Sometimes on competitive reality TV, the dismissal of a cast member marks a sea of change for the audience. The tenor of how we engage with the competition shifts as more-skilled contestants establish their bona fides and settle in for the long grind. Earlier this year, as the crowd of people aspiring to be Top Chef thinned, so too did the unnecessary noise. In-fighting decreased as the chefs moved one step closer to victory each week, and Aaron’s welcome exit signaled the end of the “personalities-driven” block. The rest of the season was going to be all about cooking from then on out.
This past week’s dismissal created another seismic shift in the Top Chef power order—Doug’s departure after serving lackluster whole-roasted foie gras lobes was a clear signal to the chefs themselves that the competition had changed again. The pint-sized Portlandian had looked like the chef-to-beat over the past few weeks, establishing himself as surprising prizewinner of the middle third of this Boston season. And after one (ostensibly very) bad dish, he was gone.
Losing Doug is significant because he’s probably the first chef to “pack his knives and go” who actually had a chance at winning the competition. The most recent departures—Katsuji, Katie, Adam—were solid competitors, but pulling upsets week after week to survive and advance was never really in the cards for them. Coming into last week, though some of the remaining five were more strong than others, it wasn’t impossible to envision a scenario in which any of the five chefs left might win. Barring Last Chance Kitchen redemption, Doug will not be winning. And that’s significant.
So with Doug gone, we’ve entered the competition’s final third. The finale looms, but there are four chefs and, it appears, only three tickets to Mexico. And unlike many past seasons, each remaining competitor has survived a scare or two.
Gregory’s backslide seems to have been halted, but he’s nowhere near the chef we saw with such a dynamic opening salvo in the season’s early weeks. Melissa’s roller coaster ride has persisted, and she seems afflicted with the late-stage Top Chef doubt that has felled plenty of chefs over the years. Despite her swag factor, Mei’s managed to stay somewhat under-the-radar, slowly building steam over the past few weeks. She might be peaking at the perfect time. And though many may resent George for being allowed to show up late to the party (and for his dumb jokes), he’s been consistent enough to survive an incredible degree-of-difficulty ramp-up. But no matter how you slice it, from here on out, each week, a chef is going to go home who, on a different day, might’ve advanced.
Except this week, apparently.
As the chefs gather in the Top Chef kitchen, Padma and newcomer Ashley Christensen have some good news: There’s no quickfire this week and no one will be eliminated at the end of the day. Throughout this season, Top Chef‘s 12th, the producers have found interesting ways to play with the successful formula the show has cultivated over eight years on the air. There’s still Restaurant Wars and mis-en-place races, but there’s also menu composition challenges, guest executive chefs, and Padma’s shopping cart excursions. Removing elimination from the equation this late in the game and letting the chefs take some risks is another really interesting development, and it’s great to see that the show’s creative team is willing to try new things to keep the production fresh. And though there’s no loser this week, the winner gets an early trip to the finale.
NEXT: A family fishing trip