A spot in the finale is up for grabs in a family-focused Top Chef Boston battle.

By John Vilanova
January 15, 2015 at 04:02 AM EST
David Moir/Bravo
S12 E11
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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

In each season’s final weeks, chefs are often tasked with cooking challenges that require extra hands to get their visions onto their plates. This usually means bringing back eliminated contestants, renewing tensions, and reigniting the fear that a lesser competitor might inadvertently screw things up for the chef they’re trying to help. These meals are often served to family members brought in to buoy the competitors’ spirits as the stakes rise. This year, though, it’s another fun combination of the two, a twist of the tried-and-true where rather than bringing family members to eat the chefs’ food, sisters, brothers, moms, and dads are strapping on their aprons and getting to work.

The typical tears and hugs happen as Melissa’s mom, Alice, Mei’s brother, Harley, Gregory’s sister, Jessica, and George’s dad(dy), “Mister Tony,” emerge and join their stressed-out family members. Things are exactly as you’d expect, honestly: Gregory and his sister are best friends, George’s dad is intimidating, Mei and her brother are adversarial, and Melissa’s her mother’s 30-year-old “baby.” Food is often a familial experience, and Top Chef always strongly sketches how the cheftestants’ pasts have made them the cooks they are by the time we’re watching them. Creating a family-oriented challenge that won’t penalize the chefs is a nice way to illustrate that—it would’ve been cruel to send a chef home on such an emotionally weighty week.

Family’s arrivals often steady the chefs’ nerves and settle them down in advance of the final rounds, but as Padma reminds the chefs, they have a lot of work to do. The challenge starts with a trip to Island Creek Oyster Farm to dredge for oysters, dig for clams, and forage seaweed for dinner. Each chef will create an entrée course; family members are responsible for plating appetizers without the chefs’ guiding hands.

The boating excursion portends some of what’s to come: Mister Tony is tough to control and Harley’s breaking things. But the Boston bounty—lobsters, littlenecks, oysters, and surf clams—seems top-notch. As the day winds on, we learn more about the chefs’ histories; each, it seemed, has overcome some form of hardship on their way to the final four. In some cases, family has been a boon despite trying circumstances (George’s father invested in his restaurant; Melissa’s mother helped her become a culinary James Bond); for others, particularly Mei, family strife seems to have left some pretty deep scars.

And as they enter the kitchen, the challenge of guiding their loved ones while still focusing on their own food has made the challenge exponentially more difficult. Melissa’s 24-step chawanmushi checklist is stressing her and her mom out, Mei’s barking orders at Harley, who’s a mandolin slice away from maiming himself, George is intimidated at the mere thought of trying to tell his father (who’s eating more than he’s prepping) what to do, and Gregory’s so preoccupied with helping Jessica make her knife cuts correctly that he’s barely concerned with his own dish.

NEXT: Crowning the first finalist

Two hours isn’t a ton of time to try to reinvent yourself, so Gregory’s decision to eschew his typical focus and cook umami-forward food seems ill-advised, especially given his recent struggles. Even though it might be useful to take a risk on a week when he can’t be eliminated, his confidence has been shaken in recent weeks. He needs to reestablish himself. So while Jessica’s simple tomato-watermelon soup with pickled cucumber and sautéed shrimp is well-received by an all-star judges’ picnic table including Tom, Padma, Richard Blais, Ashley Christensen, Rick Moonen, Adam Evans, and Kerry Heffernan, Gregory’s halibut with oysters and mussels in a gray dashi that meets immediate criticism. From everything we’ve learned about Gregory, it’s not surprising that he focused more on making Jessica’s experience as good as possible, even to his own detriment. He’s always been a team player to a fault. But his lack of urgency is troubling, and I’m having a hard time envisioning him winning this thing.

As usual, George plates-it-safe, with Mister Tony’s grilled oysters with razor clams and cucumber, garlic, and shallots and his own butter-poached lobster with brown-butter-roasted sunchokes and vadouvan being a satisfying, if uninspired, offering. Rick Moonen wants more salt, which is something I think we all want out of George the Greek, whose consistency has always been his biggest strength and most glaring weakness. Everyone seems to know exactly what they’re getting week after week, for better or worse. He might continue to advance as his competitors flounder, but you have to think it’s going to take something more special for him to win.

Of all the family members, Harley seems like the biggest handicap, but Mei’s so controlling in the kitchen that it’d probably make even experienced helpers lose confidence. Despite burning his mushrooms when Tom comes to visit, Harley manages to plate an oyster with soy-yuzu vinaigrette garnished with sea bream and radish that the judges (and, more importantly, Mei) are satisfied with. Meanwhile, Mei’s surf clam and lobster with a tomato coconut broth is a stunner as she continues to solidify her case for the title. She might be the best “cook” remaining in the competition. At this point, is it hers to lose?

This week, though, was all about another chef realizing her true potential for the first time all season. Many have criticized Melissa for sitting in the middle thanks to unspectacular offerings (read: salads) throughout the competition’s early rounds. Viewers seem unimpressed by her food, but for the most part, she has escaped serious criticism from the judges. It seemed like they saw something we didn’t.

With respect to Mister Tony’s diner delicacies, I’m thinking that Melissa’s mom, an aerospace engineer, is probably the best family helper, and her dish, egg custard with shiitake mushrooms, lobster, and clams, was clearly the most complex and well-received of the family dishes. Melissa herself made what seemed like another safe choice: slow-poached lobster paired with an onion soubise, pea puree, asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, onions, hazelnuts, and caramelized sunchokes. On the surface, it’s not that dissimilar a dish from George’s unspectacular offering, but the judges’ response suggests something else: Melissa might actually be the most technically skilled chef remaining.

Ashley Christensen says the lobster is the most perfectly cooked version she’s ever had. Padma says the vegetables, “as usual,” are the stars. Everyone has something different to praise. After weeks of sitting just outside the judges’ crosshairs, Melissa of all people is the first chef through to the finale.

Weeks ago, Padma intimated that the judges all knew how talented Melissa was, but that technical proficiency alone wouldn’t win her the competition. It would take inspiration, too. With her mother beside her, it seems like some arrived at just the right time.

Episode Recaps

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