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Through the Grapevine: Competition Cut Down to Three on the Season Finale of "Top Chef: Las Vegas"

And then there were three.

This week's episode of Top Chef: Las Vegas ("Season Finale: Part One") had me on the edge of my seat, not just for the inherent tension (believe me, I was on pins and needles by the end) but also because I'm a huge admirer of Napa Valley cuisine and produce. The region itself holds special meaning for me: it's where I proposed to my wife and was married (on the same spot in both cases), just a few hundred feet from Rutherford Hill Winery, where the Elimination Challenge took place.

Napa is a magical place where food and wine are celebrated in the most exquisite way and this week's challenges for the final four contestants had the chefs putting local produce on a pedestal as they were tasked with creating a grape-centric dish aboard the Napa Wine Train for their Quickfire Challenge and with creating two dishes (one vegetarian, the other protein-based) with local ingredients for Rutherford Hill's annual crush celebration.

I have to say that I was impressed with the chefs overall, despite some pretty widespread seasoning issues throughout this week's episode. But considering that they had to deal with both a rocking train and devising and executing two dishes for 150 guests, I thought they all did a brilliant job and should be commended.

While I hoped that the judges would allow all four chefs to make it through to the final round, such wasn't the case. (Sadly.) So which three chefs will compete head-to-head for the title and the grand prize? And how did each of them perform? Let's discuss.

As I mentioned before, there's no better place to stage the season finale of Top Chef than in California's famed Napa Valley and this week's installment celebrated the bounty of ingredients that are found in the region, from wine grapes to gorgeous produce and proteins.

In both the Quickfire Challenge (a high-stakes one, no less) and the Elimination Challenge, the chefs would have the ability to use the freshest ingredients from the region and were under strict orders to keep it all (save salt and pepper) local. As a proponent for localized cuisine, I think it was a nice touch and fully warranted: why not make use of what's right there in front of the chefs?

I had fully expected the producers to pull in former Top Chef Masters contestant Michael Chiarello (of Yountville's Botega) to judge this week's challenges and I have to say that he was less abrasive than he was in the latter parts of the spin-off series, offering some astute critiques and generous compliments to the participating chefs. (Perhaps he went back and saw how he came across in that final round of Top Chef Masters.)

For their Quickfire Challenge, the chefs had thirty minutes and use of a full pantry to prepare a grape-focused dish for Padma and Chiarello aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train. But it wasn't quite a subpar dining car en route to somewhere else: it's a culinary destination in itself and was fully stocked with fantastic local produce, a slew of grapes, and a gorgeous kitchen area. And, oh, there was a 2010 Third Generation Prius up for grabs.

Here's what the final four chefs prepared for the final Quickfire Challenge:
  • Kevin: honey and fromage blanc mousse with glazed grapes, olive oil, thyme, and sea salt
  • Michael: grape leaf stuffed with couscous and ras-al-hanout, vinegar-glazed grape and Bay scallop kabob
  • Bryan: roasted hen with bacon, Brussels sprouts, Concord grape reduction with verjus, ruby quinoa, and arugula
  • Jennifer: sauteed chicken livers with clams, macerated Cabernet grapes, wild mushroom salad, and wild tendrils

While I thought that they all did beautifully, especially given the limitations of the space they were working in, I had a feeling that the win would go to either Michael or Jennifer, both of whom turned out creative and inspired dishes. Kevin's dish, sadly, lacked the necessary seasoning (which is an odd and unexpected misstep for Kevin) and didn't quite place the grape front and center. As for Bryan--who hasn't won a single Quickfire all season--he made a big error in selecting Concord grapes; the grape isn't local to Napa and has an overly jammy, grapey quality (which is why it's traditionally used in grape jelly and grape juice) but lacks the subtlety and finesse of wine grapes; Chiarello also called him out for allowing the bacon to overpower the dish rather than take a back seat to the grape. Chiarello clearly loved Jennifer's chicken liver and clam dish (he made a joke about stealing it for Botega) but it was Michael's dish that really celebrated the grape itself, using all of the product--from vine to leaf to fruit--in an ingenuous and fitting way. No surprise then that he walked away the winner of the challenge... and the owner of a brand new Prius, to boot.

For their Elimination Challenge, which would determine which three chefs would move onto the final round of competition, the chefs would shop at Long Meadow Farm and create two locally focused dishes for 150 guests at the Rutherford Hill Winery's crush celebration. One dish would be vegetarian (smart, considering the strength of the local produce) while the other would use a locally reared protein as its basis. With such fantastic ingredients at their disposal, I fully expected to see each of these four create dishes that sang. And I have to say that, while there were some mistakes, they did quite well overall and certainly significantly better than many final four contestants have done in the past.

Here are the dishes the final four chefs presented to the judges:
  • Kevin (vegetarian): salad of roasted beets and carrots with honey vinaigrette, carrot top puree, and San Andreas cheese
  • Kevin (protein): braised grass-fed beef brisket with pumpkin polenta and marinated root vegetable salad
  • Michael (vegetarian): vegetable pistou, heirloom tomato coulis, 63-degree egg, and fennel, with raw squash flowers
  • Michael (protein): turnip green soup with foie gras terrine, red wine-braised pear, and glazed turnip
  • Bryan (vegetarian): goat cheese ravioli with delicata squash puree, maitake mushroom fondue, and bronze fennel
  • Bryan (protein): fig-glazed short ribs with celeriac puree, ragout of cranberry beans, haricots verts, and yellow wax beans, and wild arugula
  • Jennifer (vegetarian): Sky Hill chevre mousse with creme fraiche and lemon zest, honeycap mushrooms, braised breakfast radishes, and basil
  • Jennifer (protein): braised duck legs, confit of duck breast, delicata squash puree, and brown butter-foie gras vinaigrette

Kevin has proven throughout this competition that he is the master of plying intense flavor out of the most simple of preparations. There's nothing wrong with allowing your ingredients to take center stage and not dress them up in elaborate costumes or visual trickery. Here, his salad of roasted beets and carrots is a transcendent celebration of fall flavors: forward, powerful, and beautifully seasoned. He even coaxes intense flavor out of carrot tops in his puree. His brisket, on the other hand, was definitely "ropey," "toothsome," or whatever word you'd like to use to describe the meat's toughness. Granted, he didn't have enough time to tenderize the meat as it should be, but neither did Bryan. And while Gail raved about the pumpkin polenta, Tom described the brisket as having a "tinny" quality. Hmmm...

Michael's dishes definitely showcased local ingredients but he also stayed true to the Michael Voltaggio ethos: gorgeous food displayed with some cutting-edge technology and some innovative ideas. Sometimes those ideas soar and other times they come crashing down to earth. Here, I liked the idea of the 63-degree egg with the pistou but the egg was almost too large for the serving vessel and overwhelmed the pistou itself (possibly doing the vegetables as a strict brunoise instead of leaving them rustic didn't help matters), while Padma's egg white was runny and liquidy. However, the concept of his protein dish was clever, even if the execution didn't quite match up. The pieces of turnip, pear, and foie were so tiny and there was so much bitter turnip green soup and it deflated the dish in the end. If there had been more thought to the plating and the size of the elements, the dish could have succeeded more.

Bryan definitely impressed me here. Despite the lack of a Quickfire win, his Elimination Challenge dishes have always been strong (so much so that he's never been up for elimination) and that was the case here. I would have killed to taste his goat cheese ravioli with delicata squash puree, maitake mushroom fondue, and bronze fennel. He nailed that dish in every way from the concept to the seasoning and his pasta dough was universally lauded. Likewise, while there was some moaning about the lack of figginess in his fig-glazed short ribs, it was clear that the dish was a hit. Perfectly cooked, tender, and luscious, the short rib was nicely counterbalanced with the produce on the plate: a celeriac puree, a gorgeous ragout of cranberry beans, haricots verts, and yellow wax beans, and that little addition of wild arugula as a garnish. Nicely done.

I was very worried about Jennifer once those coals went cold. She was originally going to grill the Sonoma duck rather than confit them but I was happy to see that she didn't let the situation defeat her; she quickly changed plans and went in an alternate direction. While the finished dish--braised duck legs, confit of duck breast, delicata squash puree, and brown butter-foie gras vinaigrette--lacked the smokiness that would have been imparted by the grill, I thought it was a masterful dish that utilized the "whole duck" (as Jen called the dish), perfectly in keeping with the theme of the challenge, and I thought her use of all of those elements (and particularly the "unctuous" brown butter-foie gras vinaigrette) sounded divine. As for her vegetarian offering, she used too heavy a hand with the seasoning, rendering her chevre mousse with mushrooms, radishes, and basil into saltiness. Still, her nerves didn't get the better of her and I was very proud of the way she handled herself in this leg of the competition.

Not surprisingly, Bryan took home the win here. I thought his two dishes were both perfectly executed and did celebrate the Napa ingredients in a pitch perfect way. I'm glad that he got this boost going into the final round as the rivalry between him and Michael reaches a fever pitch. And the look of irritation on Michael's face made the win even more worthwhile, I am sure.

As I said earlier, I was really hoping that there was some way all four of these exceptionally talented chefs could move on the final round but the judges (or the producers) stuck by their guns and opted to eliminate one. Sadly, it fell to Jennifer. She's more then redeemed herself of late after some shakiness in the middle of the season and I am really, really sad to see her go before the end. (You can read the interview I did with Jennifer Carroll back in August at the start of the season here.)

What did you think of this week's episode? Sad to see Jennifer go? Who will win next week when Kevin goes head-to-head with the Voltaggio Brothers? Will their intense sibling rivalry cancel each other out? Or will one emerge the victor? Discuss.

Next week on the season finale of Top Chef: Las Vegas ("Season Finale, Part Two"), the final three contestants vie for the title of Top Chef as they're tasked with cooking the best meal they've ever made... and one walks away the ultimate winner of the culinary competition.

Top Chef Preview: Final Breakfast Table:

Top Chef Preview: Three Chefs Clash in the Final Showdown:


Unknown said…
Sorry to see Jen go, the only female chef left. She did stumble on many recent episodes and only regained her confidence before the pre-finale break. I think that they were looking to dump her.

I think that Kevin is the best overall contender, but the Bryan and Michael "brothers match-up" is what the producers are counting on to make the finale a winner.
Annie said…
I would have sent MV home. He had the more damaging mistakes and I didn't feel like Jen made big enough blunders to get the axe. Weird.
Hadley said…
I was hoping that maybe... just maybe... they would send all four deserving chefs to the final round but, sadly, that was not the case.

I think they all did brilliantly and was very sad to see Jen go. I wish she at least would have won the Quickfire challenge and the car (especially as her dish looked amazing)! But she did redeem herself and should be proud of how far she got in a very tough competition.
Paige Madison said…
I too felt that Michael V. should have gone home based on the edited on air comments. Oversalting one dish(based on aired comments) should not have sent her home. Especially since they knocked Bryan V for underseasoning both his dishes even if they were otherwise executed correctly. Plus Michael V's egg wasn't properly executed and was too raw for Padma.

On air the judges praised Jen's duck and said how good it was, but Tom said in his blog that the duck was too salty as well and Gail said the duck was a bit bland and dry? Where did that come from? I feel like someone edited the show badly to not include their negative comments about the duck which makes the viewer feel that a fair decision was not made. Perhaps if Jen had stuck by her decision to confit the duck rather than grill it, she might have stayed. I sincerely hope that those accusing Bravo of rigging last night's result are wrong, but you can't help but wonder considering the additional drama that the two V brothers in the final would create.
rockauteur said…
I don't think the episode was rigged but the based on Paige's research regarding the cross reference of the editing and Tom's blog, it definitely is fishy... but we do forget that the show is edited for maximum drama, along with planting red herrings to confuse viewers to make us tune into the end to see who is eliminated. But the blog should indeed support what we see on the show and not contradict anything.

I was def sad to see Jen go home and was truly hoping that the producers would give a chance to all four to fight for it out in the end, since they all deserved to be there.
Chris said…
It's hard to say how the judges make their decisions, who to keep, and who to send packing. At a past judges' table, I felt Jen was given a pass for a large blunder, based on the strength of her previous challenges. And in later judgements, Robin moved on because she commited fewer errors. So in last night's decision, it seems based on the show's editing, that Michael received the most negative feedback, and the least amount of praise. And yes, the judges appeared to LOVE Jen's duck at the event. So why was Jen sent home? Two reasons: One, based on the strength of Michael's execution and creativity over the past season, he was given a pass for a runny egg and smallish portion of foi gras. And two, no matter how fair and unbiased you think the show is, the Voltaggio Bros. were a lock in the finale before mid season. The Final Three was Jen's for the taking, but Kevin's stringy meat seemed to be the lesser of two evils.
ewench said…
Very sorry to see her go but I had a feeling Jen was done for when she confessed to Tom she let the coals get cold and he made a classic “Tom” face and a comment about how do you let that happen at this critical stage of the competition.

And even though you are only as good as your last dish, I think they do take into consideration the cumulative work of each chef to some degree and Jen was definitely the weakest link in that case – she had several shows where she was in the bottom.

I am wondering if it will be her or Kevin that wins “Fan Favorite”.

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