Top Chef recap: The final four set sail

In season 21's penultimate episode, the remaining cheftestants square off in Curaçao

Top Chef recap: The final four set sail
Top Chef
Photo: David Moir/Bravo

“This definitely isn’t Milwaukee anymore!” proclaimed Milwaukee Dan at the start of this week’s edition of Top Chef: Wisconsin. Yes, since we’ve last seen our final four cheftestants—Dan, Danny, Laura and Savannah—Tom Colicchio has adopted a jaunty little hat, the cocktails have turned blue and tropical, and Savannah has a shiny new engagement ring on her finger. (Congrats!)

We’ve also traded the midwest of America for the magic of Curaçao, the Caribbean island that’s just a shell’s throw from South America. So it’s no surprise that our Fab Four would have to reel in some seafood recipes for both the Quickfire Challenge and their last Elimination of the season. The QF was focused on the nightmare-looking lionfish, an invasive species from the Pacific that islanders are happy for chefs to pluck out of the sea and transform into something delicious. (At the thought of having to break down the venomous fish themselves, Danny uttered an excellently New Yawk “Get the fuck outta here.”) They would also have to commit a little culinary sacrilege by pairing the seafood with cheese, specifically Gouda, in a nod to Curaçao’s national dish keshi yena.

Milwaukee Dan still hadn’t clinched a Quickfire win this season, so he went into the 30-minute cook fired up, even though he and the two ladies were all putting forth similar-sounding plates of raw lionfish topped with a crunchy Gouda frico. (Is frico the new croquette? Ironically, Danny was making one of those, topped with Gouda sauce and red-cabbage slaw.) However, that spark seemingly made Dan’s lionfish tartare with orange-Fresno aguachile stand out from the rest of the crudo crew—along with $10,000, he took home his first Quickfire victory thanks to his smart touch of kewpie mayo to bind the fish and echo that cheesy richness.

And while the Quickifre was inspired by the water, the Elimination was set directly on it: Inspired by Holland America Line’s new port-to-plate fish program, overseen by the iconic Chef Morimoto, the foursome would have to create an eight-course fish tasting menu as a group. (“That’s kind of fun!”noted Dan.) Each chef would be tasked with making two courses, each spotlighting a different fish (snapper, sea bream, etc.) and different preparation (poached, smoked, and so on). As last episode’s Elimination winner, Savannah got her choice of both seafood and style, opting for salmon and striped bass, and raw and fried. Danny was quick on his picks (sea bream mousse and smoked trout) but that nagging passive-aggressiveness between Laura and Dan cropped up yet again, leading to a back-and-forth over who would get red snapper. (Dan won.)

But despite an energizing cameo from Morimoto himself, who popped up to serve some gorgeously fresh fish and starstruck awe to the contestants ahead of the Elimination, it seems all four players let end-of-the-term nerves affect their cooking.

The creamy ginger dressing on Savanna’s salmon futomaki was a little grainy, said Tom, who felt the chef was playing it too safe with both that course and her fried striped-bass sandwich. Laura didn’t properly clean the banana leaves that encased her steamed black bass (“I’m getting…dirt?” said Kristen Kish), and her roasted group in pineapple broth was woefully undercooked. Danny, too, had issues with the cook of his sea bream mousse, so much so that Tom questioned whether it hit fire at all, though Gail Simmons enjoyed his garlic-sphere garnishes. (“I actually love spheres!”) The pile-up of issues actually prompted Kristen to assure Lee and the rest of the judges’ table diners that the chefs have cooked much better throughout the comp. “It looks like they’re cooking scared,” Tom worried.

Thankfully, Danny’s smoked trout with pumpkin and plantain puree was a hit, with Gail waxing poetic about the “throughline of hazelnut.” And they also loved Milwaukee Dan’s blackened snapper with butter-poached potatoes, dubbed it juiciest piece of fish they had all day. (Though Gail hilariously besmirched his “stingy” amount of mandarin oranges. “Man, have you tried to supreme mandarin oranges?!” Dan cried.)

Despite the mousse mess, Danny sailed away with the win, scoring not only a spot in the final three but also a 10-day cruise to the location of his choice on Holland America Line. Joining him in the finale was Dan (“Double D!”), leaving just the two women at risk for elimination. And though Tom was concerned that Savannah was pulling back the creativity that got her to the end, Laura’s grouper was unequivocally the worst dish of the bunch and the chef was sent swimming.

The loss of a competitor at this stage, coupled with their largely poor performances in the Elimination, meant that spirits were surprisingly low among our final trio. But an emotional Kristen Kish was there with a moving reminder: “This is going to be the one time in your life that you get to do it; it’s fucking awesome! It’s a fantastic moment that you are going to remember forever, truly.” And if anyone should know, it’s her.

Stray observations

  • Obviously with only four cheftestants left this week, tensions were naturally high but the lack of a huge cast meant that we also got fun tidbits like that Morimoto cameo and an entertaining scene of the chefs swimming with stingrays, an experience that was not Danny’s favorite. “Nature from a distance! This isn’t for me!” It was extra funny when coupled with Laura’s “they give you warm hugs!” assurances.
  • So this is it, folks: Next week is the final episode of Top Chef season 21 and we’ve got three very capable and very different cooks to choose from. Who are you rooting for to take home all of that top-toque glory and Saratoga Water-furnished cash?

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