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(Puerto) Rico Suave: The Final Four Chefs Face Off on "Top Chef"

Oh. My. God. I don't think I can be any more upset at the way things turned out than they did on last night's episode of Top Chef ("Puerto Rico").

I literally spent the entire hour last night, begging to Tom Colicchio and the Top Chef household gods that Lisa would be the one to pack her knives and go. After all, she clearly was the one who had failed to impress the judges the most over the course of the season, landing her in the bottom no less than five times. That to me is a clear indication that you don't deserve to have a spot in the Final Four chefs as you seem to be failing to meet the judges' expectations on a fairly consistent basis. Plus, her attitude throughout this competition has been terrible; Richard said it best when he said that her sour disposition was like a "grey cloud" over the kitchen; the finals are typically a stressful showdown between the best of the best and her presence there just, well, clouded the issues at work. I knew that no matter which sous chef Lisa landed she would have difficulties communicating and working with out of the four options. That right there should say something about her lack of leadership, teamwork, and ability to execute her vision with others... and about why she shouldn't be in the running for the title of Top Chef.

So, congratulations, Lisa... you are an idiot. I understand why you might be miffed that neither Richard nor Stephanie--both in shock about the loss of Antonia (more on that in a bit)--congratulated you for making it into the final round, but did you really need to say something to them in such a haughty, bitter fashion? Right then? Really? I was absolutely flabbergasted and appalled that Lisa chose to confront them for their failure to cheer her on mere seconds after Antonia left the competition. Hell, Stephanie's jaw was still agape from the surprise elimination.

But let's rewind first. The Final Four arrived in Puerto Rico after a few months of time off from the production: Stephanie traveled Asia; Antonia opened up Foxtail here in LA; Lisa, um, cut her hair; and Richard did what Richard does best and cooked his heart out. Upon arriving, they immediately begin their Quickfire Challenge: to create two fried bar snacks that both incorporate plantains into the mix.

Antonia created a fried yellow plantain with spicy slaw and crispy milk-soaked oysters with cilantro-plantain jam; unfortunately, the raw freshness of the uncooked plantain really did overwhelm the dish and neither Padma nor guest judge Wilo Bennet seemed all that thrilled with what was on offer. Lisa's dish--a sweet plantain, red onion, and chorizo fritter with a spicy chutney slaw and a tostone with pan-roasted duck and spicy-sweet mango-papaya salad--definitely seemed to resonate with the judges, which irked me immediately. Richard fell into the same trap as Antonia, creating two dishes that were both overpowered by the raw flavor of those plantains: green plantain chips with ripe plantain salsa (there you go) and abondigas of pork with a ripe plantain sauce, landing him in the bottom two. (Damn!) Stephanie wowed everyone with two gorgeous dishes that I wanted to reach into the television set and eat myself: pork and shrimp fritter with brown butter, lime, and basil and tostones topped with seared tuna, an elegant bar snack and belies her skills as both a high-end and comfort food chef.

Naturally, the win went to Stephanie (huzzah!) who earned herself an important advantage in the Elimination Challenge: she would decide which sous chefs to pair with which chefs in the penultimate elimination challenge. As for the sous chefs? It was no surprise to see Dale, Nikki, Spike, and Andrew return to the competition, as much as I would have liked to have see the back of them at this point. Like I mentioned above, it was going to be interesting to see who Lisa would be paired with as she seems to have issues with nearly all of them there. Stephanie decided not to use her advantage maliciously, instead pairing the chefs with who they would work best with: herself with Dale; Richard with Spike; Antonia with Nikki; and Lisa with... Andrew, whom she had only recently just thrown under the bus at judges' table. Fun.

Their challenge was a fantastic one: to create several dishes from an entire pig carcass, which they'd have to butcher themselves and prepare for 100 guests at an al fresco cocktail party. This is the kind of challenge that makes me tune in to Top Chef on a regular basis; unlike the sponsored ones that force chefs to use things like, say, Oreos or certain alcohols, this challenge pushed them to be creative and daring, to impress the crowd with their vision and execution, and to use a basic ingredient (pork) in an interesting and complex way.

Stephanie and Dale worked really well together... except for the fact that Dale accidentally left Stephanie's pork belly out in the kitchen overnight, rendering it absolutely useless. Still, necessity is the mother of invention and with the pork belly dish a no-go now, Stephanie and Dale created a brand new dish on the fly which was not only creative but, I believe, ended up impressing the judges a hell of a lot more than another pork belly dish and utilized a part of the pig that many of the other competitors had ignored: a tropical fruit and proscuitto salad with crispy pig skin. Its combination of sweet and salty easily won over the judges who praised her for the dish. I was equally taken with her pork satay on sugar cane skewers with miso-Marcona almond butter, a gorgeous dish that was playful, inventive, and had a flavor indicative of the recent time she spent in Asia. Her coconut-braised pork with peppers and black plantain pancake was another show-stopper, incorporating local ingredients and flavors into a sophisticated and well-executed dish.

Antonia ran into more than a little difficulty with her pigeon peas with homemade pork sausage and ham hock dish for several reasons. The first was that her peas were WAY undercooked, despite her claim that she prefers beans to be "al dente" (as Gail correctly pointed out, there is no such thing as al dente beans; they're either cooked properly or undercooked) and the second was that she made a monumental mistake to serve her dishes on one plate, which causes the flavors of all the dishes to merge into a single, underwhelming mass rather than remain distinct entities unto themselves. I thought her curried pork with yucca and pumpkin sounded amazing but would have been better had the rice turned out than simply being served on its own. Her honey pork belly with pickled sweet peppers, papaya, and chayote also looked fantastic and I loved the use of the locally sourced honey (courtesy of Nikki, who picked it up at the market); this was probably her most successful dish in terms of vision and execution.

I had no idea what Richard would pull out of his culinary bag of tricks this week, but he ended up surprising us with the simplicity of rustic elegance of his four dishes, a nice bait-and-switch that had the judges praising him for his clean-cut flavors and simple presentation. Up first: a fresh pernal "ham" with local beans that incorporated local ingredients, the freshness of the pig, and Richard's own culinary backstory with its take on pork and beans. Rustic and simple, it looked absolutely amazingly fresh. Then there was the mouth-watering costillas de cerdo pork ribs with Malta and soy glaze and pressure cooked pork belly with pickled watermelon, two dishes reminiscent of both the South and the Caribbean with the sour-sweet watermelon rind and the caramel-like maltiness of the ribs' glaze (from a local island drink) . Very accomplished and confident dishes. Finally, there was a BBQ pork shoulder with braised greens, coffee, and local mango, a dish that would have won me over anywhere but I loved the inclusion of the Caribbean-sourced coffee and mango here, elegantly plated. I would have gladly paid for any of his dishes and asked for seconds. Each was exquisite and proved he has easily earned his spot in the final round and handily won this challenge.

Finally, there was Lisa. I was very intrigued to see what she would be offering and was completely shocked to see that she was going to cook Caribbean food... in the Caribbean. It's always tricky cooking local cuisine for locals and unless you can pull it off 100% and do it better than the people who have been cooking these dishes their whole lives, it's too much of an inane risk to take at this point in the competition. Better to be true to your own culinary style and incorporate some local flair than try to recreate local dishes entirely. To start, there was a tostone with adobo-roasted pork butt, black bean puree, and sofrito onion. Meh. Nothing that I found creative or overwhelming; she had a decent idea with creating a single bite all of those elements but her execution was completely lacking here and the dish was a total miss. Her citrus-braised pork belly with batata and sweet plantain mash was excessively and overpoweringly sweet, so much so that I didn't think Gail would be able to finish hers. Another miss. Then there was her last dish, pork-filled yucca rellenas with Kulantro Mojo, which seemed more enamored of the condiments than the main attraction. All in all, a rather underwhelming example of her culinary skills and it was no surprise that she landed in the bottom two after failing to inspire the judges or the party guests with her attempt at local cuisine.

Still, I thought for a chance--since we were down to the penultimate episode of the season--that the judges would have taken into account the chefs' overall strengths and performances this season rather than decide who would be going on to the final episode based on these dishes alone. Yes, you are only as good as your last dish but it says something that, with this loss, Lisa has now been in front of judges' table at the bottom SIX TIMES. Say it with me, folks: SIX TIMES. That right there should have sent red flags up for the judges alone. I had crossed my fingers so tightly that Lisa would be eliminated that I was clearly getting woozy and didn't think I had heard correctly when Antonia was told to pack her knives and go. WHAT!?!?!?

Were you just as shocked as I was at this unfortunate turn of events? And did you want to slap "bronze medal winner" Lisa even harder when she turned on a clearly upset and disappointed Richard and Stephanie with her acidic comment about the lack of congrats? Grr.

Next week on the season finale of Top Chef ("Finale"), this is it: the final showdown between Richard, Stephanie, and (ick) Lisa for the title of Top Chef. Who will be crowned the winner (please be Richard or Stephanie) and who will go home empty-handed? Find out next week.


Susania said…
I resigned myself to the loss of Antonia the minute that her peas ended up being undercooked; it's a well-established fact that The Bitchy make better TV in the reality genre than The Pleasant and Accomplished. Hell, Spike would have escaped the last challenge if he had been as hateful as Lisa. They want to have someone for people to hate in the finale, and that's fine, as long as they do the right thing and let the infinitely more gifted Stephanie or Richard win.

I have to remind myself that Antonia is a little weaker than R and S, and so she probably wouldn't have won anyway. But it still hurts that Lisa remains.

Lisa? You should thank your lucky stars that S and R were gracious enough NOT to actually say what they were thinking, which is that yes, the wrong person WAS sent home. Appallingly stupid to whine that their lack of congratulations meant that they thought you were undeserving. What, they aren't allowed their own opinion?

But I must congratulate Lisa on her flawless execution of Sullen-Drenched, Bitchy Reality Cheftestant with Undeserving Sauce. How else to explain the producers continuing to pass her week after week? She is indeed a gifted Reality contestant.

Hilarious to see that 91% of voters last night thought she should be booted! That may be a record.
Anonymous said…
Not only was I shocked and upset, but more than ever it made me really upset, as you also mentioned, that at this point in the challenge the judges don't take into account the whole season. As my sister said on the phone last night, "I wish just judges didn't insist on having such a clean palate."

It's ludicrous that someone who has been in the bottom SIX times is now in the final 3. How can they possibly claim they are going to crown the top chef, when one of their potential chefs has been one of their most consistent bottom chefs?!?

I just keep saying, "There's no way she can win." and I still believe it.
danielletbd said…
I bet they eliminated Antonia just so they'd milk a bit more drama out of the show. They knew Lisa was going to pout and sulk and call out Steph and Richard on not congratulating her, and when Richard interviewed that she had "won a bronze medal" I burst out in laughter.

I'm glad Antonia has already opened her own restaurant, though. She'll probably get patrons coming in who want to meet the "star chef," and the show will definitely help her business, but she clearly didn't NEED to win in order to do great things.
iko said…
Ugh. That elimination was ridiculous, I agree completely. But, really, there was no way Antonia was winning the whole thing and there's no way Lisa is, either, so does it really matter in the end? I wish I could have tasted all of Stephanie's food from this episode, it all looked amazing. Stephanie for the win!
Anonymous said…
I agree with everything everyone has said about Lisa not deserving a spot in the top three. Not to mention that her attitude ticks me off, and her lack of creativity thoroughly bores me.

Susania ... "Sullen-Drenched, Bitchy Reality Cheftestant with Undeserving Sauce" ... spot on!

Lisa has what I call "The Santino Factor." Like Santino (Rice, of Project Runway S2), she provides the drama that keeps the attention of many viewers.

At least Santino had SOME creativity....
Anonymous said…
I totally get why they keep drama queens like Lisa and Spike around but to drag Lisa into the finale is just embarrassing. She has no business being there, especially when it meant sending home a talented chef like Antonia.

I don't believe Antonia could have won against Richard or Stephanie but I do believe she deserved the chance to compete against them, unlike Lisa who deserves nothing but a slap in the face.
Unknown said…
couldn't agree more! Lisa has no business remaining in the competition and i'm starting to think the producers had a hand in this because Chef Tom would never keep her around over Antonia. I'm furious!
TxGowan said…
Anthony Bourdain swears up-and-down that he has never seen any producer interference in his appearances on Top Chef. He says that he doesn't think Colicchio would stand for it even if they did try. I like to think both men are pretty stand-up guys.

As much as it pains me, Antonia just plain messed up in this episode. Although Lisa's food wasn't particularly original or spectacular, I don't think her dishes were actually bad. Antonia's beans were underdone and placing all the food on the same plate created a mish-mash that the judges clearly didn't like.

Honestly, I think the problem here is that apparently there was SIX MONTHS between the last episode and this one. Are these people even the same chefs they were six months ago? Clearly their focus is not the same as it was before otherwise we'd be looking at a finale with Richard, Stephanie and Antonia.

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