The Top 4 compete for the chance to have a dish featured in all of Emeril's NOLA restaurants

By Stephan Lee
Updated January 23, 2014 at 10:20 AM EST
Credit: David Moir/Bravo
S11 E15
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Last week, Nicholas once again survived the chopping block, and now his smug mug is back to see if he can possibly skate by one more time.

Shirley reminded Nicholas that he could be an asshole, but that he still had a “big f—ing heart.” Among the remaining chefs, Carlos was the odd man out. Nicholas, Shirley, and Nina didn’t think of him as a big threat, mostly because he primarily cooks Mexican food. It never bothered me when contestants on Top Chef consistently went back to their primary genre of food — I think you’re allowed to cook mostly Asian, Mexican, Italian, or whatever else because there’s so much diversity within each of those categories. And Carlos has made non-Mexican dishes more times than Nicholas has made overly complicated dishes, so there’s no real room to call Carlos out on his lack of range.

Tom and Gail were already waiting for the chefs as they entered the kitchen for this two-part Quickfire challenge. In Round One, the chefs had 20 minutes to fit just one bite of food on a single cocktail fork for Gail to judge. As everyone scrambled for ingredients, Nicholas once against accused someone — this time Shirley — of cranking up the temperature on his oven. Maybe there really is a kitchen imp running around burning only Nicholas’ baked goods, but the more likely scenario is that Nicholas is just a bit absent-minded, especially when he’s trying to jam 47 ingredients into one dish. Luckily, Shirley refused to be bullied and called Nicholas a dick.

Nina came up with a shrimp escabeche with potato aioli and pickled shallots. Gail thought that the shrimp flavor really came through, but it was a little greasy. Shirley crafted an elaborate Tataki-style flank steak with black pepper cherry and crispy onions. It was funny watching her arrange all the ingredients on the prongs with a pair of forceps — Shirley likened it to Jenga, but clearly it’s way more like Operation. Gail loved the meat, but wished it was a bit lighter. Tom thought there was a little bit too much soy.

For once, the men prevailed. Carlos moved on to the next round with his beautiful grilled mango with shrimp and chili glaze, and Nicholas joined him with his beef deckle with aged balsamic and purple potato chips.

NEXT: Will Nicholas make it to the finale?For Round Two, Tom tasked the chefs with drawing inspiration from one of two pieces of produce: eggplant or red pepper, which are his favorite veggies to work with. Carlos eyed the eggplant for a marmalade, but when the two chefs sprinted toward the produce, Nicholas easily beat him to it. Nicholas humble-bragged about doing Varsity track… like, what, 15 years ago or something? Remember how arrogant Nicholas was at the beginning of season, especially when his “bro” Jason was still around? Yeah, he hasn’t changed.

Even though Nicholas had vowed to make simpler dishes, he immediately planned on doing two different types of eggplant to showcase his versatility and technique. His scalloped eggplant with sesame seed Sriracha tahini and chili threads looked anything but simple. Carlos’ fried red pepper soup, on the other hand, looked very simple, almost like a sauce. The judges, though, preferred Carlos’ simplicity over Nicholas’ fussy but still under-seasoned dish. Carlos won a Corolla, but it must have been almost as sweet to beat Nick.

The premise behind this week’s Elimination Challenge was basically the same as the past five or so challenges this season: Take what you’ve learned from New Orleans and put it in a dish. They’d be serving their dishes for special guest judges Grant Achatz, Andrew Carmellini, and Douglas Keane. The winning dish would be featured in all of Emeril’s New Orleans restaurants.

This week, there weren’t any dust-ups in the kitchen, but Nina — who, for most of the season, was looking like the clear front-runner — left her malfatti off her plate. It was a horribly timed careless error to make so late in the game. But still, her speckled trout with baby vegetables and barbecue sauce still satisfied the judges. Tom noted that the ricotta cheese from the malfatti may have overwhelmed the dish. Nina managed to dodge that bullet.

Shirley decided on a Chinese fish dish that still contained the Holy Trinity of NOLA flavor: celery, pepper, and onion. The judges all went nuts for her seared black drum fish with zhen jian vinegar butter sauce, braised celery, and mushrooms. Nicholas, trying to correct his usual mistake of under-seasoning and over-complicating, went with a shrimp-based broth, shrimp dumplings, charred cobia, roasted bass, and a confit of tuna, fresh herbs, and fried rice. How is that simple? Also, Nicholas under-seasoned once again — Grant wanted more salt on the fish.

Carlos went Mexican again but added a NOLA twist. His steamed seafood tamal was served with saffron cream sauce and pickled okra. The judges thought it was a cool concept, but Tom wanted the full tamale experience of opening a banana leaf.

At the Judges Table, the ladies returned to the top, but Emeril chose Shirley‘s dish as the best of the night. Really, Shirley is on an unprecedented roll here. At one point, Nina felt like the presumptive winner, but now it’s very much up in the air.

As for the loser, it was between Carlos and Nicholas. I honestly thought it would be Nicholas, because he repeated the two mistakes he’d been making all season long. But ultimately, Carlos got the boot because the tamales weren’t as warm as they could have been, and the cream didn’t mix well with the seafood.

Is it absurd that Nicholas is still in the game? Who do you predict will return in next week’s finale, part one?

Episode Recaps

Top Chef

Tom, Padma, and Gail tell the cheftestants to pack their knives and go.
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