The first leg of the season 15 finals takes the cheftestants to Telluride.
Well, well, well, here we are sports fans. Another episode of Top Chef, and another step closer to crowning a winner, with the top four having been decided last week. (Of course, Last Chance Kitchen is about to make that the top five once again.) Mustache Joe is coming off of this third elimination challenge win and his mustache doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, Adrienne feels like she’s finally discovering her voice as a chef, and Carrie is still really enthusiastic about all things Colorado.
The chefs pile into a car and say goodbye to Denver as they head towards their new digs in Telluride. After admiring the luxury suite they’ll be staying in, the chefs saddle up and head to the Sheridan Saloon where they’ll be learning their Quickfire challenge and find out who made it back from Last Chance Kitchen for another shot at the title. As they enter the old cowboy bar Padma, Tom and this week's guest judge Wylie Dufresne greet them. The challenge that molecular gastronomy giant Dufresne presents to the chefs is to make a gastropub-inspired dish featuring sarsaparilla—the sweet soda first marketed as a “hangover cure”—which must be featured in an “unexpected” way. In another limitation placed upon the chefs, they must draw numbered knives and, in that order, pick one ingredient from the categories in front of them: sweeteners, fruit, protein, and vegetables, until they’re all gone. Chris draws first and ends up with rib eye steak, molasses, potatoes, and berries. Carrie goes next and snags pork, onions, honey, and lemons. Mustache takes fish, carrots, limes, and maple syrup, and Adrienne gets stuck with chicken, brown sugar, tomatoes, and garlic. In case the pressure wasn’t cranked up enough on the chefs, Padma announces that the winner of this Quickfire will take home $10,000.
But before the chefs start cooking, there’s one more twist they need to account for: the winner of Last Chance Kitchen. It all came down to Brother and Chicago Joe Flamm with wildly different dishes—Brother’s creative stuffed chicken with nitro raspberries and Brussels sprouts hash versus Joe Flamm’s refined lamb with fava pesto and raw fava beans. (Drumroll, please...) In through the saloon doors walks Joe Flamm sporting a black cowboy hat, here to snag the title. If you’ve been following the reviews, you know that I was distraught when Joe was sent home prematurely during a sudden death Quickfire and he was my favorite to come back from LCK. Maybe I have a soft for the guy because he sings on the line and works in a fine dining style that appeals to me but Spiaggia alumni are no joke on Top Chef, perhaps most famously embodied by Stephanie Izard taking down Richard Blais in the Chicago season. Welcome back, Joe, we're glad you’re here.
Joe also has to cook in this Quickfire, and he gets his ingredients by stealing one from each of his competitors; he takes Carrie’s pork, Mustache’s carrots, Chris’s berries, and Adrienne’s brown sugar. Mustache and Carrie were relying on those ingredients to compose their dishes so they must rethink their approach before beginning the cook. The chefs run out to the middle of the street where stations are set up against the backdrop of stunning mountains and large crowds that have gathered to watch the chefs compete. Carrie decides to do a French onion soup toast because she’s never met a toast she didn’t like. Chris has extensive experience using sarsaparilla in his cooking at home and relies on that knowledge to inform his dish.
After a quick cook, the judges are ready to taste what the chefs have made. Chris is up first with his potato-crusted chicken fried steak with sarsaparilla country gravy and fennel salad that Padma calls a “nice pairing” and Wylie calls “a good idea.” Mustache is up next with a halibut crudo and tableside-poured sarsaparilla fennel soup (I guess he grabbed the fennel from the pantry). His strategy to make something cold to provide contrast to the other dishes the chefs offered seems to pay off as Padma calls it “very refreshing.” Joe Flamm is up next with pork porterhouse with sarsaparilla pickled carrots and sarsaparilla berry sauce. As he presents it, he knows that the pork is not cooked the way that he would have liked and feels disappointed in his first showing reentering the competition. Carrie is up next with her “top of the French onion soup” with sarsaparilla deglazed onions and beef stock. Some shade is thrown her way by the Joes who are caught on the hot mic trashing her approach—Mustache says “she can’t win twice with fucking tartines” and Joe Flamm replies “I know, right.” The judges seemed confused by the naming of the dish with Tom cutting her off, saying, “So it’s a crostini.” Last but not least is Adrienne with a sarsaparilla glazed chicken with crispy sarsaparilla chicken skin and garlic tomato compote. Chris, Mustache, and Carrie wind up in the top with Carrie taking home the $10K. Wylie even admits disappointment in the concepts presented to him, saying, “I thought that all the dishes, while not terribly creative, were quite tasty.” Joe’s dry pork and Adrienne’s chicken were both lacking in the sarsaparilla flavor the judges were looking for and wound up in the bottom.
Padma starts off the elimination challenge by saying “being at this altitude I’m sure everyone is feeling a little high” and the smash cut to the chefs reactions—raised eyebrows, Mustache practically foaming at the mouth—gives the hope that it’s a marijuana challenge (I mean, come on, recreational cannabis is legal in Colorado, how can they not do a weed challenge?) but alas, it’s an altitude reference. The chefs must make a high concept, high-end dish to serve at North America’s highest restaurant, Alpino Vino, which sits at 12,000 feet above sea level. As part of their dish, the chefs must include a baked component, something very difficult to execute properly at a high altitude because of the difference in oxygen in the air. They must prepare these dishes for the judges panel which includes a returning Gail, Wylie, and legendary British chef Paul Liebrandt.
Carrie has experience baking at altitude, and she’s proven that she is extremely adept at it with the cake she produced during the camping on a mountain challenge earlier in the season. This gives her the confidence going into the challenge to aim for executing a beef Wellington wrapped in a piecrust. Mustache, on the other hand, is anxious about his baking experience and doesn’t have much in his repertoire to begin with, not to mention at altitude. He lands on preparing a savory profiterole to compliment the duck he is eager to make for the judges. Chris is making cornbread, elevating a recipe that’s been passed down in his family for generations. He’s excited to prepare a more upscale version of his soul food flavors. Chris has trucked along in the middle of the pack this season after making a huge impression at the beginning, keeping his head down and churning out some pretty tasty-looking dishes. Adjusting soul food to fine dining is a task, and Adrienne mentions off-hand that she hopes to open a restaurant of fine dining soul food because it is the only true American cuisine. For this challenge, however, she’s going back to her training in fine dining and hoping to really find her voice as a chef through her poached lobster, caviar, and pain de mie.
Tom, Paul, and Wylie come through to the hotel where the chefs are all practicing their recipes (at 9,000 feet) for some, as Brother once called it, light emotional terrorism. Paul once worked at a restaurant that sat at a pretty 18,000 feet above sea level and has some advice for the chefs. They set their sights on Mustache first, drilling him on what he needs to change about baking mini profiteroles at that altitude in an exchange that has Joe admitting he doesn’t know what he needs to do. Paul advises him to add more egg white than yolk because it’ll help kept the structure. Adrienne says she wants to make a pain de mie and Paula advises her to watch the sugar she puts in, because at that altitude it runs the risk of drying out. Wylie warns Chris that frying quail at that altitude will take longer than it would at sea level so he needs to be sure he’s watching it closely. Carrie seems to excite the British Liebrandt by saying she’ll be making a beef Wellington, but that level of difficulty begins to shake her and she seems to second-guess her dish.
The next day the chefs load into a gondola lift that takes them into the clouds among the mountains. Carrie says that she’s had a “moment of clarity” and she won’t be preparing her original dish as she waxes poetic about a dish that came to her in a dream. She’ll be making rib eye on top of spring vegetables with cylindrical molds of cornbread “it’s colorful, it’s Colorado, it’s Carrie.” After they’re brought to the top of the mountain, the chefs load into a pickup which takes them to Alpino Vino where they sprint to the kitchen.
Joe Flamm is making biscuits he learned from Oprah's former personal Chef Art Smith and adapts them by making them stiffer so they hold up to get fluffy and firm. Mustache is incredulous that since he’s “never made” the dish he’s making he’s the only person taking a risk (specifically wary that Carrie and Chris are making an easier cornbread). Chris, meanwhile, is panicking because his cornbread has not finished cooking after 40 minutes in the oven and he watches it closely. Finally, it rises, and he is ready to focus on his other components.
Joe Flamm presents first, saying “I think Art Smith would be really happy with this dish but he’d probably still yell at me.” Joe’s dish is a buttermilk braised pork loin with pea sorrel puree, pepper jam, and goat cheese buttermilk drop biscuit. Everyone is impressed with the balance and flavors of the dish, and Tom particularly enjoys that Joe chose to keep the peas raw. Up next is Carrie with her wagyu ribeye with foie gras, spring vegetables, and honey cornbread. Padma is upset with the conception of the dish which she says “doesn’t have a distinctive point of view.” And Wylie took issue with the poor integration of the cornbread into the whole of the dish. Paul is disappointed that she didn’t make a beef Wellington, after titillating them with the possibility of the dish the day before.
Up next is Mustache with his roasted duck with spring peas, cherry jam, and kombucha cherry puffs. The judges took some issue with the puffs, and Gail called Mustache out for having never made a profiterole before. The puffs aside, the rest of the dish earned rave reviews across the board, with Gail, who has consistently been the most critical judge this season, claiming “puffs aside one of my favorite dishes from anyone all season.” This observation was met with widespread agreement from the other judges and nods from the guest judges. Chris’s crispy black pepper quail with corn pudding, butternut squash, and maple and bacon cornbread comes out beautifully and is a dish Chris says he’s most proud of this season. Paul launches into a lengthy explanation about the way the altitude affected the cook of the quail, which was summarized by Tom with a succinct “he overcooked it.” Gail advocated for the flavor of Chris’s dish, particularly the black pepper that counteracted the greasy quality of the quail. Finally, Adrienne’s butter poached lobster with mountain bread, Champagne beurre blanc, and caviar also goes over well with the judges who feel that she is finally discovering her voice as a chef. The adaption of her original pain de mie to a challah dough was successful and, accompanied by the butter, fit perfectly into the context of her dish, Gail comments. Dufresne shouts out her agar pears made with vinegar, a concept he's more than a little familiar with. Tom notes that he doesn’t find the conception of the dish particularly exciting but that it's tasty.
The judges call their top three—Mustache, Chicago Joe, and Adrienne to critique. Everyone agrees that this is the best food the chefs have cooked all season and for the first time they are nitpicking the dishes for the win and loss. Joe Flamm’s biscuit earned hearty accolades from Gail and Paul, who wanted to know if this was a dish he made specifically for this challenge. Flamm (once again winning my heart) replies that he took elements from what he knew and applied it in a new way to the challenge. Ah, finally, the ethos of Top Chef is embodied by a cheftestant this season. Mustache’s duck also evoked passionate compliments from the judges, with Wylie saying “I kept finding more things about the dish I loved.” Adrienne’s take on classic fine dining was equally loved with Wylie commented that he liked how she brought “old friends” champagne, lobster, and caviar together in a new and exciting way. Gail, back from a weeks-long hiatus, commented that it tasted like Adrienne had gone through a transformation as a chef. The win went to the dish that had a “clear vision of fine dining cuisine, and our favorite meal of the day”: MUSTACHE! Surprising, given the disappointment the judges expressed with his baked element but their reaction to the duck tells us that the rest of the dish was something special.
Chris and Carrie are called before the judges knowing one of them will be going home. Chris defends his dish calling it “my favorite I’ve made all season.” The flavors and baked element fared well with the judges but they found the refinement lacking, and weren’t sure it really hit the mark in terms of fine dining. Carrie suffered similar issues with her dish, with the added element that the judges were unclear what her concept and vision for dining is. Ultimately, Chris is the one who must say goodbye because of the small technical mistakes on the cook of the quail. Given the trajectory of this season, it wasn’t exactly a surprise that the judges favored the safer dish over a riskier attempt with technical mistakes, but that’s the way the cornbread crumbles.
Last Chance Comments
- I really still do not have a clear idea of what “Amish soul food is” and feel like we didn’t get to learn enough about Chris this season! I have so many questions! Check back with our Top Chef coverage for our exit interview with Chris where hopefully we’ll get some answers!
- “Somebody bring me my damn robe!”
- “How’s the altitude by the way?” “How’s the attitude!” Tom really came full force this season with the dad jokes.
- Padma wearing that blue dress in the intro! A vision!
- Speaking of a vision, Gail! That fur stole! My queen! An absolute legend.
- They’ll be doing Top Chef: Kentucky which I am tentatively excited about. I hope they amp up the fine dining aspect that was, for the most part, lacking this season. Very excited for a bourbon challenge.
- I’m still holding out hope for a marijuana edible challenge. Let me LIVE Top Chef!
- Joe in a cowboy hat. That’s all I have to say about that.
- If there is a single toast in anyone’s finale meals I will have a conniption.
- “Paul’s bad dude in the matrix outfit... I was like he’s gonna kill us”
- I really loved Paul Liebrandt as a judge. His comments were so thoughtful and I really liked learning about why the quail overcooked. Also, he gave me some amazing reaction screencaps that I’ll be saving for a rainy day.