We are down to the final five in Denver, and approximately 100 percent of competitors are on the verge of a nervous breakdown. (I blame the altitude.) “It never gets easy,” Chris gasps. “It’s only going to get harder,” Bruce heaves. “Last week was a bumpy road!” Joe chirps. (Everyone reacts to oxygen deprivation in their own special way.)
The theme of the night is fear and trembling. To really set the mood, the chefs take turns self-flagellating. “It’s obvious playing it safe isn’t going to work anymore,” Joe vows. Adrienne shows off the notebook where she writes down everything the judges say is wrong with her. In other news, Carrie’s beloved father has early signs of dementia, and if Carrie wins, she can afford his medical care. Seems like a ringing endorsement of the American medical system to me!
Grimly, everyone piles into their SUVs, only — wait, where are they going again? “We’re going a different way,” Bruce points out. Carrie … senses something, as if by intuition or some other mysterious power: “It looks like we’re going to the Stanley Hotel!”
It’s true. It was here, Padma spookily intones, that Stephen King had one of the most lucrative nightmares of his life, which became the inspiration for The Shining. “Are you ready for the scary part?”
The Quickfire is dessert! “That’s pretty terrifying,” Joe agrees. But not just any dessert, oh no. It should be a visualization of “whatever your worst nightmare is” in the form of dessert.
Not to brag or anything, but Carrie dreams in incredible detail. “Last night, for instance, I dreamed about a tater tot that was made with pine nuts and stuffed with jam!” Personally, I like to stick with classic anxiety dreams, like about my teeth falling out, or running over my family with a dump truck; still, I consider Carrie an innovator.
Meanwhile, Adrienne debates the very nature of fear: “The scariest things always start off kind of innocuous, and then shockingly there’s blood or guts.” Accordingly, she will re-create the experience of walking in the woods and then realizing that there’s blood seeping up through the ground, but with ice cream. Joe doesn’t remember his dreams because he smokes too much weed, so he is going to prepare a metaphorical egg with an unborn chicken inside of it, because that is his deepest fear. He will realize it in meringue.
Chris’s Freudian nightmare is about a marzipan hiker who was pushed to his death on the rocks by monsters, and now “there’s guts and brains and shit all over the place,” so he’s baking a cake about it, while Carrie decides to re-create the ballroom scene from The Shining, but with savory panna cotta and black-sesame ice cream and Champagne granita and a goat-cheese sugar cookie. Arguably, this challenge is Bruce’s worst nightmare, but instead, he invents a fake story about how he used to be “afraid of seeds,” so he is making panna cotta with spooky pomegranate.
(Update: The panna cotta isn’t working, so now it’s semi-semifreddo.)
“I believe in spirits, I do,” muses the disembodied voice of Padma. “I don’t think of them in the traditional horror-movie sense, but I have been in rooms where I have felt a certain presence or a thickness in the air, that there was something there other than me.” Somewhere, Salman Rushdie weeps.
One by one, the chefs make their way to room 217, site of Stephen King’s nightmare, to offer their haunted wares to Padma. After tasting, Chris wins for his harrowing death cake, Adrienne gets points for her oozing forest murder, and the bottom two are Carrie (she forgot to put her food on a plate) and Bruce, who lacked vision. Spooky!
Tonight’s similarly conceptual Elimination Challenge is to “create a dish that tells the culinary story of your journey here on Top Chef,” and then serve that journey to Colorado governor John Hickenlooper. “I’m so excited!” Carrie squeals, patriotically. “I’ve always wanted to meet the governor!”
Question: Now that Amazon is embarking on Whole Foods delivery, will future Top Chef seasons require no grocery-store runs at all? Instead, we’ll be treated to montages of chefs clicking away on their Prime accounts? Who can say. For now, though, the chefs all have to trudge through the aisle of a physical store, and we must watch.
When the chefs charge into the kitchen, they are greeted by Tom, who has been lying in wait, like a disappointed bobcat. “You either don’t understand what’s at stake here,” he hisses. He then lays it out: If he doesn’t see a big improvement, he may bring two people back from “Last Chance Kitchen.” That’s how bleak things are, chefs.
Newly reinvigorated by terror, everyone gets cracking. Joe tries to redeem himself through lamb-stuffed beet pasta, proving his mettle as a chef, as a mustache, and as a man. Adrienne roasts monkfish with venison sauce, in honor of the state of Colorado. In honor of her newfound confidence, Carrie makes elk tenderloin with bold cauliflower and assertive peppers. Chris decides that his journey is really all about his fellow travelers, so pays homage to those friendships with a bunch of dishes he has never made before. Bruce sentences himself to barley risotto with duck breast, the concept being that those are both foods.
And it’s off to the governor’s residence where Governor John Hickenlooper gets Padma and important Colorado friends settled in the dining room, like they’re about to do the world’s most sedate production of Macbeth. “Do I get the deciding vote?” John Hickenlooper asks. “Ha, ha,” Tom replies.
Joe’s up first, with his bright-green lamb agnolotti with beets, hazelnuts, and cacio pecora. “The hardest thing for me was just embracing who I am,” he announces. “Who he is” is pasta. Tom says it’s the kind of food he’s been “begging for all season,” and Graham Elliot, whom you always forget about until he shows up, says it shows “a huge amount of restraint.” Padma says “uh-huh,” but like she means it.
“Oh my gosh, it’s beautiful!” gasps Hickenlooper, face to face with Adrienne’s monkfish dressed with venison jus, green-peppercorn jam, and roasted-cauliflower pureé. The part they love is the seasonings, which is a real milestone, considering Adrienne’s troubled history with salt. “I think she’s starting to figure out her own voice” Tom marvels.
Carrie’s Colorado elk with roasted cauliflower, shishito peppers, blueberry-poblano sauce, and sheep’s-milk cheese is also extremely excellent, mostly because of the flavors, and Tom concedes that it’s “a nice dish of food,” which is also the highest praise my father has ever given to anything.
For a change of pace, Bruce’s barley risotto with ducks is uniformly terrible. “I wanted to show you I can do more than just pasta,” he says, defending his honor with the enthusiasm of a wounded deer who has accepted death. On the bright side, no one likes Chris’s lamb ravioli with crispy trout skin, either. For one thing, the trout skin wasn’t crispy, and the ravioli filling was oppressively dry. Also, why was there ravioli on the trout? This is one of the mysteries we must live with, like Stonehenge.
There’s not much drama left for Judge’s Table, given that everyone left at this point is either the best or the worst, but Padma does what she can: The top three are Adrienne, Carrie, and Joe, who wins the grand prize for both his technique and his passion.
As for the bottom, Tom is baffled. On the one hand, Chris’s ravioli was personally offensive to guest judge Frank Bonanno, but then, Padma says, she would pick that fish over Bruce’s duck any day. “Saying you’re only as good as your last dish, I don’t believe that,” Tom begins, so you know exactly what happens. Bruce is out. And with that — for now, at least — the endangered bears have gone extinct.