So it turns out the entire season up to this point was completed over six months ago, which must be agonizing for the contestants. That’s like playing League Championship Series as scheduled in October, then waiting until April to play the World Series. I shouldn’t give MLB any ideas.
We get one glimpse of Sheldon and Brooke acting slaphappy before they leave Alaska, including their versions of a “top-two-plus-one” dance, and Sheldon going all Adam Sandler on the ukulele.
* First we visit Sheldon in his restaurant two weeks before the finale, watching him tear up some pork tenderloins while he’s supposed to be removing the silverskins. (That’s not an easy thing to do, but he could have made cleaner cuts with a chainsaw.) It looks like celebrity has been good for his business. Also, his youngest daughter is pretty adorable.
* Then we visit Brooke in LA a week before the finale. I would like to point out to all the food-snobs who bash Trader Joes that there was a TJ bag visible in Brooke’s house. Good enough for me.
* Brooke and her husband – whom she met when she hired him as a sous chef – run two restaurants, and she says she worries more about paperwork and finances than she does about the food/kitchen. Her special the day the cameras visit is a salad made from fried pig ears, which is one of my new favorite things to eat, especially since I’m not likely to make them at home (you have to braised them for hours, then slice them very thinly, bread them, and fry them). I feel for her when she talks about how hard it was to be away from her little guy, who just turned five, during the competition. Traveling away from my family is the only part of my job I dislike, and she was gone for longer than I’ve ever been apart from my daughter in a single trip.
* They both seem to think Kristen will be the Last Chance Kitchen winner. Sheldon says he’d be shocked to see Josh, while Brooke would be shocked to see see Carla or Josie. Shocked to see Josie, but pleased, I imagine.
* And the LCK winner is … Kristen, which is the least surprising thing ever. This is like a 98-win wild card team getting to the World Series – she belonged there anyway but her path was needlessly difficult. If this were a sports broadcast, we’d be treated to a long argument over whether she has “momentum.”
* The elimination challenge: Create a three course meal to serve at craft LA in just three hours. Tom will expedite and tells them, “Please don’t screw this one up,” since it’s his restaurant. There’s no way the diners are unaware that this is a Top Chef night and not the regular craft menu. Then again, half the customers probably think Tom is personally firing their steaks in the back, so who knows.
* The chefs get their pick of proteins from the walk-in, which is probably the best selection of meats and fish they’ve ever seen. Sheldon says the spot prawns are speaking to him, which I think he meant literally. Might want to ease up on that good reefer, my friend. He’s doing a roasted quail entree that Brooke says “doesn’t sound like him,” but he wants to show how much he’s grown since he last cooked for the judges. I suppose nothing says you’ve grown as a chef than eviscerating a bunch of tiny little birds.
* Brooke is overwhelmed by the quality of the proteins and starts to psych herself out again. This becomes really critical later in the show, and I don’t think this is just a case of lack of mental preparation or toughness.
* Kristen is mapping out space and writing on the counters. Is that something other chefs do? I don’t remember seeing it before, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if she were an unusually organized chef given the food she produces.
* Hugh does the kitchen visits Tom would usually do and actually counsels Brooke while asking Sheldon not to burn the restaurant down. I suppose that’s marginally more helpful advice than Tom would have given.
* Kristen is making a chestnut veloute and is focusing on “simple, clean flavors.” Her main is an ahi tuna dish and she says she’ll do some “chocolate … thing” for dessert. She says she benefited from doing Last Chance Kitchen because she didn’t have time to overthink her dishes – meaning she had better balance between the rational and emotional parts of her brain when making decisions. Except that she kind of forgets about dessert here.
* So apparently Tom has dreamy eyes and everyone goes all Debbie Gibson and gets lost in them. I have no idea what to do with this so I’m moving on.
* Sheldon pours a bottle of wine into a pot and says it’s “for my homies, gangster pouring.” Are gangsters more into French reds or Italian? Or do they just drink fucking merlot? I’ve been off the streets for too long, it seems. I’m losing my edge like James Murphy.
* Brooke’s anxiety level is rising. We know Brooke has anxiety/panic issues from her own admissions in previous episodes, so I think it’s fair game to point it out here. The disorientation, the inability to order her thoughts, the catastrophic thinking, these are all hallmarks of anxiety problems, even if it’s hard to recognize them per se as “attacks.” You don’t have to be panicking for anxiety to affect you physically or mentally. If you don’t learn how to manage these thoughts, they take over and you can’t think about anything else, even if you are in a critical situation. I feel badly for her as she flails and her body language and facial expressions betray that inner turmoil. I’m surprised we didn’t get Gail saying, “I can taste the panic in the sauce.”
* Sheldon definitely wins the best vocabulary award when he drops a “mother hugger” on this show, although I was always partial to “mother’s younger brother” when looking for a euphemism.
* Sheldon and Kristen both seem to be punting dessert to some extent, Sheldon because he’s not that familiar with it, Kristen because she just sets it aside in favor of focusing on the first two items. She calls herself a “white person Asian,” a term I am not touching with a 39½ foot pole.
* Tom comes in and asks them to clean up right before service. Is that a trap to break their rhythm just before the first tickets arrive? At least he didn’t turn off the running water or anything.
* Padma’s in a skintight pink dress for the meal. Oh my dayum.
* Sheldon’s starter is spot prawns in court bouillon with radish and Asian herbs. This is a huge hit but it turns out it’s all downhill from here for Dazed and Confused tonight.
* Kristen’s starter is a chestnut veloute with a seared duck rillete and Brussels sprouts. The judges thought it needed a touch of acid, but one guest wants to pick up the bowl and drink the veloute. I have no problem with this, by the way. Etiquette be damned – isn’t that a big compliment for the chef? It’s like saying “your veloute was as good as the milk is after a bowl of Cocoa Krispies.” Because you all know you drank that as kids. Or last week. Let’s move on.
* Brooke’s starter is a crispy veal sweetbread salad with beets and kumquats. Martin Yan – who can cook, if you haven’t heard – says the beets are good but aren’t integrated into the overall dish. Hugh says the sweetbreads aren’t quite cleaned enough and are cut too thin. I heard when she served this on the Walking Dead she got perfect scores.
* Back in the kitchen, Brooke is in the weeds and has to replate some of her starters. It’s textbook anxiety – not to harp on this, but as I watched it it was a little like an out-of-body experience, like, “is that what I look like when I panic?”
* Kristen’s main is a seared ahi tuna with veal mustard jus and lemon curd; the fish is excellent but the curd was too bitter. She says cooking while Tom is expediting is frightening, delivering the quote that should go on her tombstone: “I peed in mah pants a little.” Next week’s finale of Top Chef will be brought to you by Depends.
* Brooke’s main is braised short ribs with Parmiggiano sauce, nettle puree, and squash dumplings. Yan says it perfectly cooked. Emeril loves the nettle puree. The sauce is a smash. From the descriptions and the presentations+, this was the best thing I saw on tonight’s show. That’s a $35 entree, easy, the kind of dish that could be a restaurant’s signature item.
+ So my daughter had to do a big poster on desert habitats and talk to the class about it on Tuesday. It went great, so well that she didn’t even need to use her notes on index cards. She was so excited to tell me that she “got to presentate my poster to the class.”
* Sheldon’s main is roasted quail with pine nut puree and tangerine. Hugh doesn’t love it and says it’s not Sheldon. No one likes the puree. It’s funny that yet another quail dish didn’t work (although it doesn’t have the curse of risotto or burgers on Top Chef), but the problem here wasn’t the quail.
* Brooke’s dessert is a brown butter cake with whipped goat cheese and blackberry sauce. John Besh loves it but probably feels awkward without Malibu Chris making goo-goo eyes at him all evening. Martin Yan loves the texture and balance and calls it yin and yang, spurring some bad puns on his name. There’s no winner named in this episode, but with Brooke nailing two of her three dishes it seems like she would have won again.
* Sheldon’s dessert is a white chocolate mousse with fennel and apple. The raw fennel is overpowering and distracting for the judges. I like fennel in moderation but raw fennel is pretty bold and even harsh, with the bitterness of darker greens along the anise flavor. What’s weird is that he used three ingredients that are all better when roasted to get some caramelization, but didn’t do that with any of them.
* Kristen’s dessert is a curry dark chocolate with cashews. The consensus seems to be that the odd flavor combination really works, but that the dish is too basic and ill-conceived. It’s not even clear to me what this was – a custard? Ganache? An unset mousse?
* Tom the Expediter is like a cross between a drill sergeant and a nagging mother-in-law.
* Besh-a-mel says it was all awesome. Hugh thought everything was easy/safe. These two should be made to duke it out. Yan says they didn’t put quite enough attention into execution; otherwise the meal could have been perfect.
* Sheldon is drinking Red Hook, a local beer, back in the kitchen as they await judges’ table. More local brands on Top Chef, please.
* Judges’ table: Sheldon up first. His app was very successful. The quail itself in his entree was fine, seasoned nicely and cooked well, but the pine nut puree was chalky. It turns out that he didn’t roast them; raw pine nuts are really unpleasant in both texture and flavor. I’m not crazy about most raw seeds or nuts, but pine nuts are one that desperately need to be cooked somehow, even if you’re grinding them into pesto. His dessert was killed by the raw fennel. Emeril comments on how Sheldon tried to present a new version of himself but says, “there was nothing wrong with the old Sheldon,” to which Padma replies “Amen.” Is it just me, or has this whole season felt more collegial than the last few? The chefs are mostly getting along better and on most episodes the judges are more conversational with the chefs and more supportive.
* Kristen’s turn. Her veloute was nice and velvety, the rillette was good, but it was all too one-note for Hugh, who’s playing the hard-ass this week. She said her concept for her tuna entree was to simplify from the last time to avoid what got her bounced from the main show, although she doesn’t point out that what really got her bounced was Josie. The ahi was perfectly cooked, but the lemon got bitter and the combination of the celery puree with that bitterness didn’t work. Hugh said her dessert was “badly thought out pot de crème.” It seems like she has a slight edge of Sheldon; both their desserts flopped, and her entree edged his.
* Brooke’s turn goes better. Her sweetbreads were crispy, and were boosted with a bright note from the kumquats, although she didn’t clean the glands enough, saying she was cleaning to order and couldn’t handle it. Her short ribs were delicious; Emeril loved the parmesan sauce and the nettles. Her dessert was the only successful one of the three, although Tom said it was not a restaurant dessert because it seemed unfinished.
* The summary discussion: Sheldon’s flavors fell a little flat tonight. Kristen’s dessert was a flop. Brooke’s short ribs might have been the best of the nine dishes. She lost some points on the kitchen side, which Tom says was a lack of focus – but that’s what anxiety and panic do to you, robbing you of your ability to focus and think clearly. It’s to her credit that she didn’t melt down or quit at any point. That’s not a job where you can go take ten minutes to meditate and calm yourself down. I get that you’re judged on your food here, not on reasons you didn’t do as well as you should have, but Tom saw Brooke’s demeanor and body language, and might have been a little less quick to criticize because of that.
* Sheldon goes home. He’s very gracious in defeat. Bro hugs all around. I thought Padma might tear up again. She’s gone all soft since she had her baby.
* There are some words for the surviving chefs, though. Kristen gets dinged for playing it a little safe in her concepts. Brooke gets dinged for rough service.
* We have an all-female finale for the first time ever. The guest judges will be Betty Friedan, Sandra Fluke, and Queen Latifah. My pick remains Kristen, but after watching Brooke go all ’75 Reds on the competition the last four or five episodes, this feels a lot closer than it would have before Kristen’s original elimination.