Top Chef's final four must innovate to make it to the finale rounds.

By John Vilanova
January 22, 2015 at 04:02 AM EST
David Moir/Bravo
S12 E12
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I’ve been asking myself a question throughout virtually the entire season of Top Chef. Namely, who should win?

When watching any show like this, audiences inevitably develop rooting interests; it’s a main reason we watch in the first place. This year was no different—all season, people on the web and in the comments have cheered for Adam, Doug, and others who caught viewers’ attention. Even Aaron had fans! Sometimes an awesome personality draws us to a cheftestant. Sometimes it’s a riveting story of overcoming adversity. Sometimes it’s about physical attractiveness. Before all’s said and done, viewers will even have voted for their Fan Favorite, and someone will pocket $10,000 simply for being likable.

This all creates a bit of a conundrum for me, at least—do we want the best chef in the competition to win? Or do we want our favorite chef to claim the prize? What happens when the chef we want to win isn’t the most deserving one?

Even though I’ve been recapping the show and have tried to give all of the chefs (Aaron aside, I admit) their fair shake, I’m not immune to picking favorites. After the first episode, I predicted Mei would win (I’m standing by that), but generally speaking, I was all over the map on projections for other chefs. I even called Melissa a “root vegetable.” But throughout the season, I clung to a straightforward way of deciding my rooting interest—I wanted the person who seemed the most like the “top chef” to win. Simply put, if all 16 chefs cooked their best meal at the same time, whose “best” would be the best?

Through the season’s first half, Gregory was an obvious choice. First episode scotch bonnet peppers fueled his hot start, and his cuisine seemed to be globally inspired and forward-thinking. Winning five of the first six elimination challenges and conquering addiction made him even more likable. In short, based on the judges’ feedback, he seemed like the best chef in the competition.

But since the Thanksgiving challenge, Gregory’s been undone by, of all things, his cooking. On multiple occasions, it has seemed like he’s served the judges’ least favorite dish, surprisingly surviving and making audiences wonder if his past performance was saving him in spite of his present miscues. Last week, the only reason he wasn’t eliminated was because no one was. While other chefs—namely Melissa and Mei—have turned up the heat, Gregory’s left me feeling lukewarm. For a while, I believed he’d be the “winner” in my hypothetical challenge; now, I wonder how high he’d even finish.

For now, though, as always, all that matters is surviving and advancing. We’re down to four chefs remaining and only three plane tickets to Mexico, making this the cruelest week for elimination. But first up is the final quickfire in Boston, and Padma’s guest is an old favorite, Wylie Dufresne. An early proponent of the science-focused molecular gastronomy school of cooking, Wylie is always an interesting guest because he pushes the chefs to think differently about their food. Usually, this means ill-conceived incorporations of agar-agar and foams on foams on foams.

Surprisingly, though, for the quickfire, he’s keeping it simple by asking the chefs to use beans, a food near and dear to Boston and a fitting final test. Quickfires this late in the game can often seem a bit unnecessary (though the free trip to Napa sounds awesome), and the chefs seem to be lacking a bit of inspiration as their focus remains on the following challenge. Even with the hour-long time limit, no one seems all that interested in elevating Beantown’s namesake product.

Given that her ticket to Mexico has already been punched, Melissa should be the only one not stressing, but her seared pork tenderloin with a bacon butterbean puree, roasted carrots, and fried chickpeas relegates the bean to second-rate status. Gregory’s navy beans with sake, ham, avocado, and carrot chips are a little better, but he’s again undone by poor cooking—his beans are overdone. And in between fart jokes (he would), George plates a plaki of chickpeas, tomato, cumin, paprika, leeks, and pork tenderloin that earns positive comments on its texture from Padma and its spice from Wylie, but isn’t really all that exciting.

The only chef who really seems to take an interest in winning this thing is Mei, who takes a risk by going gastronomy with a pinto bean “foam” (it looks more like a cream to me) covering black beans and corn with chipotle peppers, bacon, and a Wylie favorite, a poached egg. Despite its very-brown appearance, it’s the only dish that seems like it’s trying to win, and Mei finally takes a quickfire.

NEXT: Boston’s last battle

When Wylie appeared in the kitchen, it was obvious he wasn’t just going to be there for the beans, and the final challenge hinges on a concept he has embodied throughout his career: innovation. Forcing the chefs to push culinary boundaries this late in the competition is a tall order; they’re far too focused on the present to think about the future of their food. This sets the chefs in a real culinary bind—do they take a risk and hope to stick the landing to win passage to the finale? Or should they play it safe and hope someone else’s error books their ticket?

It’s hard to blame the chefs for being exhausted after 11 elimination challenges, but the risks they take wind up being mostly about reworking flavor combinations and making more subtle changes than reinventing the plate. Unsurprisingly, George and Gregory wind up on opposite sides of the spectrum here, but the roles are reversed in a pretty unexpected way. Of all people, traditionalist George would be expected to struggle the most with this challenge—his food isn’t really innovative or boundary-pushing. He’s gotten this far with consistently “good” (if unspectacular) food, but this week he’s the one taking the biggest risk. That’s admirable.

On the other hand, Gregory stood out at the beginning for choices that seemed unique then, but as the competition has ratcheted up, he’s struggled to find another gear. Instead, he’s gone back to his wheelhouse and is playing it safe with the flavors that got him this far. George isn’t pleased, and while I’m typically unsympathetic when chefs complain about others’ choices, I have to admit that another curry-based dish from Gregory is a bit of a disappointment.

Tom, Gail, Padma, Richard, Wylie, and Harvard professor Michael Brenner are disappointed too, despite the fact that his wild salmon in tom kha broth with roasted tomatoes is, in Wylie’s words, “restaurant-worthy,” its only innovation seems to be the addition of crispy chicken and salmon skins. Despite his culinary adventures outside of the show, Wylie’s always been a rules stickler—upon grilling Gregory about how he’s followed the challenge’s charge, the young chef lacks a satisfactory answer. I really don’t understand what happened to the chef we met a few months ago.

Meanwhile, George’s culinary high-wire act—charred octopus, yellow split pea puree, green apple-and-yuzu harissa, pickled mustard seeds, bacon chips, and octopus fritters—is the most outside-the-box offering we’ve seen from a chef who has been comfortable inside it up to this point. Everyone applauds George for some of his innovations despite the general noisiness of the plate, but, surprisingly, the thing that turns out to be his ultimate downfall is the thing he should know the best—his octopus. As Tom says, the Greek in George has probably charred octopus hundreds of times, but in this case overcooking leads to bitterness. It’s like he’s walked a tightrope and tumbled off the concluding platform after safely traversing the crevasse.

On the other side of the kitchen, Melissa and Mei are collaborating a little more than they probably should be, but their pseudo-team-effort lands them both at the top. At this point, I think I might be rooting for them to face off in the finals. For me, Mei’s duck curry with vadouvan and aerated yuzu yogurt with lemongrass, ginger, and fish sauce caramel sounds the most innovative (and delicious), but it confuses the judges (especially Tom). They still enjoy it despite how hard it is to categorize. If that’s not innovation, I don’t know what is.

The win, though, goes to Melissa, who is now so full of confidence that she almost seems like a different chef. Her seared duck breast with faro, walnut miso (mmm), and pickled cherries has something for everyone at the table, but it wins for the same reason she won last week—it’s the best cooking. Again. Maybe we should be rooting for her.

Top Chef loves a good juxtaposition, and a second head-to-head battle between George and Gregory shows just how far we’ve come since the season’s beginning. Eleven long weeks ago, George lacked heat while Gregory made Richard Blaise tingle. Now, Gregory’s the one who looks conservative, whereas George’s daring makes him a sympathetic figure.

As a rule, I dislike conspiracy theories or any suggestions of unfairness, favoritism, or impropriety. I give the judges far more credit than that. But for better or worse, part of me believes that the judges want the same thing I do—the most-skilled winner at the end of the day. Despite ignoring the challenge’s directive, Gregory’s food was better, and the judges make the choice to send George home because they believe Gregory can do better than George in Mexico. Whether he’ll prove them right remains to be seen.

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