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‘Top Chef’ Recap: Enter the Fire Cave

The second-to-last episode is full of surprises

Paul Cheney/Bravo

I’m going to be honest, I thought this episode was going to be the finale. I was nervous for the chefs all day thinking about it. And then, sure enough, this is not the finale. I always forget that classic Top Chef gameplay where they get down to four contestants, eliminate one, then bring one back, then eliminate one again, then the finale. So, guess I can get nervous all over again next week!

Sheldon Simeon, Brooke Williamson, and Shirley Chung pack up to head from Guadalajara to the Yucatan peninsula. There’s a bit of a third wheel feeling, as Brooke and Sheldon competed on the same original season in Seattle whereas Shirley was first on Top Chef New Orleans. I get it Shirley, I’m almost always a third wheel: when I’m hanging out with my married friends, when I’m hanging out with my coupled friends, when I’m in a room that has two plants in it. It can be tough.

All three of these chefs made it very far the first time around. Brooke went all the way to the finale, and Sheldon was eliminated right before that final competition. Shirley, like Sheldon, got so close but so far. They all have a lot to prove.

At the Secrets resort, the three get to unwind a little — enjoy the ocean and go snorkeling, have some piña coladas. I at first thought that it was a Sandals resort and was like, whoa, this is way nicer than what I thought Sandals is like. I always imagine that their pool is just a blue dumpster in a hole and the bar DJ is a fax machine in a Kangol hat. But no, this is Secrets, and it looks super nice and relaxing.


They don’t get to relax long because Padma Lakshmi calls for them via a breakfast letter and they are off to Valladolid. Waiting for them in the town square are three stations and Padma in what might be the worst outfit she’s worn all season. It’s a denim quasi-maxi dress with an asymmetrical fringed hem. In what world is anyone wearing that?

We need to take a second to discuss Padma’s outfits this year. Her stylists are batting .500 at best. The woman can wear anything and yet all they do is stick her in cheap looking denim and too many out-dated jumpsuits. Look, she’s unquestionably one of the most beautiful women in the world. If she showed up at my wedding in a garbage bag everyone would say, “Oh, that must be the bride.” But seriously, if the show needs help picking out clothes next season, I’m available. It’d be like playing Barbies.


Anyway, acid washed Padma introduces guest judge Ricardo Muniz Zurita. He explains that the habanero has been used in Mexican cuisine for 8500 years. It’s not just any pepper though, it’s about 140 times hotter than your garden variety jalapeño. So, for this last Quickfire Challenge, the chefs must make a dish featuring the habanero using ingredients they buy at a local market.

Shirley feels good going into the challenge because she worked at Jose Andrés’s Chinese-Mexican restaurant, so she’s familiar with the ingredients and flavors. She also tells us that sometimes to wake up she takes a bite of a habanero, which is by far the most insane alarm clock I can imagine. Shirley, have you tried coffee?

While Shirley and Brooke are gathering ingredients, Sheldon is struggling to get through the market with his limited Spanish. Desperate for some queso fresco to cool down the hot pepper, he asks everyone there and eventually some ladies at a table sell him something wrapped that he hopes is cheese. Sheldon, that’s how I pretty much live my life: hoping everything is cheese.

The peppers plus the heat (aka unavoidable sweat) is giving everyone a tough time, and on top of that, there are birds screaming through this entire segment of the show — during the cooking, over Padma, like, at all times. Someone shut them the hell up.

Brooke is so sweaty she can’t get her blender open. Finally, Sheldon helps her and she makes her salsa but then gets the top stuck again. Sheldon finally cuts into his package and finds out it is not cheese at all but a tamal. Left with no other options, he uses that in his dish.

Masa dumplings

Padma and Ricardo enjoy Shirley’s masa dumplings with poached egg, chayote squash and habanero salsa. They like elements of Sheldon’s pan-roasted chayote squash stuffed with tamal and charred habanero salsa, but it didn’t need the tamal and is a bit too spicy. But the winner is Quickfire Queen Brooke for her roasted pork loin with orange and green habanero salsas.

For the Elimination Challenge, Padma introduces another guest judge, chef Jeremiah Tower. He’s a legend in establishing California cuisine, but now lives in the Yucatan. In a very scripted paragraph, Padma explains that Mayan culture influenced a lot about what we know of modern Mexico, including the food. And to honor that influence, the chefs will be making a dish using authentic Mayan ingredients and cooking with only the tools and heat that the Mayans had. This means everything except their knives is off-limits. No blenders, no sous vide, no ovens or pressure cookers. Just open flame and stoneware.

Paul Cheney/Bravo

Ricardo and Jeremiah take the chefs to a garden to discuss the produce and ingredients they’ll be using and help them understand some of the tools a little more. They see the leaves and the herbs and taste and ask questions. There’s a lot of asking what they will have, but no one is asking what ingredients or tools they won’t have.

The next day the chefs arrive at the giant cave that is Xcaret and see what they’ll actually be working with. There’s a fire pit with a grill top on it, some molcajetes, and a giant pile of produce and ingredients. Missing from those ingredients, Brooke notices, are aromatics. No onions, garlic, no limes, no grapefruit. Very little acid except whatever you would get from a tomatillo. I’m not a good cook. I mean, hell, my signature dish is “snack plate” which is just whatever cheese, veggies, hummus, etc. is in my fridge on that given day. But even I know it’s pretty damn hard to make food without garlic and onion and citrus.

Paul Cheney/Bravo

Brooke decides to use the snapper but does a test run with a filet on the grill to test whether or not the fish will stick to the grate. She learns that the fire isn’t hot enough and the fish does stick, meaning she has to wrap each of her filets individually. Shirley is doing the same thing. Sheldon doesn’t see what the two of them have learned and is putting his snapper directly on the grill.

Steamed snapper

First to serve is Brooke. She prepared a hoja santa leaf steamed snapper with bean and corn ragout with jicama and papaya relish and fresh avocado. The fish is beautifully cooked, but the overall dish is a little muddled and therefore flat. The sauces and garnishes mix up and fight against themselves a bit. It seems clear from the disjointedness that Brooke was very thrown by the challenge presented.

[Grilled snapper]

Sheldon’s dish is grilled snapper with annatto crab sauce, Yucatan vegetables, and habanero salsa. Some judges find the dish just overwhelmingly spicy, but his crab sauce thickened with masa is very nice. The fish, however, is hard to ignore. Half of it is still on the grill when he serves his plates.

Grilled grouper

Last is Shirley with her hoja santa leaf grilled grouper with crustacean habanero tomato sauce and dragon fruit corn salad. It is an extremely polished and edited dish. All of the judges note she handled the challenge well. It was clear she went in with a plan and executed it well.

This is not an easy Judges’ Table. These three chefs have all been at this specific point in the competition before. They all desperately want to move beyond it. Sheldon and Shirley both want to prove they are better than they were last time and get beyond when they were eliminated and have the chance to cook in the finale. Brooke wants to return to the finale to win.

Paul Cheney/Bravo

Graham Elliott tells the chefs that this Mayan style is “the most exciting way to cook” and they are all like, nope, it’s really not. Before they get to the difficult part, they announce the winner, who is Shirley. She is so excited and for once, speechless, at the win. What’s so heart-warming is hearing her not say that she’s excited to “be in the finale” or to win the whole thing, but she’s really excited to get to cook.

Now for the hard part. One of the two remaining Seattle alums must go home. It comes down to what is a worse error for a chef: getting thrown by ingredients and creating something muddied like Brooke despite her perfect fish, or understanding flavors and ingredients but then basically destroying the fish by not testing it like Sheldon.

Paul Cheney/Bravo

Sadly, Sheldon must pack his knives and go. It’s so sad to see veterans this season get eliminated at or before when they were the first time around. All you can really want is to get further than you did previously, so this is a tough one to take. Everyone is crying (myself included but that’s a given in basically every elimination at the end of a season).

So there it is. The two chefs battling it out in the finale of Top Chef are Shirley and Brooke. It’s two women, so next week be prepared for me to be on my feminist high horse when we see who will win it all.
Alison Leiby is a writer and comedian.
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