Well, we've reached the end of our stay in New Orleans. It's been sweaty and tense — and not in a sexual way —kind of like every party I've ever been to. More in a, "Dear god it's so humid I can see the air and why do we all hate each other for no apparent reason?" kind of way. Long story short, I'm fun at parties.
Now we and the chefs must bid the state of Louisiana adieu, though not before one last elimination to see who will be the final three.
Nick Elmi is recovering from his third time on the bottom. Thanks to his obnoxious behavior in challenges like always accusing other chefs of trying to sabotage him and essentially being the one responsible for Stephanie Cmar going home, Shirley Chung calls him an asshole. And then, in the most asshole move of them all, he says, "I freely admit that I'm an asshole." Well, we're glad you (and I assume the producers of the show since they finally found their villain like 10 weeks in) are happy with your asshole status.
Everyone is preparing for the last challenge and Carlos Gaytan is making his usual breakfast, which is anything as long as it is topped with Philadelphia Cream Cheese that he spreads at just the right angle that the cameras can catch both his food and a shot of the packaging. The product placement between them and Dunkin' Donuts has been so egregious this season that I'm expecting that the finale is just going to be Padma Lakshmi eating Philadelphia Cream Cheese from a Dunkin' Donuts coffee cup in a Toyota Corolla and winking at the camera.
The chefs arrive in the kitchen to see Padma, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons standing next to silver serving platters. Seeing Tom and Gail during the Quickfire Challenge, feels wrong, it's just too early. It's like when you accidentally blurt out, "I don't think I ever want kids," three dates in to a relationship and then everyone just feels uncomfortable and you start thinking, "Oh, maybe this is the end."
Padma explains this isn't a normal Quickfire, there will be two parts. Gail will present a challenge and then two of the four chefs will move on and Tom will present a challenge and then one chef will win. There's no immunity this week but there is an exciting prize. The winner of the Quickfire will receive a Toyota Corolla. Oh when I said exciting prize I actually meant snoozefest of a car. It's hard for me to be excited for people winning a car on this show because 1. This isn't the Showcase Showdown on The Price is Right and 2. I live in New York and the idea of having a car sounds like an absolute nightmare.
Gail's challenge for the chefs is based off of her professional life. She eats for a living and is always looking for the perfect bite, so the chefs must create that perfect bite for her on a cocktail fork.
Nick is yelling at everyone off the bat, but he's fine with it because he knows he's an asshole. No matter how well he does in this challenge, he won't get the controversial immunity, but he still goes all in and makes beef deckle with aged balsamic and a purple potato chip. Carlos sticks with his Latin flavors, making grilled mango with shrimp and chili glaze. Shirley assembles a tataki style flank steak with black pepper and chili, which looks terrific but immediately falls off the fork when Gail picks hers up. Nina Compton serves shrimp escabeche with potato aioli and pickled fennel.
Of the four dishes, Gail's two favorite are Nick and Carlos. Their storied rivalry of deceit and betrayal goes back nearly four whole episodes, so you could cut the tension with a knife. Though to do that, Carlos may have to borrow one from Nick, and he better not leave it dirty. Wow, I am really having fun bringing up the past, huh? Okay back to the kitchen.
Tom's challenge is to highlight one of his two favorite items of produce: eggplant and red pepper. The first one to reach him gets to pick what they get to use, so Nick and Carlos sprint toward Tom with Nick arriving first and very humbly thanking his four years of varsity track. Look, I could run pretty fast too if I was racing for food. Though the food wouldn't be eggplant, it would have to be like a sheet cake or something.
Nick gets the eggplant and decides to do a duo preparation, a piece of eggplant cut to look like a scallop and then roasted which is served over an eggplant, rosemary, and sesame puree. Carlos goes a simpler route making roasted red pepper soup with basil. The judges enjoy both, but Tom names Carlos the winner of the safe and moderately priced sedan.
Chef Emeril Lagasse enters to explain the elimination challenge. The chefs must take everything they have experienced and learned in this city and create a dish that leaves their mark on New Orleans. They will serve this dish at Emeril's restaurant for him, the judges, and esteemed guest judges Grant Achatz, Andrew Carmellini, and Douglas Keane. It's an impressive group, but they have about as much to do with New Orleans food as I do.
The top three dishes will advance to the finale in Maui, and the winning dish will be served in Emeril's restaurants throughout New Orleans. To send the chefs on their way, Emeril says, "It's time to kick it up a notch!" and suburban dads everywhere texted their adult children, "Emeril said his catchphrase on that show you write about! Also, how is your computer working? It snowed here yesterday. Love, Dad." And yes, you read that correctly, he texted that. Verbatim.
The chefs pile into Carlos' new Toyota Corolla and head to the grocery store. For some reason they go to a regular supermarket and not Whole Foods like they always do. I guess Bravo blew the budget on the car and then couldn't spring for the chefs to use organic leeks, as indicated by an adorable chalkboard sign next to a coconut water display.
As they shop and consider their dishes, Nick says that he has been humbled on the show thanks to being judged every week. Every week? That sounds like a dream. Try being a woman, Nick, and you can be judged every second of every day for every thing you do. It's super fun!
Before the challenge, Emeril invites the chefs to dinner at his flagship restaurant. Nick wears pastel shorts and a white oxford because he apparently thinks he's going to tailgate a lacrosse game, not have a meal at a fine dining establishment. They sit at the chef's table and get to watch Emeril in the kitchen as he prepares course after course of New Orleans-inspired food.
Carlos calls his family to tell them about the new Toyota and his daughters are like, "Oh, okay, good," with about as enthusiastic a response to him as I had to the last 5'6" guy who asked me out or as anyone has ever had to a Toyota.
The chefs are knee-deep into prepping their dishes when Tom and Emeril visit the kitchen. They stop by each chef to chat about their experience in New Orleans and their goal for the dish and the competition. Nina explains she's creating a dish inspired by Emeril's barbecue shrimp and biscuit from the previous night's dinner, though she's using fish instead of shrimp, and making Italian ricotta dumplings instead of a biscuit. Her history of excellent pasta has Tom excited and me just plain hungry since all I had for dinner was two glasses of red wine and an Advil. I'm on a juice cleanse, am I doing it right? Like, fermented grape juice counts? Whatever.
Tom notes there are two times you really don't want to be eliminated on Top Chef: the first challenge, but then even worse, the last one before the finale. It makes sense and it's kind of like dating. Like you put in all of that work with a someone helping them and supporting them and the second they finish law school they dump you to marry a 20-year-old cocktail waitress whose name ends with and 'i.'
Nina serves the judges first. As soon as the plates go out she realizes she never added the dumplings. She presents her dish, which is pan seared speckled trout and roasted vegetables.
When Tom asks her about the dumplings, she is honest and says she forgot to put them on the plate. While she thinks this is a misstep, the judges actually love the dish as is, and think that ricotta dumplings would have been too much.
Nick serves his dish next, which is charred cobia, roasted bass, and tuna confit with crispy rice and shrimp consomme. All of the judges love the flavor of the broth and think the fish is cooked flawlessly, though on its own is under-seasoned.
After him is his bitter rival Carlos, who created a steamed seafood tamal with saffron cream and pickled okra. His twist on the traditional tamale was to replace the corn with seafood and to serve it without the banana leaf. The judges love the concept and think it's well executed.
Last to present her dish to the judges is Shirley. Wanting to give the sense of floating down the bayou, she placed seared black drum on braised celery and mushrooms over zhenjiang vinegar butter sauce, combining her Chinese heritage and cooking style with the Cajun holy trinity of celery, bell peppers, and onion. Everyone agrees the dish really works.
It's time for Judges' Table and Nina is freaking out about her forgotten dumplings. (Note to self: sell the name Forgotten Dumplings to an indie-folk band in Brooklyn to cover your bar tabs this weekend.) Before she can have the epic meltdown that I am always hoping the contestants have, the judges reassure her that the dish was terrific, if not better, without them. In fact, the judges had positive reactions to all four of the dishes the chefs prepared, with only some minor criticism. (Second note to self: pitch a romantic comedy called "Minor Criticism" about a divorced Jewish woman constantly harassing her ex-husband about how young his new wife is until he ultimately either returns to his age-appropriate true love or kills himself from the non-stop nagging. Ending TBD.)
Padma announces that Nina and Shirley created the best dishes of the evening. They will definitely be going to the finale in Maui.
Uncle Emeril then tells Shirley that her dish is the winner and that it will be served in his restaurants across New Orleans.
Elimination is down to Carlos and Nick. It all ends here for one of them. One will go on to compete for the title of Top Chef in Maui, the other will go to Last Chance Kitchen, likely win since he made it this far in the competition, and then also compete for the title of Top Chef in Maui. It's gripping. Padma sadly tells Carlos that he must pack his knives and go.
And there we have it, our final contestants are Shirley, Nina, Nick, and then whoever wins Last Chance Kitchen between Carlos and Louis. The two-part finale in Maui (I'm portmanteau-ing that into fin-Maui out loud in my living room right now, which almost works when you say it and definitely does not when you type it) starts next week. They probably could have wrapped it all up in one episode, but I'm sure Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Dunkin' Donuts, and Toyota had something to say about that.