Top Chef Pre-Finale Recap: It’s Magic!

By the end of this, two of the chefs will ... disappear.
By the end of this, two of the chefs will … disappear. Photo: Dale Berman/Bravo

Do you hear that? That is the sound of my heart racing. Tonight we are down to the final three, plus whoever ended up winning my favorite internet-only television show, Last Chance Kitchen. To culminate our coastal tour of the Golden State, the chefs are shipping off to fabulous Las Vegas, because there is no better place to celebrate California’s rich heritage than in Nevada.

To recap, here are the chefs still in the running: “Miami’s craftsman of coastal cuisine” Jeremy, “chef of all trades” Marjorie, and Isaac, who is from New Orleans. They are reunited in a swank hotel suite that is outfitted with all the Vegas essentials, such as an Edible Arrangement, linens monogrammed with their initials, and a tiny cot for the Last Chance Kitchen winner. I have never been to Las Vegas, but I choose to believe this is the standard setup.

When morning comes, the chefs roll out of their custom beds and march into noted battleground MGM Grand Garden Arena, where Padma and Tom reveal the Last Chance Kitchen champ and final competitor. “I see that very distinct strut,” says Marjorie nervously, as Amar swaggers into view. Amar has been gone for a grand total of zero episodes, but still, it is nice to see him in the finals.

Before we can dive into tonight’s first challenge, Padma must deliver a brief lecture on the history of playing cards. “Historically, each suit represented a class in society,” she explains, wearing a dress that is lingerie. “The spades represented royalty; the hearts, the clergy. The diamonds are for merchants, and the clubs represented peasants.” For the challenge, each chef is dealt a card of a different suit, which correlates to a pantry containing only what would have been available to that suit’s social class. Marjorie gets royalty, Isaac is clergy (“it’s about as ironic as it gets!”), Jeremy has merchants, and Amar is a peasant.

Is this confusing? Oh-ho-ho, just you wait. To more accurately simulate economic inequality, Queen Marjorie will be allowed to pillage ingredients from any pantry; Father Isaac can pull from any pantry except Marjorie’s; merchant Jeremy can use his own stuff and also take Amar’s; and peasant Amar is stuck with whatever slop is left over. Whoever wins gets to skip straight to the finale, while the three non-winners will be forced to duke it out for the remaining slot. For added intrigue, they will have three hours to cook for 150 guests, assisted by a quartet of the show’s losers. There is blessedly little ceremony about this: Marjorie goes with Karen, Isaac teams up with bushy-tailed Carl, Jeremy thinks everyone else is dumb for not picking Kwame, and Amar gets Phillip, because he is a peasant and Phillip is left.

Having reinstated the feudal system and undone centuries of social progress, the producers now allow to chefs to pillage the pantries. Marjorie is overwhelmed by choice; with great power comes great responsibility. Ultimately, she decides on salmon, Meyer lemon purée, and all the finest vegetables in the land. On the opposite side of the kingdom, peasant Amar is cooking chicken livers. “I love being a peasant,” he says. “I grew up as a peasant in the Dominican Republic.” Amar’s peasant chicken livers are going to be so good, Amar boasts, that even the royals will devour them. Father Isaac and his altar boy are doing seared black cod with fennel and eggplant, and Jeremy is doing merchant classic, chicken thighs with pickled grapes. “It definitely sounds weird at this point,” he acknowledges, but “it’s going to smack you in the face.” I would expect nothing less.

Back at the arena, the villagers arrive. “Well, it looks like all the stations are open and humming!” Padma chirps, once all the stations are open and humming. They begin at the bottom of the social order. “I have to say, the peasants are eating pretty well,” Tom declares, admiring peasant Amar’s liver and onions with root-vegetable purée and crispy leeks. Next up: Jeremy’s mercantile butter-poached chicken with crackling and sweet-and-hot grapes. “These grapes are a eureka moment,” coos Gail, who plans to think about them for “a really long time.” Something I will think about for a really long time is why they have not introduced the purple-shirted guest judge yet. (Rick Moonen, we learn, eventually.) The judges also enjoy Father Isaac’s cod with fennel and eggplant, and are even more impressed by Marjorie’s regal salmon with vadouvan beurre monté and Meyer lemon purée.

The winner is announced without fanfare. The winner is Jeremy. The winner is always Jeremy. Somewhere right now, Gail is thinking about his grapes. “WOOOOF!” cries Jeremy, doggedly. In addition to a guaranteed spot in the finale, Jeremy also gets $25,000. Marjorie looks stricken.

To lighten the mood — poof! — David Copperfield appears, as if by magic. David Copperfield is a qualified guest judge because he is the Top Chef of top-ranked American illusionists. (Has anyone made anything like a Top Magician yet?) “I do with magic what you do with cuisine,” observes David Copperfield, magically. Therefore, each chef must “create a culinary performance that leaves the judges spellbound.” They will perform these dishes tableside, onstage, at the David Copperfield Theater. In preparation, they will spend the evening watching David Copperfield. “I can’t wait to get some inspiration and see what magic is all about!” enthuses Amar, who plans to embrace the “element of surprise.” “This is going to be tough for me,” reflects Marjorie, glumly.

The next morning, three chefs prepare to awe the judges, and Jeremy prepares for his appointment at the hotel Jacuzzi. “It’s a little weird,” he observes. “There’s only one of you guys coming back today.” The real element of surprise is that nobody has smacked Jeremy in the face yet.

Marjorie explains that she was inspired by the way David Copperfield used magic to tell stories, so she is going to recount the tale of becoming a chef using only duck à l’orange and liquid nitrogen. What could go wrong? Isaac, meanwhile, is concocting an unsettling plan for “chicken-fried steak,” which he will make by adhering the skin of a Cornish game hen to hunks of rib-eye steak using food glue. Across the kitchen, Amar is cooking … something. It involves a “savory whip meringue with a cauliflower-white-chocolate ganache,” roast squab, freeze-dried mole “pebbles,” and onion rings made out of potatoes. I don’t understand his dish at all, but credit where it’s due: It does sound very surprising.

It turns out that the problem with liquid nitrogen is that it is terrifying. “I’ve never really used liquid nitrogen before,” confesses Marjorie. “Of course I’m petrified.” This impulse is justified; Marjorie promptly burns her tongue on freeze-dried orange bits and loses the ability to taste her food. “Shit,” she points out, correctly. The camera lingers meaningfully on a slot machine. It is losing.

On that note, it’s show time! Marjorie kicks things off, bringing out plates of “ordinary” food, which she is then going to turn into “extraordinary” food. Marjorie is trying very, very hard. Tom is chuckling. Padma seems worried. Gail is wearing a bridesmaid costume. “I have never used liquid nitrogen,” Marjorie announces, brightly. “But I found a way to do it for this. It definitely still scares me a little bit, though!” “You’re scaring me right now,” mutters Padma. Marjorie manages to burn her fingers in addition to her tongue, but it is almost worth it, because everyone thinks her interpretive duck is delicious, her endive is wonderful, her performance was brave, and her overall plate is beautifully presented. Unfortunately, Tom feels her orange cells were inadequately orangey; I hate to keep harping on this, but it may have been the liquid nitrogen.

Isaac begins by immediately explaining that his chicken-fried steak is actually hen skin glued to rib-eye, which is what you might consider a “counterintuitive approach” to magic. On the other hand, Isaac is the only chef to do an actual trick (it involves a disappearing egg and yuzu hollandaise sauce). Guest judge Julian Serrano thinks it is “fantastic;” Tom, however, finds the quadruple fennel purée to be lumpy.

When Amar takes the stage, he is too nervous to talk. Instead, his dish will speak for him. What is his dish? I still could not tell you, but the judges cannot get enough frozen nitro mole-sauce-pebbles. “This dish is really interesting, in a good way,” Tom raves. “It was like a show,” David Copperfield notes. Between the chocolate-cauliflower-truffle whip and the smoke, there is something for everyone.

At the Judges’ Table, there is praise all around. Marjorie’s duck à l’not-so-orange was generally “terrific,” Amar’s squab extravaganza “looked like a terrarium,” and Isaac had the “huevos” to do a real-live magic trick. “This is the last time we’ll have to hear from you before we make a very important decision,” intones Padma, who has changed into clothes. “Is there anything you want to tell us?” Why, as a matter of fact, there is! Isaac says he’s a better chef now. Marjorie says she has become a better person. Amar says that he came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic when he was 13, and then his dad died of brain cancer, and making it to the Top Chef finale would be the icing on the cake of his life. Fine.

Marjorie had the best stage presence, the judges agree, but there was no “wow factor.” Amar had literally no stage presence, but “so much techniques!” And Isaac! Isaac also made good food. Who will be … leaving Las Vegas? Padma does the honors: Amar is the winner; Marjorie and Isaac are out. Like all possible outcomes, it is devastating, and also beautiful. Everyone cries, including me.

The end is nigh, folks! Next week, the final finale. Everyone is back, Jeremy makes a “critical error,” Tom cooks breakfast, and someone wins the title of Top Chef. I can barely contain myself. Let’s do this one last time.

Top Chef Pre-Finale Recap: It’s Magic!