This is it: the last challenge before the semi-finals begin in Aspen! What’s at stake for the five remaining chefs? In Bryan’s case, it's the survival of his business. While the credits are still rolling, he tells us that he doesn’t know if the phones will still be turned on at his restaurant when he returns home from the competition. Wasting no time, we hear the interior monologues of the others as well: Kevin really misses his wife. Eli is recalling his friend and mentor, season 4’s Richard Blaise (this explains why they worked together on Blaise’s Iron Chef America appearance). Eli wants to win Top Chef to avenge Blaise’s defeat at the hands of a girl. Jennifer revisits the fact that she has slowly been unraveling after a strong start, and hopes to re-ravel quickly for a strong finish.
Quickfire Challenge – You Can’t Spell Turducken without…
At the Top Chef kitchen, Padma stands next to a tiny little man with a baby face who nonetheless manages to impress the chefs on sight: Gavin Kaysen, Exec Chef at New York’s Café Boulud (yes, as in culinary god Daniel Boulud). Gavin begins telling them about his experience competing at an event called the Bocuse d'Or in France, referred to by some as the Olympics of cooking. (He doesn’t mention that he placed fourteenth because his dishwasher ate part of his chicken before he submitted it, thinking it was scraps). He had made Chicken Ballotine, which is basically crayfish inside of chicken liver inside of 2 more layers of chicken. For the Quickfire, the chefs will also have to make a ballotine, or a protein inside a protein, inside a protein. Padma sets the clock at 90 minutes, and the chefs scramble.
Bryan and Michael begin ambitious, time-intensive dishes, while Kevin watches them and shakes his head. Eli is going to make a scotch egg with maple syrup, which I imagine sounds appetizing somewhere in the world. Kevin tells us that he and Eli are more about making home food as top chefs, in contrast to the other gourmet competitors. Michael then basically tells us that he thinks Jennifer is done, dead and gone. How nice.
Time is up, and Padma and Little Gavin make the rounds, stopping first to sample Eli’s bacon-crusted breakfast sausage with a six-minute egg center. Next, Michael presents his “poultry terrine” chicken with turkey and bacon mousseline (Google it). Jennifer went an Asian route with a calamari steak, scallops, and salmon, with shiitake mushrooms, and a shiso and rice noodle salad. After tasting it, Padma winks at Jen and says “Welcome back.” One can infer from this that her dish does not suck. Bryan serves up a rack of lamb and merguez sausage wrapped in caul fat (again, Google it). He serves three sauces with it, which historically has spelled disaster for chefs by making them look indecisive about their flavors. Kevin tells them he wanted to play on a Southern cliché by making cornmeal-fried fillet of catfish with scallop and shrimp inside. Bryan reminds us once more on the side that Kevin’s dishes are much simpler than his or his brother’s, but that’s okay too. (Author’s note: Condescending little creep…)
Gavin felt that Kevin’s catfish was dry and overcooked (Kevin disagrees). Bryan’s dish was “risky and he pulled it off well”. Eli’s scotch egg concept was “great”, while Jen’s seafood dish was a “pleasant surprise”. Finally, Gavin didn’t think Michael’s terrine fit the parameters of the challenge since the proteins weren’t wrapped inside each other. Michael turns on the snot-monster by telling us that he didn’t hear Gavin say to make an actual ballotine (even though everyone else and the viewing audience did), and if he had, he would have made one that would have been better than Gavin’s Bocuse d'Or dish. (Author’s note: Condescending little creep’s sore-losing creep brother…)
Regardless of Michael and Bryan’s ideas of what is a worthy dish, Gavin announces that the chef whose dish best represented the competition was…Jennifer! Padma wasn’t kidding about her being welcomed back, as this is her first win in weeks. Her win is almost as enjoyable as watching Michael makes a series of scrunchy faces that indicate his refusal to accept the results.
Elimination Challenge – Bork Ewes Door
For this last regular Elimination challenge, Padma informs the chefs that they will be holding their own version of the Bocuse d'Or, right there in Vegas. Each of the chefs has to create a regal presentation platter consisting of one protein (either lamb or salmon), surrounded by an arrangement of two garnishes. The technique has to be apparent and impressive, and the presentation intricate. Eli and Kevin both turn white as sheets, while the other chefs stare ahead or nod as if to say, “but of course, yes, mmm, harrumph.” In short, deviled eggs are not going to win this challenge. Eli tells us that it’s going to be difficult, but he’s excited. For winning the Quickfire, Jen will receive an extra 30 minutes on top of the four hours the chefs have to prepare their platters. Padma tells them that they will be cooking for 12 judges, including members of the advisory board of the actual Bocuse d'Or, including legendary American chef Thomas Keller. Nothing less than perfection will be accepted by these judges.
The chefs jump into their Ventas and shop at Whole Foods, and Kevin lets us know that he still has no dish planned yet. Eli plans on packing his suitcases. Jen is over budget at the register, and has to put some things back. Back at the suites, Michael instantly goes to bed, while the others watch a DVD of the Bocuse d'Or event. It’s like a World Cup match, both in its prestige and its rowdiness. The chefs discuss their dishes, and Kevin has to ask Bryan how to sous-vide cook his protein, and Bryan obliges (after internally struggling with himself over whether or not to help Kevin). Good thing it was Michael and not him that went to bed.
The next day, the chefs begin their prep, and Tom Colicchio stops by with Thomas Keller, who gives them a quick pep talk. Chop chop chop, sear sear sear. Michael is confident; in fact he’s done this before with one hand tied behind his back while being chased by bears. Jennifer is back to her old neurotic self, and lets us know that the challenge is nerve-racking. Bryan is confident, even though he only has four hours to create a platter that normally takes ten. Is that confidence, or delusion? We see Kevin using the sous-vide technique for his lamb, as Michael interjects that Kevin has cooked good food so far, but nothing fancy or elaborate. In fact:
Michael: “The food that Kevin cooks is the food that I cook on my day off.”
I now officially hate both Voltaggio brothers.
Time is slipping away, and Tom drops by to check up on things. Bryan rattles off his list of ingredients at a mile a minute, while laughing in an inappropriate and scary manner in between sentences. Kevin shows Tom his bathing lambs, as Tom comments that this is a departure for him. That’s the kind of seemingly benign comment that gets inside a chef’s head until it eventually explodes from second thoughts.
Michael runs down his list of magical and impressive ingredients for Tom in a matter-of-fact way, while Jennifer stops halfway through description, citing too many things on her mind to be able to talk any more. Eli tries to tell Tom what he’s doing, but it doesn’t seem to have much of a plan. After finishing his rounds, Tom drops a final bomb on the chefs: the winner will receive $30,000. It strikes me that if one chef was truly on his/her game all season, he/she could have won the equivalent of the cash portion of the Top Chef grand prize by sweeping all the Quickfire and Elimination cash challenges. The chefs are suddenly re-energized, as Jen reminds us that the standards for this challenge are so high that it will come down to a battle of perfection.
Time is running out, and the judges begin seating themselves in Alex Stratta’s self-named restaurant Alex in the luxurious Wynn Resort, where the chefs have been cooking all day. The judges include Stratta, Keller, Tom, Padma, Gail, Little Gavin, and Chef Jerome Bocuse, son of the chef for whom the competition is named, as well as several other dignitaries.
Kevin is first to serve his poached lamb loin, sherry-glazed beet and asparagus in sunchoke cream. From a flavor point of view, it’s a hit with everyone, but Keller remarks that the dish is too “rudimentary” to be considered worthy of the real Bocuse d’Or.
Michael is next, noting that even he is intimidated by the panel. He serves salmon with a cauliflower-chickpea tart and zucchini tzatziki. After his presentation, a puzzled Daniel Boulud asks what the direction of the dish is, in terms of the harmony of flavors, and Michael delivers a non-answer. While eating, the judges agree that there is no harmony or concept at play, and worse, the execution is off. Keller found a bone in his salmon, which at the French competition apparently would get you shot on sight.
Bryan is in the weeds, plating his dish with no time left, and time-wealthy Jen gives him a hand. He is sweating as the dish goes out, knowing that there are noticeable mistakes. He presents his crusted lamb loin, lamb shank crépinette and orzo au gratin (fancy mac & cheese), and the judges admire his technique and knowledgeable demeanor, but can’t help notice that the lamb is undercooked, and the overall presentation is rushed and sloppy.
Next, Eli comes out with his sausage-wrapped lamb loin, carrot puree with yogurt foam and tomato-piquillo canapé. His lamb is also undercooked, even moreso than Bryan’s. Padma tries to be kind about his other flavors, but the execution was an obvious disappointment.
Jen is last to serve; she feels her salmon dish is “98% there” – we’ll see if the other 2% were important or not. Jen puts down a poached salmon & caviar dish with shrimp flan and truffle, celery root & shiitake mushrooms. While the taste is good, the fish is undercooked for some, and there are varying impressions about the presentation and harmony of the dish.
Having torn each platter apart, the judges now raise their glasses and congratulate the five chefs, giving them applause…and one more bomb. In addition to the cash, the winning chef will be given a spot to compete at the 2011 edition of the real Bocuse d’Or. It’s sort of like nominating a Jeopardy champion for a Nobel Prize, if the Nobel was won in a cage match. But hey, maybe our winner can bring an A-game that he/she never knew was inside them. Or Michael can just go there and harumph and snort at everyone, and then pull a winning dish out of his ear, while yawning from boredom.
As they clean up the kitchen, Bryan gets philosophical, and remarks to Michael that this may be the last time they cook together. Michael instantly takes this as a dig, asking if that means that Bryan thinks his dish sucked. Sigh.
Judges Table – Don’t Let the d’Or Hit Ya
The chefs assemble in the stew room, where Bryan continues his philosophical ramblings, remarking that they have just cooked for the best chefs in the world. Generally these chefs have a lot of respect for each other, and have strengthened whatever friendships that they’ve cultivated by lasting so long. Padma enters and asks that all of them follow her to the final judges’ table in Las Vegas.
Michael is first to be grilled, and is called out on the lack of a theme or concept to his dish. Bryan then apologizes for his underdone lamb. Jerome Bocuse brought up to Kevin that his dish was perhaps to simple for this kind of challenge, especially with four hours at his disposal. Tom quizzes Jen on her cooking process with the salmon, trying to understand why the pieces were at such varying levels of doneness. Padma mentions to Eli that there were big chunks of fat in his sausage (as Natalie Portman sits on her couch, giggling once more). Tom wraps things up with some kind words of respect and admiration, which the chefs appreciate as they walk out after a long, grueling season.
At this point, there’s still no clear winner or loser, and the back-and-forth between the judges doesn’t really help paint a clearer picture. The chefs return, and Bocuse announces that the winner of $30,000 and a spot at the 2011 Bocuse d’Or is…Kevin! Apparently, a simple concept is fine, as long as you cook everything perfectly. Kevin is shocked and humbled, and everyone hugs it out before he leaves the other chefs to duke it out for survival.
Four chefs remain. Eli is already getting choked up, fearing the worst. Michael wipes his brow. Tom recaps each of the chefs’ dishes, this time in a much more positive light, except for Michael, who gets a rather negative critique. Could it be? Naw! Padma gives the heave-ho to Eli, as North America exhales and collectively says, “Well, duh, of course he was going!” The editors did a pretty good job with misdirection and suspense this week. Eli gives an emotional but dignified exit speech, and that is a season, folks.
Next week: From Vegas to Aspen, apparently by train! The Quickfire looks like it will be preparing entrees in the club car of a luxury train, while the Elimination challenge is an outdoor event. Will the umbilical cord between the brothers ever be severed? You’d think one of them would have bitten through it by now…