‘Top Chef’ recap: The final 5 All-Stars headed to Tuscany and learned that truffles aren’t to be trifled with in ‘Lucca’

Last week on “Top Chef,” Kevin Gillespie returned to the competition after his “Last Chance Kitchen” victory while Brian Malarkey was eliminated for his duo dish update of a classic entrée from the past that was served at Michael’s Santa Monica. Alas, his components weren’t quite in tune with one another, so he missed out on heading to Italy and participating in a three-episode finale as “Top Chef”  goes to Europe for the first time. Read on for our minute-by-minute takes on the 12th episode of Season 17, “Lucca.”

10:02 p.m. A heartfelt message is delivered by head judge Tom Colicchio about how the show filmed in Italy last fall and adds, “I got to say it was just an amazing experience. The people were so warm and open. Obviously, our hearts go out to the devastation because of Covid.” The chef adds he is looking forward to the day when he goes back to Italy to enjoy their hospitality once again. “Hopefully our final episodes provide some break from what’s going on in the world right now.” Indeed.

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10:04 p.m. Gregory Gourdet, who has been slipping up in challenges recently, says as he packs for the trip, “I could have gone home. So I have to dig deeper than I’ve been doing and get back on top immediately in Italy.” Meanwhile, Stephanie Cmar – who has been an underdog until recently – notes her fellow chefs all made it to the finale in their previous seasons. “There are some times when I did so bad, I’m like, ‘I don’t belong here.’ But I made it so far. I’ve proved myself a thousand times over. Am I a threat?” Her answer: “Absolutely!”

10:06 p.m. The quintet head to the airport just as the sun begins to rise in L.A. They eat meals in a private lounge with a table-side pourer. Pretty fancy. Melissa King is next with her confessional: “My first time around on ‘Top Chef,’ I was timid and just trying to figure out my own  voice and ‘Top Chef: Boston’ molded me into a stronger person. I set the bar high to win ‘Top Chef.’ I really believe I can do it.”

10:07 p.m. The flight attendant on-board hands out a business class menu that is in partnership with the James Beard Foundation, and Kevin chimes in about his journey: “The last four competitors … are four of the toughest people that I have to face on ‘Top Chef.'” The illness that he overcame helped give him the will to survive “Last Chance Kitchen.” He learned to “fight every day as if it’s your last.”

10:08 p.m. It’s beddy-bye time and soon we are landing in Italy. Stephanie observes, “Being in Italy everything is brand new. I never had this experience before. The drive to Tuscany is so beautiful. I’m afraid to close my eyes because I might miss something.” Before long they end up at the Renaissance Tuscany II Ciocco Resort & Spa.

10:09 p.m. The mountainous views are incredible, and wine and cheese await them on an expansive outdoor terrace. Gregory exclaims, “It is absolutely breathtaking. We’re literally in the clouds.” Uh-oh! There’s note is on the table from Padma Lakshmi as well. They are told to rest and meet her in town the next day.

SEE ‘Top Chef’ recap: Which of the 6 All-Stars earned a gold medal in ‘Colossal Coliseum Kaiseki’?

10:10 p.m. Gregory is not feeling his best as he awakes. He didn’t get much sleep and he has thrown his back out somehow. Bryan Voltaggio is determined to finally win his first individual quickfire challenge. “Every time you put so much effort into something and it doesn’t have a return on it, it’s frustrating. But this is my time, for sure. I’m going to win.” Padma tells the arriving chefs, “Buongiorno! Welcome to Italy.” She introduces Michelin-starred chef Filippo Saporito whose restaurant is called La Leggenda Dei Frati. None of the chefs speaks Italian — Voltaggio studied Russian in high school instead — but, of course, Padma is fluent.

THE QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE

10:12 p.m. The chefs are standing where an ancient amphitheater once stood. Suddenly, Padma takes a left turn and says, “Who’s ready for happy hour?” Boy are they ever. She explains, “Italians have their own version of happy hour. It’s called the apertivo.” Filippo explains, “It is traditional to serve sandwiches, some pieces of cheese.” And “it’s very important that it’s very simple to eat because we need just two fingers because the other hand I need to drink some beer.”

10:13 p.m. Peroni beer is available and the food must pair with it perfectly. There are five stations set up with ingredients from different regions of Italy. Northwest contains venison, tuna, frog legs and cheese. Northeast is cold cuts, shellfish, polenta and radicchio. Central is wild game, beef and mussels. Southern is tomatoes, peppers, lamb and sardines. And the Italian islands section offers seafood.

10:14 p.m. Oh, and they will be feeding 30 locals. The winner of the quickfire will win $10,000. Melissa thinks the challenge is “insane. A lot of people in a small amount of time. But we’re fighting for $10K. I can treat myself to a Roman holiday. I’ll rent a scooter, get a cute girl on the back of the bike. I’ve got to win!”

10:15 p.m. The chefs get only 45 minutes. Kevin says, “Thirty portions for a quickfire? What is the Italian word for crazy?” Gregory sees some clams and some beer, which he declares a pretty perfect pairing.  He is steaming the clams in the beer and saffron broth. Melissa ends up with the central ingredients. She begins cooking mussels in a big pot and she, too, uses beer to steam them and eventually wants to pickle them. Fifteen minutes are already gone, which means, as Kevin shouts, that they have “one minute per portion.” Stephanie needs to pick up the pace with her Northwest goodies. She is making a venison teleggio en carrozza – that’s deer meat encased in bread or pastry. She rubs her gorgonzola on the bread and dredges it with hazelnut flour. The focaccia bread is beautiful but she has to cut each slice to size and build evenly sized sandwiches.

SEE ‘Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen’ finale: Who (if anyone) fought their way back into the competition? [WATCH]

10:18 p.m. Kevin has the Northeast and is doing a polenta with radicchio and prosciutto agrodolce. Gregory finds his clams super sandy so he is making a pivot and going with cuttlefish. Bryan has Southern and is doing a remoulade but keeps changing his mind. He was going to do something with lamb but time is quickly ticking down.

10:19 p.m. Bryan decides to make tartare with the lamb, which, as he notes, isn’t typical of the region. Five minutes left, and some thirsty and hungry natives have arrived.  Gregory is up first. He made cuttlefish cooked in beer and saffron with raisins and crispy chick peas. Bryan serves his lamb tartare, panzanella salad and sardine gremolata. Kevin dishes out his polenta. Melissa serves her pickled mussels topped with slaw. Last is Stephanie with her venison and gorgonzola encased in bread, which she didn’t have a chance to taste, so she hopes it’s edible.

10:22 p.m. The munching begins as does the guzzling of beer. Melissa’s mussels gets a thumbs up from Filippo. But although he likes Stephanie’s idea, her encased venison was not executed well enough. The judges next sample Gregory’s cuttlefish and it also passes muster, especially for his crispy chick peas. Kevin’s sweet and sour agrodolce brings a smile to Filippo’s face. Filippo thinks that Bryan’s tartare is too spicy.

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 10:24 p.m. The Italian master praises the chefs  for their efforts since 45 minutes isn’t that much time. Padma delivers the downers: Bryan is at the bottom, and he says with sheepish smile, “I knew it.” Padma says there was too much garlic, to which Filippo wisely observes,”When you have an aperitivo and you need to speak with a friend, the garlic in your mouth is not a very good idea.” He tells Stephanie that she had a good approach, “but not a good realization.”

10:25 p.m. Padma is ready to deliver the good news. Filippo tells Melissa that her pickled mussel was nice and he especially liked the citrus. With Kevin’s polenta, Filippo says, “If you’re tasting this aperitivo, you understand you’re in Venice.” Filippo praises Gregory’s use chickpeas, telling him, “Every part of the Mediterranean area uses that.” And the winner is … Kevin! The triumphant chef thinks his tally so far on the show is $30,000 from winning challenges and remembers that there have been times when he has made less than that in a year.

10:30 p.m. And who should stroll into the area but head judge Tom, looking dapper with his blue fedora, wool scarf and jacket.

THE ELIMINATION CHALLENGE

10:31 p.m. Padma reveals to the chefs that they are going hunting … for white truffles. Tom tells them that truffle hunting is “a centuries-old tradition here in Italy, and it’s the height of the white truffle season. So we couldn’t miss out on this.” Stephanie explains, “White truffles are such a luxury. They’re one of those items that you can’t get a lot of and that’s why they’re so expensive. It’s definitely a chef’s dream to go truffle hunting in Tuscany.” She and the other chefs are clearly psyched for their challenge. Certainly more fun than going to the meat counter at Whole Foods.

10:34 p.m. Padma says, “Today, Tom will set you up to go on a truffle hunt with the world-famous Savini family. They’re known for supplying the best truffles in this region. We want you to make any dish. You just have to use white truffles.” They will be serving their food at a Tuscan food festival. Tom advises them, “White truffles work with fish dishes, game dishes, meat dishes and, of course, pasta. It’s one of those ingredients that I absolutely love.”

10:36 p.m. They will get three hours to prep and cook at Michelin-starred restaurant L’imbuto, and then relocate to Palazzo Pfanner where they will serve 100 diners and meet avant-garde Italian chef Cristiano Tomei. And a-hunting they will go with Tom leading the way.

10:37 p.m. Luca Capinotti and Cristiano Savini of Savini Truffles welcomes them to the woodsy area. Luca tells them, “Truffle for us is a diamond of the forest. We are very lucky because now we have the most popular, the most rare and the most expensive one, which is the white truffle.” Instead of pigs, there are two truffle dogs that will hopefully lead them to the edible diamonds.

10:40 p.m. One dog, Giotto, digs away as his tail wags. Luca says, “He is smelling something here.” Bryan is beside himself to see a truffle come right out of the earth. Tom asks how much truffles cost and Luca tells him 6,000 euros per kilo, which equals $2,987.44 per pound in U.S. dollars. Melissa wants to honor the truffle in her dish and not let any other flavor overpower it. Wise with all that money on the plate.

10:41 p.m. Now the chefs get to go shopping at Conad Superstore. Gregory has worked with black truffles before but not white truffles, but he’s thinking about making a wild boar and cocoa stew. He hopes he can marry the earthy flavors of the truffles with the earthy flavors of the boar. Melissa’s goal is to bridge Asian and Italian together. She is determined to not repeat her past mistake of making it to the finals and then immediately disappearing like she did the last time she was on the show.

SEE ‘Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen’: Lee Anne tried to make up for her bad brunch, but did she end up with egg on her face? [WATCH]

10:43 p.m. Stephanie says without much confidence that she wants to make “some sort of truffle egg-drop soup thing.” But during a call with her husband on their first wedding anniversary, she tells him that after everyone went to sleep she decided to go in a new direction: “I love to make pasta, I’m in Italy and it’s a huge risk, but it’s one I’m willing to take.”

10:44 p.m. They head to L’imbuto’s kitchen. Melissa is making an Italian-inspired congee with salami and parsley. She describes it as Chinese rice porridge. Bryan prepares braised veal shank, potatoes, chestnuts and white truffle with aerated potato over the top. He wants to keep his dish simple and shave the truffles into the potatoes while promising the truffle will be the star.

10:46 p.m. Kevin is grilling tripolini onions and will braise them in beer, vinegar, butter and truffle. It seems like Mr. Meatball from last week’s episode is back as Kevin is serving a polpette, which is a meatball rolled in breadcrumbs, onions, eggs and butter. But the meat package he bought was a mix of three types – pork, wild boar and veal. That wasn’t his intention, but he’s going to try to make it work. Stephanie is doing brown-butter squash mezzaluna with porcini parmesan and using her truffles as filling for her pasta.

10:48 p.m. Gregory’s going to braise his boar and serve it with truffle polenta. He knows it’s “a very Gregory dish” with a lot of savory ingredients to bring something homey and soulful. But Kevin knows that dish and the flavors are intense. As he says, “You could shave a thousand pounds of truffles over it and I just don’t think you’ll be able to taste the truffles.” Thirty minutes left and Stephanie realizes her radicchio puree is too bitter. Not a good sign.

FOOD SERVICE

 10:50 p.m. Stephanie puts a touch of honey in her puree and hopes for the best. Meanwhile, Gregory is still suffering from back pain and is trying to push through. They set up their serving space outside. Locals and the judges are starting to arrive. And Padma introduces chef Cristiano Tomei to the chefs. Gail  Simmons questions why Kevin fried and didn’t braise his meatballs. He says he “didn’t want it to be saucy. There’s plenty of sauce, there is plenty of fat elsewhere on the plate.”

10:51 p.m. Cristiano Savini thought “the spices [Kevin] used in his dish are competing with the white truffle.“ Cristiano Tomei says, “It wasn’t bad if he just made onions, cheese and truffle.” Tom agrees that “it didn’t need the meat at all. I liked the chestnut honey, just the truffle was lost.” Next is Stephanie’s pasta dish, and Padma zeroes right in on the bitter radicchio puree and Stephanie immediately regrets putting it on the plate at all. Cristiano Savini says of the dish, “You need to think about the function of the truffle … and then take a step back.” Gail thought the pasta was “lovely,” but the accompaniments were “overbearing.”

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10:52 p.m. Gregory spoons out his wild boar stew, his bad back be damned. Tom liked the stew but thought the polenta was runny and once again another chef masked the taste of the truffles.  Cristiano Savini declares, “The white truffle is unforgiving. Anytime the white truffle is paired with an ingredient it doesn’t like, it disappears.”

10:53 p.m. Tom says, “I thought Melissa did a nice job. It was really smart of her to use congee. It worked because we know it works in risotto.” He also thought her quail egg was brilliant. Gail thought the egg was rich and liked the light textural differences. But she gripes again that she wanted to taste the truffle. Cristiano Tomei would’ve liked it better “if we remove the salami,” though he still thought it was an intelligent dish.

10:55 p.m. Bryan‘s dish with his braised ragu is the last to be tasted. Cristiano Tomei says, “It has the right classic flavors. The construction of the dish is very intelligent. The potato and the truffle were perfect.” Gail proclaims, “I got the most pure truffle flavor from Bryan’s dish. And I think the cooking of that stew was really beautiful.”

JUDGES’ TABLE

10:56 p.m. As the chefs anxiously await their judgment at Palazzo Pfanner, Kevin says, “Be happy you made it to the finals and be proud of yourself for getting here.” Padma thanks the chefs for a wonderful meal. But Tom adds, “For the most part we got good dishes, but not every dish was good with truffles.” The two that were most successful were Bryan and Melissa. Gail praises Bryan’s potatoes as being “the perfect vessel to coddle and nestle the truffles.” Gail tells Melissa that her congee was exciting for everybody: “It was simple and it let the truffle do its job.” Cristiano Tomei also praises her, but adds that Melissa should never cook salami again. Despite that, the winner is … Melissa!

10:57 p.m. Gregory, Stephanie and Kevin are the bottom three. Gregory explains his dish by saying, “I felt those flavors were really representative of things that I do, and I felt I could make a dish that was really part of me.” Tom tells him, “Great idea to find a dish you felt you could pull off … You pulled it out at the wrong time. The stew was great, it’s just not a great dish with truffles.” Gail tells Kevin, “Your polpette weren’t one meat or two but three. My issue was that there were so many different flavors going on that the truffle felt overwhelmed.” Cristiano also thought his spicy meatball negated the truffle. And Padma says Stephanie was courageous to make pasta, but that darn radicchio paste “obliterated everything.”

10:58 p.m. As the judges deliberate, Gail says she was so disturbed to see Gregory shaving hundreds of dollars of truffles into a hot stew that was sputtering that it “just crushed my soul.” Cristiano puts it more bluntly, “The truffle was nonexistent.” Gail also thought Kevin’s dish was disjointed. But they all liked Stephanie’s pasta even though they all hated her radicchio.

10:59 p.m. And the chef packing his knives and going is … Gregory. He says, “I didn’t come here to go home. I really, really wanted to win. But one of the life lessons I’ve learned is that you can’t always will things into happening. You don’t always get the things you work for. And, you know, it sucks. I know I gave ‘Top Chef’ 110 percent. I walk away with a few regrets about the decisions that I made, but I did everything I physically and mentally could to prepare and execute this time around. I’ve done so much and it’s a great jumping stone for my next chapter.”

Next on ‘Top Chef’:  Padma tells the final four, “We are sending you on one last journey — Parma.” As in Parmesan cheese. We observe Bryan struggling as he tries to slice big round block of the stuff. He resorts to dad humor: “This takes cutting the cheese to a whole new level.” They also have to make and serve classic dishes to 16 Michelin star chefs — no pressure.

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