Well, we’ve reached the Final Four of Top Chef. If this were college basketball, we’d all be like, “Ugh, I mean, does Duke have to be in every year? I kind of hate them for no real reason even though they made it this far on skill and talent. I just don’t like it.” (Hi, I grew up in Maryland and my Blue Devil hate runs pretty deep despite the fact that I didn’t even go to UMD. Sorry, Duke.) My Duke on this show is John Tesar. The man is clearly a talented chef, has worked hard to get here and stay here, yet I would really rather someone else be there in his place (cough cough, Sylva Senat).
Along with John are the other remaining chefs Shirley Chung, Sheldon Simeon, and Brooke Williamson. It’s an all veterans final four at this point — though you never know who will come out on top of Last Chance Kitchen. They arrive in the kitchen for their last episode in Charleston to see partitions at each of their stations dividing those tables into two. It looks like they’re about to play a very food-heavy version of The Dating Game.
Padma Lakshmi welcomes the chefs to their final Quickfire Challenge and introduces guest judge Michael Solomonov. He explains that communication is an important part of cooking. You could really say that about anything, though. Most things rely on communication, except maybe lying face down on the floor trying not to scream into the abyss every morning. What, I’m the only one with that hobby? Yeah right.
For this challenge, the chefs must conceive of a dish using the ingredients and tools at their station and not only make it themselves, but also verbally instruct a stranger on the other side of their station wall to create the exact same dish. They cannot see anything, it all must be done by talking through every step to someone who can’t see what the contestant is doing either. I can barely order a pizza over the phone successfully (thank you Domino’s Pizza Tracker), so instructing someone on how to actually make something seems near impossible.
While there is no immunity up for grabs, the winner does get a sous vide machine (eh, sure) and $10,000 (now we’re talking). Sheldon wants to win so he can take the ten grand to Vegas, which both does and does not seem like something he’d be into. To win, though, chefs will be judged not only on their dish but on how similar their partner’s dish is to the one they made.
The chefs put on blindfolds while their cooking partners enter. Obviously, it’s all family members: John and Sheldon’s wives, Shirley’s husband, and Brooke’s sister. And obviously none of them have any culinary experience whatsoever, so it really is the blind leading the non-onion-dicing blind.
Shirley yelling what to do and her husband doing what she says seems like a pretty natural rhythm that they fall into even though she has no idea it’s him on the other side. In fact, none of the chefs know their partners by their voices except for Sheldon who finally recognizes his wife when she says she can’t find the mushrooms.
Time’s up and all of the dishes are surprisingly on point. John takes a risk and makes a more complicated pan-seared scallop over lump crab succotash and beurre monté that his wife Tracy absolutely nails despite not being a trained chef. Brooke’s sister makes a pretty flawless collard greens with bacon, corn, and a poached egg thanks to Brooke’s instructions. And Shirley and her husband produce nearly identical soft scrambled eggs with brown butter and crab ragout. When asked if they’d be cooking together more after this challenge, Shirley’s husband simply answers, “No.”
They are all good, but perhaps Sheldon recognizing his wife was on the other side of the wall helped them be better in sync and perfectly match up their six minute egg with sautéed mushroom, charred onion, and grapefruit sauce. He wins the sous vide and the $10,000 prize. His plans for Vegas are immediately nixed by his wife to hopefully spend the money on something more practical. I mean, what could possibly be more practical than slot machines and pool parties? I can’t think of a single thing.
For the Elimination Challenge, Padma welcomes another guest judge, chef and member of the James Beard Foundation board of trustees, Mary Sue Milliken. Since this is the last time the contestants will be cooking in Charleston, the challenge is simply to create a dish that represents their journey here in South Carolina on this show. The winner will get to serve their dish and develop a menu around it at the James Beard House in New York. Shirley explains that the James Beard awards are to the culinary world what the Oscars are to the movie industry.
The chefs take their final trip to Whole Foods. It must be bittersweet to look at those $9 containers of dried figs and $3 a piece oranges and have to say goodbye to this home away from overpriced home. (Kidding, I love you Whole Foods! I just spent half of my paycheck at one tonight before watching this. Your 365 brand spicy hummus is a real sleeper hit, more people should be talking about how good it is. I may or may not have eaten some with a spoon in a moment of weakness on Tuesday.)
Sheldon’s time in Charleston has weirdly opened his eyes to how to cook more from his Filipino and Hawaiian roots and helped him get in touch with his background. He’s trying to blend the ingredients of South Carolina, namely Carolina gold rice, which he pulverizes into a flour to make a Southern take on chow fun noodles. Since Brooke isn’t one for abstract inspiration, she goes more literal and focuses on ingredients from challenges that she won, namely radishes and pork.
John is focusing more on the ocean, something he’s done in many of the challenges where he was successful this season. His dish is incredibly simple, which is a huge gamble this late in the competition because: 1) It will be compared against dishes that might be much more complex and feature more elements. And 2) There is nowhere to hide in a simple dish, every single detail must be perfect. He has a style of sofrito he loves that involves leaving the pepper skins on so they don’t all mush together, which he’s serving over scallops and a clam leek sea broth.
After prep, the chefs come back to their beautiful Charleston home one last time for a big family dinner with their Quickfire partners and Padma over the stove cooking up a dinner for everyone. I would bet that Padma is a great cook and I feel like I want to see what she eats in a week and try and mimic it, if for no other reason than to look 1/100th as amazing as she does. Seriously, her skin? It’s brighter than four of the five lightbulbs in my house.
The dinner seems like a much needed break for everyone, though it wasn’t without a little product placement for Padma’s own organic frozen rice label that better be carried at my Whole Foods so I can pick it up while I’m bankrupting my future in order to buy luxury candy bars.
Tensions run high in the kitchen on challenge day. There’s a lot at stake in this elimination. The three who stay don’t really stay — they are headed to Mexico for the finale. One person will not be going and will have to head to Last Chance Kitchen for one more chance. After a misstep with his noodles, Sheldon figures out how to get them exactly how he wants them. Brooke, on the other hand, isn’t super excited about her dish. She wishes she had more time to refine what she was doing and make some different choices.
John serves first and brings out his sofrito crusted scallop with braised leek sea broth. It’s a bright and beautiful dish, visually, and also extremely refined. He took inspiration from the nearby ocean, but also the simplicity of Edna Lewis’s recipes, and cooking scallops with his wife in the final Quickfire. It’s a good and flavorful dish, though Tom Colicchio thinks the sofrito would be elevated by peeling the skin from the peppers.
Next is Shirley with her oil poached grouper with meat and bone “herbal tea” consommé, collard greens, and cracklings. It’s inspired by her grandparents and her Chinese heritage, but features some of the outstanding ingredients she found in Charleston. Everyone at the table agrees it’s a pretty flawless dish. The fish is done perfectly, the broth is immensely flavorful, and she did an excellent job creating real connections between the places and flavors.
Brooke serves her braised pork shoulder with tenderloin and smoked island sweets, radish, and egg yolk. The dish has excellent textures but could be better in a few ways. It’s a touch too sweet and the tenderloin isn’t as juicy as it could be thanks to a cook in the sous vide machine.
Last is Sheldon with his Carolina gold rice chow fun noodles with pork belly, okra, annatto seeds, and turkey broth. This was a huge risk that really paid off as the judges all love it. It’s a creative dish and more importantly, it’s just delicious. And even more importantly, Tom ate the okra, his least favorite food.
Overall, it’s an excellent meal. These are all great dishes because these are all great chefs. It comes down to the smallest details. The undeniable best two dishes of the night, however, are from Shirley and Sheldon. I really think these two could be the final two when this is all over. Both were consistently at or near the top in challenges, but they know who they are as chefs and have incredible technique as well as inspiration. It’s a close call, but the winner for the challenge is Sheldon! He’ll be cooking a menu based around this dish at the James Beard House. And to put the icing on the pork and noodle cake--this is his first Elimination Challenge win all season. Right under the wire. Anyway, we’re all crying now and I want to jump through the screen and hug him and Shirley for making it so far.
Sadly, this means the bottom two of the night at John and Brooke. It leaves the judges wondering which is worse: leaving on pepper skins to create a slightly bitter dish, or over sweetening a dish and sous vide-ing pork tenderloin. Ultimately, the pork is the bigger crime, and Brooke is sent home much earlier than she wanted. She made it all the way to the final of her season, so to go home anything less than a champion feels like just not enough.
So, that’s it. Sheldon, Shirley, and John are headed to Mexico for the finale and will be joined by someone who has worked through Last Chance Kitchen. Who will it be? What kind of challenges will they face in Mexico? Will John finally lose his temper? Does Padma have an endless wardrobe of breezy, white, off-the-shoulder dresses she’ll be wearing? We’ll have to tune in next week to see.
Alison Leiby is a writer and comedian.
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