The second leg of the "Top Chef" finals pushes the “three amigos” to new heights, and for one of them, a final dish.
Here we are. The episode before the finale. The penultimate Top Chef battle. The Joe vs. Joe vs. Adrienne gauntlet. Let’s dive right in. The chefs travel to Aspen from Telluride for the final leg of the competition. Their new digs are beautiful, the landscape is stunning and the chefs toast to having made it this far.
The next day they mosey down to the T-Lazy-7 Ranch where they meet a cowboy hat-adorned Padma (yes, she looked like a recently sentient robot in Westworld, why do you ask?) at the edge of a creek. She introduces Top Chef Masters champion and Bay Area fixture Chris Cosentino as the Quickfire’s guest judge and gestures widely to the lake before them, challenging the chefs to guess what their Quickfire might be. Adrienne guesses jumping into the water and Joe Flamm guesses trout, and in a way, they’re both correct!
The chefs have 40 minutes to catch their own trout and prepare it. If the chefs don’t catch a fish, they have to prepare a dish using the canned fish provided in the pantry, which, by the way, is located deep in the woods. This feels very similar to the insane target shooting challenge from the Top Chef Texas finale where the chefs had to acquire their ingredients by shooting a card with the ingredient on it while cross-country skiing? Yes, this challenge is nowhere near as ridiculous or divorced from actual cooking skill as that challenge was, but to leave such a key component of a dish crucial to their success up to, essentially, chance, makes this Quickfire Top Fisherman as well as Top Chef.
The chefs cast their lines and hope for the best. Joe Flamm is the first to get a bite, and after some will-they won’t-they drama, he’s able to keep it in the net even after the line breaks. He’s off to the center of the woods to prepare his dish. Mustache reels in a fish shortly thereafter and follows Flamm into the forest. At this point it’s 29 minutes left in the cook and Adrienne is still floundering (what can I say it’s been a season of puns and now ya girl wants to get in on the action). Over in the kitchen, Joe Flamm is just really excited to have the opportunity to cook a fish he just caught in the middle of the woods while Mustache is apprehensive because this is the first time he’s butchered a fish in his career. At 22 minutes left Adrienne finally reels a fish in and sprints to join the Joes in the kitchen. To adapt to the time crunch she decides to make a crispy skin barely-cooked fish because “when the fish is so fresh you really don’t have to do much with it.” She fries rice paper to add another unexpected textural element and pulls the fish off the heat at “very close to raw but not actually raw.” Over on Mustache’s station his attempt to “kiss” the fish on the grill so as to not cook all the way through for his rillettes hasn’t worked out as he planned because the tent he created around the fish overcooked it. He can’t do anything at this point so he puts it on the plate and hopes for the best as Padma calls time.
Up first is Adrienne’s pan-seared trout with spring onion and jalapeno ponzu vinaigrette with fried rice paper. Before biting into it, Chris asks her if she cooked the fish and she replied that it was seared but she intended to leave it just under to bring out the freshness of the fish. Unfortunately for her, Chris informs the chefs that because the runoff from the bear defecation in the woods contaminates the water, the fish must be cooked all the way through in order for it to be safe to eat. Padma decides to eat everything else, and even though it seems like they enjoy it, it’s pretty clear that Adrienne isn’t winning this one. Meanwhile, Mustache is feeling great about his earlier faux pas as he presents his smoked trout rillette with spring onion corn cakes and summer berry glaze. Chris calls the dish “really lovely” and loves the corn cake. Joe Flamm is up last with a pan-seared trout, black garlic beurre blanc with fennel, mushrooms, asparagus, and breadcrumbs. The judges loved all the dishes—Adrienne’s sauce and skin were outstanding, Mustache’s corn cakes were a fun play on the frontier flavors and the breadcrumbs really elevated an already thoughtful dish. Ultimately Joe’s dish won, granting him an advantage in the elimination challenge.(Which Joe? Joe Flamm. You should know better than to think I would ever refer to Mustache as Joe).
Padma then leads the chefs to the battleground for the last challenge before the finale—a field with three suspended cauldrons. She tells the chefs that for their final challenge they’ll need to make a good impression on the culinary world by hosting their own event for the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen that was ongoing during the time they filmed the challenge. Since the stars of the culinary world are already in Aspen, they’ll be present at the challenge as well—this includes everyone from Ludo Lefebvre to Brooke Williamson to Danny Meyer to the return of the Voltaggios, and this episode’s guest judge, Daniel Boulud. With all this pressure, Padma finally gets to the meat of the challenge: the chefs must create a vegetarian dish for 200 diners. They have three hours to prep and cook with the cowboy cauldrons acting as their main heat source.
200 dishes in 3 hours is a daunting task, so Padma brings in some reinforcements for the chefs in the form of the last 3 eliminated chefs: Bruce, Chris, and Carrie. Joe Flamm gets to choose his sous and assign his competitors theirs—he picks Carrie for himself because of their history working together successfully in group challenges and chooses to separate the two Italian chefs so he pairs Mustache and Chris together and Adrienne and Bruce together. Top Chef provided premium vegetables for the chefs to choose from, conceive of their dishes with their sous and then head over to Whole Foods to pick up the rest of their ingredients within a $300 budget. The chefs dash towards the ingredients when the start is called and immediately begin planning. Mustache is scattered across a million ideas, (I heard caprese, eggplant fritter, gooseberries and beet yogurt all mentioned). Joe Flamm knows that he wants to make a pesto out of charred vegetables inspired by summers with his Dad throwing veggies on the grill. Adrienne has a couple ideas around a corn puree but her voice is drowned out by Bruce who suggests making—what else?—a pasta. No matter how many of his ideas she shoots down his voice only grows louder and Adrienne is clearly frustrated. At Whole Foods, she decides to refocus her dish to better suit her personal style elevating southern food and turns her corn puree concept into a corn pudding concept.
After a friendly dinner between the “three amigos” the chefs begin their prep. Mustache shades Carrie’s toasts once again and puts Chris to work on his extensive prep. Carrie and Joe Flamm snipe back with a great roast about how little Sasto knows about nature and we’re all having fun until Tom comes by to terrorize the chefs. He’s brought Food & Wine contributor Nilou Motamed with him (you might remember her from the episode earlier this season where the chefs cooked food inspired by their family’s immigration/origin stories) and they begin to pepper the chefs with questions. I loved whatever cut they did of Tom’s seemingly endless questioning of Adrienne while she is in the weeds with prep because I have absolutely no idea what he was trying to say. Everyone else goes off without a hitch or much skepticism so it seems like smooth sailing until Mustache tries the beets he’s preparing. He feels like the beet and charred flavor he’s looking for isn’t in the poaching liquid so he takes the embers and throws them into the pot to infuse the charred flavor. He also compensates by wrapping the yellow beets in tin foil and burying them in the coals. Adrienne’s dish is also struggling to come together—the tempura batter for the shishito peppers isn’t holding up and the lime juice pearls she’s trying to make with agar aren’t setting. To adjust, she adds flour to the tempura batter to thicken it, which still doesn’t work so she decides to char the shishitos on the cauldron and turns the lime juice into a gelee. To make matters worse, her corn pudding is too smooth so she adds toasted coconut flakes to imbue it with texture.
Time is called as Adrienne finishes adjusting and the chefs are ready to serve their patrons. Mustache is up first with his beet carpaccio with beet yogurt, green bean tomato vinaigrette with gooseberries atop grilled sourdough bread. Brooke Williamson, last season’s winner and Quickfire judge from the breakfast challenge earlier this season, loved how the flavors were very meaty. Gail loves the gooseberry and the flavor of the dish but has some reservations, saying “there’s a lot of tasty components but it doesn’t eat cohesively. And my issue is if you’re going to give us a piece of toasted bread, butter it! Oil it! Put something on it!” Daniel Boulud adds “the bread needed nourishment” to her sentiment, agreeing with the comments of the other judges.
Adrienne’s charred corn pudding wrapped in Swiss chard with shishito peppers and champagne broth is up next. Curtis Stone loves it, saying “I really like the coconut and corn. Smart dish.” Despite the compliments from Curtis, Adrienne points out (and it’s clear from the footage) that many of the prominent guests assume Bruce is the executive chef and completely ignore Adrienne, forced to fight to introduce herself to chefs who are coming to compliment her dish! (This small edit package calls to mind what Tanya said in her interview with us after her elimination about the ways in which the chef community boxes out women of color.) The judges, of course, are very clear on who’s responsible for this dish. Gail likes the dish and even compliments the seasoning (clearly Adrienne can take a note. Remember all those comments on how underseasoned her food is a mere couple weeks ago?) but she feels like Adrienne “missed an opportunity to be bolder with the char.” Daniel Boulud comes to Adrienne’s defense, saying “but, flavor!”
Last but not least is Joe Flamm with his grilled-to-order baby zucchini topped with hazelnut zucchini pesto, mushroom vinaigrette, goat cheese and raw asparagus salad. Padma said his dish was the first time she was really getting smoke and Gail’s initial trepidation about the amount of cheese was assuaged by how the flavor grounded the dish. It seemed like they had no criticisms until Gail and Tom simultaneously mused about how much better it would have been if he had cut up a medium-sized zucchini rather than using the less flavorful baby zucchini to match the pesto in assertiveness of flavor. Tom wrapped up the meal by commenting that everything was delicious but he was still looking for more from these contestants.
At judges' table, Gail leads the charge in going over the highs and lows of the meal—the creativity and unity of Adrienne’s dish even if they wished there was more smoky cauldron flavor present, the yogurt and gooseberry of Mustache’s dish were perfect but it felt like two different things on the plate between those components and the beet carpaccio, and Joe Flamm’s dish was well executed, delicious and perfectly addressed the challenge but suffered from the pesto overpowering the flavor of the baby zucchini.
When they come back, Padma calls Joe Flamm’s name first and, after a pause, announces that he’s the winner of this challenge and will head to the finale.
The final two both made great dishes, but the lack of cohesion in Mustache’s dish sent him packing and boosted Adrienne’s creative and flavorful approach into the finale!
Next week we see the two Chicago natives battle it out for the Top Chef title. Who do you think will win?
Last Chance Comments
- It’s been an interesting season and I’m sad to be wrapping up this column next week. More thoughts on that when it comes, I guess.
- “Why don’t you pop that bottle a-sizzle?”
- That moment with Adrienne having to assert herself as the executive chef really got under my skin. Every woman I know has been in that situation, including yours truly, and especially with the way #metoo has revealed the horrors of being a woman in the kitchen it’s just another way in which women are stripped of their power.
- When Padma put her hands up in that cowboy hat I absolutely lost it. I love every single one of her looks. That pin-straight hair was a look.
- “I’m a bear in its natural element.” Mustache, you weren't an OG bear. You aren't even a Gen 2 bear! You're bears 3.0!
- Mustache really lucked out there with that fish overcooking, huh?
- I feel like we did not learn enough about the cowboy cauldrons. Those were crazy!
- Carrie had some amazing moments this week: her dad used to use cowboy cauldrons so she’s very familiar with them and did you know that elk are just deer that live at over five thousand feet of elevation? (They aren’t but Mustache doesn’t know that.)
- “You’ve gotta let your balls hang out at some point.” I never thought Adrienne would bring the balls motif back after last week.
- I’m kind of surprised Mustache didn’t get chewed out for that bread given how heated Gail was about it. Every week Gail, you steal my heart. Top Chef producers, if you’re reading this, I want to see Gail on every week in the Kentucky season. She brings so much life to the panel!