Top Chef recap: Magic Hour
How do you accurately choose which two chefs should advance to the finale of Top Chef when the choices are just so damn good? Apparently with a little dose of luck and magic.
Thursday night’s penultimate episode featured the chefs receiving a crash course in infusing magic into their cooking, courtesy of David Copperfield (and featuring some incredible product placement for his Las Vegas magic show), and an elimination round which put those teachings to the test in order to secure a spot in next week’s finale.
But before we get to the main illusions and sleights of hand, the episode began with a quick reminder of our three finalists: Jeremy the all-star, Marjorie the chef with all the famous training, and Isaac the chef hoping to break out of his trainer’s shadow. We all know these three in many ways as the season has progressed, but for first-time viewers, the rundown was accurate enough.
Our top three chefs arrive at their swanky Las Vegas suite, where each one of them has a big, comfy bed, along with one little cot for the Last Chance Kitchen winner, who turned out to be the one and only Amar. (Did anyone not see that coming, especially after Kwame’s elimination on Last Chance Kitchen?) Even our top three were worried when they saw Amar’s silhouette coming out of the shadows; he’s definitely a threat, and he proved it again tonight.
Luck began as the theme for this week’s Quickfire Challenge, though considering the results, obviously luck was not nearly as important as creativity. This week, the reward was kicked up a giant notch: Not only would the winning chef move on to next week’s finale, but they would also receive $25,000, and not as a charitable donation in their name. Pressure, thy name is Quickfire. Padma showed the chefs Aces of every suit and explained that the suits themselves had special meaning in the olden days: Spades were for royalty, hearts for clergy, diamonds for merchants, and clubs for peasants. The chefs would be receiving one suit at random and would have to use materials from corresponding pantries for their dish. However, whoever pulled royalty could use ingredients from their lower-suited friends; clergy could do the same but could not take anything from royalty; and all the way down the line. Basically, whoever pulled the “peasant” card would be restricted to only using their pantry products.
The card reveals went as followed: Marjorie was royalty; Isaac (a self-proclaimed atheist) deemed clergy; Jeremy a merchant; and Amar, who had already clawed his way back into the competition, was shafted once more with the peasant card. Each chef also received a helping hand from the most-recently eliminated contestants as they had to serve 150 people for this challenge. Marjorie chose Karen, Jeremy picked Kwame (dream team?), Isaac picked his “good luck charm” Carl, and Amar was left with his old roommate Phillip.
Marjorie began her process by trying to pull too many ingredients but quickly realized (unlike so many before her) that she needed to keep things a little more simple with a seared salmon and a salad of shaved vegetables, with a Meyer lemon purée. Amar, on the other side of the suit life, decided to use his meager ingredients to elevate chicken livers and onions, a dish he loved to eat and make from childhood. Jeremy went outside the box by incorporating a strange new spin on poached chicken by slow poaching the meat in butter and adding a zucchini purée and pickled and hot grapes. Isaac decided to step away from Cajun cooking to show the judges he could do something different with a seared black cod served with caramelized fennel, eggplant, and red wine vinegar.
Once again, unsurprisingly, Jeremy was the big winner and first chef to secure a spot in the finale, leaving one hell of an Elimination Challenge. Despite being a stressful challenge as is, the chefs had an added element they needed to include in their meals for the judges: Magic. All four chefs attended a David Copperfield magic show, where Marjorie realized the importance of presentation, Amar took notes on illusions and the element of surprise, and Isaac realized now was the time to dust off some old tricks up.
Jeremy’s plans for the day apparently included a soak in the hot tub and not much else, but really what would anyone do in his scenario? As a frequent watcher of Top Chef who could never in a million years actually make it on to any cooking show, I would rest for hours and stuff my face silly in Jeremy’s position. He is experiencing the height of luxury.
NEXT: Illusions of victory
The rest of the chefs head to the kitchen to tackle their magical dishes that must feature “an element of surprise.” Marjorie used Copperfield’s ability to tell a story with his performance by sharing with the judges a personal story (and dish) of her own. Her dish would show where she started as a cook and where she is today: duck à l’orange. Marjorie shared that, while in culinary school, she took a trip to France and had this dish for the first time, though her idea would be to elevate that “ordinary plate of food” into something extraordinary. Concept? Check. Execution? A little off. Marjorie’s plan was to use liquid nitrogen to freeze-dry the oranges. Unfortunately, she burns her tongue because of the liquid nitrogen and is unable to properly taste her food while prepping it for the judges.
Isaac was clearly all about going big or going home. His magical dish consisted of adhering the crispy skins of Cornish game hens to seared pieces of steak as a play on the typical “chicken fried steak.” As an added trick, he also used sleight of hand to pull a little magic trick with an egg on the judges, all to feature his yuzu hollandaise that he had “suspended” upside down with the use of a shot glass on his entree plate.
“Element of surprise” was certainly the term of the hour for Amar, who decided to take his roasted squab and elevate the crap out of it with a whipped savory meringue, a cauliflower white chocolate ganache, and a mole sauce dropped in liquid nitrogen for the illusion of pebbles. And bonus: Amar also chose to make onion rings actually made out of potatoes with onion seasoning in the batter. If those aren’t major surprises, nothing will ever be.
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The judges commended Marjorie for being able to keep the judges entertained and engaged enough during her prep of the dish itself; however Tom cited a lack of orange as the biggest problem with the dish. For Isaac, the issue was more about his fennel purée being too grainy, but the judges loved the idea of his chicken skin/steak combo, and more than anything else, they applauded his flavor profile. Amar was unable to sell the performance aspect of his prep and dish execution, but the judges were unanimous that the presentation of the dish and all of its contents were extraordinary.
By elimination time, it was obvious that Amar was the runaway winner. And his win was extra special as it came on the heels of the passing of one of his mentors who had ALS. Isaac’s magic trick wasn’t enough to push him into the finale, but his determination and desire to rise above his “signature” cooking style was more than admirable; it was just as Top Chef-worthy. But the most uplifting moment of the episode came as Marjorie packed her knives to leave. She thanked the show for giving her the confidence in her talent.
“I do have a hard time having that confidence, but I feel much stronger now. And I do still feel successful today. A couple months ago I probably would have had a much harder time saying that.”
You can be the most successful person in your field and still feel rejection, insecurity, failure, and self-consciousness at any given moment. It’s nice to see a show like Top Chef build confidence, character and inner strength, even in the midst of insane pressure of elimination. And let’s be honest, it’s fun seeing people cook a bunch of really badass looking food. Next week’s finale will certainly feature a hell of a lot of that.