It's the end... kind of. Welcome to part one of a rather confusing and newly structured Top Chef finale. Just like the first season of the show a decade ago, the final challenges take place in the culinary landmark and hot tub waterborne disease capital that is Las Vegas.
Jeremy Ford, Isaac Toups, and Marjorie Meek-Bradley are the three chefs fighting for a spot in the actual head-to-head finale. They arrive in their luxury hotel suite to find snack towers, flutes of champagne, and monogrammed pillowcases on each of their beds. And next to the comfortable queen sized mattress, fitted with crisp white sheets with the initials of the final three, is a lone cot that is clearly for the incoming winner of this season of Last Chance Kitchen. It's like the reality competition version of the cup of wine you leave out for Elijah on Passover.
The chefs arrive in the arena of the MGM Grand to see Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio. Now is time not only to reveal the final Quickfire, but also to find out who fought their way through Last Chance Kitchen to get back into the competition. And that person is Amar Santana. That's exactly who I hope it would be. He won challenge after challenge all season and deserved a spot in the finale as much as the other three.
For this Quickfire, there will be no losers, just a winner. The chef who wins this challenge has an automatic spot in the finale and also gets $25,000 courtesy of Hidden Valley Original Ranch. My only hope for the challenge is that it isn't to use ranch dressing. Thankfully, it's just a sponsor.
The actual challenge comes from the unofficial mascot of Las Vegas. No, not a fanny pack, a deck of cards. Historically, each suit in the deck represented a class of society. Spades were for royalty, hearts for clergy, diamonds for merchants, and clubs for peasants. Each chef will draw a card, and that suit/social class correlates to a pantry in the kitchen.
Padma deals the cards and Marjorie gets the spade pantry. Isaac gets hearts, Jeremy gets diamonds, and poor Amar gets clubs. He has to use the most limited and basic pantry after fighting his way back into the competition. If I were him I'd be kind of pissed.
The challenge calls for the chefs to cook for 150 guests in only three hours, and to do that they have some help that very obviously shows up in the form of other eliminated contestants stepping in as sous chefs. Marjorie chooses Karen Akunowicz, recreating one of my favorite duos in this season of the show. Isaac picks his buddy Carl Dooley, Jeremy goes for Kwame Onwuachi, and that leaves Amar with his former roommate and foam fiend, Phillip Frankland Lee.
Marjorie feels a little overwhelmed because she almost has too many choices. Not only does she have the luxury pantry with the finest ingredients, but she also has access to all three of the other pantries, too. A lesser chef would struggle to edit down a dish from all of those ingredients. She decides on a simple salmon and salad dish, but keeps going back to those self sabotage thoughts like, "Am I doing enough?" "Should I be doing something different?" She recognizes this, though, and sticks with her initial plan.
Guests arrive in the arena that sees plenty of fights, but usually they involve getting punched in the face by a world class athlete, not nailing the cook on chicken skin that's better than another chef's.
The judges try Amar's station first. His lowly peasant dish of sauteed chicken livers and onions with root vegetable puree, crispy leeks and caramelized honey gastrique impresses everyone. The flavors are there, the technique is there, it's a great dish. Next is Jeremy, who serves butter poached chicken with zucchini puree, chicken crackling, and pickled sweet and hot grapes. Gail Simmons absolutely loves the grapes, and the crispness of the crackling is perfect.
Atheist Isaac with the clergy suit of hearts prepared seared black cod with caramelized fennel, eggplant, and red wine vinegar. It's a slight departure from the Cajun influenced, meat-heavy dishes he's served up for most of the season, but it's done nicely —particularly the sauce. Last up is Marjorie with her regal dish of seared salmon with vadouvan beurre montee, shaved vegetable salad and meyer lemon puree. It's fresh, bright, and extremely flavorful.
It's overall a strong start to the finale, and guest judge Rick Moonen announces that the winner of the Quickfire is Jeremy. His chicken and grapes dish earned him a guaranteed spot in the finale and $25,000. He gets to sit back and enjoy a day off while the other three fight for the other spot.
For the elimination challenge, Padma welcomes guest judge, Vegas staple, magician, and ex-Mr. Claudia Schiffer, David Copperfield. And then he appeared out of nowhere! Well, he walked out from backstage, but still, it's very exciting. For this challenge, the chefs are tasked with creating a magical dish that wows the judges and preparing it tableside in order to make it all a big spectacle or illusion. The purpose of this challenge, apparently, is to see if the chefs are also good showmen, because that's apparently part of being successful these days. I don't find it that necessary. I do stand-up and I'd be pretty annoyed if someone was like, "Yeah, but to truly find a place in the entertainment world today, while you're doing your act, you also need to make a decent omelet."
I'm just glad the guest is David Copperfield and not Criss Angel. Then the challenge would be to just, like, cook a dish, but over the course of a week and without any real magic happening, just you being kind of uncomfortable for a while. To get some inspiration, Padma magically makes tickets to Copperfield's show appear for the chefs.
Marjorie is fascinated by Copperfield's ability to tell a story through magic, so she decides to tell a story through cooking. She's starting with a dish she first made in culinary school years ago, duck a l'orange, and showing how it can be elevated and changed in front of the judges' eyes.
Isaac leans more on the illusion element and decides to do a "chicken fried steak," but his interpretation involves adhering a crispy cornish game hen skin to a dry aged rib eye. Amar goes with what he knows and uses technical tricks and surprises to assemble his complicated squab dish.
For one element of Marjorie's dish she wants to use liquid nitrogen — for the first time in her career — to freeze dry the orange. She's testing the technique and tastes a bite of the orange bits too soon and burns her tongue on the liquid nitrogen. So now she's flying blind (I want to use whatever the equivalent is to "blind" here but for taste but there isn't a word for it, so bear with me) into the last and most important challenge of the competition.
She's first to serve, and comes out and puts down a few plates of classic duck a l'orange on the judges' table. Then she tells them, "you know what, no" and picks the dishes back up, explaining that a little smoke and mirrors can change everything. She dissembles the dish at the station in front of the judges, explaining along the way the story of this dish and her culinary history. Nerves get the best of her and she puts a bit too much orange in the bowl to freeze dry with the liquid nitrogen, risking the flavor being diluted.
It all comes together on a mirror, though. She prepared roasted duck a l'orange with braised endive, caramelized romesco, and fennel puree. The flavors are excellent and go together nicely and she did a terrific job putting on a real show for the judges. Unfortunately, the orange taste isn't quite strong enough.
Next is Isaac, perhaps the ultimate showman of the entire season. If Isaac isn't Top Chef then he really needs to have a cooking show, because I would watch him prepare food all day and thoroughly enjoy it. He finishes cooking his dish and plates an upside down shot glass of sauce before presenting the judges with his "chicken fried steak" which is a dry aged ribeye with crispy hen skin, quadruple fennel puree, and yuzu hollandaise. They love the flavors, but the puree is a little grainy.
Last up is back from elimination Amar, who is there with something to seriously prove. Unlike Marjorie and Isaac, throughout his preparation he's virtually silent. Finally, the judges lift up their smoke filled glass cloches to see a stunning plate of squab with white chocolate truffle cauliflower ganache, whipped balsamic, mole sauce, and a potato "onion" ring. He showed excellent technique, had spot on flavors, and truly did create a dish full of surprises.
It's a difficult, high-stakes elimination as two chefs are going home and one is advancing to compete with Jeremy (who has been chilling at the pool all day) in the finale. While everyone embraced the challenge and cooked great dishes, Amar is the winner. This is sadly the end of the road for my girl Marjorie and the Cajun sensation, Isaac, but it's satisfying to see Amar come back from Last Chance Kitchen and get into the final two.
So there it is. Next week we see the final showdown between Jeremy and Amar. It's crudo vs. chicken. Brah vs. ja. Should be a good one.