Last week the “Top Chef” All-Stars got their Olympic Games on by cooking a six-course Kaiseki meal and Karen Akunowicz was eliminated for the second time. She faced off with Kevin Gillespie in “Last Chance Kitchen” and lost. Kevin then had to beat two out of three still-remaining chefs to stage a comeback, and he managed to do that, too. Brian Malarkey’s reaction to the fierce competitor coming back? “Good god!” Read on for our minute-by-minute takes on the 11th episode of Season 17.
10:02 p.m. A culinary legend is seated next to host Padma Lakshmi in the kitchen. It’s Jonathan Waxman. As Padma tells us, “He is considered a pioneer of California cuisine and a James Beard Award winner. He’s also my friend, which I think is his greatest accomplishment.” They clink wine glasses and drink champagne. Stephanie Cmar says, “Champagne Padma is my favorite of all the Padmas.” Speaking of which, the host asks, “Do we have any ice? It’s really warm.”
THE QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE
10:03 p.m. Padma says, “The finale is nearly upon us. Before we take flight, there’s one last quickfire here in Los Angeles.” She explains, “Airline food used to have a stigma of being lesser quality. But not anymore. Airlines have done a fantastic job recruiting chef consultants to propel the dining experience to new heights.” Jonathan adds, “I started in 1988 with American Airlines chef conclave with Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck.” If you are going to drop names, those are two good ones food-wise.
10:06 p.m. The chefs are told that they must make Padma and Jonathan a memorable meal. They will be served their food while they sit in airline-style seats. “The meal must include an appetizer or a salad as well as a main course,” so says she who must be obeyed. A catch: They will need to plate on airline trays. Jonathan tells them, “The height restriction is important because it can only go to the top of the plate.” Otherwise, it wouldn’t fit into the oven. One more caveat: They can only use ingredients that are available year-round. I expect some turbulence once the chefs take off and gather their food.
10:09 p.m. Padma adds, “The chef that soars to the occasion will win a big advantage in the elimination challenge.” Bryan Voltaggio is thinking “something simple, something fresh and bright green.” He feels he has to finally win a quickfire challenge before leaving L.A. “It’s one thing I can’t achieve. I don’t understand why.” Kevin reveals that he spent most of his life flying in first class since his dad was an airline executive. “I am a total airplane diva,” he admits. He’s making lamb meatballs and carrot salad.
10:10 p.m. Brian is bashing his pork and — in his words — making a mess. He is concocting a warm mushroom salad and salsa verde on his meat. Melissa King asks Steph if she flies a lot and she does, given that her mom is a retired flight attendant. She is doing a rockfish en papillote, a method using a paper wrapper to retain moisture in the sky. Melissa chooses to do some curry and cold tofu salad. The hungry passengers get up to see what is cooking.
10:12 p.m. Bryan says he is making a chicken thigh dish with green lentils and dates. For his first course, he is doing a salad with a green goddess dressing. Champagne Padma says, “Nice” and “very ‘70s.” Gregory Gourdet is preparing chicken with a mushroom gravy and some broccolini. He notes that “broccolini is grown year-round. It’s crunchy, it’s bright.” The difficulty for him in the challenge “is really creating something that is simple and executable considering that probably 100,000 people are going to eat this.”
10:14 p.m. Fifteen minutes left. Kevin decides to deep-fry his meatballs by putting them directly in the fryer. “You get a very even deep, dark caramelization on the outside.” They might be a little too tall, but he isn’t worried about the height restrictions: “It’s a meatball. You can smoosh a meatball.”
10:15 p.m. Padma decides it’s time for another flight pun and tells the chefs, “It’s five minutes before touchdown.” Melissa is rushing to make her tofu appetizer. Stephanie notices, “Everyone is in full panic mode. It’s total chaos right now.” Meanwhile, Champagne Padma asks Jonathan, “What’s your favorite nut?”
10:16 p.m. Brian needs to cut his pork down to make the height requirement, which will unfortunately affect the meat’s moisture and flavor, but you gotta do what you gotta do. As she calls out, “One minute left,” Champagne Padma downs her bubbly in one final gulp. That’s when Bryan realizes his lentils aren’t cooked enough. Too late to fix it. And time is up!
10:19 p.m. First served to the judges is Gregory with his chicken and broccolini. Next is Kevin’s Moroccan spiced lamb meatballs, causing Champagne Padma to say, “Smells good!” She notes they are taller than his plate but Jonathan helpfully presses his down. Bryan is next with his braised chicken thighs and green goddess salad. Jonathan nails him on his not fully cooked lentils as a gotcha “ding” goes off. Stephanie serves up her rockfish with warm potato salad. Alas, the parchment paper doesn’t spark joy in Champagne Padma, especially since you’d have to wrestle with it on a cramped plane.
10:22 p.m. Malarkey serves his rosemary pork chop with kale and pancetta with sherry mushrooms. Champagne Padma is having a heck of a time trying to cut her meat. Brian then says, “I need to talk to the stewardess team right away. This was supposed to be served with a steak knife.” Ha, ha! Last but not least is Melissa’s beef curry and tofu salad.
10:23 p.m. Jonathan tells the chefs, “I think it’s very difficult for an airplane at 35,000 feet and you’ve got to get the food out very quickly.” He adds, “I think you all did a very good job.” Who is on the bottom? Stephanie and her parchment paper: “The fish was difficult to maneuver and eat on a plane,” Jonathan explained. He then calls out, “Mr. Malarkey! You tell a great story. However, your dish didn’t do the same.” Padma adds, “I even struggled to slice up that pork.”
10:25 p.m. Now the good news. Thanks to Jonathan, Kevin has a new nickname: “Mr. Meatball.” He admits, “They could have been a little smaller. They did violate the height rule. But we smashed them down for you. But the carrots made that dish sing.” Also in the good column is Melissa’s curry. Jonathan’s critique? “It was simple, the flavor married with the rice, and that tofu was something I want to eat on an airplane.”
10:28 p.m. As Padma puts it, “Who is ready to wear their wings today?” And the winner is … Melissa! This is her second quickfire win in a row. She will get an advantage in the next round. Padma reminds the chefs that only five of them will go on to the finale. Our host reveals that “Top Chef” will head to Europe for the first time ever. “Tuscany, to be exact.”
THE ELIMINATION CHALLENGE
10:30 p.m. There is just one more elimination challenge to be conquered before the they can say, “Ciao!” It involves dishes inspired by Michael’s Santa Monica, a restaurant owned by chef Michael McCarty, the legendary pioneer of California cuisine. Each contestant must reimagine one of the eatery’s iconic dishes from across the decades and serve it to a table of alums who worked in Michael’s kitchen, including Jonathan, Roy Yamaguchie, Sang Yoon, Mark Peel and past “Top Chef” champ Brooke Williamson.
10:33 p.m. Jonathan says, “In 1979 I ended up at this dirt field in Santa Monica with this amazing Michael McCarty. McCarty was opening up a restaurant called Michael’s. When we opened up Michael’s, we were trying to find ingredients in California specifically that might match up with French ingredients.” They were able to mesh the Golden State’s cornucopia of homegrown food with that of continental and French cuisines.
10:36 p.m. Padma notes, “The restaurant is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and ever since Jonathan, a very impressive list of chefs have made their mark there. The chefs will meet with McCarty to taste some of his signature dishes throughout the years.” Those dishes will act as their inspiration. They’ll be joined by Hunter Lewis from Food and Wine Magazine.
10:38 p.m. The chefs take off in their car and visions of Italy are definitely dancing in their heads. They arrive at Michael’s where the owner himself greets them. They will taste various dishes and then choose one to make their own. “We were called California cuisine for a reason,” Michael tells the chefs. “Local ingredients, that’s where it all starts.”
10:40 p.m. Executive chef Brian Bornemann delivers the dishes. Gregory says, “It was iconic ’70s food for the times. Working with local ingredients. I am so excited for this meal.“ The first dish is the ‘80s-style angel hair pasta with chardonnay cream sauce, grilled diver scallops, and caviar and chives. Michael says, “Sauce is very important to me.” Next is the more recent grilled quail with roasted jalapeno and lime salsa. Michael explains, “We always do quail. It’s a crowd pleaser. You never see quail anywhere.” Then arrives a plate of heirloom red beet risotto topped with monkfish wrapped in crispy prosciutto from the ‘90s, courtesy of Brooke Williamson.
10:42 p.m. From the ‘80s is a plate of sweetbreads, veal loin, chanterelle mushrooms and white truffle. Also from the ‘80s is grilled lamb saddle with potato galette and red currant cab cassis. It’s a creation made by Roy Yamaguchie. Then there is duck two ways, a grilled breast and a confit thigh with wild rice and blood orange sauce attributed to Mark Peel. Suddenly, the dreaded knife holder is placed on the table. Looks like the chefs will have to cast their fates to the wind and draw knives. Melissa’s advantage is that she can pick her dish first. Her choice? The quail. Kevin is number two and claims the duck. Stephanie is next and picks the scallops. Bryan takes the lamb. Gregory gets the monkfish. And Brian is left with the veal, though he seems perfectly happy with it.
10:44 p.m. The chefs head to Whole Foods one last time. They have 30 minutes and $400 to spend. Gregory says, “The hard part of the challenge is to re-create a dish and then modernize it, put yourself into it and truly pay homage to what it represented for its time.” His approach is to keep things as simple as possible.
10:46 p.m. Bryan picked lamb because he thinks it is something he can definitely update and execute on a high level. He was also attracted to the sauce work. He tells us, “When I was a young cook in New York, I was a saucier. And I had like 16 sauces on my menu. Executing it perfectly is what is going to matter to me.” Meanwhile, Brian is once again overloading with random ingredients, including fruit, even though he knows that won’t jibe with the truffles.
10:47 p.m. The chefs rush into Michael’s rather confined kitchen. Kevin says it looks just like a kitchen from the 1980s. Stephanie says, “What a great challenge to go out on. And, by go out, I mean to Italy.” She is adamant that “I’m not going to let self-doubt get in the way of me and Italy.” Brian ominously says, “A duo has always been a suicide run on ‘Top Chef.’ So I see no reason why I shouldn’t try it.” He adds, “I’ve been thinking how can I use all the amazing stuff I just got at the market and truffles. It strikes me I might have to make the dreaded duo.”
10:48 p.m. Melissa wants to make something with her quail that is more a revolution of a Michael’s dish and not a replication. True to her culinary style, she is going more Asian with it to put a little of herself into it. She is going to grill it and use hot plum glaze. Jonathan and Tom Colicchio arrive, and Tom immediately asks Brian, “What’s with the fruit?” Brian does his song and dance that the fruits aren’t liking the truffles so much, and Tom just rolls his eyes. Meanwhile, Gregory is preparing his monkfish, which he is wrapping in prosciutto crisp.
10:49 p.m. Bryan is building flavors for his lamb. Meanwhile, Kevin has to butcher a bunch of ducks. He is going to braise the duck and blend it with the wild rice made into a duck rice croquette. He says,”That feels very Kevin Gillespie.” Meanwhile, the judges and guests are arriving in the dining area. It’s quite a crew of culinary talent. The plating area is tight and — oh no! — Gregory accidentally leaves off his prosciutto crisp in the cramped chaos of all the chefs trying to get their dishes plated.
10:50 p.m. Gregory and Stephanie are up first. Padma asks Jonathan what he thinks of Stephanie’s reinvention of his pasta scallops. He says, “It really is delicious. It’s my dish come forward 40 years. Which I think is really spectacular.” Mark Peel adds, “I remember being in that kitchen and this is what it tasted like.” Michael praises her for putting fresh greens on the plate. As for Gregory, Roy Yamaguchi thinks his version of his recipe is great, but calls it “pretty much one-dimensional.”
10:52 p.m. Bryan and Kevin are next, and Kevin gives a shout-out to Chef Peel: “He said he loved to cut up duck and other animals.” Mark jokes, “If ducks had a post office, my picture would be on the wall.” Chef Roy says that Bryan’s dish follows the guidelines of Michael’s cooking: “It’s simple, it’s refined and it showcases the ingredient.” Padma approved of the different sauces on his plate. But Chef Roy thinks Bryan’s dish lacks that wow factor. Mark says his duck breast was cooked perfectly. Jonathan really liked the wild rice confit inside the little ball and then the orange note on the top. But for Brian’s meal, one of his dishes has gone AWOL.
10:54 p.m. Brian spies his missing dish at another table, but it seems once again he has too much going on. Melissa’s quail dish looks beautiful with her ninja radishes and plum glaze. Chef Brian Bornemann says of Melissa’s take on his recipe, “It really just highlighted the bird itself. I honestly love this.” Chef Roy’s thoughts? “It was outrageous.” Guest Hunter Lewis really liked her dish as well – “not too sticky, not too sweet.” As for Malarkey’s dual creations, Michael laments that his dish “is so far past what we prepare. It went from four or five ingredients to 45 ingredients.”
10:55 p.m. Tom praises the chefs overall: “There’s so much history in that kitchen. I thought you guys did a great job. Taking the dishes and finding inspiration and still make it your own. It was great to see the reaction of the chefs at the table seeing their dish re-imagined.” Padma says, “Well there was one winner today.” She allows Jonathan to deliver the news. “It was really a beautiful meal and I don’t say that often. But it comes down to one person … and that person is Melissa!“
10:56 p.m. Jonathan also brings a smile to Stephanie’s face when he tells her, “You were right there. The race was very close. You really channeled me in a spectacular fashion.” Padma also assures Bryan and Kevin that they are going to Italy as well. Jonathan loved Bryan’s presentation and he loved the size of the potato and the size of the medallion of lamb: “They really worked well together.” Tom says he really enjoyed Kevin’s duck dish and thought it was well-rounded.
10:57 p.m. Brian and Gregory are the bottom two, so one of them will be going home. Padma tells Gregory, “When you were thinking about how to interpret that dish, what part of yourself did you want to put in it?” He answers, “I love fresh vegetables. Adding the beet juice.” But Tom says that his fish got lost on the plate. His main flaw was leaving off the prosciutto for salty flavor and texture.
10:58 p.m. Padma asks, “How was it for you, Malarkey?” He says with the utmost sarcasm, “Oh, I just had the best time ever.” He then adds, “This is exhausting. I forgot how exhausting this is. And I had a few little issues today that corked me in the wrong direction.” Sensing the writing on the wall, Brian surprises the judges by telling them, “I am cooked. I had a great ride my friends.” Padma asks if he is quitting. A frustrated Gregory suggests Brian let the judges judge because he doesn’t want to go to Italy by default. Tom thought his veal and sweetbreads were actually perfectly cooked. But his so-called duo just didn’t talk to each other.
10:59 p.m. Jonathan gets right down to the nitty gritty of Brian’s confused dish and says it didn’t invoke what Chef Michael’s approach to food is all about. They also note that Gregory did not meet the standard either. But the chef packing his knives and going … is Brian.
Next week: The five finalists arrive in Italy and are greeted by Padma saying, “You’re going hunting … for white truffles.” They also will cook pasta dishes for passionate Italians. Meanwhile, we hear some rather harsh take-downs at judges’ table, but we don’t know yet whose dishes they’re talking about.
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