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Family Dinner: The Final Five Face Off on Top Chef

Is it just me or was that the only possible outcome for this week's episode?

With the final five delving deep into their ancestral pasts for the latest challenge, this week's episode ("Give Me Your Huddled Masses") actually made me so nervous that one of my favorites would be going home that I was physically nauseous watching the judges' table deliberations.

But I also had a suspicion that there would be some sort of chicanery involved as the judges seemed to have no real criticisms of any of the dishes on offer, which told me that this would either be (A) the most tense and prolonged judges' panel to date or (b) an opportunity for the judges to send through all five contestants to the final rounds.

Given the strength of all five remarkable dishes--each of which was not only in keeping with the individual chefs' culinary aesthetics and ethos but also paid due to their family trees--it really was the only possible outcome after such strong performances. When no one really trips up in the kitchen, how do you choose who to send home? When there are such insignificant slip-ups, how can you single out someone to pack their knives?

It's worth noting that there are still five more episodes of Top Chef remaining this season. Read that again: FIVE episodes. While that number will likely include a reunion episode of some kind, that still leaves four episodes of actual competition, which means that we could actually have just two chefs in the last round vying for the title. (Five gets cut down to four, then to three, then to two, and then the winner is chosen, hence four episodes.)

Personally, I was glad that the judges didn't have to choose someone to eliminate. I've been calling for Tiffany to be eliminated for the last few weeks but she pulled out a gorgeous dish last night that deserved to be celebrated: it was elegant and connected to her family history. (I was nervous that Richard Blais would somehow get eliminated after the judges didn't seem to be raving about his dish. Instead, they horribly nearly gave the guy a heart attack, sending him through to the Bahamas in third place.)

But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. For their last New York City-based Quickfire Challenge, the chefs took a ferry ride to Ellis Island, during which they had to make a meal out of the provisions on hand from the ferry, uh, snack counter before the horn blew and they arrived at the dock on the other side of the river. (Unknown to them: their family members would be waiting on the other side.)

So what did they make? Let's take a look:
  • Antonia: Grilled cheese with apples and raisin bread
  • Carla: Orange and papaya salad with carrot and rosemary juice
  • Mike: Bread soup with cheddar cheese, sour cream, green chili, and pork rinds
  • Richard: Hot dog and beef jerky banh mi with jalapeno, pork rinds, lettuce, and apple
  • Tiffany: Nachos with cheese, lettuce, tomato, jalapeno, banana peppers, and sour cream; popcorn with candied mangoes and pineapples

I thought some of them did really well here. Despite the fact that Richard turned up his nose at Carla's dish, I thought she really thought outside of the box and produced something that was unexpected and delicious. It was also really simple but full of flavor, which is the key here. Too many of them went for what I'd consider to be over the top concepts or straightforward ones, but Carla's oranges were thoughtful, flavorful, and packed with flavor. (She ended up winning this one and a Highlander Hybrid as well.) I also thought Richard did a remarkable job here, creating a gorgeous looking banh mi sandwich out of the most humble of ingredients and I was glad to see him whip out those RME meal pouches from his knife kit. (Well done.) Antonia's sandwich was cobbled from some already prepared elements in place at the snack counter but still was delicious (and picked up some pork flavor from being grilled on that hot dog machine), while Tiffany's was way too straightforward. The less said about Mike's disgusting "bread soup" the better, really.

(Aside: How insane is it that Mike and Antonia, sworn enemies this season on Top Chef, are in fact distantly related? I was blown away by this revelation, given how much these two seem to dislike one another. That both of them ended up competing on Top Chef is eerie!)

Arriving on Ellis Island, the chefs had the opportunity to look back on their family trees and share the moment with their family members, flown in for just this opportunity. But unlike in other challenges where the moms and spouses are whisked away after getting a few minutes with the cheftestants, they stuck around here to actually participate in the family dinner ahead, sitting alongside Tom, Gail, Padma and guest judge Dan Barber. It made sense, given the intimate nature of the Elimination Challenge and its emphasis on family roots and history... and it also appeared to make several of the chefs (most especially Richard) even more anxious and nervous, given that his pregnant wife was going to be eating his food and listening to the judges' critiques.

So how did the chefs do at their final challenge before the last rounds? Let's discuss.
  • Antonia: Braised veal, rapini leaf, and fava bean risotto
  • Carla: Braised pork shoulder, fried grits, corn and sweet potato hash, and cheddar biscuits
  • Mike: Potato gnocchi with braised pork shank ragu and burrata
  • Richard: Short ribs, potatoes, fried bone marrow, corn puree, and picked glass warts
  • Tiffany: Braised short rib with mustard greens, stewed okra, and oxtail marmalade

Kudos to Antonia for being brave enough for attempting risotto in this competition, given that the chefs who have normally prepared that dish have typically gone home. But Antonia's risotto was light and ethereal, elegant and rich at the same time and the veal was fork-tender and magnificent. It was a heartfelt dish that connected to her Italian roots.

Carla's sauce was praised by Tom as being the best sauce in the entire competition: a rich, almost veloute that encircled the plate gorgeously. She was insanely smart to use the liquid nitrogen to freeze those grits cakes before frying them. (Another ingenious and practical application of molecular gastronomy at work!) And those cheddar biscuits looked fluffy and intoxicating. A beautiful dish that spoke volumes about her family history and the connections within various Southern states.

Mike Isabella isn't a chef whose food is normally soulful, but that's just what he delivered here in his dish that paid homage to his late Italian grandmother, whose strength in the kitchen stirred up so many painful memories for Mike. But he did his nonna proud here with an accomplished dish of fluffy and pillow-light gnocchi, pork ragu ("gravy") and that gorgeous burrata. No surprise that he would be safe from elimination.

Richard had to find a way to fuse his English-Irish heritage with his own modern and inimitable culinary style, no easy task considering the disparity of the elements. But his dish told a story about just that: attempting to find a line to connect these various elements. The silkiness of the short ribs, that revelatory fried bone marrow, the smoothness of the corn puree, and the unexpected juxtaposition of those sea beans (or "glass warts") brought the plate into sharp focus, an elegant and restrained composition that told Richard's story and stayed true to his style as a chef.

I was pleasantly surprised to see Tiffany really step it up this week and deliver a knockout of a dish, doing the impossible and converting okra-hater Tom Colicchio with her beautiful stewed okra. And that oxtail marmalade won over many, many at that table while the short rib looked succulent and delicious. It was a more modern plating from Tiffany than we've seen in a while.

I was on pins and needles waiting to see just how the judges would vote and which of these chefs would be packing their knives. The fact that the editors left in two mentions of Antonia's mother asking about whether there had ever been a "Final Five" before led me to believe that that's just how the judges would decide in the end. Impossible to choose between each of these dazzling dishes, the judges did ultimately opt to send through all five to the final rounds in the Bahamas.

While it was a twist I saw coming (despite my anxiety-led nausea), it was a nice surprise after such stiff competition. That these five will each have the opportunity to keep fighting for the title makes the struggle all the more rich and tough. That they'll have to compete against the winning chefs from their individual seasons next week? That makes it all the more imperative that they keep their heads in the game and stay focused. Me, I just can't wait to see what happens next as the competition gets even more heated...

On the next episode of Top Chef ("Fit for a King"), the five remaining chefs set sail for the Bahamas, where they'll compete head-to-head with the chef from their previous season who got them sent home.


Anonymous said…
It was Antonia that won the Toyota - not Carla!
greebs said…
I really, really enjoyed Richard Blais' reaction to Padma's evil, "Richard, pack your're going to the Bahamas" by saying, "Why...why would you...thank you" He so wanted to say, WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT TO ME? but caught himself. A nice, honest moment.
Bella Spruce said…
All of their dishes looked amazing but I'm still hoping that Richard takes home the top prize. But it was horrible how Padma made him think that he was going home! Richard is way too high strung to handle that kind of "joke!" Poor guy. I just hope he doesn't second guess himself like he did the first time around.
Tonya Ricucci said…
I just so can't stand Mike I. (in both his seasons) and Tiffany has been so underwhelming this season, I wouldn't have minded seeing either one of them go home. Now if Carla hadn't made it to the final? That would have made me cry.

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