On Top Chef, three wasn’t always a crowd. In fact, during five of the show’s first seven seasons, trios of chefs battled head-to-head-to-head to see who’d take the title and the coveted feature in Food and Wine magazine. Hung and his knife skills outlasted Casey and Dale in Aspen during season 3. Stephanie fought off arch-villain Lisa and the smoldering remains of Richard in season 4. Michael Voltaggio beat his brother Brian and fan favorite Kevin in season 6.
After Top Chef: All-Stars, the series moved full-time to one-on-one finals. All things being considered, it’s probably a better way of deciding a champion—extra chefs make things even harder for the judges, and a direct dish-to-dish comparison yields the truest result. But with this cast, I can’t help but wonder if the crowd should’ve remained at three for the last battle.
I say that because we have a good threesome of contrasting styles: Mei’s restraint and technical skill leaves the judges happy, but wanting more than she seems emotionally capable of giving them; Gregory’s unique flavor combinations (and coconut milk) make him the most unique culinary voice, albeit a suddenly inconsistent one; and Doug’s humble, heads-down cooking has made him an unlikely potential favorite after a clean sweep last week.
But with a three-part finale and an elimination-free episode three weeks ago, this season has really taken its time getting to this penultimate episode. That’s fun for fans of the show (though a small part of me just wants to know who’s going to win at this point), but the chefs have literally cooked more than two dozen dishes each now, and they all seem pretty cranky at the episode’s outset. But with all that’s happened—Mei barely staved off elimination last week at the expense of her best friend in the kitchen, Gregory has seen his hot start cooled into lukewarm territory, and Doug had to claw his way back through Last Chance Kitchen—a little frustration isn’t inappropriate. They, even more than me, probably just want to know who’s going to win.
The chefs’ spirits are buoyed, though, once they arrive at Hacienda Purisima de Jalpa, a San Miguel de Allende organic farm that really brings things full-circle even in these tense times. It’s an idyllic scene, with butterflies flitting from plant to plant and green expanses spreading out in front of them. Sure, they’re chasing the cash prize and the title, but the chefs are calmed (and awed) by the bounty at their feet.
For the final quickfire, Padma is joined by Enrique Farjeat, the accomplished Mexican chef who mans the kitchen at the hacienda. If last week’s episode emphasized Mexican culture and artistry, this week’s about the largesse of the land itself. The chefs will be able to harvest all of their supplemental produce direct from the grounds of the farm, but the key ingredient is another distinct flavor of the region since the days of the Aztecs and Mayans—chocolate.
Now, I’ve never been to culinary school, but I do know that, in many cases, the culinary and pastry sides split like liberal arts and business do at the average university. (You can pick which is which.) Most high-end restaurants employ a pastry chef tasked with catering to diners’ sweet teeth after the main portion of the meal is complete. So, then, the constant Top Chef refrain, “I don’t do desserts,” is probably a legitimate one.
But with that all being said, hearing Doug complain bitterly about the quickfire—which asks the chefs to use chocolate to prepare both sweet and savory offerings—was pretty disappointing. Just like the other remaining chefs, he had the break to do some homework; perhaps learning a dessert recipe or two might’ve been a wise idea during his time off. Although he had to get through Last Chance Kitchen to get here, this season up to this point has emphasized proving a well-rounded skill set. Did he really expect to win Top Chef without ever “doing dessert”?
So while his seared hen stewed with onions, tomatoes, chocolate, and Ancho chiles looks delicious, it’s hard to say he deserves any better than last place for his dessert, which appears to be nothing more than melted chocolate on top of melted chocolate, with a little alcohol splashed in somewhere. I don’t mean to belabor this, but his negative attitude seems like it made its way onto his plates here. It’s not his best look.
Mei is more prepared—she has her chocolate-bitterness-percentages down, at least—but she doesn’t seem to be at 100 percent either here. Aside from offering mild praise at textural variation, Padma and Enrique aren’t really digging her chocolate yogurt with cocoa nibs and nasturtium. The duck with bitter greens and a chocolate mezcal cocoa butter sauce is a hit, but it’s an almost-too-obvious choice—an issue Mei will return to later.
What’s most interesting about this final quickfire, though, is that Gregory is more than just a winner-by-default. Instead, his seared lamb with a white chocolate Ancho sauce and green chorizo vinaigrette is a nice combination of disparate-sounding parts, and his baby carrot dessert with ginger, turmeric, and dark chocolate is probably the best dish of the day. Out of nowhere, it seems like Gregory’s made his way back a culinary rhythm, marrying flavors and individual ingredients skillfully and uniquely. If there was any time for him to seize a little momentum, it’d be now.
NEXT: Guacamole or Escamoles?