Top Chef recap: And Then There Were Two
The chefs cooked "last meals" for culinary icons, but for one of the contestants, it really was the end of the road.
Last night’s intro was all about working us into a state over Mike Isabella’s chances. Will he or won’t he? The odds say yes, but his opponents tried to persuade us otherwise. Antonia pooh-poohed the “boys’ club.” “They’re just expecting to dominate, but that’s not gonna happen.” Blais, a notorious worrywart (/worryglasswort), claimed he wasn’t worried at all about Mike’s winning streak. “Good for him!” he said, in the tone of voice that means exactly the opposite.
The Quickfire Challenge seemed like a chance to even the playing field. The chefs had to assign each other a “classic” Top Chef challenge. Translation: capitalize on each other’s weaknesses. Mike got first pick. His dream was to win the final against Blais, which meant he needed to psych Antonia out enough to send her home. Boom! Canned foods and dry goods. Anyone who’s lived in a dorm knows turning canned foods into a delicious meal is the Gordian Knot of cheap eating. Adequately screwed, Antonia chose Blais as her victim. She threw him a softball. Hot dogs? Pssh. Hot dogs are amazing even when they’re terrible!
But Blais did the worst job of the bunch, handing Mike a “one pot” challenge that allowed him to cook anything so long as it was prepared in a single pot. According to Blais’ reasoning, because Mike once used “six or seven” pans for a fried-fish challenge, he’d by stymied by one. This was a classic example of the unlimited pans/limited pot fallacy. In actuality, even the most extravagant pan users can limit themselves if the challenge demands it. Look it up! If you find this page, that means it’s a very real counter-fallacy.
In the middle of the cooking, Padma strolled in, grinning from ear to ear, insisting on interrupting everyone. It all screamed “Twist!” in the most obvious, untwist-like manner possible. This time, the chefs had to dole out another round of “classic” maneuvers, some worse than others. Here they are in numbered form!: 1) cook with one hand, 2) cook without knives and hand tools, or 3) cook while attached to another chef by the apron. (That last one seems almost helpful, as far as twists go, since another set of hands, eyes, and taste buds are always with you.) Blais got to go first since he’d gone last previously. This was his chance to sabotage!
But he didn’t! He took away Mike’s hand tools instead. Mike spent the rest of his cooking time congratulating himself for not really needing tools anyway, and laughing. It was frustrating to witness, because Mike laughs like this: “Aheeheeheeheeheeheehee.” The only thing he seemed to have to recalibrate was how to break and squeeze a lime, which he dealt with pretty painlessly on the end of a metal rod. He used two, count ’em, two hands. In stark contrast, Blais tried desperately to cut a lime with one hand. Two > one. The lime wobbled in defiance.
NEXT: When is a currywurst not a currywurst?Meanwhile, Carla surfaced as Antonia’s helper chef. She was cheery, helpful, and more or less unobtrusive, but there was something inexplicably sad about her guest stint. It seemed like only yesterday she was one of the elite chefs who might have had to cook with a random person tied to her apron like a parasite. Why? Why do they have to cut people from this reality competition show?!
Eventually, guest judge Wolfgang Puck did his rounds. He thought Antonia’s curry coconut soup with canned shrimp, andouille sausage, peanuts, and fish sauce had “very strong flavor!” “Very strong,” Padma managed to choke out. Maybe what Wolfgang and Padma wanted to say was “too” strong, but they were “very” nice to do it, if you know what I mean. At the next station, Wolfgang tried Blais’ hot dogs on handmade roti bread with curry ketchup, mayonnaise, and mint leaves. Blais mangled (tried to Europeanize?) the pronunciation of his condiments: “A little kay-chap man-is.” Wolfgang was not sold on any of it. He insisted on framing Blais’ currywurst as nothing more than sausage and ketchup. A two-part game ensued, called 1) Getting Inside Blais’ Head and 2) Screaming the Phrase “You’re Worthless” Once Inside. Wolfgang was the only player.
Wolfgang: “I think I could feed that to my kids at home, huh?”
Wolfgang: “They would love that.”
Blais: “That’s good…I hope…?”
Wolfgang: “They love sausage and ketchup.”
Later Wolfgang said, “It was a very nice…sandwich, if you wanna call it that way.” Ten to one, Blais did not want to call his hot dog that way. As for Antonia’s soup, good but “too concentrated.” Conclusion: Mike’s undercooked pork shoulder with black beans and chili paste was balanced enough by the ginger and cabbage salad to take the win.
Elimination Challenge: The chefs went to a fantastical place called the Cloisters. A trio of chefs stood to greet them: Michelle Bernstein, Morimoto, and Wolfgang Puck, all of whom wanted someone, anyone, to cook a last meal for them. They picked the All-Stars. Since Mike was still leading, he got to assign pairs. He nabbed Michelle Bernstein, saying he wanted to right the wrong he made serving her an overseasoned dish during his original season. Never mind that Morimoto and Wolfgang look like action figures of themselves. Mike picked Michelle for redemption, not out of fear of the alternatives! He is very noble that way. Still campaigning to off Antonia, he paired her with Morimoto, a man she found “really freaking scary.” This left Richard with his old friend Wolfgang.
NEXT: Therapy with WolfgangMorimoto wanted Antonia to do sashimi and rice the way his mother prepared it for him when he’d come home hungry from baseball practice, which meant inspecting every grain of rice. Antonia was intimidated, but also heartened by the fact that Morimoto played baseball, and was a boy once! In the Cloisters’ towheaded corner, Wolfgang instructed Richard to make goulash, spaetzle, and strudel, also in his mother’s style. It was like a reverse therapy session, with everyone in danger of getting blamed for mistakes except the mothers.
The diners gathered to jointly imagine that three of them would die later on. Last Meal No. 1 came out for Chef Morimoto. It featured tuna instead of hamachi, since the hamachi Antonia magically owned had gone rancid. It wasn’t clear if Morimoto loved the whole thing or hated it intensely. All he said was that the miso soup was salty. Gail did not lose a chance to cough-express herself, showing everyone just how spicy the Scotch Bonnet pepper on the tuna was by hacking it up. Then there was the random lady at the table (there’s always one). She’d written a book on pretend last meals and said things like, “I’m visual. You guys know that about me.” She loved Antonia’s rice. “She actually did the really difficult part rather well,” agreed Michelle Bernstein. As for Morimoto, he’d said his piece on the salty miso. Morimoto out.
Next up: Mikey. Instead of delivering the fried chicken and biscuits Michelle had asked for, Mike paired fried chicken with an egg-yolk empanada and mustard gravy. The empanada was a bold riff, since the original dish had attracted Michelle precisely because it wouldn’t have made sense in her Latin household. It also suited Mike’s purposes of not taxing himself too much by figuring out how to make a biscuit. The only issue was that the fry batter kept sliding off the chicken. Gail blamed this on Mike’s “flabby white meat,” even though there was no need to get personal!
Blais took the last but not least spot. Except for some niggling comments from Tom that the spaetzle was too cold, everyone was all “Blais! Blais! Blais!” He used tarragon cream on the strudel, which Gail did not cough at. She loved it! Wolfgang even said his mother would have approved, which has to mean something. You don’t get to be as successful as Wolfgang Puck with a mother who approves of things liberally. They called the three in. After running through Antonia’s salty miso and the flabby-meat problems in Mike’s dish, the table made the pronouncement we’d all been waiting for. Blais was a chosen one! Woop! Liquid-nitrogen cigars for all!
NEXT: There can be only oneBut there was still the matter of the unchosen. Padma gave them a sympathetic look, asked “Remember this?” and held up an envelope printed with the words Top Chef. This happened about three times. It wasn’t clear what she was asking them to remember. That they were on Top Chef? That there are occasionally envelopes? Probably it had something to do with twists. “I honestly have no idea what is in the envelope,” Antonia told us. Finally Padma revealed the dark truth: Antonia and Mike would have to duke it out by cooking “bites” for each diner, right then. This definitely seemed like it was going to suck for them.
As the chefs cooked, Wolfgang made a joke about wanting to get in the kitchen himself to compete for the $200,000. It was a weird joke to make, since he’s a multimillionaire chef, but what are you going to do? Multimillionaire chefs are probably deeply competitive. At last the bites arrived. Antonia’s seared grouper in coconut lobster broth with yam, apple, and dill pollen relish was “bright” but perhaps too “powerful.” Call it the Dick Cheney of bites. Mike’s tempura lobster over beef tartare with caramelized olives and chimichurri sauce got even mixed-er reviews. Padma counted off the votes. It was a very deliberate three to three, almost like it had been planned that way! “So it looks like we have a tie,” Padma said, knitting her forehead the way you’re supposed to when you’re concerned. “Wolfgang, what do you think?”
Wolfgang took his time responding. “If tomorrow I will wake up, which flavor will I remember? It will be Antonia’s flavor.” First of all, if tomorrow I will wake up? It’s not really your last meal, Wolfgang! Second, that sounded like a win for Antonia. It did, right? WRONG, SUCKERS. Never forget twists! Despite Wolfgang’s poetry, Mike made it, not Antonia. We were meant to expect one thing and accept another. Such is the thrill of a Bravo season.
So what now, Top Chef fans? It’s down to two chefs, and whatever you might say about their personal quirks, they’re both überskilled. Can either be discounted? Blais is arguably more talented, but will he exit his own head long enough to score a win, or is Mike too strategic to beat?