It was hard not to watch this episode without the background music of "Right Back To Where We Started From" by Maxine Nightingale (side note: it's my go-to karaoke song). We are back to the culinary capital where it all started, San Francisco.
The remaining five chefs are in the culinary epicenter where Top Chef began just 12 short seasons ago. It seems like we only have one or two episodes left given the small pool competing, but with the fast and loose rules of reality TV cooking, who even knows anymore.
The final five arrive at the Commissary to see Padma Lakshmi and Traci Des Jardins for an early morning challenge. It's intense to think that they are doing their last Quickfire Challenge in the morning. No one is on their game in the morning. I'm a stand-up comic so my day starts when the sun goes down, so the idea of doing anything before I've had at least two meals feels like an aggressive ask.
Padma explains the challenge, which is that the chefs must make their version of a great toast. It's a trend that's sweeping the country and feels appropriate for the city known for its excellent bread. It kind of feels like this should have been the Instagram challenge given how often we all see avocado toast when scrolling through our feed, but it isn't. But not only are they charged with making a delicious dish from the simplest of beginnings, this is also a sudden death Quickfire where one chef is absolutely getting sent home. Also, the winner gets a $16,000 oven, but that seems so secondary compared to just staying in the competition.
Amar Santana decides to go with what he knows: He wants to just do a whole dish and then put it on top of a piece of bread. That's not quite a "toast," but he's just going for something he knows he can make taste good. Carl Dooley opts for a Catalan dish he knows well, which controversially combines cheese and seafood.
Padma and Traci call time and taste all of the dishes. They love Jeremy Ford's chicken liver mousse with pickled cherries, white raspberry, and arugula on ciabatta. They also enjoy Marjorie Meek-Bradley's very San Franciscan choice to prepare a sourdough baguette toast with pancetta fennel marmalade and dungeness crab salad. Isaac Toups's butter-fried ciabatta with pecorino, prosciutto, and pepper spread, while not Cajun, does work well.
The winner of the challenge is Jeremy, who gets a spot in the final four plus an oven that costs more than a standard Kia.
Sadly, this leaves Amar and Carl to duke it out in the Sudden Death Quickfire to see who is immediately going home. It's a huge mind shift to go from, "Hey, this is a Quickfire and I better do well so I get an advantage but also why not take a risk?" to "Great, now whatever I cook is putting me either into the final or sending me home from the whole competition."
Since this Quickfire turned into an elimination challenge, Padma calls in the big guns in the form of Tom Colicchio. He explains that the task at hand is simple, just cook one great dish in 30 minutes. No rules, no restrictions, no regulation. Just make good food. It would almost be an easier challenge if they were under some constraint of ingredients or technique, but no.
With an almost unwanted freedom, the two both opt for fish dishes. Carl goes with a crudo — a dish that has kept him and other contestants from the bottom of a challenge throughout this season. Amar takes more of a risk. He sees a great white fish and decides to stretch outside his comfort zone and do an Asian-influenced dish.
Time's up and the judges are ready to taste the battling dishes. Amar prepared a pan-roasted sea bream with watermelon radish, plum yuzu brown butter and pickled mushrooms. Carl made a Thai snapper crudo with corn, nectarines, chilies, yellow tomato and rice wine vinegar. Padma slightly scoffs, "Another crudo?" like Carl had been making them all season. That would be Jeremy, though. He's the crudo king who has skated by on raw fish for weeks.
In the end, the three judges vote 2 to 1 that Carl had the better dish. This means Amar is being sent home on the spot. It's unfortunate for someone who made it so far and who has so much talent that he has to be unceremoniously sent home in the middle of the day in an empty restaurant. I really enjoyed Amar as both a competitor — because of his obviously great talent — and as a personality on the show with his hearty laugh and his disregard for fluff and bullshit. I hope that he can make it through Last Chance Kitchen to return to the show and keep cranking out amazing chicken dishes.
Given the escalation of the competition and the fact that the chefs are cooking in the city where this whole franchise was born, Padma brings in a pretty special guest judge, Hubert Keller. He's the legendary owner of Fleur de Lys and a late-season Top Chef mainstay judge.
Fleur de Lys closed its doors in June after decades of setting the bar for French fine dining. For this last elimination before the finale, the chefs are each tasked with cooking one dish that celebrates the iconic restaurant. They'll also be the last chefs to cook in that kitchen, which is fittingly where the first Quickfire was held in season one.
Keller brings out past menus from over the years and the chefs are each drawn to different elements. Marjorie latches onto lamb while Carl instantly decides he needs to do a foie gras dish. His "go big or go home" attitude with this challenge is a risky one. The dish he plans to do normally take three days, but the chefs only have three hours.
As a treat and to help guide them through this momentous challenge, Keller invites the four chefs to have dinner he's preparing at Fleur de Lys. They all show up nicely dressed — a rare event in this season (Hi, Marjorie, can I borrow that leather jacket? Just let me know). But no sentimental meal on this show would be complete without Emeril Lagasse, who shows up in the dining room with a bottle of wine in each hand. As they drink and eat, Jeremy asks Hubert how he comes up with new dishes. He explains that it usually happens after midnight, when everyone else is gone, with a glass of wine. So apparently new dishes aren't that different from desperate hook-ups.
The next day, it becomes clear that Isaac and Carl both bit off more than they can chew with this challenge. Concerned by his lack of a fine-dining background in comparison to the rest of the chefs, Isaac decides to do a duck ballotine, which is a classic but time-consuming dish. And he's not just preparing one, he's preparing seven.
While the four in the kitchen are sweating out the final moments of cooking, the 40 VIP guests start pouring into the dining room. There are Padma, Tom, and Emeril, along with Gail Simmons. There's Top Chef season one winner Harold Dieterle, along with Chris Cosentino, Dominique Crenn, and tables of other legendary chefs and restaurant owners, all preparing to eat the final meal ever served at this iconic restaurant.
Isaac serves his dish first, which is duck ballotine with porcini mushrooms, beluga lentils, broiled figs, and an aged balsamic gastrique. It's slightly dried out as he ran out of time and cooked the meat shorter at a high heat rather than slowly at something a bit lower. The flavors are all there, but it lacks the refinement of other dishes the restaurant is known for.
Aware of how often Tom has criticized chefs this season for meat that has sat for too long, Marjorie's anxious about when cook hers. She holds off as long as she can. She serves roasted lamb saddle with artichoke puree, artichoke barigoule, roasted squash, tomatoes, and nicoise olives. It's a simple and straightforward dish with nowhere to hide if something is off. The diners find the dish refined and fitting for the restaurant, but the lamb could have sat longer.
Jeremy is confident in his dish, coming off of his Quickfire win. He serves a filet de loup de mer, truffle potato puree, pommes soufflees, and heirloom tomatoes. The dish is delicate, delightful, and perfectly in line with the cuisine Fleur de Lys was known for. The judges love every element of it.
Last is Carl, who prepared foie gras en gelee with black pepper, strawberry, and green herbs. Though the flavors are bright and a nice combination, the foie gras is nearly raw. He set himself up to fail because there's just no way that dish could ever be done properly in three hours.
At Judges' Table, they recognize that though there were mistakes, all of the dishes really honored the restaurant and made for an enjoyable send off to Fleur de Lys and to Hubert Keller. The winner for the challenge is Jeremy, who is now back to being at the top of the pack like he was at the beginning of the season.
The remaining three chefs all know they made mistakes and are all hoping for one of the two remaining spots in the finale. Padma says, "Marjorie... please join Jeremy," in the most expected yet still incredibly cruel way to tell the recently crying Marjorie that she's made it to the finale. Unfortunately, it's time for Carl to pack his knives and go for his undercooked and overambitious foie gras.
So that's the final three. Well, kind of. Someone is coming back from Last Chance Kitchen, so there will be a final four before then a final three again, and — I think — at the end it's probably a final two that go head-to-head before a final winner is decided. We're almost there. I think.