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Top Chef NOLA Recap: The Beginning of the End

Nick, using what is probably an inadequate amount of salt.

Nick, using what is probably an inadequate amount of salt.Photo: David Moir/Bravo

We are in the homestretch of Top Chef New Orleans! If you’re just tuning in now, the way I do with baseball in October, let's recap our final four chefs:

• Nina started this season as the unquestioned early front-runner, and though she seems to have leveled out a bit, she’s still formidable. Plus, I think I have the strongest idea of what her food would taste like. She works a Salooshian theme into her dishes as often as she can, and there’s always a pop of color. She also rarely loses her cool, unless she’s telling someone to eat a dick, which happens kind of a lot.

• Shirley, who has unflashily ascended throughout the competition, is vivacious, unflappable, Chinese by upbringing, French by training, and never stops talking. She also, especially in the last few episodes, never stops winning. She’s won immunity, a car, and $10,000, plus a couple of elimination challenges. Best of all, she seems to listen and try new things. My crush on Nick has endured, but I’m starting to think I want Shirley to win.

But Nick’s puppy-dog eyes, though. Nick is handsome, mercurial, prone to outbursts, and takes himself far too seriously. He overthinks and underseasons. Overall, dude needs to loosen up, and while I often understand what he’s trying to do with his food, I frequently don’t feel compelled to eat it. We may appreciate six interpretations of carrot, but would we crave it?

• Carlos has left very little impression on me, food-wise, though he has the most compelling story: He entered the U.S. illegally from Mexico and worked his way up the restaurant ladder to become a solid chef. I want to root him, but so far he’s sticking to what he does best and failing to grow. Worse still, we know little about his life right now, except that he might be messy (or that might be Nick’s temper) and he might be quick to accuse Nick of stealing his oven (or Nick might have stolen his oven). It’s hard to say with Nick and Carlos.

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Our final four.Photo: David Moir/Bravo

I’ll say this: Nick's fellow cheftestants seem to like him. As the episode opens, Nick is close to tears for having been spared over Brian in last week’s episode, and the rest of the gang is consoling him. Shirley says: “Nick, I know you’re an asshole, but you have a big heart.” (The home-viewing audience seems to only see the first part, though: At least three of those intrusive Toyota insta-polls ask variations on “Do you think Nick is the worst?” and the results are overwhelmingly YES.) The chefs’ lounge seems like a fun place to be, overall; Those chefs attack the pinot grigio like they’re on Cougar Town.

Immediately it’s our final New Orleans Quickfire Challenge, which will win one of our Final Four a brand new Toyota Corolla, but no immunity. And it’s a two-parter, one task from Gail and one from Tom. Gail’s up first, and she calls on the chefs to create one perfect bite on one little cocktail fork. And she wants it all: sweet, salty, sour, spicy. They’ll have twenty minutes, and the top two will make it onto the second round.

Nina goes right for the Gulf shrimp. Nick is calm and cool, for once, going for three to four ingredients instead of seven or eight. He’s cooking something steak-y, as is Shirley. Carlos is doing something Mexican, naturally, but his last-minute addition of mango seems like a game-ending Hail Mary pass.

Here’s how it turns out:

Carlos: Grilled mango with shrimp and chile-arbol glaze. It’s colorful, if nothing else. Tom likes that it starts out sweet and finishes with a little burst of acid. Padma and Gail nod sagely.

Nick: Beef deckle with aged balsamic and purple-potato chip and cayenne-spiced yogurt. This dish gets total praise, and I get to work finding out what the hell “deckle” is. (It’s the fatty cap on a beef rib. But what am I telling you this for? You’re Grub Street readers!)

Shirley: Tataki-style flank steak with black-pepper cherry and crispy onions. This one has a lot of fancy elements, all of which fall off of Gail’s fork before it gets to her mouth, but Shirley employs some kind of long kitchen tweezer to fix it. Gail thinks it’s well-cooked, Tom thinks there’s too much soy.

Nina: Shrimp escabeche with potato aioli and pickled fennel and shallots. Jesus. Escabche and deckle. These guys are pulling out all the stops. It looks tasty. Gail thinks it’s a little greasy. Tom feels the shrimp flavor comes through.

Ultimately, Carlos and Nick move on to round two, where Tom challenges them to create a dish highlighting either an eggplant or a red pepper. Carlos has an eggplant marmalade he likes to do, but whoever gets there first gets first dibs, and it’s Nick, who ran varsity track for four years. The Toyota insta-poll asks, basically, “Can you fucking believe this asshole?” (You can’t.)

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All kitchens in New Orleans are legally required to have at least one Fleur de Lys. Photo: David Moir/Bravo

Nick plans to do eggplant two different ways, so never mind the simplicity nonsense he was talking just moments ago. Carlos does a red-pepper soup, which Nick thinks is copping out. I would eat any of this. (I watch the East Coast feed of Top Chef, which comes on at 7 p.m. Los Angeles time, and if I have not yet eaten dinner — as is the case on this night — I basically end the episode with my mouth on the television.)

Carlos’s fried-red-bell-pepper soup with fennel seed, basil, and onion looks as good as it sounds. Tom likes the heat and flavor but wishes there were more than one interpretation of pepper in it. Nick’s roasted eggplant with rosemary, sesame seed, Sriracha-and-eggplant tahini, and chile threads treats its roasted eggplant element as a scallop, and Gail loves its smoothness. And the winner is … Carlos! So now every remaining chef has won something great (Carlos and Shirley have cars, Nina and Shirley have $10,000) except for Nick, who says he gets “a cup of sorrow.” I feel like you came in with that cup, man.

Emeril is here for the final New Orleans Elimination Challenge, which is to “kick it up a notch” (no, really, he says this) and create a dish inspired by each chef’s Top Chef New Orleans experience. The winning dish gets put on the menu at all of Emeril’s New Orleans restaurants. He cooks for them at his main New Orleans outpost, and Nina has a flash of inspiration from the dinner, deciding to do a take on the barbecue shrimp they’re eating right then. Carlos is sticking with Mexican, making a seafood tamale, but the masa will be no corn, all fish. Shirley wants to make a food raft and give the feeling of floating down the Mississippi. Nick plans a dish of fretfulness and irritability.

And then Nina, who wanted to zazz up her dish with some homemade malfatti (it’s like a pasta dumpling — I am looking up so much stuff tonight), straight up accidentally sends her plates out without it. What a heartbreaking way for her to be eliminated. But there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell she will be.

Here’s how it shakes out:

Nina: Speckled trout with baby vegetables and barbecue sauce (and the promise of a homemade malfatti that might have been). Nina unwisely cops to forgetting a major element of her dish, but of course everyone loves the trout anyway. Tom says a pasta with the promised ricotta cheese would have been too much, and everyone agrees. (Though if it had been on the plate, they would have raved about that, too. Everybody loves Nina. I’m waiting for a spinoff: Eat a Dick With Nina, coming this summer only on Bravo.)

Nick: Charred cobia, roasted bass, and tuna confit with crispy rice and shrimp consomme. It’s colorful, but it seems to follow the Nick Pattern: tasty broth, but when you eat the fish without the broth, it’s a little bland. Underseasoned and overthought to the very end, that’s our Nick. The Toyota insta-poll asks “Should we let Nick sit with us at lunch?” and the answer is “Let’s not.”

Carlos: Steamed seafood tamale with saffron cream sauce and pickled okra. The chefs all think the fish-instead-of-corn twist is very clever, but Tom says the fish mousse loses a little of its texture when mixed with the sauce. Also, there’s no banana leaf or corn husk wrapping the tamale, so it loses a bit of its heat.

Shirley: Seared black drum, zhenjiang vinegar butter sauce, braised celery, and mushrooms. She honors the holy trinity of New Orleans: celery, pepper, and onion, and she wants the diner to feel like she can be in China or in New Orleans. At least in terms of clear mission statements, it’s the best dish by far.

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Padma and Emeril always cut their food in unison.Photo: David Moir/Bravo

Even Padma is in on the Nick bashing in this episode, slurring a condescending “Okay, Nicholas, walk us through your dish” at the judges’ table. They’re editing it so hard to make it look like he’ll get his comeuppance that there’s no way he’ll be eliminated. But it’s close: Nina and Shirley are the top two (Padma delivers it slowly, in what is either a clever touch of Seacrest-style suspense-building, or she’s just drunk), with Shirley taking home the win.

So that leaves Carlos and Nick in the bottom two. They are sent to the waiting room to guzzle wine and think about what they’ve done. It’s a close one (and Padma even manages to make a good point against Nick: Why are we so far along in the competition and still saying “Nick’s needed more salt?”) but in the end Carlos is sent to Last Chance Kitchen. Shirley, Nick, and Nina tell him to buck up, but as soon as he’s out of the room, they erupt in loud whoops, which is just uncool. He’s still in earshot, and a high-five means the same in Spanish as in English.

So off to Last Chance Kitchen he goes, where … we have to wait until next week’s episode to find out what happens.

Next: part one of the finale, from Maui! What fun that must sound like to you, as you endure the second coming of the Polar Vortex! Stay warm, and I’ll see you next week.

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