The end is near. Not only for us, as a society, but also for this season of Top Chef. “Now we’re in the finals,” announces Joe, gravely. “Now it’s probably hard.” Adrienne agrees: This is definitely, no questions, the finals. “Their expectations are going to be even higher!” she laments. Oh, little does she know just how high they are going to get.
Having officially run out of things to do in Denver, the chefs head for the hills. “I’m so excited to show you guys Telluride!” Carrie chirps, chirpily. Carrie knows all about Telluride because she tried to be a professional skier. Carrie is a woman of many surprises. Remember her savory Nutella toast? It has been several weeks now, and I still wake up occasionally in the middle of the night and think about how much it continues to surprise me.
After settling into their mountain-fabulous digs, and a cozy night wrapped in layers of rustic bearskin, the chefs head over to Telluride’s most historic saloon while Joe free-associates on the topic of the American West. “How’s the altitude?” Padma asks while wearing her best dress that is made out of curtains. Never mind, she doesn’t care. What matters is that Wylie Dufresne is here to guest-judge tonight’s Quickfire, which is to create a “fun and unexpected” gastropub-inspired dish featuring … sarsaparilla, the beverage of cowboys.
To figure out who gets what ingredients, everyone draws knives. Chris gets the best knife, so he goes first and claims the rib eye, Carrie goes for the pork, Joe takes the fish, and Adrienne is stuck with the chicken. Then we repeat this ritual three more times, to cleanse ourselves of spirits.
Oh, but that’s NOT ALL: The winner of Last Chance Kitchen Sponsored by Hidden Valley Ranch is … Joe Flamm! I have not felt this great about a decision since the Bichon won Westminster. Since Joe didn’t get any ingredients, he gets to steal one item from everyone else, and Carrie ends up stuck making something with onions, lemon, and honey, plus whatever she can find in “a basic pantry outside.” (Are you following all of these shocking developments? I know it’s a lot to keep track of.)
Carrie’s plan is French onion soup, only without the soup part, so it is sarsaparilla-caramelized onions, bread, and cheese, or as we call it in my home, “toast.” Joe Flamm has a vision for Carrie’s pork chop with “sarsaparilla-pickled carrots and salsa berry sauce.” Chris chicken-fries a steak with sarsaparilla gravy, and Joe Sasto whips up a cooling halibut crudo in sarsaparilla-fennel soup. For a change of pace, Adrienne glazes sarsaparilla chicken with sarsaparilla sauce. Folks, you and I know that for as hard as these chefs try, it’s all just gonna taste like root beer.
Here’s Carrie, presenting her toast-slice with onions on it: “I made you the best part of the onion soup: the top!” Tom, a wise veteran chef, sees right through this bullshit: “An onion crostini,” he counters. “The top of the French onion soup,” Carrie insists. Call it what you will, Carrie, but we all know it’s toast. “She can’t win twice with fucking tartines,” mutters one of the Joes.“All descriptions aside,” intones Wylie Dufresne, “it was really tasty,” and also he liked the strong notes of sarsaparilla, so Carrie wins, and everyone else is left to ponder all of the things they made that weren’t toast.
“Well!” Padma segues. “Being at this altitude, I’m sure everyone is feeling a little” — wait for it — “high, and that won’t stop now.” Oh, Padma.
For the Elimination Challenge, everyone has to make a “high-concept, high-end dish to serve in the highest restaurant in North America,” and every dish has to have a baked element, which is terrifying because of how chemistry does not work on mountains. (That is a fact I learned on the back of a brownie box, but it’s true. )
Gasping from stress, and also because there is no oxygen, the chefs retreat to their mountain lodging to practice the art of high-altitude baking. Joe Sasto’s plan is to do profiteroles, even though he has never made profiteroles and is not 100 percent sure what they are. “Sometimes, you just gotta go with what you know,” reflects Chris, taking an opposite tact. “And what I know is heart.” What he means is that he is making corn bread, fava beans, corn pudding, and crispy black-pepper quail. Adrienne workshops some pain de mie, only her pain won’t mie, and Carrie contemplates the altitudinous possibilities of beef Wellington. Suddenly, Tom, Wylie, and extra-special guest judge Paul Liebrandt wander in, three wise men organized by height. Do you think it is hard to bake at 12,000 feet? Oh, ho! Paul Liebrandt used to bake in a restaurant that was 18,000 feet, and he had to walk there uphill both ways, from sea level.
The trio makes the rounds, and Paul Liebrandt distributes pearls of high-altitude wisdom. The secret is, you need more egg whites. He is especially enthusiastic about Carrie’s plan for beef Wellington, as a matter of national identity. “Don’t be afraid of it,” he whispers, like a British wizard. His words, of course, have the exact opposite effect.
“Do I have the balls to cook beef Wellington for an English chef?” wonders Carrie, staring into the depths of her soul. “I don’t know!”
But by the time they all pile into the gondola, Carrie is clear. “No fool should cook beef Wellington for Paul Liebrandt. That would be suicide.” Instead, she will make spring vegetables with sliced rib eye and corn-bread towers because “it’s colorful, it’s Colorado, it’s Carrie,” and truly it is hard to argue with that kind of alliteration.
After some surprisingly drama-free cooking in the kitchen, the judges make their way up the mountain. “I’m feeling the altitude,” announces Padma, who has dressed for the occasion by draping herself in pelts.
Everyone loves the flavors in Joe Flamm’s buttermilk-braised pork loin with pea-sorrel purée, pepper jam, and goat-cheese buttermilk drop biscuits, but the twist is that they also likes the textures. “A lot of different textures,” raves Tom. Tom loves textures.
Nobody is totally sold on Joe Sasto’s maiden kombucha-cherry “puffs,” but his roasted duck with peas is so exquisite, Gail declares it the best food she’s had “all season from anyone!” and then Tom nods profoundly.
Here is the potentially complicating factor: Everything else is also good. Adrienne serves up her best dish of the season yet, which is butter-poached lobster with Champagne beurre blanc, caviar, and special high-altitude mountain bread. “I liked the fact that she adapted the bread!” bubbles Paul Liebrandt. Tom worries that Chris’s heartfelt quail might not be “refined enough.” The real question is Carrie’s not-beef Wellington. Padma complains that it had “no point of view,” which is a point. Counterpoint: It tasted good. Counter-counterpoint: It was not beef Wellington. It is a lot to think about, and it appears that Paul Liebrandt may never recover from the betrayal.
At Judge’s Table, Tom announces that he has forgiven everyone for the rest of the season. “It’s going to be tough to send someone home tonight because these were all good dishes.” Luckily, he is up to the challenge! As a guest of the family, Paul Liebrandt does the honors: The winner is none other than Joe Sasto, for his otherworldly duck with kombucha profiteroles (?). “I’m at the highest point I’ve been in my whole career — literally!” he beams.
That leaves Carrie and Chris on bottom, and the tragedy is that both of their dishes were also good. “I don’t think we’ve ever been this complimentary of dishes that have been on the bottom before,” says Gail. They’re still going to push one of them off the mountain top, obviously, but they’ll do it, like, really gently.
Carrie’s dish was well-executed, but too safe; Chris’s dish was bold, but too clunky. In the end, it is Chris who gets the tender ax. “It’s bittersweet,” Chris says. “To have made it this far is much more than I’ve ever expected.” And so he disappears in his gondola, down the mountain, into the future.