'Top Chef' recap: 'Holy Escamoly!'
Three's a crowd a week away from the finale.
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?
With his win, Gregory wins first choice of sous chef for the high-stakes elimination challenge, choosing George of all people to help him. To some extent, it feels like adding insult to injury considering their history, but George seems happy to help and he’s proven to be one of the better cooks in the competition. He’s probably the right pick, though it does allow Mei the chance to grab Melissa and reunite with her close friend and confidante. If Gregory had chosen Melissa, it might’ve been an interesting competitive wrinkle, but the value added in keeping her away from Mei might not have returned anything if she weren’t invested in helping.
Continuing the farm-to-judges-table theme, the chefs are tasked with a progressive menu challenge that highlights six Mexican staples of varying providence. It’s a bit of a strange choice to ask the chefs to play nice this late in the competition, a point underscored almost immediately when it comes time to choose among the sextet of Mexican delicacies. Gregory probably should’ve been entitled to first pick after his win anyway, but he gets guava and poblano, his top choices, simply by speaking up first. Mei quickly follows, grabbing avocado and huitlacoche, a gnarly-looking corn fungus. For all the grief I gave Doug earlier about his grousing, there’s no denying that he and his compadre-en-crimen Katsuji have been given the short end of the stick here with queso and escamoles. That’s ant eggs. Yes, really.
While the cheftestants shop, Tom and Padma are joined by Richard Blais and a cadre of Mexico’s premier chefs. I know last week I complimented the show for how well it sensitively integrates native culture, but it bears repeating—there is some serious respect at the table and at the San Luis Potosí market, where the chefs attempt to source the best items for the biggest meal of their lives. The unacknowledged focus seems to be simplicity—a risky endeavor given the stakes.
Going course-by-course, Gregory’s up first with a chilled guava soup with bay scallops, habanero, and mint that gets the meal off to a balanced, fresh start. Tom likes its building heat; Richard (as he is wont to do) starts talking degrees of difficulty. It’s tangy, tart, and spicy—a smart-sounding dish that proves, again, that Gregory is back.
On the other hand, the judges aren’t sure how to feel about Mei’s second-course guacamole “roll” with xoconostle, Serranos, tortilla chips, and (of course), radishes. The table seems split: it’s a good dish, but in the end, as guest Eduardo Palazuelos says, it’s just guacamole, and it’s certainly not the food that got her this far. It seems like ill-emphasized simplicity for simplicity’s sake, and Tom’s disappointed commentary is telling: she’s left the door open for someone to knock her out when her skills could’ve slammed it shut.
Meanwhile, Doug is working to extract as much escamole flavor as possible for course three, piling the eggs in various forms onto his tortillas with potatoes and slowly stewed garlic and chilis. Richard loves the escamole aioli (escamioli?), complementing the young chef’s huevos. On the whole, though, Doug’s fighting an uphill battle to extract enough flavor from the delicate ingredients, and the judges applaud his effort, even if his execution isn’t there.
Things always have the potential to get weird with sous chefs in the kitchen, and Mei’s fourth course, huitlacoche agnolotti with a roasted corn broth, lands in murky competitive territory. While the table applauds the smart use of corn broth in combination with the fungus it produces, Melissa’s pinched pasta seems like the best thing on the plate. She seems happy to help her friend, but it’s definitely a little unseemly that Mei might get through to the finale based on something Melissa did.
When Gregory got off to his hot start at the beginning of the season, he did so while cooking food that felt very personal. He lost his way when he started getting abstract. But amid the farm’s flora, he seemed to find himself, getting back to basics and regaining the quiet confidence he’d lost way back on Thanksgiving. And as the diners dip their forks into his pork and poblano chili stew with pureed tomatillos, poblanos, and onions topped with escabeche-style pickles, it feels like the most authentically “him” dish we’ve seen in months. After making the kitchen smell like Mexico and the diners’ plates taste like it, Gregory’s through to the final battle. Despite his ups and downs, he probably still deserves it.
And with all things considered, Doug’s smoked queso fresco with spiced honey, squash chips, charred pickles, and chimichurri closer is a pretty impressive offering, a valiant grasp at a move forward despite really unfortunate circumstances. Even Richard—whose cooking really is the antithesis of Doug’s—pays him a compliment. It’s at least as good as Mei’s pasta à la Melissa.
So the second spot in the final comes down to one last either-or debate: guacamole versus escamole. Richard’s on Team Mei, calling her “naked” cooking a still-life. Regardless of how good the simile is, it feels overly generous. Remember, Richard—it’s just guacamole.
Truth be told, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed when Doug was the one who was told to pack his knives for the simple reason that it didn’t feel like a fair fight. Sure, Mei and Gregory were the “favorites” from the beginning, but Doug surprised me week after week with food that looked simple but continued to earn the judges’ praise. At this level, it has to be extremely difficult to do the kind of bravely unassuming food that Doug does, and he seems a victim of circumstance who probably deserved better. Call it the Kevin Gillespie curse: simplicity is usually good enough to win challenges and move deep into the competition, but I wonder if the judges are ready for that type of cook to be Top Chef. If Doug wasn’t the chef to convince them, I’m not sure who is.