tantalizes the dishes. And, alas, Takashi has to go home.