Well, food fans, it’s down to the final two episodes of this season of Top Chef. It is time to move out of the Big Apple and head to the Crescent City, the land of fatty foods and too many intoxicating beverages. Coincidentally, it is now Mardi Gras season, so we should try to be festive as we head toward the end of this amazing journey. Oh, wait, this isn’t my week to recap The Bachelor!
Nothing like rising from the dead in New Orleans.
The final four chefs arrive in New Orleans at the airport. Okay, in case you, my dear readers, don’t know, I live in a little city 75 miles northwest of New Orleans. I’m very familiar with Louisiana cuisine and the city of New Orleans, so this locale for the finale is a bit personal for me. When Hosea arrives, he says he’s been studying Cajun and Creole cuisine, but implies that they are pretty much the same. Now, if you have a clue you know that these two culinary bodies share similar profiles but ARE NOT THE SAME! The socioeconomic backgrounds of the two kinds of people are widely disparate, and though they share similar French influences, his conflation of the two irritates me. Fabio arrives sporting a fauxhawk and that cheers me up a bit. Carla looks good, dances through the airport, and thinks she’s the underdog. Stefan, true to form, just plans on winning the title of Top Chef.
After the final four congregate outside Louis Armstrong Airport, they load into a van and head to Houmas House, while we’re treated to a montage of random shots of the Quarter and Uptown. Now, let me clue you in: Houmas House is not in New Orleans. In fact, it’s closer to my bastion of suburbia in the state capital than anything in New Orleans. But it is a pretty, old house, despite its plantation stigma. There, on the grounds, the final four are met by Tom, Padma, and Emeril Lagasse and three work stations.
Houmas House is the setting of the Quick Fire, but our final contestants will not be competing in it. Oh, no…it’s an interesting twist, you see. Jamie, Jeff, and Leah enter the scene and they are all competing for a chance to get to the final three. The judges feel that these three were consistently good and deserve a second chance. Of course, our final four have not such positive feelings about this turn of events. Hosea is a bit weirded out by Leah being there and isn’t happy with having to compete against another person to make it to the final three. Fabio similarly doesn’t want the extra competition.
Our resurrected three have one hour to create a dish featuring crawfish and Emeril will pick the winner. They get to cooking and time flies. Leah goes with the obvious gumbo (and surprises me that she knows the holy trinity of seasonings), Jeff decides to do a crawfish twist on shrimp and grits, and Jamie thinks gumbo is too obvious so she makes some sort of corn cake and egg thing. Meanwhile, the final four just sit around and down a pitcher of beer.
At the end of the challenge, Leah serves crawfish soup with andouille sausage. Notably, she doesn’t dare call it a gumbo, because it is clearly not. Jeff presents crawfish and grits with andouille and beer; that sounds good to me! Jamie then serves a corn cake, greens, poached egg with tasso, andouille and crawfish cream sauce.
Emeril likes all the dishes but picks Jeff as the winner. He’ll get to compete to get to the finale, but to stay in the competition, he has to win outright in the Elimination Challenge. The final (now) five are going to stay in a suite at the Monteleone in the Quarter; when they arrive, a gift basket of New Orleans stuff awaits them, as does a dinner at Emeril’s Delmonico restaurant. Points off for Hosea’s botching of the pronunciation of “Monteleone.”
Now, I’ve never been to Delmonico’s, even before Emeril bought the place and slapped his name on it, so I can’t attest to its quality. Emeril’s original place on Julia Street is quite excellent and even better if someone else is paying. The final five chefs eat their steakhouse dinner during which Hosea and Stefan have a pissing contest about what makes great New Orleans cuisine and Carla waxes poetic about how her husband and stepson support her though this competition. Stefan gets the laugh of the night by noting that this is a competition worthy of slaughter and its not a butt-rubbing contest. Hey, Stefan, don’t give Bravo any ideas; they’re undoubtedly looking for something to replace Project Runway.
Where in the hell is Harry Connick, Jr.?
After the Quick Fire, the final five head out to Mardi Gras World, which is down by the river, under the Crescent City Connection. That’s where they store floats for Mardi Gras parades. Padma clues the group in that they are going to be catering Orpheus’ masked ball at the New Orleans Museum of Art (henceforth referred to as “NOMA”). They’ll make two dishes and one cocktail—because what’s New Orleans without the booze—for about 100 people. One of the two dishes has to be authentically Creole and if Jeff wins the challenge, two other chefs will be eliminated. To add to the pressure, the winner will get a new Toyota. Fabio covets the new car with all glee; his car is “poop” so he needs a new one.
The potential finalists leave Mardi Gras World and head to Delmonico’s, where they will prep their dishes for the NOMA catering gig. There, they find the ingredients to make their Elimination Challenge dishes and plan their menus for the evening. Hosea plans to make duck, andouille and chicken gumbo, pecan-crusted catfish, and a hurricane with Grand Marnier, rum, pomegranate and blood orange. Carla decides on a menu of oyster stew, shrimp and andouille beignet and non-alcoholic cranberry spritzer. The oysters are still in their shells so she has to shuck 100 oysters, a task with which she has limited experience. This could be some evil foreshadowing, if you ask me. Stefan is going to make duck and rabbit gumbo with grits, an apple beignet and black cherry and rum cocktail. Jeff lands on making a fried oyster with sausage, crawfish pot de crème, and a cucumber mojito. Fabio decides on making a sausage and rabbit maque choux with grits, crawfish and crab stew with homemade caserecci pasta, muffuletta bread, and bell pepper martini. It’s a lot of food and he knows he’s making more prep work for himself than any other contestant.
In the Delmonico’s kitchen, Hosea is busy making his roux; he knows that it takes a long time to get to the dark color that a true roux requires, but meanwhile Stefan—who is also making gumbo—doesn’t attend to his roux and goes out for a smoke break. Hosea is aghast that Stefan is using sausage he found in the fridge rather than making his own.
Tom comes in for a check around on progress. Fabio tells him that he’s studied the Creole flavor profile. Jeff is honored to get a second chance at winning. Stefan says he’s going to do a dessert, but doesn’t understand Tom’s comment that desserts are risky. Hosea shows Tom his roux and Carla is still shucking oysters. Tom’s assessment is that he doesn’t think Fabio has a clue about Creole flavors, Carla has too much trouble with oysters when there could have been an easier solution, Jeff has a clue and Stefan is too cocky. Tom also notes that Hosea’s fate lives and dies by his ability to make the proper roux.
Break out the masks and the ball gowns, it’s time for the Orpheus Ball!
With the prep work done, it is time to head to NOMA. Hosea expresses concern about transporting his food and how everyone else seems to be doing well. Jeff scrambles to get everything done and Carla is stressed at not having all the right equipment. When they get to NOMA, they have an hour to set up and they all have a lot of work to do. Carla has only shucked a third of the oysters for her soup and there are a lot of drinks to mix. Fabio doesn’t trust his bartender assistant to do it, so he works on that alone. Carla realizes it is a risk serving a non-alcoholic beverage in New Orleans, but she doesn’t drink. Time ticks down to the last few minutes and the guys all hit up Carla for extra supplies, which she shares despite the fact they didn’t help her shuck any oysters.
The guests then begin to arrive, decked out in gowns, tuxes, and traditional masks. Jeff notes the guests are big eaters but doesn’t have as much time to interact with them as he’d like, as he’s busy with the food. Jeff serves his cucumber mojito, fried oyster with sausage and arugula and a crawfish pot de crème. He says he knows southern food, but still pronounces it “crayfish.” The guests and judges sample the food; the drink is loved by all and Emeril is impressed with Jeff’s cooking.
Stefan serves a black cherry and rum cocktail, duck, rabbit and sausage gumbo atop creamy grits instead of rice, and an apple beignet with pecan brittle. The guests comment that Stefan’s gumbo roux was obviously not dark enough, as does Emeril. Tom liked the grits but Emeril says what I’m thinking and wonders about putting gumbo on grits, because that is just not typically done.
The judges next sample Fabio’s “trinitini” which is a red bell pepper with rum cocktail, sausage and rabbit maque choux with grits, and caserecci pasta with crawfish and crab stew. The guests love the pasta and Gail thinks the crawfish is great. Emeril is okay with the maque choux, but it is lacking heat.
At Carla’s table, she serves her cranberry and lime spritzer, a shrimp and andouille beignet with Creole aioli and the oyster stew with potato, bacon & scallions. She has a lot of fun with her guests and the “hootie hoos” never stop. Emeril is impressed with the stew and sys it is perfectly New Orleans inspired.
Finally, Hosea serves his hurricane with Grand Marnier, rum, grapefruit, pomegranate, and blood orange juice, chicken, duck and andouille gumbo with a cornbread muffin and a pecan crusted Louisiana catfish with sweet potatoes, bacon and tobasco beurre blanc. Both dishes are loved by the crowd and Emeril says he’s captured the New Orleans spirit.
The final three!
At Judges Table, Padma reminds them that two will be going home. Jeff says he knew his seasonings had to be perfect and gets high praise for his cocktail and Emeril says his oyster dish was perfect. Tom is impressed Jeff made his own sausage. Fabio is told that the maque choux lacked heat and his drink was too sweet. Stefan is told that his gumbo was okay even though the roux was off, but the grits were good. However, his beignet was not hot and Tom says Stefan is too cocky in the kitchen. Carla worries that she had too much bay but the judges universally liked her dishes, even the non-alcoholic drink. Gail could have eaten Carla’s beignet all night. Hosea comments that he was worried because the judges got to his table at the end of the night and the drink was watered down. Emeril is used to watered down drinks, what with all the lines in bars in New Orleans. Gail was impressed by Hosea’s gumbo.
The chefs are dismissed and the judges talk amongst themselves. Gail thinks everyone did a great job. Jeff’s oyster dish was perfect, as was Carla’s oyster stew and beignet. Hosea rose to the challenge and understood the spices. Stefan’s gumbo was not that great and the beignet only so-so in comparison to Carla’s. Fabio’s pasta dish lacked layering of flavors and the drink did not live up to its promise.
With the decision made, the five are called back in to face the judges. Emeril says there is a clear winner, even though all of them put on a wonderful representation of New Orleans. Carla is announced as the winner because of her balance of flavor, temperature, and simplicity, yet she was creative. She grabs the keys to her car and knows her family and friends will be proud. Of course, this means Jeff is out and there’s still one more chef to be sent packing. Padma solemnly tells Fabio to pack his knives and go, thus ending the end of Team Euro. Next week, we’ll finally find out if Stefan has this in the bag.