In what seemed like no time at all, a talented pool of 22 established chefs — or “masters,” if you please — was whittled down to the final three who will vie for the $100,000 prize. We saw some predictable outcomes and haunting, garish dishes, but we also witnessed the type of camaraderie that’s so often missing in Top Chef, not to mention some top cooking. This penultimate installment focused on improvisation, both onstage and in the kitchen. Los Angeles improv troupe the Groundlings were on hand to serve up some humor, but not even they could distract us from the fact that one very talented chef would not be advancing to the finale. But before we talk about winners and losers, let’s feast on the highlights from last night’s episode.
Cheftestants: Susur Lee, Rick Moonen, Marcus Samuelsson, Jonathan Waxman
Least Effective Shilling: The final Quickfire of the season featured the four cheftestants’ cookbooks and required the men to pair off and make recipes from each other’s tomes. Susur’s cookbook? Looks intense but probably fun just to look at. Marcus’s? Not a bad way to add some exotic recipes to the repertoire. Jonathan’s? We’ve got to get our hands on that. But as for Rick’s, we wish we’d never laid eyes on it. So what if he’s happy that he was the only chef whose face didn’t grace his cookbook’s cover? His product came off looking like a disaster. First, there’s the title: Fish Without a Doubt. Is that an attitude toward cooking, or a subtle hint that we won’t be making steak tartare? Next, there’s the lack of pictures. Susur may not be the greatest reader of English, but to any average cook a page of text with no pretty images is daunting. May this sad display be a reminder to Rick to get a better publisher next time.
Backhanded Compliment? You can decide whether it’s genuine or halfhearted praise, but Marcus’s response to his Quickfire challenge was, “Jonathan’s recipes are easy to follow. I mean, they’re very direct. He uses things that are approachable.” This coming from the chef who later runs out of money trying to buy every ingredient in stock at Whole Foods. Still, Marcus went on to win the challenge, which was no surprise given that a few minutes earlier he mentioned he had yet to win a Quickfire and how much it would mean to him to win the final one.
Funniest Moment: No, it wasn’t all the talk of breasts and vaginas over dinner —' comedians always have their minds in the gutter — but rather the unpleasant surprise the cheftestants received when they saw the Groundlings perform. Thinking they had the day off and were being treated to some entertainment (though, really, how could they ever believe that?), they took in the improv show, laughing their tensions away. “I’m just so happy that we’re not cooking,” Jonathan said. And then it came. Prompted by a Groundling, the audience started offering up colors, emotions, and ingredients, and as it slowly dawned on the chefs that this was part of their next challenge, we were treated to the amusing sight of fun and liveliness being sucked from their faces faster than Marcus can make a Sweden reference.
Easiest Assignment: Marcus got to pick his word combo first (violet, pleasure, salmon), but it was Susur who lucked out with a surefire lineup: chocolate, lust, peanut butter. Not only was his color also an ingredient he could work with, but the mixture of chocolate and peanut butter is one so irresistible to man that there’s no way Susur was not going to get a spot in the finale. It was the “lust” aspect that earned him the best presentation of the night, with chocolate resembling underwear, two mousses that looked like tongues, and a butter-cookie vagina. Seriously. See the video below to hear Susur talking about the sexual inspiration for his dessert.
Biggest Screw-up: “Those little turds are floating on me,” Rick exclaimed as he spotted a problem with his sous-vide pork loin. That’s not a word we want to hear in the kitchen, but it was the first indicator that Rick was going to have some trouble in the elimination challenge. After running out of time in the Quickfire, he was determined not to repeat his mistake, but time is exactly what he needed more of. Owing to the uneven preparation of the pork, half of it came somewhere between undercooked and completely raw, if we’re to believe varying reports from the diners and judges. His pork likely floated because he didn’t have the proper vacuum bags to do the sous-vide, but that fact alone should have led him to use another cooking method.
Worst Concept: You’d think that Jonathan’s impossible assignment of creating a dish to embody “burnt sienna, depression, avocado” would automatically be the worst, but the logic behind Rick’s dish (red, anger, bacon) was far worse. Sure it had bacon, but the dish itself wasn’t red at all, which is something he should have no trouble executing after last week’s red mess of a Hades-inspired plate. But the worst was his explanation for the anger on the plate: “Pork and oysters don’t want anything to do with each other.” Yes, well, neither do hamburgers and slices of cheese, but that doesn’t make cheeseburgers an angry meal. The only thing more unforgivable is that no one called him out on this shortcoming.
Winner: After winning the Quickfire, Marcus must have been feeling good, because he won the elimination challenge as well. With a confit of salmon served with caviar, shrimp, and sake, he beat Susur by a half-point, despite the fact that his “pleasure shrimp” were not very good. Still, his presentation was exciting if not exactly pleasurable, but his own description of it as a “bad copy of Jackson Pollock” was right on the money. It’s hard not to wonder if Rick and Jonathan didn’t later regret giving their leftover budget funds to Marcus so he could buy all the ingredients he needed to put his winning dish together.
Loser: “He’s probably the best chicken roaster in the country,” Gail Simmons said of Jonathan, “but is that going to put you at the top of this competition?” Apparently not, as his dish of roasted chicken with French fries, yams, and avocado with pink grapefruit didn’t achieve a level of complexity the judges were seeking at this late stage in the game. Unfortunately, it wasn’t even a close call, as Jonathan earned a full two stars less than Rick, who didn’t perform so well himself. As he prepared to leave the kitchen, we were moved by the bromance between him and Rick, and by how happy he was to have made some cool new chef friends and learned a lot. So long, Chef Obi-Wan. May the force be with you.
Next Week: A new Top Chef Master will be crowned, but who? Place your bets now.