The chefs try their hand at airline food before paying tribute to a Santa Monica institution.

By Korsha Wilson
May 29, 2020
Advertisement
Nicole Weingart/Bravo

There are only five chefs remaining to fight for the Top Chef crown after last week’s tough kaiseki challenge. Or are there? After an epic three-round Last Chance Kitchen, Kevin rejoins the competition again bringing the number of cheftestants to six.

The six chefs enter the Top Chef kitchen where they’re greeted by Padma Lakshmi and legendary California chef Jonathan Waxman, who are sitting in seats that look like spaceships complete with two tray tables. They’re relaxing with two champagne flutes in hand. It’s time for an airline-themed Quickfire challenge!

Quickfire

“Airline food used to have the stigma of being lower quality,” Padma says. Things are different now with airlines partnering with chefs like Jonathan, Alice Waters, and Wolfgang Puck to create in-flight meals. For this Quickfire, the cheftestants have to create an appetizer and a main course that can be served on a commercial flight using ingredients available year-round. Their serving dishes are airline trays, meaning each portion has to fit and can be no taller than the tray height. The winning chef gets a big advantage in the Elimination Challenge.

With thirty minutes on the clock, the chefs start cooking. Kevin feels like he has an advantage because his grandfather was an executive for an airline, so he’s flown first class “most of his life.” He’s going for a meatball dish with vadouvan. Stephanie is making rockfish en papillote which is a great move since food can dry out in a plane atmosphere. “En papillote retains a lot of moisture, keeps steaming, and keeps food hot so I think it’s a good idea,” she explains. Melissa is making a cold tofu salad and a curry. Bryan V. decides on a salad with green goddess dressing and a chicken thigh dish as his main. Gregory is also making a chicken dish with broccolini.

Here’s what everyone made:

Gregory Gourdet

Appetizer: Grilled broccolini with sherry dressing

Main: Garam masala chicken, mushrooms & olive oil crushed potatoes

Kevin Gillespie

Appetizer: Roasted carrot salad, yogurt & dukkah

Main: Moroccan spiced lamb meatball with vadouvan

Bryan Voltaggio

Appetizer: Green goddess salad

Main: Braised chicken thigh, olives & lentils

Stephanie Cmar

Appetizer: Warm potato salad, radicchio squash & potatoes

Main: Rockfish en papillote with lemon, leek & rosemary

Brian Malarkey

Appetizer: Pancetta & sherry mushrooms with brie cheese

Main: Rosemary pork chop, chile mostarda and kale

Melissa King

Appetizer: Chilled tofu salad with yuzu and chili

Main: Beef curry with mushrooms and coconut rice

“I think you all did a very good job,” Jonathan says after he and Padma have tasted through all of the dishes. On the bottom are Stephanie’s papillote because it was difficult to maneuver and Brian M.’s tough pork chop. On top are Kevin’s meatballs and Melissa’s “simple, elegant” two courses. The winner is Melissa! She’s happy to win the last Quickfire in Los Angeles.

“As you know, only five of you will continue to the finale,” Padma says. “Anyone wanna know where we’re going,” she asks. (Uh, yeah.) This season’s finale will be in Tuscany! There’s just one more challenge standing between the chefs and a ticket to Italy.

Elimination Challenge

The chefs are tasked with paying tribute to Michael’s Santa Monica, an iconic restaurant serving “an amalgamation of California ingredients, continental, and French cuisine” where Jonathan was the opening chef in 1979. The cheftestants will taste some of the restaurant’s signature dishes with owner-chef Michael McCarty and use that as inspiration to create a dish of their own which they’ll serve to McCarty, alumni chefs of Michael’s and Food & Wine editor in chief, Hunter Lewis. (Hey, Hunter!)

With that, the chefs head to Michael’s where they’re greeted by Michael McCarty himself. “We were called California cuisine for a reason,” Michael says. “Local ingredients is where it all starts.” Brian Bornemann, the current chef at Michael’s, starts sending out some of the restaurant’s classic dishes from the past forty years: angel hair pasta with chardonnay cream sauce and grilled diver scallops, grilled quail with roasted jalapeno and lime salsa, monkfish wrapped in prosciutto with beet risotto, and veal loin with sweetbreads.

The chefs barely get a chance to finish their last bites when Brian brings out a butcher’s block of Top Chef knives. It’s time for the chefs to pick the dishes they want to use as inspiration. Melissa gets first pick since she won the Quickfire and goes with the quail. Everyone else draws a knife to determine the order of choosing dishes. Kevin gets #2 pick so he chooses the duck. Stephanie’s next and chooses the scallop. Bryan V. picks the lamb saddle. Gregory chooses the roasted monkfish with beet risotto and Brian M. is left with the veal loin and sweetbread dish which he’s very jazzed about because he loves those ingredients.

The chefs have 30 minutes at Whole Foods Market and $400 to spend. Gregory is a little worried about his dish since the flavors are so strong and he’s not sure how to modernize risotto. Brian M. is going rogue, inspired by fresh Asian pears, local cream, and whatever’s in season which is great, except those things may not go so well with truffles which are a key part of this dish. Bryan V. is excited to do the duxelles on his dish because he was a saucier early in his career.

The next day the chefs enter the kitchen at Michael’s and get to work cooking their dishes. Chefs Tom Colicchio and Jonathan Waxman pay the cheftestants a visit and the chefs start to feel the pressure. They look perplexed by Brian M.’s fruit and truffle combo but wish him luck on pulling it off. Stephanie is nervous to recreate Jonathan’s pasta with cream sauce. “I don’t want to embarrass myself,” she says. Gregory is worried about pulling off risotto on Top Chef since the dish has sent chefs home before. Kevin is adding a bit of his own story to his interpretation of the duck breast and duck confit dish, adding braised duck to a rice croquette.

Judges Padma, Tom, Brian, and Jonathan take their seats for dinner and are joined by Gail Simmons and a host alumni chefs of Michael’s Santa Monica like Roy Yamaguchi, Sang Yoon, Mark Peel, and Brooke Williamson.

Here’s how things went:

Gregory Gourdet

Inspiration: Brooke Williamson’s monkfish wrapped in prosciutto with beet risotto

Dish: Beet juice risotto, roasted monkfish, simple salad with beets and pickled onions

For the second week in a row, the usually calm Gregory seems flustered as he plates his dish. In the final moments, he realizes he forgot to put the prosciutto on the plate. The dish looks gorgeous anyway—the risotto is a magenta color and he used golden beets for the salad, but it looks incomplete. Jonathan immediately asks why there isn’t prosciutto on the dish and Gregory says it didn’t make the plate. Roy Yamaguchi thinks the risotto is one dimensional while Brooke and Tom say the dish suffers because of the lack of salt from the prosciutto. 

Stephanie Cmar

Inspiration: Jonathan Waxman’s scallop and pasta dish with chardonnay cream sauce

Dish: Seared scallop with caviar, asparagus caramelle & shellfish chardonnay beurre blanc

Stephanie’s dish looks beautiful, a delicate update on Jonathan’s pasta and scallop dish from 1980. Jonathan thinks it’s “really delicious” and Michael thinks her homemade pasta is gorgeous.

Bryan Voltaggio

Inspiration: Roy Yamaguchi’s lamb saddle with currants and potato galette

Dish: Roasted lamb, cab cassis currant puree & fondant potato

This challenge feels like it was made for Bryan V. to win since he’s been plating up fine dining dishes all season long. His dish is stunning and marries his style of intricate plate work with high-end ingredients. Sang Yoon says Bryan V.’s dish follows the principles of Roy’s dish and it’s “simple, refined and showcases the ingredient.”

Kevin Gillespie

Inspiration: Mark Peel’s duck breast and duck confit duo

Dish: Roasted duck breast with orange heirloom marmalade, topped with salsa verde, wild rice croquette

Kevin’s plate looks great and matches his cooking style: technically sound and rustic at the same time. His duck breast looks perfectly cooked next to a round rice croquette that’s been deep fried until golden brown. Mark loves Kevin’s dish and Jonathan appreciates that he added his own spin to a classic.

Brian Malarkey

Inspiration: Michael McCarty’s veal and sweetbreads with truffle

Dish: Duo of sweetbreads with hollandaise & champagne gastrique, veal loin with truffle butternut squash, mushrooms & warm leek potato salad

Things seem to be going well for Brian until he gets to the judges’ table and realizes they’re short about 4 portions of his dish. Uh oh. Apparently the servers ran some of his dishes to the wrong table. It’s not his fault so the judges continue on. His plate looks really busy with a lot of colors. Michael agrees, saying Brian took a dish of four ingredients and made it 45. Gail says the cook on the veal and the sweetbreads was perfect. 

Melissa King

Inspiration: Brian Bornemann’s quail with radishes

Dish: Grilled quail with lime & hot plum glaze & ninja radishes

Melissa’s dish looks stellar as she puts it in front of the judges: a big piece of charred quail topped with lots of fresh herbs, pinkish radishes, and greens. Brian loves it saying it really highlights the bird itself. Hunter says the glaze is not too sticky and not too sweet.

Judges’ Table

Nicole Weingart/Bravo

Tom seems happy with the cheftestants’ overall performance saying they did a good job. “It was really a beautiful meal,” Jonathan says before announcing his pick for winner. It’s Melissa! Her grilled quail has landed her a spot in Italy for the finale. Jonathan also gives Stephanie a shoutout for channeling the inspiration from his dish into her own version. She’s also going to Italy! Bryan V. and Kevin also get the green light when Padma tells them they’re going to Italy too.

That means Brian M. and Gregory are on the bottom. Tom feels like Greg’s monkfish got lost in the flavors of his beet risotto and pickles. Gail thinks the fact that he missed the prosciutto in the dish is a big indication that he didn’t get the dish fully. “In the original dish... it sealed in moisture and added flavor and I think those things would have helped you today,” she says. Brian M. starts his talk with the judges by saying his cooking today went awry but he’s “got a lot of good things in his life” and he’s “cooked.” Padma asks if he’s quitting and Gregory interjects saying he should “let them judge” and he’s okay if it’s his last day on Top Chef. Brian lets the judges continue their critique but says “no one ate it right” and that all of the flavors together were a “disaster.” The judges look incredulous that he said that since it’s his job as a chef to make sure that doesn't happen.

So who goes home? It’s ultimately Malarkey, who let his head get the best of him this challenge. He seems fine with it and happy to be heading home to his family.

Melissa King takes home another win, while Brian Malarkey is asked to pack his knives and go.
Nicole Weingart/Bravo

And we have our finale line up! Bryan, Kevin, Melissa, Stephanie, and Gregory are headed to Italy to compete for the title of Top Chef. Take a sneak peek at next week's episode below:

Season 17 of Top Chef airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on BravoFind additional interviews, chef bios, and more at BravoTV.com/TopChef.