Here we are. This is the last challenge before this season's epic (I assume) finale. Everything's riding on this. It's the whole enchilada. Well, it's not the whole enchilada, but it's a good amount of the enchilada. It's the amount of the enchilada you eat until you feel full before you decide, "Screw it, fitting in your own jeans is for losers" and finish the whole thing, leaving yourself borderline comatose and two hours into a MythBusters marathon.
It's been a short stay in Mexico so far, and Doug Adams has already racked up three wins: his Last Chance Kitchen win to rejoin the competition, the quickfire, and the elimination challenge. He's riding a high, but as we've seen this season, those can come to a very abrupt end.
Doug, Mei Lin, and Gregory Gourdet head out to an organic farm in the city of Jalpa. The whole scene is breathtakingly beautiful: the lush greens, the vibrant produce, the delicate birds and butterflies flitting from branch to branch. Watching it I found myself thinking, "I would totally get married there." Then I started wondering what kind of steps I would need to take to make that happen, aside from the obvious first step of meeting someone I don't want to shove off a cliff by the end of our second happy hour pilsner.
Padma Lakshmi greets the chefs and introduces the executive chef of the farm, Enrique Farjeat. She tells the contestants that this quickfire is going to be bittersweet, which instantly sparks the thought of a sudden death challenge in everyone's mind. But no, it's not that, it's just bittersweet for Padma because it's the last quickfire of the season. Oh, Padma, always making it about yourself.
Her choice of the word "bittersweet" was not only to strike fear in the hearts of the contestants, but also was a lead in for the actual quickfire. For this challenge, the chefs must create both savory and sweet dishes using chocolate. The winner will have his or her first choice of sous chef for the elimination challenge.
With the entire farm at their disposal, the chefs are literally pulling vegetables out of the ground and using them in their dishes. Gregory finds some baby carrots that he wants to use for his sweet dish. I figured I must have heard that wrong but then thought, well, carrot cake exists, and that's delicious, so carrots could totally be a dessert. It's mind-blowing to me how chefs can see an ingredient and instantly envision other flavors and how to put a dish together. Feels like almost a sixth sense. It's probably a lot like my ability to hear someone making plans and instantly know how I will cancel them.
Of the three, Doug seems to be struggling the most with his dessert dish, which is a little enraging. There have been twelve seasons of Top Chef before this, and every season there is one challenge, or at least one chef, who ends up having to prepare a dessert even though it isn't his strong suit. It's just a given. So to prepare for the show and go on and last so long, Doug must have at some point known he should have a go-to, back pocket dessert to whip up if he absolutely has to. Even bubblegum pop princess Katy Perry could skate by with a little karaoke rapping along with Missy Elliot even though she has spent most of her career singing about teenage love and wearing cupcake bras.
Mei serves Padma and Enrique first. Her savory dish is duck with bitter greens and chocolate mezcal. For her sweet dish, she prepared chocolate yogurt with cocoa nibs and nasturtium. The judges love both dishes, though Padma especially loves the dessert's flavor and texture.
Next up is Doug, who felt confident in his savory dish and significantly less so in his sweet one. First he serves seared hen with onions, tomatoes, chocolate, and ancho chili. Next, he serves basically a bowl of whatever chocolates were available for the challenge. He made melted chocolate with chocolate mezcal and white chocolate whipped cream. "It tastes like alcohol that hasn't burned off all the way," notes Padma, which doesn't bode well for Doug in this challenge.
Gregory's savory dish is seared lamb with white chocolate ancho sauce and green chorizo vinaigrette. He's really returned in the last few challenges to making the kind of food I want to eat. Though for the most part all that requires is using chorizo somehow, but from a more broad perspective, he's creating warm, flavorful, vibrant dishes. For his sweet dish he made baby carrots with turmeric, dark chocolate, ginger, and rosemary.
Enrique announces that Gregory is the winner, and that he loved his chocolate and carrot dish so much that he asks permission to use it as a recipe at the farm.
Now we're onto the main event. This elimination challenge is the difference between cooking in the finale and heading home to the United States (though, really, I think you stick around and arguably have to be someone's sous chef, which seems like the ultimate punishment). For this challenge, the chefs will work together to create a six course progressive meal that highlights several Mexican ingredients. Each ingredient will have its own course, and the chefs need to choose carefully who will work with which items.
For some help preparing this meal, a group of the eliminated chefs enters the farm as the pool from which Doug, Mei, and Gregory can select their sous chefs. Bravo has just been keeping them around for moments like this. I imagine they've all been sitting in some courtyard until Padma enters and slowly says, "It's time." Then they file out and onto a windowless van that drops them off at these challenges as a painful reminder that they didn't make it this far in the competition.
Gregory chooses George Pagonis as his sous chef, who is basically the human, Top Chef version of a bodega cat now on his fourth life. Mei obviously chooses her soul sister Melissa King. And Doug only has to say, "Vamos," for his partner in crime Katsuji Tanabe to join him in the challenge.
The six of them head to find out what their Mexican ingredients are. Over the course of the meal they will have to highlight guava, avocado, queso fresco, poblano peppers, huitlacoche (a mold that grows in corn), and escamole (ant eggs). Gregory and Mei quickly pick the ingredients they want to work with and Doug is left with cheese and ant eggs, the two ingredients he was the least interested in cooking with.
Because this is a progressive meal, the three teams must plan the menu together so that it flows nicely and highlights each dish the best it can. Once the order and dishes are set everyone heads to the Hidalgo Market to shop for ingredients. Doug lucked out having Katusji as a sous chef because he speaks Spanish and can help navigate the market and the items. Doug thanks him for this by saying, "only two beers tonight," which makes me think Katsuji was the MOST fun back in the Boston apartment after a challenge.
Before heading to start cooking, Doug, Mei, and Gregory have a totally natural and not at all staged or forced conversation about how their families feel about them being on Top Chef and now in the final episodes. It's vague and uncomfortable and feels like the producers' last ditch effort at an emotional storyline not directly connected to a challenge.
The judges enter La Casona, which looks like the location where Andy Cohen would host the Real Housemadres of San Miguel reunion show where Sophia throws a glass of tequila at Ana Maria calling her a no-good mentirosa. It's actually a very beautiful setting, but it's hard to pay attention to that because Padma has what appears to be the tusk of an adult elephant hanging around her neck.
Gregory's guava course is first because it's the lightest and most logical start to the meal. He prepared chilled guava soup with bay scallops, habañero, and roasted guava. All of the judges at the table love the flavors, Tom Colicchio especially enjoys the heat in it. Richard Blais points out that cold fruit soup is pretty easy to make boring or bad. Isn't cold fruit soup just a smoothie though? Either way, Gregory did the opposite and made something truly delicious and nuanced.
The second course is avocado prepared by Mei. She made traditional guacamole, though instead of chunky preparation served in a molcajete (because this isn't a business lunch at Rosa Mexicana), her presentation is inspired by a sushi roll. Her classic guacamole — plus the addition of xoconostle — is rolled up in thin slices of avocado and then topped with radish, serrano, and tortilla strips. The whole table admires the technical work and enjoys the dish, but ultimately question her choice to just serve guacamole as a course during the second to last challenge. It's a simple and unimaginative dish beyond the plating.
Next is the third course, which is escamole from Doug. He made a tortilla español with escamoles and escamol aioli. During preparation he layered in the escamoles as many ways as he could: crisping them, adding them to the tortilla, roasting and making an aioli from them. What he thought would be a flavorful dish when it came to the ingredient though, actually fell short. The flavor and texture of the escamoles were lost a bit with the rest of the egg and potato in the tortilla.
Mei served the fourth course with the corn mold. She made a huitlacoche agnolotti with roasted corn broth. The judges all love it, the broth in particular. One of the Mexican judges says, in Spanish, that he would order it again. Thankfully, Padma translated for us. The overall opinion of the table that it's one of the strongest dishes of the night so far.
Gregory is back for the fifth course highlighting poblano peppers. He prepared pork and poblano stew with roasted tomatillos. "This is Mexico," said someone at the table, implying that these charred, layered, rich flavors are what cooking in this country is all about.
The last course of the night is Doug with the cheese. He served smoked queso fresco with spiced honey, squash chips, and charred pickles. A cheese plate, like a cold fruit soup I guess, can be very boring and actually quite difficult to make good. Doug did just that though with his fresh flavors and creative textures. The table loves it and it's an excellent end to an impressive meal.
This decision for the judges is a tough one because the meal had its ups and downs, and they are three incredibly different chefs. The one thing that everyone can agree on off the bat, though, is that Gregory should go to the finale. Both his chilled guava soup and his pork and poblano stew were excellent dishes and arguably highlights of the evening.
So the actual decision is really just between Mei and Doug. Both tremendously talented chefs, both struggled with one of their dishes this evening. Mei is clearly a technical badass and the preparation on her guacamole dish was flawless, but at the end of the day she still just served guacamole despite the myriad of dishes she could have created highlighting the avocado (this is according to Tom and not my opinion because, frankly, the only way I know how to serve avocado is guacamole or on a sandwich). Doug, however, was charged with highlighting escamole in a dish somehow and not only did he not make a particularly tasty tortilla, but more importantly, the flavor of the star ingredient got lost in all of the other elements.
After what seemed to be a very difficult decision, Doug is told to pack his knives and go. I was a fan of Doug, and I'm sad to see him leave the competition again. Though, I'm apparently not as sad as Tom, who tells him that he's going to make a trip to Portland so that they can go fishing together. Honestly, Tom, forget this Best New Restaurant nonsense and go start a show called Fishin' with Tom and Doug. I'd watch that. Who wouldn't?
As much of a bummer as it to see Doug leave the show after earning his way back, I could not be more excited for a Mei-Gregory finale. From the first episode, these are the two that I thought would make it to the end. I never wrote that here because I don't really like to gamble (aside from carrying an iPhone around without a case, which is basically like betting $600 a day that I won't do something stupid).
So here we go. Next week we will see which of these two totally badass, oddly soup/stew/broth heavy contestants will win the twelfth season of Top Chef.