The top five head into the Quickfire challenge.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

Everyone is feeling the heat in the last 'Top Chef' before the finals.  

Carolyn Lipka
February 08, 2018

Here we are folks, it’s the last Top Chef episode before the chefs head to Telluride for the finals and all the chefs are shaken from last week’s judges panel. Mustache is “done playing it safe” and Bruce is upset that he’s “not doing that well.” We get a peek into Adrienne’s obsessive commitment to perfection through her notebook in which she dutifully records all the critiques the judges give her dishes throughout the competition. The chefs head to their Quickfire and it immediately becomes apparent that they won’t be competing in the Top Chef kitchen. The chefs arrive at the Stanley Hotel—the haunted hotel that Stephen King spent one night in with his wife and that inspired “The Shining.” Padma greets them with their challenge; the chefs must make a dessert that represents their biggest fears. She adds an aside while explaining the task, saying “seems like you guys need a bit of a creative jolt,” echoing the criticism from a week ago.

Padma explains a spooky Quickfire challenge at The Stanley Hotel.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

The assignment inspires some while others don’t feel so up to the challenge. Mustache embraces the opportunity to make a dish he’s never made before, tailored to the challenge based on his fear of breaking an egg that has an unborn chicken in it. Meanwhile, Adrienne feels inspired by the spookiness of the hotel and horror story lore, making a dish based on the image of blood seeping out of a forest floor. Bruce and Carrie are both making panna cotta, with varying degrees of smoothness. Bruce is struggling to conceive of a dish appropriate for the challenge because his “brain doesn’t work that way.” Whatever that means, it translates to him making up a story about being afraid of seeds as a kid so he can execute a dessert he knows. Unfortunately he hits another roadblock when the kitchen only has powder gelatin rather than sheets, an ingredient he’s more familiar with. After adding the powder to his dish, he realizes that it was the wrong measurement and needs to adjust his vision for the entire dessert.

Over on Mustache’s station, he has to serve first and his meringue is not as dehydrated as he intended. Nonetheless, he plates it and brings his dish to Padma who’s waiting to dine in the room Stephen King stayed in. His final dish is a “bloody chicken egg” egg yolk ice cream with pistachio cocoa crumble, yuzu meringue, and raspberry sauce splattered across the plate. Back in the kitchen, Bruce is still struggling, as his adjustments seem to require adjustments—in the confessional he laments, “I touch something and it turns to shit.” Getting down to the last seconds, his panna cotta fails to set properly so he tries to salvage the dish by torching the top and calling it a semifreddo. The final dish he presents to Padma is his “seeds of dread” semifreddo with passion fruit, buttermilk, and pomegranate with prosecco zabaione. Padma tastes it and asks “Was the semifreddo supposed to be warm?”—an ominous question in a scary locale.

Chris has a more whimsical approach as his “pushed from 12,000 feet” dish of chocolate buttermilk cake with sour cream, black salt, and marzipan features a small marzipan man lying on his chocolate cake rocks among patches of rosemary grass. Padma loves the presentation, saying “it’s what I was hoping for” from this challenge.

It seems like everyone is struggling a little bit in the kitchen as Adrienne’s meringue also did not finish dehydrating. To compensate, she breaks what were supposed to be disks into chips and turns her pastry cream into an ice cream. Meanwhile Carrie is facing obstacles as her panna cotta is too tight from her own issues with the gelatin provided and runs out of time before plating most of her dish. Adrienne completes her “into the woods” cocoa blood ice cream with saffron, Grand Marnier, meringue crisps and chocolate branches. Unfortunately, Carrie only manages to present tahini panna cotta with raspberry sauce as “the ballroom scene,” inspired by the infamous scene in The Shining. She was unable to get the black sesame and cayenne ice cream, Champagne granita with masago "bubbles," and goat cheese sugar cookie that she prepared onto the plate, which is a real shame because that sounds like one of the most interesting dishes she’s made all season. Padma is also sad Carrie was unable to finish plating and as excited as she is about the intended concept she makes sure to remind Carrie “it’s a good thing nobody’s going home for this Quickfire.”

Carrie's unfinished dish lands her a spot in the bottom along with Bruce’s muddled, overly sweet dessert. Mustache Joe, Chris, and Adrienne are all in the top, with Chris taking home the win for his “beautiful plate” and that he “was willing to go out there with your imagination.”

The chefs now must switch gears for the elimination challenge. They each prepare a dish that tells the culinary journey they’ve taken this past season on Top Chef, which will be served to the Governor of Colorado, his wife, and prominent chefs and restaurateurs from around the state. After the obligatory Whole Foods run, the chefs arrive back in the kitchen to begin prepping their meals where Tom is waiting for them. He takes a second to talk to the chefs about the criticisms they’ve received, saying “obviously judges table the other night was pretty harsh. But you either don’t understand what’s at stake here or maybe this is it. I don’t know. For some reason this season... Last Chance Kitchen, I’ve been getting better food.” He goes on to let the chefs know, that if they don’t step it up, he’ll bring back two people from LCK, but if they see a “big improvement” that “maybe I won't have to.”

The speech is reminiscent of season five when Tom spoke to the chefs after a particularly disappointing elimination challenge wherein the judges decided not to award a winner because all the dishes were so abysmal. Everyone is terrified after this speech and it continues to push the chefs towards a new level in the competition. Mustache decides to redeem his disappointing lamb dish (a collaboration with Tu) from episode two by making a lamb stuffed pasta, and pushes himself creatively and technically by incorporating beet tops into the pasta dough. Adrienne is similarly inspired, finally gaining some momentum in the competition from her strong Quickfire showing. She decides to do a roasted monkfish tail with a venison sauce because the fish can stand up to the gaminess of a heavier meat sauce so reminiscent of Colorado cuisine. Bruce is doing a duck dish with toasted barley prepared like a risotto—a technique he’s familiar with and a flavor profile right in his wheelhouse. Bruce has clearly taken the judge’s critiques to heart and makes a concerted effort not to make another pasta and push himself a little further, but the other chefs seem to be pushing even further outside their comfort zones. Carrie decides to take elements from her successful dishes from the past season and combine them in one dish. Chris decides to make a dish that pays homage to his fellow competitors, including preparing fresh pasta for the first time… ever. (At least, in a professional setting.)

Finally, the chefs arrive at the Governor’s mansion and begin prep in the small kitchen provided to them. Bruce’s barley isn’t cooked the way he wanted, and Chris realizes after he sauces his plate that the skin on his fish—that he labored over to crisp up—has lost its texture under the sauce, but it’s too late as he sends his plates out the door. Mustache is first up again with his lamb agnolotti with beets, hazelnuts, and cacio pecora cheese. Tom starts things off with a “this is the kind of food we’ve been begging for all season.” All the chefs agree and admire the technical mastery of the pasta, the use of the whole beet and balance in the dish. Up next is Adrienne’s roasted monkfish with venison jus, green peppercorn jam, and roasted cauliflower puree, and it seems to go over well with the judges. One of the dining chefs comments that the flavors in the dish are “capricious” and Tom agrees, adding that he finds the dish “very tasty” and compliments the seasoning of the dish. Seems like those meticulous notes paid off. Carrie’s dish also looks rusticly gorgeous: Colorado elk with roasted cauliflower, shishito peppers, blueberry poblano sauce, and shepherd's halo cheese. Padma compliments the bold flavors of the dish, clearly redeeming Carrie’s misstep in the Quickfire and once again placing her in the favor of the judges. Tom called her plate a “nice dish of food here” which is tepid praise compared to the first two dishes, but in line with what he’s said about winning dishes in the past, so it seems like it’s still anyone's game.

Governor John Hickenlooper hosts the judges and esteemed guests at Cheesman-Boettcher Mansion.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

Up next is Bruce’s roast duck with toasted barley and corn topped with salsify. Unfortunately, the preparation of the barley is underdone, and he freely admits it to the chefs who question him about the preparation method. After he walks away, the guest chefs tear into the dish, with Tom calling it “overseasoned” and Graham labeling it “really uninspired.” It’s harsh all around and it’s clear Bruce is in danger of elimination. Wrapping things up is Quickfire winner Chris who’s final dish is a take on surf and turf: a lamb ravioli with crispy skin trout and roasted cauliflower puree. Because the sauce softened the skin, it didn’t quite live up to the description according to the judges. They also disliked the ravioli because the filling was missing fat to moisten the bite and the dough wasn’t completed with the technical proficiency of the other pasta they ate.

At judges table, the chefs can take a breath of relief as the judges assure them that this was the best meal of the season. Adrienne, Mustache, and Carrie round out the top three with nothing but praise from the judges. Adrienne’s finally found her voice as a chef outside of her famous, iconic bosses and is moving towards cooking her food. Welcome to the game, Adrienne. We’re glad you’re here.  Ultimately Mustache takes home the win for his “best dish so far.”

Joe Sasto's beet tops pasta dough propels him to a first-place finish.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

Unfortunately, this puts Bruce and Chris in the bottom—the more veteran chefs still left in the competition. Padma asks Bruce what happened in this round, and he replies that he lost track of time and was rushing to get everything on the plate but is cut off in the middle of his explanation by Tom who lays everything out for him. Tom spares no feelings when he notes: “you’re here for three reasons. One, the barley was undercooked. Two, the barley was really salty. Three, the duck was over-rested. These are simple technical things.” Chris’s dish, meanwhile, suffered from the poorly executed ravioli. The judges loved the lemon sauce and the cook on the fish but felt that the ravioli weighed the dish down and ruined the skin of the trout. After the cheftestants go into the stew room, the judges deliberate with Padma saying “I would rather eat Chris’s fish any day than Bruce’s duck.” The judges decide to send Bruce home, which they do so with grim, pained looks. Everyone is clearly friendly off-camera and it’s very apparent that it’s uncomfortable to send such a strong chef packing.

Bruce Kalman is sent packing after his duck dish fails to deliver.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

With that, the final bear has fallen.

Last Chance Comments 

  • I’m not sure whether the strong performance across the board (essentially) ensures that only one person is coming back from LCK, but I would not be upset if Chicago Joe and Brother both make it back in.
  • Not only was Gail missing again this week, but Graham wore converse sneakers to a dinner at the governor’s mansion? Yes she always brings it, but Padma was wearing a full-length dress with strappy heels, it wouldn’t kill him to put on not white sneakers. That being said, Graham’s judging was on-point this week. He had some astute observations and comments that helped me understand the critique of the dishes better.
  • Poor Bruce predicting his own fate by saying that he knows a lot of people go home for doing risotto on Top Chef (like in literally the last episode, where his “culinary soulmate” was sent home… For doing risotto…)  
  • Chris’s little marzipan man! I loved him!
  • Carrie dreams in incredible detail—she had a dream about tater tots with pine nuts and stuffed with jam. On the one hand that sounds gross but on the other hand if Carrie made it for me I bet I would love it! She’s had some success with unexpected berries this season and I would let her take the wheel there. 
  • I wish I knew Chris’s nickname was Creamy Brown Brother earlier in the season.
  • Counting down the days until the artisanal ice cream stores in L.A. start carrying egg yolk ice cream.
  • Mustache is a pothead, which I guess either humanizes him or makes him more insufferable. Jury’s still out.
  • Tom really kicked everyone in the butt repeatedly this week huh. This is what I’ve been asking for all season. Everyone really pulled it out this week. Thanks, guys!
  • Who do we all think is coming back from LCK? My money is on Joe Flamm. I think he was eliminated way too soon and 100 percent deserves to be in the finals. I also am partial to his attitude and modern rustic approach to food.
  • Unfortunately, we heard the word “moist” twice in this episode. Pray for me.

Last Chance Kitchen

Chicago Joe and Fatima must compete against each other after getting eliminated in the same episode and face off against reigning champ Brother Luck. Joe got kicked in the butt by a sudden death Quickfire that unexpectedly knocked him out of the kitchen right off a Restaurant Wars win, and Fatima went out on a tailgating challenge after years of work at Smorgasburg which is essentially a giant tailgate party (perhaps with less real football fans and more ironic football fans) so they’re both hungry for redemption. The challenge before the chefs is to make a taco platter with enough food to feed the entire peanut gallery and Tom. The twist is that Tom will prepare his own taco from the components they prepare, so he might not try everything, but everything he tries had better be good. They’ve got 40 minutes and a mandate to use Hidden Valley Ranch seasoning to aid in building flavor.

Chicago Joe decides to draw upon his two years working in a Korean restaurant to build a Korean-inspired taco station while Fatima decides to work with Pakistani flavors to innovate a Pakistani taco bar. Brother decides to focus on the meat by working on a pineapple-based marinade and preparing a prickly pear hot sauce. Joe nonchalantly blows out a fire in his mirin sauce in a pretty badass move and then makes a comment about how he totally "cheffed" it. Really endearing. Meanwhile, Brother takes a swig of the tequila as he prepares the drunken beans and Fatima gets to work on her protein. Fatima’s strategy is to make as much food as she can. Joe Flamm decides to go with a Korean flavor profile for his fish tostadas, an attempt to elevate the taco bar and make it “cute as f*ck.”  

Brother is up first for judgment. His platter offers borracho beans with sausage, a roasted tomato salsa, grilled carne asada, cotija corn with the ranch flavoring, pickled poblanos, and a ranch-infused chipotle crema. The taco Tom chooses to build includes everything (plus a white corn tortilla and lime) except the pickled poblanos. Fatima is up next with her Pakistani taco bar. Her components include a chana masala, poached quail eggs, seven spice New York strip, tamarind chili sauce, ranch and preserved lemon crème fraiche, and an avocado coconut crema. Tom’s taco included all of the components except the avocado coconut crema. Finally, Chicago Joe’s platter is up. He prepared ranch-dusted tostadas with ponzu and cilantro cod, mirin pickled onions, corn and napa kimchi, ranch yuzu crema, furikake radishes, and a gochujang salsa. Tom’s taco includes everything except the mirin pickled onions. At this point, it seems that he deliberately chose to omit the element most tailored to provide an acid/freshness component to cut through the potential richness in the tacos. Tom says he loves all three offerings, Brother’s traditional take, Fatima’s flavorful and spicy dish, and Joe’s clean Korean flavors.  

Tom’s favorite was Chicago Joe’s and he advances to the next round. Fatima’s dish is his least favorite because her steak wasn’t cut small enough to make eating it in a taco very easy. Brother feels relief from “taking out Fati” even as I am upset to see her pack her knives once and for all. (It’s been no secret she was my favorite this whole season and I will miss her.)