Normally I watch all repeats of any given Top Chef episode – if they run it twice, I watch it twice. They’ve been running them three times lately, and tonight they’re running it four times (it’s still going over my shoulder as I’m typing). But tonight I turned on an old Star Trek: The Next Generation episode after the first run (the Data-is-a-toaster/slavery episode, one of my favorites) because, well, I was just depressed after the results were announced.
So, here’s what happened:
Pre-credits, Antonia notes that being with Blais and Isabella is like the Boys Club, they’re just expecting to dominate (that’s what men do, especially these men) but that’s not gonna happen. Pronouncements like that make me nervous.
Wolfgang Puck is waiting for them in the kitchen, along with Padma. Isabella interviews that Puck is the only chef he knew when he was a kid. How many kids know chefs, beyond Chef Boyardee?
Padma promises today will be different from anything they’ve had before. She reminds them of seven classic Quickfires from past seasons: we see “potatoes” and “tacos” and “one pot”. They will assign each other from these classic Quickfires. Blais wants tacos because he won that one. Isabella, as winner of the last elimination challenge, assigns first. He gives Antonia canned goods, which she whines is the hardest thing. She’s probably right. Though blue-box mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food. Antonia assigns hot dogs to Blais, who says Wolfgang must feel positively towards hot dogs since he’s Austrian. I think he’s making a joke. I hope he’s making a joke. Blais assigns one-pot to Isabella, because he remembers his wanting a lot of sauté pans at one point. Antonia interviews this wasn’t really a great idea, since it gives Isabella access to everything in the kitchen, and they cut to a shot of Blais looking like he’s having big doubts. But of course they could’ve filmed that any time. It was cute editing, though. They have 45 minutes. Go!
Antonia grabs anything that will incorporate into coconut curry soup. Isabella decides to do a spin on pork and beans using a pressure cooker as his one pot, figuring it will cook in 45 minutes instead of 3 hours. Blais would love to make fresh hot dog but has to use store bought. At this point I flash back to Top Chef Just Desserts and the guy – oh, what was his name – who wanted to make his own ice cream for a sundae Quickfire and became so disturbed when he was told he couldn’t he started muttering, “Weak sauce, weak sauce” and scared people, then ended up having a screaming meemie fit, stomping off camera, having a panic attack, being carted away by EMTs, and getting himself kicked out of the competition. But Blais, he’s high-strung but he isn’t crazy. So he can’t make hot dogs, he makes bread instead, which is pretty cool. And he makes a ketchup sauce by sautéing chopped up hot dogs in ketchup, fennel, and peppers.
Padma comes back before the 45 minutes are up. Uh oh. Everyone knows what that means. It’s Twist time! She has three prior “twists” with her – using one hand, not using any utensils or tools, and cooking with a partner in a double apron – at which point Carla appears as part of the twist! Now that’s a twist I can get behind! It seems to me that twist is kind of a bonus rather than an obstacle. Antonia slumps over a little and interviews that she CAN NOT get stuck with the no-utensils twist, since she has cans to open. She’s got a point there. But they go in reverse order, so Blais assigns first. He remembers doing the one-handed challenge and hopes he won’t have to do that, but he gives Isabella the no-utensils twist. Isabella doesn’t really care, he’s already cut up his cabbage and he can pierce his limes on shelving and squeeze the juice out. Yeah, I’m thinking Blais is giving Isabella breaks here. Antonia chooses next and she assigns the one-hand thing to Blais so she can have Carla. Ooops, Blais.
Isabella seems to have nothing to do while his pressure cooker is cooking, so he hangs around cousin Antonia and Carla and giggles at them like the ass he is. Blais interviews that he make a mistake giving Isabella the no utensils since he has little to do. Blais chases a lime around the cutting board but eventually gets it sliced. Carla thinks Antonia’s curry tastes raw (I’m not sure how curry can taste raw), and suggests lime zest and acid, but Antonia points out her limitations. Isabella is nervous because his meat isn’t quite cooked. Blais thinks his flavors are molded together. I can’t tell if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, he doesn’t sound happy about it. It’s the last Quickfire of his Top Chef career (oh, come on, Richard, they’ll do All Stars II or Rematch or something some day) so he wants to win.
Antonia presents her curry coconut soup with shrimp and sausage (canned versions). Wolfgang Puck says it’s strong, and has good balance, a little too concentrated.
Richard serves his hot dogs on handmade roti with ketchup sauce. He calls it curry wurst. Wolfgang says he would feed to his kids, they love sausage and ketchup. “All in all a very nice sandwich if you want to call it that.” Uh oh, that doesn’t sound good.
Mike puts up his pork shoulder with black beans. Wolfgang likes the balance, the pork could’ve been cooked a little more but all in all nice job. He is declared the winner as the dish was eye appealing and had great flavor. He gets $5000. Blais acknowledges in interview that Isabella, “the kid” is on fire.
I may start drinking soon.
Padma tells them to go to The Cloisters Ocean Club and see what’s waiting for them there. Looks like flowers and statues. Blais thinks it could be aliens or rock stars.
And it’s rock stars. Culinary rock stars. Morimoto, Wolfgang Puck, and Michelle Bernstein. Isabella graciously says she’s one of the top women chefs in the country. I love how he qualifies that. Antonia says Morimoto’s and Iron Chef, he’s scary, a Japanese Warrior. Yeah, he’s a little scary I think. But most chefs are. Especially if they’re Japanese and you don’t make Japanese food regularly.
The challenge is to make the last supper these three icons dream of.
Isabella, as winner of the Quickfire, picks Michelle Bernstein. He says it’s because she was a Vegas judge, and told him he overseasoned something, so wants a second shot. I call bullshit. I’m not sure if he’s reassured by her American-ness or if he figures a woman chef, even one of the top women chefs in the country, won’t come up with anything too difficult. He assigns other chefs to his fellow competitors: Antonia gets Morimoto, and Blais gets Wolfgang Puck. Wow, Isabella is really sticking it to cousin Antonia. He interviews he wants to compete against Blais in finals because Blais is the best. Again, I call bullshit. I think he’s not willing to risk losing to a girl. Padma waves an envelope and assures them there’s a final surprise in there, but they’ll get it later.
Wolfgang Puck asks Blais for goulash, spaetzle, and Apple Strudel, which reminds him of his childhood. He talks about his mom, how she put a lot of butter on strudel, she made pastries a lot. Blais doesn’t have a recipe for strudel. Now wait a minute – they assigned a team on Top Chef Just Desserts an apple strudel, and they had to stretch the dough, it was really complicated – and Blais is supposed to make this? Without a recipe?
Michelle wants fried chicken, biscuits and gravy – the antithesis of her Latin-Jewish background, it seemed exotic to her as a kid. Isabella isn’t worried about fried chicken, but is worried about his take on fried chicken, it won’t be what she is used to seeing. I wonder if Isabella knows how to make fried chicken. Because he had trouble with eggs Florentine, another simple dish most people know. I think Isabella has a lot of holes in his culinary experience. Hell, I could make fried chicken with biscuits and gravy. But he frets that he’s never made biscuits. He does cook, doesn’t he?
Morimoto tells Antonia he wants miso soup, sashimi, and pickles. He tells a story of his mother sorting each grain of rice individually to match them, and she’d feed him when he came in from playing baseball. Antonia thinks of Morimoto as superhuman. I think of his mother as superhuman, pawing through that rice. There was a guy who engraved poetry, Koran verses, and praises to education on grains of rice. That’s pretty superhuman, too. I hang out with a lot of flash writers who have stories and prose poems on coffee mugs, post cards, t-shirts and things, but no rice. But enough about rice.
They go back to the apartment and demonstrate how crazy they are. Isabella clams he never made a biscuit in his life, he’s going to do an empanada. Blais says he isn’t going traditional either, if he blows it he blows it. Blais tells Isabella he’s got a good gig with fried chicken and biscuits. Isabella is really trying to push that he has the hardest assignment. Antonia calls bullshit. At least that’s what I assume she calls, since Bravo bleeped it. Good for her. Isabella is feeling stressed, doesn’t think he’s ever been this stressed. Antonia has jags of nervous laughter. Isabella tells Blais, Wolfgang called, he asked how the goulash is coming. Blais says, if I tried I definitely could throw up. I believe you – but why would you try? Are you becoming bulimic now? Isabella bitches that Michelle serves fired chicken every Wednesday. Antonia has to worry about the fish being sliced properly, is the miso soup spiced right, is the rice correct. Blais whines “for some reason I’ve been dealt difficult cards” and he’s never done strudel before. I kind of agree, I would’ve though Morimoto would have the hardest thing, but strudel, that’s tough.
They get to work. Isabella makes an empanada with an egg in it, an egg yolk. Tom comes by to check on them and sees he’s sous vide-ing the chicken, Tom questions that. Michelle said to have fun with it is Isabella’s excuse. Tom comments later that Isabella’s won two challenges in a row, and he has the easiest dish.
Blais admits Mike’s on a roll, has momentum, so though he is the one who got to the finale last time he doesn’t have an advantage. Tom looks at what he’s doing, and later interviews that he understands the challenge and breaks it down, so he’ll have an easier time.
Antonia tells Tom about Morimoto’s meal, how stressed she is about the rice, repeats the mother story. Tom nods and interviews it’s her chance for redemption.
Antonia gets hamachi from the cooler, which is always nice for raw preparation. She tastes it and it tastes awful, it’s about to go rancid. She uses tuna instead, though she knows it’s less flavorful. Good move, Antonia, because rancid hamachi is the flavorful you don’t want. Blais is struggling to unlock pressure cooker. He feels the pressure of people telling him, “hey, remember when you chocked in your finale.” I give him permission to slap anyone who says that to him. I suspect no one says that to him. Except him. So slap yourself, Blais. And if you refer to that once more I’m gonna slap you. With a dead trout. Isabella says he doesn’t want to live in Blais’ brain because the guy’s crazy and is going to have a heart attack. I hate to agree with Isabella, but yeah.
The guest judge is Melanie Dunea, photographer and author of book My Last Supper.
Antonia serves tuna, rice, miso soup, and pickled daikon, mushrooms, eggplant, and Asian pear. Gail is impressed with the rice. Morimoto says the miso is too salty but he doesn’t dislike it. Gail coughs when she eats the tuna, it’s much too hot, with Scotch bonnet peppers on it (yeah, they aren’t really Japanese, are they). Tom’s favorite element is the eggplant. He says there’s nothing subtle about the meal, and Japanese food is all about subtlety. Uh oh. In her blog (the only blog up right now since Tom had another baby yesterday and he isn’t up to blogging yet), Gail says the miso had an off flavor and was overseasoned, the tuna was way overspiced, and her pickled veggies were wonderful, especially the Asian pear.
Isabella serves sous-vide then fried chicken with egg-stuffed empanadas, pea puree (I am incapable of hearing the words “pea puree” without flashing back to – oh, you know), pea salad, and mustard gravy. Wolfgang says it’s an elegant version of fried chicken. Michelle says she told him to take a lot of leeway; she’s blown away that he put an egg in an empanada and called it a biscuit; she hates when her mom tries to sneak an egg in there. Is this common, to put eggs in empanadas? I thought it was meat and veggies. But I’m very limited in my knowledge of Tex-Mex and Latin food. Morimoto says the white meat is dry. Gail says the batter of her fried chicken slid off. Tom agrees, the batter doesn’t adhere to sous vide chicken, but it’s still a nice dish. Michelle says it’s not what she would have done, but she loves that. Gail’s blog points out how smart it was to sneak in something in honor of Michelle’s Latin roots, and to use mustard seeds which are ubiquitous in Bahamian cuisine. But she doesn’t get why he didn’t do normal fried chicken, to get that nice crunchy skin.
Blais brings out his goulash, spaetzle with frozen sour cream, and apple strudel with tarragon cream. Padma asks Morimoto if he’s ready to move to Austria. Wolfgang says in his childhood goulash was a special event meal with a tiny bit of meat. Tom thinks the onion is undercooked and wishes the dish was hotter. Gail loves the strudel. Michelle loves that he did Blais touches but kept the integrity of the dish. Puck says even his mother would approve, and he hopes this is not actually his last meal. In her blog Gail talks more about how he used dehydrated sour cream and how nice the tarragon was, and says the strudel dough wasn’t really strudel but close enough (I’m amazed he did anything at all, it looked like strudel dough and I wondered if he picked up some filo or something).
They sit and talk for a minute sans chefs. Michelle says Isabella grasped a lot of what she told him and was super creative. Wolfgang says over-creative, not like mother would make. Gail says she could see where Antonia tried to be delicate. Morimoto appreciated the challenge but she isn’t the best. Yep, we get that. Puck says the goulash was great, a balance between Blais’ modernism and Mom’s goulash.
They have the chefs come out to do Judges Table right away.
Michelle tells Isabella the chicken had to be juicy and crispy – it was not so juicy, only sort of crispy, and what crisp there was in the breading was falling off.
Puck says Blais got the flavor right, but spaetzel was tough.
Morimoto thanks Antonia, it was a little different from what he expected, the miso soup a little salty, but interesting. Oh no. “Interesting” is the kiss of death.
Tom announces Richard is the winner and will be going to the finale. Wolfgang’s mother is smiling down and says, “Yes you can cook in Austria one day.” I just saw an Anthony Bourdain show about Austria the other night. My ex husband had an obsession with Austria. Music, mostly, but also food. I’ve had enough Austria for one week. Sorry, Wolfgang.
Antonia and Mike, only one will be moving on. Padma brings out the envelope. And to ratchet up the suspense, cut to commercial. I’m pretty good at remembering things from prior seasons, given I’ve seen them all so many times, but I don’t recall this envelope business.
The Obligatory Interstitial At The 40-Minute Mark: Wow, that was a disappointing interstitial. “Do you remember this envelope?” which no one does. How tense they are. Blais is glad he isn’t in their shoes. Antonia is nervous. Nobody knows what’s going on. I would’ve rather seen a commercial, I think. Especially that Fage yogurt commercial. I think they have a second one running but I’ve only seen a few seconds of it, something about an arched back. I blogged about the commercial, interviewed the copywriter, and for the past three weeks I’ve had more hits on that page of my blog than anything else. So I’m a little sick of it. But it still would’ve been better than that interstitial.
Antonia opens the Envelope: there will be one more challenge to determine who claims the last spot. She and Isabella have 45 minutes to make one bite. Seven bites, one for each (oh, so that’s why they had Judge’s Table right away). Make it perfect. Whoever wins gets the last spot.
Isabella says he wants to do something amazing with texture, something no one else will ever do, and blow them out of the water with creativity: tenderloin tartar and lobster tails. Huh? That’s super-creative? I think the egg empanada was more creative. He makes tempura lobster over beef tartar on red chili potatoes with black olive caramel sauce and chimichurri sauce with all the garlic, parsley and chili. Gail hated the olive sauce on its own but it worked well in the dish. Michelle says the lobster didn’t wow her but the olive sauce drew her in. Melanie says she was shocked at the difference in colors but then again she’s visual.
Antonia wants to do an aggressive dish to show the judges what she’s capable of. She serves seared grouper on a curry relish of yam, apple, and dill pollen, peanuts, and cilantro. They like the curry (didn’t she just make a curry? What’s with the curry all of a sudden?) but it’s very powerful. Gail likes the idea, very bright, local, but maybe too powerful. Morimoto thinks the grouper is simple, he wants a bigger piece.
Gail, Michelle, and Tom choose Isabella.
Morimoto, Padma, and Melanie choose Antonia.
So it’s all up to Wolfgang Puck, who says Antonia’s flavor is better but Isabella’s tartar is perfect, so he’s picking….Isabella.
Like I said before. Shit.
It’s all up to you, Blais. No pressure or anything. But you were one of my original picks for winners. And that guy you’re up against was one of my original picks for Get Off My TV Now. But like I said, no pressure.
And next week is absolutely positively really honestly the final episode of this season. Except for the reunion.
Now, you want to know about last meals… read about former French president Mitterrand’s last meal. It included the consumption of an orlaton, a tiny bird which is traditionally drowned in Armagnac, roasted then eaten whole while the face is covered with a napkin. If you’ve read Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw you’ll know what I’m talking about. Or for that matter if you’ve read Laurie Groff’s “Delicate Edible Birds”, one of 2010’s Best American Short Stories. French presidents, now they know how to chow down at the end.