We did it. We finally got to the finals in Guadalajara, Mexico that Padma has been teasing us about in the show’s opening credits all season long. Each of the three finalists gets a quick mini-montage of their journey from the first day in Charleston to arriving in the beautiful Guadalajara suite. They have all learned a lot about themselves and their cooking in the last 11 episodes, and it all comes down to this. Well, this and then another challenge. And also some Quickfires? Or maybe not. And someone comes back. But then that person might go home? Honestly, the rules of Top Chef finales change more than I do when I’m getting dressed to leave the house and then ultimately just go with the black jeans and t-shirt I had on in the first place.
As soon as Sheldon Simeon, Shirley Chung, and John Tesar arrive in their room, John quotes Steely Dan to solidify his role not only as finalist, but as middle aged white man. They don’t have to linger in the awkwardness long because the chefs head to Estadio Chivas, home of Mexico’s favorite soccer team. Yeah, I said soccer. I’m writing this from a house in Los Angeles while I eat my night cake and vaguely listen to the drunk screaming of Vanderpump Rules in the background. I’m an American. The word football means tackles and litigious behavior, not people kicking a ball around on the grass.
Padma Lakshmi awaits them at the center of the field wearing white bootcut jeans, proving there is absolutely nothing she can’t pull off. With her is Tom Colicchio and guest judge Francisco Ruano. They explain that for this Quickfire Challenge, the chefs have 45 minutes to make a dish featuring the mascot of Chivas, the goat.
But before the chefs can get started hacking away at the mascot of a beloved team, they need to find out who will be rejoining them as they race toward victory. In a reveal that should surprised absolutely no one, it’s Brooke Williamson. I had my fingers crossed for Sylva Senat, but knew deep down it would be Brooke. She’s a force.
Brooke is thrilled to be back in the finale and now competing with a new energy. She spent the whole season being terrified of elimination, especially since on her original season she never was until the very end. Now she has been. The worst thing that could happen in the competition has already happened, so she has no more fear. It’s like when you’re dating and the guy tells you he has 30 pet birds, so you keep getting out there because there’s no way there is a man out there scarier than 30 pet bird guy.
Sheldon knows that goat takes a long time, so he opts for the cheeks since they will cook faster than other cuts. Shirley also know how to cook goat, but she’s used to taking two days to prepare it, not under an hour. She also wants to make noodles but doesn’t have a rolling pin so she needs to make them in the tortilla press, which sounds like the anecdote someone would tell about how they opened up an Asian-Mexican fusion restaurant.
The press works and the judges enjoy Shirley’s braised goat breast with noodles, huitlacoche, and radish, though they wish there were deeper flavors in the broth. John’s goat torta has a challenging bread-to-meat ratio in addition to rather chewy goat. The judges do like Sheldon’s braised goat cheek in ancho chile with charred salsa and avocado. But the winner of the challenge — and also $10,000 courtesy of Last Chance Kitchen’s very obvious sponsor, Hidden Valley Ranch — is Brooke for her goat ribs with chamomile, chiles, mango, and papaya salad. She went from eliminated to win in one fell swoop, so maybe she’ll make like her competitor Kristen Kish and come back from Last Chance Kitchen to win the whole damn thing.
Padma explains to the chefs that they are in Jalisco, which is the birthplace of tequila. And not only is it the birthplace of tequila, but it is also the location of the Patron distillery, so obviously they are doing a tequila challenge. In college my friends and I did something we called tequila challenge, but it was very different. You just had to split a bottle of tequila with your team of four people as fast as possible. Technically the first one done wins, but really everyone loses because the hangover almost kills you.
For the elimination challenge, the chefs must make a dish inspired by the classic margarita. They must incorporate sweet, salty, sour, and bitter notes into a dish and also make a complementing creative margarita to pair with it for a party at the Patron distillery for 100 people. Since it’s a big challenge, they need help, which of course comes in the form of eliminated contestants. Enter Casey Thompson, Emily Hahn, Katsuji Tanabe, and Sylva.
Brooke won cash, but also the chance to not only pick her sous chef, but also assign the other chefs theirs. She picks Casey because they work well together, and assigns Emily to Sheldon, Sylva to Shirley, and Katsuji to John. That last matchup is clearly an attempt at sabotage, evidenced by the fact that the first thing out of Katsuji’s mouth to John is that he threw him under the bus in Restaurant Wars. So that team is off to a running start!
All eight chefs head to the Patron distillery, into the desert and among all of the beautiful blue agave. It’s weird to see that the drink responsible for me once leaving a three minute voicemail of scream-singing “These Dreams” by Heart comes from such a beautiful plant. They do a tequila tasting of the three types in order to inspire their dishes as well as their paired cocktails.
Once the buzz wears off, everyone heads to the grocery store, and Toto, we’re not in Whole Foods anymore. Brooke planned on doing a tuna ceviche with watermelon but arrives to find the tuna just isn’t good enough for the dish. She has to pivot and use coconut meat as a substitute so that her avocado soup still has a meaty element to it.
Shirley is doing charred beef and salsa and going more Mexican than her typical refined Asian cooking style. For her marinade, she asked Sylva to grab a few bottles of agave nectar and he accidentally grabbed Mexican vanilla. She tastes it in the marinade and thinks it actually works, so maybe it’s a happy accident.
Meanwhile, Sheldon needs to put his octopus in the pressure cooker, and all it makes me think of is the video of an octopus escaping its tank at an aquarium. He manages to cook it and I manage to briefly get that nightmare of a video out of my mind, but he’s afraid it may be overdone.
Guests and judges begin arriving at the party. The distillery itself is really beautiful. I can tell it’s beautiful because within four seconds of seeing a shot of it I think, “Oh that would be a beautiful place to get married.” That’s the mark of a really nice space — when people immediately think of it as a wedding venue. Also, please note, I’m as single as a Kraft cheese slice. That’s how beautiful the distillery is.
Judges visit Sheldon first and try his octopus kinilaw, which is like ceviche. He pairs it with a guava and coconut margarita which Richard Blais compares to a fish tank because there is so much muddled garnish floating in it. The octopus is cooked nicely, but both the dish and the drink are very sweet and the flavors are almost too similar for the pairing to really work.
Next is Shirley and her charred beef with salsa molcajete served with a cucumber and honeydew margarita. The salsa is outstanding and hits all four of the notes that the judges wanted. The beef is also cooked nicely, but the vanilla is an accident that doesn’t turn out to be a happy one. Padma says it tastes like there is whipped cream with the meat. As for her cocktail, the flavors make sense but it needs to be strained and more clear.
John served caldo verde con pollo, a hearty stew, along with a Patron Silver margarita. He doesn’t do a creative take or a special flavoring to work with his dish, just a straightforward cocktail with a traditional candy-like rim courtesy of Katsuji. The dish itself is nice though it needs more depth of flavor, and the drink is good on its own, but paired together, the overall strength of the alcohol obliterates any flavor in the stew.
Last is Brooke and her chilled avocado soup with watermelon and coconut salad served with a spicy watermelon and hibiscus margarita. It’s a bold move to do a cold soup in the last challenge before the finale, but the judges find it tasty and refreshing and it works very nicely with her cocktail.
At Judges’ Table, Tom explains that this challenge wasn’t just about making a good dish and a good drink, but that pairing is really important. Lots of good food was out there today, but it didn’t always come together at the end. One did though, and that was Brooke. She wins the challenge, a seat in the finale, and a rare, $7,500 bottle of Patron. Brooke is weirdly now an underdog story. She was the leader the whole season, gets eliminated in the last challenge and now comes back to win a Quickfire and Elimination back-to-back along with cash and pricey booze. Get it girl.
Brooke gets to stay, but someone needs to leave. Shirley’s dish was great until the accidental vanilla got in the way. Sheldon’s octopus was good too, but his muddy cocktail was not. John played it safe with an uncomplicated stew and a straightforward and strong classic margarita. In the end, John played it just way too safe and not nearly well executed enough and he is sent packing.
So our final three (now, at least) are Brooke, Sheldon, and Shirley. We have one more week with beautiful Mexico. Let’s all enjoy it.
Alison Leiby is a writer and comedian.
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