Part one of the Top Chef finale asks chefs to draw direct inspiration from Mexican art.

By John Vilanova
January 29, 2015 at 06:20 AM EST
David Moir/Bravo
S12 E13
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If there’s one thing that might be harder to describe in written words than food, it’s art. Asking an artist what their work is “about” is like asking your dad what goes into his secret family meatball recipe or querying a barbecue restaurant on what spices go into their rub. You might be able to glean a thing or two from the placard (or menu) that accompanies the piece, but cooking and eating are both personal mediums. They have the potential to touch you deeply, but you have to experience them for yourself to know.

Before we put the finishing touches on the first piece the Top Chef finale triptych (that’s “trio” for the less artsy fartsy folks), there’s some serious sketching to do. The remaining cheftestants have literally covered a lot of ground since we last saw them sweating out the final elimination in Beantown, decamping for a few weeks of R&R in their hometowns before meeting in Mexico to crown a champion. The break is always an interesting time—chefs study up on the flavors they’ll be expected to work with during the finale, spend time with family, and get gussied up for the cameras again. While no one’s “finale makeover” quite compares to Kevin Gillespie’s hairdo in Vegas, Gregory’s looking fresh with a new cut, and Mei’s rocking some new lipstick. How about that?

In between scrutinizing shades, Mei spent the break interning with Brian Voltaggio and studying up on Mexican flavor profiles (Sidenote: Is there a more intimidating boss than Michael Voltaggio?). If such a thing is possible, Melissa might have been hurt by the break—her hot streak over the final Boston weeks had reached supernova status. Will she be able to regain her momentum? Besides the aforementioned haircut, Gregory needed the break the most—hopefully he used the time off to right the ship and figure out what brought on his crumbling second half in Boston. He’s not unique here—Jen Carroll had a similar slow burn in Vegas in the run-up to the finale—but confidence in your cookery seems like the hardest thing to regain in this competition. To wit, Jen only lasted the one week before elimination.

People generally seem to be split on Last Chance Kitchen, but for me, in its short run, it has served an important purpose—allowing chefs who probably “belong” in the final to redeem themselves after a slip-up. The most obvious example, of course, is Kristen, who was undone by the “Chef-and-Josie Show” in Seattle. Kristen was clearly the “best” chef that year, and LCK allowed the producers the ability to rectify a culinary wrong. It still wasn’t a cakewalk—she had to win five weeks in a row to earn her slot in the finale, but the final result would’ve been tainted if she hadn’t factored into it.

Unsurprisingly, Doug(ie) has dispatched with a few of his lesser competitors to meet George the Greek, who’s working on life three of nine for those of you keeping track at home. While not as obviously deserving as Kristen, Doug dealt himself a raw deal with his inedibly undercooked foie gras lobes, a dish that even a true master of French cooking wouldn’t have been able to pull off. He’d won three of the previous five weeks, though, and I can’t really buy any other eliminated chef’s case for reconsideration.

In his previous “lives,” George was undone by clams and octopus, so, as it often is on LCK, the eliminated chef is forced to confront his demons in dish form. Doug gets the final say between the two, chooses clams, and the last Last Chance Kitchen cook-off begins. Given the setting, requiring the dish to have a Mexican style is fitting, so, in what will probably a recurring theme over the final three weeks, the chefs break out the veggies, peppers, and cilantro immediately. Doug’s Mexican steamers with grilled pineapple butter, lime juice, tomatillos, roasted onions have the sweet-and-sour thing working for them; George goes smoky with a salsa verde-style soup with epazote-influenced tomatillos, Serrano chilis, garlic, beets, zucchini, and apple accompanying his clams.

The remaining competitors return just in time to say, “Hola” to the last-chancers—there’s some funny banter in the online version for those of you who don’t typically watch—and, as has often been the case this season, it comes down to which dish is “most good.” George’s looks a bit more appetizing, but ultimately it’s Dougie’s day, and he returns to complete the final final four.

NEXT: Prickly pears and painter pairings

San Miguel de Allende is a pretty interesting choice for the finale—Mexico has a rich and unique culinary history that I’m excited to see how the producers will tease out over the next few episodes. So with Enrique Olvera, of acclaimed Pujol, looking on, Padma assigns the chefs their first Mexican quickfire—highlight the xoconostle, a highly sought-after prickly pear varietal that has the chefs pursing their lips as they taste it, recoiling from the tart sourness. Yum!

All four of the finalists have familiarized themselves with prickly pears, though some seem to lose sight of the best way to pair their… um… pears. Enrique ranks the chefs in reverse order, with Gregory’s garlic prawns with olive oil, prickly pear sauce, and xoconostle relish taking last spot for oiliness that overpowers the vegetable. So much for a confidence restoration. Mei audibles a beef tataki after struggling to cook the slabs of beef she’s selected, but even with a well-done, acidic nopales salsa verde and prickly pear relish, the uneven cooking on her meat earns her third place.

So it comes down to Melissa and Doug, two chefs who sit at opposite sides of the culinary spectrum. Melissa, the only chef who’s worked with xoconostle before, has gone hyper regional, prepping a salmon ceviche with xoconostle, leche de tigre, prickly pear salad, and guava. While that definitely sounds like the winner on the surface, Enrique is even more impressed with Doug’s vegetable-driven xoconostle and tomatillo stew with roasted peppers, pepitas, and toasted pumpkin seeds. Each chef embraced the region’s flavors well, but Doug’s Tejano roots suggest that he “gets” Mexico in a way the other chefs might not. That definitely counts for something.

I’m no art historian, but even I know that Mexico has as rich an artistic history as it does a culinary one, so pairing each chef with an artist is a really solid way to integrate national culture into the kitchen in different ways. Inviting 150 guests—which has to be the largest number of plates to prepare during a finale round—also deserves recognition; allowing this many people to try the food rather than a table of 10 or so feels culturally sensitive.

That many guests will require help, though, and in another finale tradition, the eliminated chefs return to assist their conquerors. In the past, this has sometimes been assigned randomly, but, thankfully, the chefs will be able to draft their teams and prevent any unnecessary drama. Dougie’s win earns him first (and second) pick, and he gets his boys’ club back together by choosing Adam and Katsuji. Katsuji seems like the obvious choice due to his roots, but he’s always unpredictable and totally capable of sneaking 10 extra ingredients onto his plates when Doug’s not looking.

Melissa’s up next and chooses George, who despite his disappointment at another loss, is probably the best of what’s left. Mei’s choice of Rebecca is a bit surprising, since we don’t know that much about her, but she seems low-maintenance. Gregory takes Katie, who’s even lower maintenance—judging by how long she lasted, she probably should’ve gone sooner. James to Melissa, Keriann to Mei, and Stacy to Gregory round things out, with poor Ron and Joy joining Aaron on the sidelines. I feel bad for two of them. (Michael, who was eliminated week one, seems to have lost his plane ticket. Maybe that’s Tom’s old palate’s fault, too.)

NEXT: And then there were three…

While Padma paired the chefs with their artists at random, in some cases (particularly Gregory and Doug), the groupings are surprisingly simpatico. Gregory is working with Artemio Sepulveda, an expressionist who’s unwilling to get a little dark. Gregory has seen darkness, and he’s excited to represent Artemio’s peasant painting. Meanwhile, Doug has drawn Merry Calderoni, a fellow Texan whose rustic colors pair immediately with his humble culinary sensibilities.

Mei and Melissa might both benefit from a switch, but neither seems unfairly disadvantaged by her pairing. Béa Aaronson’s loud colors and bubbly personality run contra to Mei’s entire worldview, but if anyone could get Mei to loosen up, it’d be her. Melissa, on the other hand, draws Leonardo Diaz, a street artist whose ironic imagery is definitely the toughest to translate to the plate. He doesn’t help things by giving her little go on, but her willingness to improvise speaks to the kind of person she’s shown herself to be all season.

Despite the lack of Whole Foods, the chefs all appear to be hitting the flavors and textures they want as the guests begin to stream in. As Tom, Gail, Padma, and Enrique make the rounds, their feedback appears almost universally positive, and all of a sudden, we’re looking at the exact scenario I outlined last week—four chefs who’ve cooked exceptionally strong dishes. I, for one, am sick of seeing challenges decided by cooking errors—give me three more weeks of this.

Despite his slip-ups, Gregory might still have the top potential of this foursome. In the literary inspiration challenge, Gregory struggled in part because he tried (and failed) to explain how beef stood in for a house; this time, apparently strip loin is a man. It’s clear how much his confidence has been shaken after the quickfire—he’s unsure, even, about the doneness of his “man.” Regardless, though, that man-loin paired with ancho chilis, beets, cilantro puree, and earthy a tamarind sauce, like Artemio’s piece, is brightened by a bit of sunshine—a Valencia orange sauce that Tom and Gail call “wonderful.” Despite his uncertainties, he’s through to the next round.

Mei’s crudo of snapper and bass with a chicken skin crumble, radish pickles, and soy gastrique is the least-similar to her inspiration painting, and Padma’s probably justified in wanting something more wild from the composed young chef. While the visual inspiration is definitely lacking, and Padma might be right to suggest Mei’s skilled enough to present something even better, Tom seems to be on Team Mei, saying that the flavors were her way of being as bold as Béa. She’s through, too, but barely.

It’s hard to decide which is the more significant development—Doug’s surprising victory or Melissa’s disappointing departure. Despite the challenge, Melissa somehow manages to deliver a dish that gets at Leonardo’s style, a “beautiful” smoked eggplant ravioli with chorizo, shrimp, and cotija that looks abstract and feels inspired by the fearless, improvisational nature of what she was tasked with doing. With four strong dishes, the judges are splitting hairs, but they hone in on the fact that some of the elements were there for shock and color, not flavor. (Clearly they know nothing about street art.) She was challenged the most this week, and rose as best as she could, but delivered the fourth-least-best dish. It’s a shame.

But as much as I want to make this result about Melissa, who seems like one of the best people I can ever remember buttoning a Top Chef jacket, this week is really about Doug, who served an inspired one-pot brisket Texas red chili with tomatillos and a masa cake on the Top Chef finale. It’s earthy, acidic, and humble, pairing perfectly with Merry’s painting and epitomizing what the challenge asked. Tom somehow makes calling it “authentic” feel like the highest praise possible, and Doug seems to be cooking from his very core at just the right time. In some ways, gentle and refined Melissa was the season’s heart. But diminutive Doug, it seems, might be its soul.

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