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Holy Asian Extravaganza: The Final Four Compete in Singapore on Top Chef

After a lackluster season of Top Chef, having even a single enjoyable and tense episode is a step in the right direction, really.

Last night's episode ("Finale, Part One"), which saw the final four contestants jet off to Singapore for the last few challenges before the ultimate culinary showdown, seemed to showcase the spark and magic that this season has been largely missing, forcing the contestants to jump through some pretty narrow hoops as the finish line inches its way ever closer.

Perhaps the producers were smart to leave behind stuffy Washington D.C. for the street markets of sweltering Singapore; each of the chefs seemed to far more awake and creative as a whole than we've seen them collectively this season, invigorated by the flavors and scents of Southeast Asia.

I have to say that I was extremely impressed by the performance of each of the four. While there were some technical issues at play, each of them turned out gorgeous and complex plates that showcased the tastes of Southeast Asia while also remaining true to their own culinary ethos and personality. Given that Angelo was considered the front-runner going into this season--and into the final legs--it's interesting that the arrogant chef--who is known for his innovative take on Asian cuisine--didn't fare as well as many had expected, leaving this competition open for the taking.

So how did the chefs do? And what did they prepare this week? Let's take a closer look.

It was instantly apparent that the chefs were more energetic and engaged as soon as we saw them in the Singapore street market; there was an infectious energy even as the chefs continued to sweat profusely throughout the installment. As an episode it literally contained the blood, sweat, and tears (well, Angelo's anyway) of the cheftestants as they were faced with some pretty intense challenges before the final round.

Which is how it should be. This season has been largely marred by uneven editing, some lame challenges, and a decided lack of atmosphere, much of which was undone by shifting the focus to the strong chefs of this group and taking them outside of their comfort zone by depositing them in an overwhelming marketplace crowded by scents and tastes that they might not have had a firm grasp of.

But they are chefs, after all, and they quickly picked up the nuance of Southeast Asian street food after a tour of the market... and a surprise Quickfire Challenge that had them cooking street food using a wok and a burner just like any of the other hawkers within the expansive (and hunger-inducing) marketplace.

So what did they make? Here's the rundown...

Quickfire Challenge:
  • Angelo:chili frog legs with pineapple and rambutan salsa
  • Ed: stir fry noodles with black pepper sauce, lobster and gai lan
  • Kelly: Chinese noodles with lobster, cockles, bean sprouts, and Chinese broccoli
  • Kevin: seafood stew with lobster and cuttlefish with crispy shallots

I knew straightaway that Ed had this challenge in the bag. He was calm, cool, and collected and he delivered a dish that drew in the diverse flavors of the market while also elevating street food to a whole new level. His dish was beautifully presented, a mix of two kinds of noodles, a simple lime wedge, and some greens the only accompaniments. It wasn't fussy, overdone, or crowded. Simple food done beautifully.

Which isn't to say that Angelo and Kelly were out of the running but their dishes, while masterfully executed, didn't quite reach up to the high standard that Ed had created. Some nice touches from Angelo: the pineapple in the salsa had the right amount of sweetness to cut through the fire of the chili and I have to say that I'm impressed he was able to pull off the frog's legs in such a short amount of time and have them be cooked perfectly. Kelly's dish was a beautiful bowl of noodles, lobster, and cockles, elegantly presented. Kevin's inexperience with the wok, however, was immediately noticeable. His dish was easily the weakest of the bunch.

No surprise that Ed walked away the winner here... and with immunity from the coming Elimination Challenge. But would he rest on his laurels or would he push himself to compete just as hard as if he hadn't already secured a spot in the final three? I had a feeling it would be the latter, especially as he seemed like he wanted to defeat rival Angelo at all costs. I found it interesting that no one named Ed as their chief competition before that Quickfire, but afterward it was entirely clear that they were all shocked at just how well Ed had performed... even though he had won his fair share of challenges back in D.C. Huh.

For their Elimination Challenge, the chefs would have to work as a team to create a meal for Food & Wine editor Dana Cowin and 80 guests based on local cuisines and cook their dishes a la minute. Which meant no cooking their dishes ahead of time: each dish would have to be cooked to order.

No small feat, this. 80 guests all ordering at once from a menu of eight items (Ed wisely had conceived two dishes ahead of time, while the others had to scramble at the last second to come up with a second dish each) puts an enormous strain on the kitchen, particularly as the waitstaff hadn't been trained to work with them and they had such a short amount of time--one hour!--to prep ahead of the service.

So what did they make for their two dishes each? Let's take a gander...

Elimination Challenge:
  • Angelo: spicy shrimp broth with ginger and prawn dumplings and lamb tartare with rambutan ceviche and curry oil
  • Ed: crispy rice and potato cakes, sweet and sour pork, and kai lan and fried banana fritter with red chili paste
  • Kelly: chilled cucumber-yogurt soup, bitter melon salad and seared prawns, spicy red coconut curry, crispy prawn heads
  • Kevin: clam chowder with flavors of Southeast Asia and 63° farm egg, pearl tapioca, radish condiment

Once again, it was Ed who took the early lead here with two dishes that had the judges swooning. His crispy rice cake with pork belly and kai lan was an early favorite, a masterful dish that showed off the local flavors while also presenting a strong portrait of Ed as a Western chef. But it was his fried banana fritters with red chili paste inside that had the judges going crazy. (Gail herself said that the only flaw was that she wanted six of them rather than the two provided.) Despite having immunity, Ed had once again run circles around his competitors, making him--in my opinion--the one to beat next week.

Angelo's lamb tartare was a thing of beauty, gorgeously presented and pulled off expertly. We've seen other chefs fail when attempting to create a tartare from lamb, presenting a dish that's mealy, metallic, or unappetizing. But in the hands of Angelo, the lamb was perfectly cut and seasoned and captured the refinement of a tuna tartare. Too bad his soup was so intensely salty; the saline quality of that dish knocked him right out of the running.

I was extremely impressed with Kevin's two dishes here, especially as he didn't perform as well as the others in the Quickfire (and had Padma calling him out for his inexperience with the wok). But he delivered two knock-out dishes, with a Southeast Asian-inspired clam chowder and his take on congee, here with a perfectly cooked 63-degree egg, the yolk nice and runny, and simple accompaniments of radish and red chili. Elegant, simple, and delicious, he more than won a spot in the charmed circle of the final three.

And then there was Kelly. I really wanted her to perform better than she did here as she made a few mistakes that sealed her fate in the end. I'm not sure why she included the fish in her bitter melon and cucumber soup as the flavors of that dish seemed in perfect harmony without needing the inclusion of a protein in there, especially when the fish itself seemed oddly cut and several judges complained about the oddness of the texture. Likewise, she pulled back far too much on the heat of her red curry, which lacked the fire that the judges wanted, even as they raved about her guava-apple salad, which Tom felt should have been better integrated into the dish and might have elevated the dish.

Alas, it was Kelly who was not going to stick around for the final battle, leaving the guys--Ed, Angelo, and Kevin--to duke it out for the title of Top Chef next week. As for why they were summoned back to the judges' table... Well, we all know what that's about.

What did you think of this week's episode? Would you have sent Kelly home? Is Ed now the front-runner to take home the top prize? Head to the comments section to discuss and debate.

Next week on the season finale of Top Chef ("Finale, Part Two"), the three remaining chefs attempt to cook the best meal of each of their lives; with the title of Top Chef on the line, Angelo falls ill.

Top Chef Preview: Always A Twist



Top Chef Preview: Angelo's Sick

Comments

Amanda said…
This was easily one of the better episodes of the season. I was thrilled that Ed won both the Quickfire challenge AND the Elimination challenge. Angelo is a great chef but it was satisfying to see his huge ego deflated a bit.

I wasn't surprised to see Kelly go, though I think she is quite talented. Ultimately, even though Kevin has stepped up his game, I think it will come down to Angelo and Ed.
rockauteur said…
Was glad to see Kelly go. Loved seeing Angelo cry. So much for being the front runner. I think Ed might have this one in the bag now. He has the momentum and isn't as full of himself as the mail-order-bride loving Angelo.

The edit bothered me. With the exception of Ed's dish, the judges never seemed truly blown away by the meal, with harsh cuts in the middle of the judges comments during the meal. And they didn't have a single negative thing to say about the meals until judges' table when they seemed to find faults in the dishes. While this allowed for a lot of tension in the episode, I thought it was poor editing all around, especially one that didn't allow for a red herring at all.

Top Chef better step up the talent - and the editing - with the all-star season.

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