The Voltaggios introduce the Rocky Mountain oyster Quickfire challenge.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

We meet the families of the final four as the "Top Chef" finals continue in Telluride.

Carolyn Lipka
February 22, 2018

The finals of Top Chef are not where the cheftestants have traditionally hit their stride, but that’s exactly what’s been happening this season. Adrienne is cooking interesting, delicious-looking food from her own perspective and her exhaustive training and attention to detail shines through. Meanwhile, Mustache Joe Sasto is coming off another elimination challenge win and the handlebars on his mustache seem to have added some volume. Joe Flamm is nervous about being thrust back into the competition after coming back from Last Chance Kitchen and is trying to soak up as much of the experience as he can.

The chefs pack into cars that take them to their Quickfire in the middle of a field surrounded by the Rocky Mountains. Padma’s wearing some beautiful southwestern earrings and a cowgirl-inspired look (this isn’t relevant to the challenge but it’s extremely relevant to how stunning the landscape is for the Quickfire). She brings out the James Beard-decorated Voltaggio brothers to help her announce the challenge. Hinted at by their surroundings, the task before the chefs requires “balls.” That’s right, they’re going to be cooking with Rocky Mountain oysters—the chefs must prepare the bull testicles in two different ways in their dish, which must be completed in 30 minutes.

Joe Flamm and Carrie have worked with them before—Joe when he was working in Italy and Carrie when she was preparing for Top Chef, accurately anticipating such a challenge—and they immediately know what they want to prepare. Ball puns abound, Adrienne decides to take inspiration from a Korean dish that uses cod sperm sacks in a dashi-type broth. Carrie wants to change the texture of the Rocky Mountain oysters because the most off-putting aspect of the ingredient is their chewy, soft, wet mouthfeel. Joe Flamm is drawing inspiration from the dish he learned in Italy, describing the taste of the oysters as “between a gland and a brain with a little bit more iron to it.” The chef-y explanation aside, he is struggling to cook it properly and discovers halfway into the cook that Mustache is making a very similar dish. Mustache’s approach is informed by his prior work with sweetbreads, which have a similar origin and texture issue.

Finally, the chefs present their balls-out dishes. Mustache is up first with a cornflake-breaded Rocky Mountain oyster with white bean puree and brown butter braised Rocky Mountain oysters. Bryan goes in for seconds and asks about the technique of the breading, a promising sign. Adrienne is up next with her Rocky Mountain oyster dashi with fried Rocky Mountain oysters finished with chili oil and scallions. Joe Flamm’s dish bears resemblance to Mustache’s approach—fried and pureed Rocky Mountain oysters with white beans and Amatriciana sauce. Unfortunately for the Joe, Padma made a face after putting his balls in her mouth (sorry) and said “Oh.” Bryan asked about the cook of the oyster and Joe’s fallen face informs us that he knows it’s improperly cooked. Last but not least is Carrie’s Not Toast dish, a Rocky Mountain pâté with fried Rocky Mountain oysters, garlic, and shallots.

Adrienne and Mustache Joe prepare Rocky Mountain oysters.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

The brothers Voltaggio had clear top and bottom preferences, and announce the chefs that didn’t fare so well first. Joe Flamm’s mishandling of the cook on the oyster placed him in the bottom, with Padma saying that he “hammered that protein.” Carrie’s puree also didn’t work for the judges; Michael Voltaggio called her pâté “livery” and Bryan felt that the raw vegetables on the plate threw the dish out of balance and stood out for the wrong reasons. In better news, Adrienne’s deeply flavored broth didn’t sacrifice the Rocky Mountain oyster aspect of the dish and impressed Michael, and Mustache’s manipulation of the testicles impressed Bryan because of his flawless execution. Padma announced that the winner of the challenge was the chef who “treated the oysters with the upmost respect,” Mustache Joe. It’s his first Quickfire win but far from his first competition win, and sends him into the elimination challenge with even more momentum. Before he finds out what his advantage is or what their challenge is going to be, the chefs must pile into the cars and travel to an unknown location.

Sweeping aerial shots of the Rockies follow the chefs through the mountain range and lush Colorado forests. They eventually arrive at an observatory where Padma instructs them to go inside and see what’s on the other side of the door. Despite some trepidation, the chefs enter to find family members waiting for them. Joe Flamm’s grandmother, Carrie’s mom, Adrienne’s mom and Mustache’s dad are here for season 15’s take on the ode to family challenge, and they’ve prepared a potluck for the chefs, Padma and the Voltaggios.

The chefs get a visit from family members to inspire their elimination challenge dishes.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

The families prepared their “Sunday best” dishes for the chefs to try; Mustache’s dad made pig skin and feet in gravy and an entire lasagna. Adrienne’s mom prepared a traditional gumbo with rice while Joe Flamm’s grandmother made the rigatoni and meatballs that they eat around Christmas. Carrie’s mother had a more literal approach, making beef stroganoff that Carrie said they had eaten every week growing up. The reunions are touching and emotional for the chefs. Mustache and his father get teary-eyed discussing the sudden loss of his mother seven years ago from lung cancer. Carrie’s mother chides her about her many boyfriends and Adrienne’s mom recalls running the front of the house at a restaurant and raising her daughter in the kitchen. Adrienne has a precious moment with her mother, where they rehash the critiques she’s received this season and her mom coaches her to “take a risk.” Seems like someone’s definitely watched Top Chef in the past.

Carrie reunites with her mom in an emotional, personal 'Top Chef' challenge.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

These dishes aren’t just to bring the chefs back to their roots, however, but will serve as the basis for their elimination challenge, Padma announces. The chefs have one and a half hours to make an updated version of their family’s dishes that communicates a little bit about their culinary journey from childhood to chefdom. Mustache gets a much-needed extra half hour of prep his dish and after their $350 budgets are exhausted at one of the last Whole Foods runs of the season, he gets to work.

Joe Sasto and his dad reconnect before the family dish challenge.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

The spirit of his father’s dish is the gravy in the pigs' feet, Mustache informs us, so he’s going to start on developing those flavors first so by the time his competitors get into the kitchen he’ll be ready to go. Joe Flamm and Adrienne both intend on keeping the flavors of their dishes as authentic as possible while changing the presentation to better reflect their culinary brands as chefs. Carrie plans on elevating her beef stroganoff by using game meat as an homage to her father who was a hunter and to incorporate the flavors into a raviolo.

Joe Flamm's grandmother provides a comfort in food and company.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

Adrienne needs to keep the richness of the roux in her gumbo, but it’s difficult to build the amount of flavor her mother does in her own gumbo in merely an hour and a half. She intends to accomplish this by deconstructing the elements of the gumbo that she can highlight, butter-poaching the crab for a soft luxurious element and preparing the shrimp separately to give the dish a bright pop. Joe Flamm makes a Pomodoro broth by roasting and juicing tomatoes and then cooks the pasta in the broth to infuse the dough with flavor. Carrie, meanwhile, is struggling to compose all the elements of her dish, frantically rolling out her dough and dealing with the delicate egg yolks. At the last minute, Mustache pulls his take on lasagna out of the oven and it doesn’t have the crispy edges he wants so he takes a blowtorch to the top, attempting to crisp up the dough and give it the authentic flavor and feel he desires.

Finally, the families and judges enter wearing their Sunday best, joined by the Voltaggios who will also guest judge the elimination. Mustache is up first with his attempt to transform the lasagna with pig’s foot and gravy. He makes a pig’s feet rotolo with braised chicken, mushrooms, and swiss chard that Tom comments is a “modern version but didn’t lose the soul of the original dish.” Carrie sends out her raviolo telling Adrienne “they’re not perfect but they’re good.” Her final dish is a beef stroganoff raviolo with buffalo sausage, mushroom duxelle, herbed crème fraiche and caramelized onions. Each element of her dish is dedicated to a different member of her family, and frankly looks and sounds delectable. Bryan especially enjoyed how the egg yolk on top mimics the richness of the egg noodle and brings the dish together nicely. Tom comments that he wishes that she took some of the braising liquid from the meat and mixed it with the crème fraiche because that sauce is a key element of stroganoff that her dish was lacking. Up next is Adrienne’s “mom’s gumbo” with butter-poached king crab leg and shrimp with trinity, fried andouille chips, and rice that Tom called “really well executed.” He, along with other judges raved about the perfection of the seasoning, a compliment Adrienne has been chasing all season. Up last is Joe Flamm’s take on his grandmother’s rigatoni and meatballs—pork and veal agnolotti with Pomodoro paste, Parmesan crisp, and basil. In a season filled with pasta dishes, I’m impressed that the chefs were able to make these updated classics dynamic and give them a fresh feel that really elevates it beyond simply another pasta dish.

At judges table, everyone is elated with the meal calling it “in a word, fantastic.” Padma said that she “had the greatest food of the season from all of you,” but conceded that there was one winner: Adrienne! It’s Adrienne’s first elimination challenge win of the season and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Bryan called the balance of the heat, acid and seasoning “perfect” and Graham raved about the cook on the fish.

Adrienne wins the elimination challenge with an updated take on her mother's gumbo.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

After Adrienne steps to the side, the judges inform the cheftestants that there is no real bottom dish. They were impressed with the way Mustache integrated two dishes into one cohesive plate, how Carrie was able to translate beef stroganoff into a less humble, more refined burst of flavor, and how Joe Flamm executed his pasta. As the chefs head off to the stew room, the judges begin the labor of nitpicking their fantastic dishes.

The judges deliberate over one of the closest matchups of the season.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

They agree that Joe Flamm’s pasta was the best, if there were aspects of it that were slightly underseasoned. That being said, they felt that the Parmesan crisp offered saltiness and that as a composed dish it worked. Tom felt that perhaps Mustache’s rotolo was cut too soon and that’s why the top of the pasta curled up (it was, in fact, the blowtorch he took to the pasta right before serving). The judges agree that he accomplished that aspect of the crusty lasagna, but that it was perhaps unnecessary in this rendition. Finally, they felt that Carrie missed a huge opportunity to create the creamy, earthy sauce typical of a beef stroganoff and that her dish suffered because of it. As the chefs are called before the judges, they make it clear that it wasn’t that there was a bad dish so much as there were two superb ones, and one great one. With that, they ask Carrie to pack her knives and go.

Adrienne wins the elimination challenge with an updated take on her mother's gumbo.
Courtesy of NBCUniversal

There’s one more leg to these finals before the finale and Adrienne, Joe Flamm, and Joestachio have their work cut out for them as they’ve all finally come into their own in this competition.

Last Chance Comments

  • Challenges the chefs initially think they might get this episode: cooking for Oprah (she has a house in the area), riding an elk, going golfing, downhill mountain bike riding, fighting four grizzly bears to the death in the Observatory.
  • Joe Flamm cooked for Oprah with his mentor Art Smith and she said “EVERYBODY GETS A BISCUIT!” which is so precious. If someone could find me the video of that I’d be eternally grateful.
  • This is the second episode of the season with gratuitous ball puns: “Hope no one is allergic to nuts!” “This challenge is going to take some real balls” “Gotta go balls out... God, I gotta stop with the ball jokes”
  • “Can I have a redo?” “No” I’m sorry the Voltaggio’s were not humored by you Carrie, they’re Very Serious Brothers, in case you missed them shading everyone to hell during their Vegas season.
  • Carrie suggested breaking off Mustache’s fingers at one point as a strategy to beat him. Don’t think I missed that!
  • Adrienne’s mom coaching her by the river was such a cute scene; you can really see where she gets her intensity. It was emotional getting to see everyone connect with their families; you could really tell how much it meant to everyone.
  • I refuse to believe that Mustache was a “perfect child.” Nice try, Dad Joe.
  • The elimination challenge was cooked in Eliza Gavin’s (from the Seattle season) kitchen! Love when they keep it in the Top Chef fam.
  • We got like, one minute of stew room package! Producers, hear my plea! Bring back the stew room! Wasn’t that wine bong fun?
  • Joe Flamm was looking especially bashful this judge’s panel.
  • Y'all know I could not do an LCC without mentioning Gail. I always miss her when she’s not there. The looks! The comments! (Sorry, Graham.)