Wow, I haven't watched Top Chef since last year!
Now that we've gotten the requisite office joke and consequential eyerolls out of the way, welcome back to the final episodes of Top Chef Boston. It's been a long three weeks away, and the only time I heard "challenge" was during a late night Scrabble game with my mother over the holidays when she didn't think the word "ihatethis" was acceptable for play.
Melissa King and Mei Lin have developed a close friendship over the season and have plenty to bond over: being chefs, being women, being Asian, having their families disagree with their career choices (ladies, I feel you, this year for Hanukkah I got a business school application).
The five remaining chefs head to the kitchen where they find Padma Lakshmi and Andy Cohen. Even though it isn't his show, Andy plays host wherever he goes and clearly outshines Padma at the front of the room, including wearing the rugby shirt version of a sunset. Also in tow is his college roommate, who he deems to be the straight version of himself. It's hard to think about what "straight Andy Cohen" would be like — I'm just imagine a bro who watches Vanderpump Rules.
Andy announces that Boston is his college town, which prompted me to google where he went to college. My money was on Tufts, but no, Boston University educated the man responsible for putting sun damaged bags of wine with lip injections on television every night of the week.
And, like every other college student ever, save for those up late on Adderall, Andy was a big "late night nosher" when he was in school. Honestly, who wasn't? In college I basically majored in English and minored in 2am pizza, leading me to graduate with honors and 10 pounds.
Since Boston (guys, we're in BOSTON!!!!) is a huge college town and Andy loved the wee-hours snacking, the Quickfire Challenge for the chefs is to make their own twist on the student staple ramen. And this isn't ramen like Ippudo, fresh noodles, warming bowl of goodness you get downtown on a chilly day ramen. This is packaged noodles, salty as hell, wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole without cholesterol medication after age 25 ramen. This is N'Sync-era blonde Justin Timberlake hair ramen.
A twist for the challenge, though, is that instead of access to the Top Chef pantry usually stocked with fresh vegetables and proteins, the contestants must prepare their ramen using only the contents of an Emerson College student's refrigerator. In college I couldn't make any meal with the contents of my fridge, unless a handle of Popov vodka counts as a meal.
In the bags the chefs find pretty much what you expect of a college student refrigerator - almost to the point where it seems almost cartoonish. There's crusty old salsa, leftover spring rolls, and a lot of Doritos.
There's no immunity at stake in this challenge, but the winner does get $5,000 furnished by...wait, there's no sponsor. Is this still Top Chef? If a cash prize doesn't have a corporate sponsor tie-in, does it even exist?
Doug Adams prepared ramen with coconut pineapple water broth, ham, egg, and grilled tofu. He had some kind of pre-made chef's salad in his bag of "groceries", but it basically looked like he just put that on top of noodles. Tasting hers, Padma slurps up one of the noodles, eliciting some side-eye and a judgmental, "Sweetie!" from Andy.
Gregory Gourdet's bacon pizza broth with string cheese, edamame, and Dorito crunch sounds like a pot-smoking college student's dream food. Andy loves it because he's all about the snack flavors.
George Pagonis basically took ramen noodles and turned them into Spaghetti O's with his ramen chili topped with hot dog, chicken wing, and crispy spam. It's a lot of meat, but don't worry, Andy makes plenty of jokes about it. We can all just be happy Gronk isn't there for Padma to exchange gross sex/food euphemisms with him.
With sushi in her grocery bag, Mei creates a tomato miso ramen with shrimp and nori. She's not happy with it and neither is Andy, who calls it too fishy.
Melissa lucked out with her bag because it had a ton of cheese (well, probably "cheese product" according to some of those labels) in it, and Andy and his roommate said they absolutely love cheese. (Oh how unique! Do they also love money and sex?) Her mac and cheese ramen carbonara with roast chicken and Frito crumb topping wows the judges and she wins the challenge, as well as the $5,000.
Padma sends the chefs into the stew room for a surprise, which is a television and a remote that says "press play." I desperately wanted this video to be vengeful threats from eliminated contestants or secret footage of a late-night, post-filming, drunk dance party among Tom Colicchio, Hugh Acheson, and Gail Simmons to Fleetwood Mac's Rumors. While it's neither of those things, it is an old video of Julia Child and Jacques Pepin preparing duck.
The chefs love the video, because honestly, culinary professionals and laymen alike, we all love Julia Child. Padma enters, white go-go boots first, and is accompanied by Jacques Pepin himself, a surprise that shocks most of the chefs to an emotional silence. They explain that the Elimination Challenge is to cook a dish that honors Julia and her style.
Before they start cooking, the chefs sit down with Jacques and a nice bottle of wine and can ask him questions about Julia and what she loved and how she worked. Everyone is so excited and nervous to talk to him. It must be crazy to meet your idols. I have no idea what that is like, but you could ask the guy who delivers my nightly pizza and he could probably tell you.
Quick aside here thanks to a well-timed ad, but apparently Last Chance Kitchen is still a thing going on that no one on the show chooses to address.
The chefs all pick classic Julia dishes, though some take them more straightforward than others. Gregory, normally one to shy away from heavy ingredients, is doing a traditional coq au vin and for the first time using butter. Mei is working on duck a l'orange, but giving it a modern twist by incorporating five spice into the dish.
George is cooking veal, but not wanting to be too safe, he decides to prepare it in a pressure cooker, which is a metaphor that hits you over the head so hard you want to see a doctor.
The dinner takes place at the idyllic Herb Lyceum. I had to google the name to make sure I heard right, and when I did, the first link that comes up is about how to reserve the space for a wedding. Hi, Mom, if you're in charge of Google now — which clearly you are — can you give it a rest?
Gregory serves first, and his coq au vin with glazed carrots, fava beans, and snap peas impresses all of the judges. Though the peas and carrots are not traditionally part of the dish, the rest of his preparation and presentation is spot on and a tribute to Julia through and through.
Mei is next with her duck a l'orange with turnip puree, orange puree, and glazed vegetables. Her presentation and inclusion of five spice is a risky move since both are a departure from the way Julia did it, but the entire table loves the dish.
Next up is George and his braised veal with pomme puree, morels, glazed carrots, and asparagus. Everyone agrees that the flavors come together nicely, though the meat itself is undercooked.
The iconic Top Chef "ominous tension" music begins when Melissa walks out to serve her dish. She prepared red-wine braised short rib with brown butter polenta and a garden of vegetables. Braising short ribs three hours is more ambitious than Justin Bieber buying an LSAT prep book. The gamble didn't quite pay off because the sear on her meat is too heavy, causing the piece to be bitter and dry. Despite the flaw in technique, her vegetables are cooked to true Julia Child standards.
Last to serve is Doug, who took the biggest risk of all by preparing roasted foie gras with roasted peaches, sweet and sour onions, and hazelnuts (hey, you could serve this in California now!). Running short on time, his foie didn't have enough time to rest, resulting in it being over seared on the outside, but on the inside under cooked.
At Judges' Table, Tom says that overall the dishes were good and reflected Julia Child's legacy on the culinary world, though there were some technical missteps.
Gregory and Mei were the top two dishes of the day, Gregory's being a literal interpretation of coq au vin and Mei's being a fresh take on duck a l'orange. I'm happy they are at the top of this challenge, because these are the two I imagined from the beginning being in the finals, which isn't next week, but it certainly bodes well for them. Mei wins the challenge, tearing up over its significance to her.
The bottom three all had an excellent handle on flavors, but struggled to properly cook their proteins. The judges ask George how he feels being on the bottom three of an Elimination Challenge, which is new for him. He was eliminated in the first Quickfire Challenge, and since his return to the show has been in the top. It's like watching the hot, popular girl not get the guy at the end of a late 90s teen movie (I'm looking at you, Taylor Vaughn in She's All That).
Ultimately, Doug's simultaneously undercooked and overcooked foie gras sends him home. Tom notes that he can still make a comeback in Last Chance Kitchen, so I guess now they're acknowledging it. We'll see next week.