I have been playing it extremely cool my last few recaps, and I bet you thought I forgot all about our girl Kristen "Wait. 'Kristen.' That name is familiar. Who is she again? I'm blanking." She may have been exiled to the digital wastelands of Bravo.com, but she has never been far from my thoughts. Actually, she's been close to my thoughts. Her and my thoughts are basically leg wrestling. I watched her on Last Chance Kitchen, and every installment I became a little more panicky. She could lose! It's been a foregone conclusion, in my opinion, that she'd return for the finals, but also there is a lot of luck at play in these things, and to win a half dozen challenges consecutively is statistically difficult. What if her final Last Chance Kitchen against Josh turned out to be Battle Breakfast Bowl and Tom demanded everything be pale yellow and soft and flecked with stray mustache hairs? Josh would smoke her.
The end of last week's LCK was a cliffhanger, with Lizzie and Kristen awaiting Tom's verdict and a trip to the final three. I have never been as nervous watching Top Chef as I was last night, while Sheldon and Brooke waited to see who'd come through the double doors. Maybe it's my innate sense of fairness, maybe it's because I've developed this strong emotional attachment to Chef Kish, maybe I realize that the $125,000 prize money could be part of our dowry, but I would have flipped out at this show had Kristen not rolled through. I would have walked away and left Eater without its final two recaps. And God forbid a blog doesn't post about a TV show; the whole system would shut down. But Kristen did not disappoint. She's back, and Brooke, Sheldon, and Kristen make for one of the best final threes I can recall.
Before bringing us to LA for part one of the finale, the cameras spend a little time with Sheldon and Brooke in their homes. It's been six months since they left Alaska, and they've spent their time differently. Sheldon has doubled down efforts to improve his craft; he has done a "stage" at a fancy restaurant in Hawaii, but it looks a lot like a grill on a public beach. Hawaii is crazy! Crazy beautiful. So is Sheldon's family. Why does he want to come back to this dumb show? You went to Seattle? Stay in Hawaii. You're doing great and everyone loves you there and it's always warm and your life looks perfect. Mahalo.
Brooke's time away from Top Chef has returned her to the unglamorous world of running two restaurants. Very few of the Quickfires this season involved "budget paperwork" and "firing employees for using cocaine." Presumably it is great to run businesses with your husband, but the high-level stuff is the "antithesis of why I got into cooking," Brooke says. I think she says that within earshot of her son. She wants to be in the kitchen, not wiping his butt or whatever moms do. They both wear 3/4 sleeve shirts, and then Brooke Instagrams a picture of a pig ear salad and says, "Zagat made it their photo of the day today." There is no enthusiasm when she says it, but she says it like both she and the viewers should be excited for that fact. We're not. Poor Brooke. Get cooking. You are so good at it. She met her husband when she hired him as employee, which is how all beautiful, lasting relationships start. "Your first job is to kiss me!"
Now we fast forward to a few weeks ago; Sheldon, Brooke, and Kristen arrive at Tom's restaurant Craft in LA. Sheldon jokes to Brooke, "Do you even remember how to cook?" and she breaks down crying. There are two challenges left until a winner is crowned and bestowed a feature in Food & Wine magazine. Is that really all that fancy at this point? I'm pretty sure I read an article in that magazine called "In Defense of Australian Shiraz." Brooke is not happy Kristen is back. "She is probably my stiffest competition." Sheldon thought that there was a good chance Josh would come back, which shows how off his instincts are. "Josh is probably my waxiest competition."
Craft opens in three hours, and the three finalists will be Tom's chefs for the evening, while he expedites. Hugh and Emeril will be on-hand to interview the chefs while wearing blazers. It'd be very fun if they had to learn Craft's existing menu in 180 minutes, but instead each chef is responsible for an appetizer, and entree, and a dessert. It's just like one of those meal deals at Chili's. They will be serving food to real customers, or at least the type of customers that are willing to sign release forms and be lit for television. Actually, in LA, that is probably any potential customer. I'm surprised everyone in the restaurant wasn't wearing custom leather jackets with their Instagram handles monogrammed on it.
Sheldon searches the pantry for a protein that speaks to him, or at least one that speaks to the "new" him. He chooses quail, and both Brooke and Kristen are surprised. That is not the Sheldon they know. Has his "stage" changed him? If I had to pronounce the word "stage" like it rhymed with "Raj," I'd be a changed man too. Brooke has trouble focusing her plan. She changes her appetizer to sweetbreads. Her entree is still up in the air. Kristen is doing "kind of a play on tuna and veal." Interesting play. I usually don't go to see plays, because they are so long and the actors have to pretend we are not thirteen feet away.
Tom, Hugh, and Emeril visit for a few moments with Kristen, Brooke, and Sheldon, respectively, in order to crystallize the themes of the finale and offer prophetic advice. It is a series of nice moments, but also it feels like you're watching the weak part in a screenplay. It was a little forced, guys, but I appreciate this kindly mentor explaining the main character's central conflict. Sheldon needs to "taste and retaste." He and Emeril have a shared journey from dishwasher to Top Chef. It's crazy how much I love Emeril. Thank God for him this season. I want him to cradle me like a baby and calmly explain how gravity works.
Everyone is worried about Brooke. "Brooke, you okay?" they say, again and again. Brooke needs to get prepped and organized. Come up with a plan and get out of the weeds, girl. She says, "I'm a total shitshow. I'm not gonna make it through this round." Do it for you son, 3/4 Sleeve Hudson. Tom reminds Kristen that she did so well on Last Chance Kitchen because the time limits didn't give her time to get bogged down in over-thinking. With this menu, she sort of over-thinks not over-thinking it, and her food is more simple than she's done in the past. She's nervous about her dessert, a homemade chocolate. Kristen says, "I am sweating in places I didn't know I could sweat," and she leaves it to the viewer to imagine where those places are and how to get there.
Tom's busy in the kitchen expediting and trying to keep his kitchen organized. "Take a second to clean up. The place is a mess." It does not seem very fun for these chefs to have Tom, beautiful blue eyes or not, breathing down their necks. They are already worried about losing a hundred and twenty-five grand and burning down Craft, they don't need Tom yelling at them to go faster. Or maybe they do. It's about the only color in an episode that consists primarily of focused, precise cooking. It makes for compelling television but sort of boring recaps. Thanks for always thinking of me, Chef Tom. Kristen says, "I peed in my pants a little," and I feel like she's making eye contact with me when she says that.
Joining Padma, Emeril, and Hugh in Tom's place at the table are John Besh and Martin Yan. At one point Martin Yan refers to a dish's "ying and yang balance," and John Besh nearly screams, "Did you say yin and YAN?" You did it, John. You did it so I don't have to. They get down to business and start eating. They eat, and they offer feedback. There is very little drama during service or in the kitchen. Brooke seems like she won't make it but she is also very, very good at cooking and she makes it just fine.
For an appetizer, Brooke serves a crispy veal sweetbread salad with kumquats and beets. Then there is a braised short rib with Parmesan sauce. Finally, she puts down a brown butter cake with whipped goat cheese and a berry sauce. There is some nitpicking. Hugh would have cleaned his own sweetbreads "more," and Tom is alone in thinking her dessert was unfinished. Ultimately though, people really dug her meal. Padma wanted to dip other dishes in Brooke's Parmesan sauce. That Brooke was a total mess behind the scenes is pretty irrelevant to what ended up on the plate. Her food was Zagat's Tweet of the Day.
Kristen serves a chestnut veloute and duck rilette first. Besh, the hippie that he is, tastes it and wants acid bad. It seemed a bit safe. Kristen pees her pants some more. At this point, her pants are more pee than pants. Tom thinks that one of the dishwashers left a hose running on the floor but Kristen tells him it's just pee her body is making and releasing. Next Kristen has a seared ahi tuna with veal. The meat is cooked perfectly, but the judges feel like there was maybe too much salt, and the lemons were too bitter. At this point the cameras start malfunctioning on account of the torrents of pee. Her dessert is a bowl of homemade chocolate and curry, and Hugh calls it a "badly thought out pots de creme." Emeril liked it, but Tom isn't having any of that. Kristen knows it wasn't a good dessert. She's embarrassed, but not by the pee. That's just part of the job.
Sheldon's appetizer was sashimi spot prawns in a court bouillon. Nobody has anything bad to say about this dish. The prawn was perfectly cooked and the flavors were delicate. Of Sheldon's roasted quail with garam masala and a pine nut puree, Hugh says, "This is not Sheldon." Sheldon wanted to show his growth, like how sometimes he wears a blue hat and sometimes he cooks quail, but the judges are uninterested in his growth. Save the growth for your dermatologist, Sheldon. He made it to the finals because he is Sheldon. Sheldon, don't you know that society doesn't want to let us change? They put us into boxes and then never let us out. Sheldon's dessert of white chocolate mousse with apple and fennel was a good idea on paper, but the fennel was too raw. He admits he didn't really come to this challenge with a dessert ready. "I've got one for the next challenge, though." That is a very, very heartbreaking thing for him to say, because he'll never get a chance to cook it now. Tragically, Padma sends him packing. No elimination here could have made me happy, but I'm glad that Sheldon gets to go back to such a lovely life in Hawaii. I wonder who he was confident he could beat? Certainly not Kristen. She's perfect. And she's facing Brooke in next week's finale.