This final regular episode of the season delivers a different "final four" from last week, disappearing one of the last-standing charismatic chefs and sending us into the finale only mildly invested in the outcome.
The Quickfire opens this week with the conclusion of last week's challenge. All along, mini-episodes featuring Top Chef rejects have been airing on the web, promising to give one spot back close to the finale. Last week's webisode passed the baton back to the TV, leaving the announcement of the winner for the beginning of this episode. Everything from that episode suggested that Grayson had edged out reigning champ Beverly, but there's no mistaking the sour look on Sarah's sore-winner face. Beverly's back, I couldn't be happier, and this mostly has to do with wanting to ruin Sarah and Lindsay's culinary dreams.
Because here's the thing: Beverly's not a villain! She's just a bumbling, goofy chef who may or may not have read one too many self-help books. She's so focused on what she's doing that she loses sight of her surroundings. Sometimes, this means leaving pots and pans in a mess or nearly burning down a trailer. Other times, it means being so intent on the task at hand that she's less aware of the greater components of a team challenge. Most people (Grayson, Paul, the judges) learned to see beyond Bev's peculiarities to the kickass food she makes. Bev's easy-target status, however, won her the Lifetime Disdain Award from Sarah and Lindsay sometime early this season, and they're not willing to consider why she's going to the finale. Hint: Her cooking is amazing.
The prize up for the Quickfire challenge is huge—a guaranteed spot in the finale. Or a new car. But who would choose that, other than wimpy chefs, afraid of competition? The finale spot is better than immunity; the wining chef doesn't even have to compete in the elimination challenge. Just head directly to the next episode. Any comments about this being a cop-out are bullshit; these chefs have had the entire competition to prove themselves, and at this late point, the deciding factor often comes down to hairsplitting on the judge's part. The point of Top Chef is to win Top Chef. So take the finale spot and run.
…That said, the challenge that sent Sarah to the finale was also a bit of bullshit. When I saw the blindfolds under the cloches, I thought for a second that the chefs might be headed into a blind tasting where they'd have to rely on their palate. Instead, they had to paw their way around the pantry blindfolded, choosing ingredients for a 30-minute dish, after which they can remove the blindfold and cook like normal people. Not terrible, but not stellar by any means, especially since the protein had been wrapped such that they couldn't smell the items. The challenge did, however produce some interesting hurdles for the chefs to work through—they had to use each ingredient they picked, regardless of whether it turned out to be the one they'd intended. Ed ends up with pork casings instead of prosciutto, Bev winds up with avocado, and Lindsay chooses mascarpone instead of crème fraîche. Ed's udon with ribbons of zucchini, mushrooms and scallions land him on the top, in part for the broth he managed to pull from the pork casings. He's edged out by Sarah, though, whose [mean insult redacted] face is happy to collect the guaranteed spot. To her credit, she managed to combine peaches and mushrooms in a way that surprised Tom. (For the record, tomatoes + butternut squash = not okay; peaches + mushrooms = surprisingly okay.)
This week's elimination challenge, while every bit as manipulative as a blindfold challenge, plays into something powerful. Instead of just screwing with the chefs' coordination and sense of direction, this one messes with their minds. The chefs are joined in the kitchen by their mentors—chefs who have instructed them in some way or have been instrumental to the chefs' development. This disrupts the chefs emotionally (they all cry like babies, with the exception of sassy robot Ed); applies individual, professional pressure for them to perform; but more importantly, reminds them of a time when they were less awesome. Tom really nails this one when he's talking about it at judge's table. The chefs have grown since leaving these apprenticeships, but being judged by those same people can be disabling. To that end, I wish the chefs had been able to disclose how important these mentors really were to them. It's obvious, for example, that Paul cares deeply about Tyson Cole. He started the cryfest. But compare that with Bev, whose mentor was plucked from her far-past, when Bev was 16. I'd be much more nervous performing before someone more recent than for, say, a high school teacher I'd liked a lot. But the premise here is solid; we're focused on the food, and the emotional tweaking from the producers actually makes sense. Much more so than bringing on everyone's moms.
The challenge has no real restrictions or limitations. It's for the chefs to psych themselves out at this point, and a couple of them perform beautifully in that regard. Namely, Ed. His method of self-destruction takes root at Whole Foods, before he's even begun to cook. He'd planned for an oyster sauce, and when there are no fresh oysters to be had, he opts for smoked, canned oysters. From that moment on, he is doomed. Voices of Top Chef losers of seasons past should have been ringing in his ears: I was eliminated for buying store-bought pasta, I was eliminated for not making my own pita bread, I was eliminated for buying frozen pastry. These judges can sniff out poor ingredients, and he was bound to get nailed for it. Everything else on the plate was beautiful—his braised pork belly would have sung under any other sauce, and the pickled vegetables were a successful business venture on the side. There's something funny with the oyster sauce, though, and I was really, really hoping Ed could avoid 'fessing up to the cans. But Hughbrow poses a direct question, and it's all over. Lindsay's use of dried herbs and emulsified cream isn't enough to knock out canned oysters, and Ed's sent packing.
He sees himself beat out by Beverly as opposed to any of the other chefs. Yes, by traditional Top Chef procedure he would have made the final four, but it's not like Beverly eked out the win here. She was in the running for the overall win, badassedly (and yet awkwardly) firing woks just before sending out her barbecue Singapore noodles. Paul takes the well-deserved top spot in tonight's challenge; his chilled sunchoke soup with summer vegetables was balanced and restrained. He worried about simplicity early on, but Tom praises him for knowing when to pull back and edit. So there we have the final four: Sarah, Lindsay, Paul, and Bev. I'm rooting for the latter two.
- I was kidding last week when I suggested they'd go to Canada. I plucked Vancouver out of nowhere, and they're headed to British Columbia. I would like a prize. Maybe a vial of Paul's precious tears.
- Gail says she sees how much the chefs have grown, and who they are in terms of what flavors they use, etc. I wish I could say the same. I've got a general idea, but certainly nowhere near the concrete understanding I've had in some of the past seasons.