Last week on “Top Chef,” the five remaining contestants headed to Tuscany where they went on a hunt for the pricey delicacy known as white truffles. Kevin Gillespie and Stephanie Cmar tussled a bit with their truffle dishes, but Gregory Gourdet’s boar stew overwhelmed the star ingredient and he got the boot. Melissa King, meanwhile, stuck to her strong suit by flavoring a rice-based Asian congee with her Italian truffles and won the elimination challenge while Bryan Voltaggio came in a close second with his braised ragu. So what happened this week with only four chefs remaining? Read on for our minute-by-minute takes on the 13th and penultimate episode of Season 17, “Parma.”
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10:02 p.m. We’re back at the Palazzo Pfanner in Lucca as the judges congratulate the chefs still standing. Padma Lakshmi says that before a winner can be chosen, the quartet of cooks will be going on one last journey to a region of Italy that is important to Italian cuisine. They are will go on a food tour of the Italian capital of culture for 2020 – Parma. Gail Simmons explains that Parma is the namesake of two very important ingredients: Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Prosciutto di Parma ham.
10:04 p.m. Head judge Tom Colicchio notes the two specialties are considered masterpieces of Italian cuisine. “Their quality is kept to an incredibly high standard and are actually protected by the Italian government. They can only come from this region of Italy.” For Bryan, “being able to tour where these products are coming from is a dream come true for a chef.” Padma adds that chef Lorenzo Cogo will be their guide and is the youngest chef in Italy to be awarded with a Michelin star. Their experience in Parma will inspire their next elimination challenge.
THE ELIMINATION CHALLENGE
10:06 p.m. The chefs are told that they will be responsible for two dishes, a traditional primi or first course and a secondi or second dish that features Parmigiano-Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma. Tom explains that they should make a rice dish or a pasta dish for their first course and a meat entrée or fish dish for their second. Who will be chowing down on their food? Why, just some of the most esteemed chefs in the country. I am guessing that grilled ham and cheese sandwiches aren’t going to cut it.
10:08 p.m. As the chefs head out of town, Melissa explains what she loves about Italy: “Every region has its own hyper specific type of cooking, a different type of character and soul to it.” They are greeted at a cheese factory by Lorenzo, their tour guide. They have to don special blue plastic coats, hair nets and booties over their shoes. Feisty export manager Cristina Moroni, tells them about their protective wear. “Parma has been declared the City of Gastronomy, but not City of Fashion.” Now that joke is truly cheesy.
10:10 p.m. Cristina would be right at home in a Fellini opus as she informs the chefs that the factory makes 80 wheels of cheese per day. There only three ingredients – the milk, the rennet and the whey. Bryan has always wanted to learn about Italian culture and its food since it is part of his heritage. He asks if there are certain grasses in the region that the cows have to forge on? Cristina’s answer: “Being a DOP product, we have 500 acres of fields.” FYI, DOP stands for Protected Designation of Origin in English. Well, she does know her stuff.
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10:13 p.m. We then learn the only preservative in the cheese is salt and it is done by immersion in vats we get to see. Next stop? A huge storage unit stacked quite high with large wheels of cheese, where the chefs are shown the correct way to slice into one. The particular cheese that the chefs sample is 15-years-old. Melissa only grew up with “that really nasty grated parmesan cheese.” This is the complete opposite of that. Bryan hoists their communal wheel over his shoulder as they take off to the place where their Prosciutto di Parma is made.
10:15 p.m. Next stop is Ruliano, a family-run business that has been around since 1949. “This place has a lot of things that Kevin Gillespie finds very endearing,“ says a transfixed Kevin in the third person. Mainly two things: “being in the middle of nowhere, having ham available.” Thank goodness, we skipped the slaughter process and instead we gaze upon the meaty goodness of the curing room where the ham is air-dried. And piggy meat like this doesn’t come cheap: 7kg of Ruliano prosciutto can cost over $285 in American cash, depending on age and weight.
10:17 p.m. Kevin loves the smell of prosciutto, describing it as “unbelievable.” Stephanie is also blown away by seeing the product in its purest form. They are served a sampling of freshly sliced ham, and Keven pipes up again, warning everyone, “You should always slice it and use it as is. You should never cook it, don’t do anything else to it.” Mr. Meatball is now turning into a ham fan as he thinks of pairing prosciutto with cooked pork. And the chefs get a parting gift – what else but a tasty slab of pig meat. Then it’s time to go shopping in Parma.
TO MARKET, TO MARKET
10:20 p.m. The chefs get a hefty 90 minutes and a budget of 300 euros, but when they get to the store it is far smaller than the spacious groceries back home. Bryan is excited by what he sees and that the food stuffs are of the highest quality. He goes after squash while Stephanie checks out the fruit and veg stand outside. She tastes herbs and thinks about incorporating cabbage and baby tomatoes with the Parmesan; the region is very meat-forward. She wants to do a vegetable-forward dish, which could be a risk, or could become an advantage.
10:22 p.m. The foursome go their own ways. Kevin wants to use a variety of kidney bean called borlotti that is pinkish-brown with streaks. It’s for a dish called pasta e faggioli, which is pasta and beans. The dishes he’s planning are very personal, so he thinks the challenge plays right into his strengths. Bryan plans on a broth with ham and squash and maybe drape the cod with the ham. Also on his menu is pesto with pumpkin seeds. An idea pops into Melissa’s head: Chinese XO sauce has cured meat in it and prosciutto would be a great replacement.
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10:25 p.m. Night is falling and Lorenzo tells the chefs that they have one more stop for the day. They are going to go to a Michelin star restaurant called Antica Corte Pallavicina, where they will stay overnight. The next day they will cook there. The owner Massimo Spigaroli greets them while Lorenzo translates: “He has a beautiful, big surprise for you.” They walk through a dark chamber of horrors situation with row after row of hanging meat called culatello di zibello as far as they can see. The prestigious cured ham, we are told, is from locally reared pigs that hang for up to 30 months. Also renowned is the aged cellar itself, which was built 700 years ago in 1320.
10:27 p.m. Kevin declares the cellar “absolutely fascinating,” and of course food awaits them there. Melissa observes that Kevin is definitely in hog heaven as they sample the meat. Chef Massimo has a table set up and he will cook for them, starting with eel from a local river. Up next is pheasant cooked inside a bladder.
10:29 p.m. Stephanie asks her dining companions what their favorite memory is up until now. Melissa picks their time in the great outdoors at Pali Mountain. Kevin chooses the Jonathan Gold challenge, saying, “I was genuinely moved by how important that man was to so many people.” Bryan picks the challenge when the chefs cooked with a family member and his sister joined him. Melissa then says, “I think if I win ‘Top Chef,’ my family would be the most proud of me.” When she competed on Season 12, she was trying to make her dad understand that cooking was her life. But after that her relationship with her dad blossomed.
10:33 p.m. The chefs greet the morning by spying a peacock outside on the grounds of the restaurant. There are also baby pigs with their mom outside — “They’re so cute,” Melissa says. Ha! Just yesterday they were saying, “They’re so yummy.” Stephanie is just happy to make it further in the competition than she did her first time on Season 11 when she came in seventh: “Everything else is just going to happen.” She has never been more happy, and “when you feel happy your food tastes better.”
FOOD PREP AND COOKING
10:35 p.m. The chefs head into a spacious kitchen that more than meets their approval. Melissa starts off cleaning her shallots quickly since they have only three hours to prep and cook. For Stephanie;s primi dish she is doing a prosciutto ragu with fresh fettucine. Her secondi will be braised cabbage with prosciutto. However, her prosciutto will be cooked (remember Kevin’s warning against that?), so she hopes the prosciutto gods won’t be angry.
10:37 p.m. Bryan is making a pasta called chitarra, a thin, square long noodle made with a device called a guitar that shapes the pasta between its strings. He thinks that this pasta type will accentuate the taste of the Parmesan they sampled. He is keeping the dish fairly simple with butter, pasta, cheese, cracked pepper and a soft egg. He will used melted cheese to make a fonduta that is similar to a fondue. As for his secondi, he is cooking bass in a brodo with prosciutto.
10:39 p.m. Kevin and Bryan manage to cut the massive wheel of cheese while Melissa rolls out her anolini pasta that she will serve in a brodo for her first course, which she’ll follow with scallops with prosciutto and XO sauce for her second course. She’s taking a risk by improvising a new version of the dish with Japanese ingredients like yuzu and bonito with a prosciutto egg raft, which is a clump of meat, vegetables and egg whites added to stocks to clarify them. Clarifying is a long process that takes 45 minutes and they only have two hours now. But Melissa is determined to show off a little.
10:42 p.m. Kevin is making his pasta e fagioli with beans for his primi and pork roast with apples and prosciutto for his secondi. He’s using two different types of Parmigiano inside the filling of his ravioli. He is also sprinkling fresh Parmigiano on top. Oops, 54 minutes are left, and the race is on. Melissa is rushing as she makes her spicy XO sauce, but then her pot with her raft starts boiling and breaks it. That means she has to start over. “Rookie move,” she declares.
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10:44 p.m. Kevin says the most difficult part of his second dish is cooking the pork coppa, which looks like a massive amount of meat to cook well in a pan. Kevin observes, “There is no shortage of talent left, including myself. I won a lot of challenges this season and I fully expect to make it to the finale.” We will soon see if his prediction plays out.
10:45 p.m. The judges and guests make their way to the restaurant. Stephanie’s ragu is right where she wants it to be. “Am I fearful of serving pasta to Italians? Yeah. But am I scared? No.” “Fearful” and “scared” are synonyms, though, so it’s hard to say exactly how she’s feeling. Melissa was able to restore her raft with just five minutes left. In the dining room, Padma brings out her perfect Italian again, noting that their setting is beautiful.
10:47 p.m. The ladies serve their first course to the rather intimidating table, including guest judge, chef and author Evan Funke, who is a highly regarded pasta master. Padma takes a bite of Stephanie’s ragu and says, “Mmmm!” Evan says Melissa’s brodo was “interesting.” He notes that the use of the yuzu was very delicate, “which was what I was expecting.” Gail agrees, adding she also tasted the Parmigiano with the rind in the broth. As for Stephanie’s ragu, Gail liked that she used the prosciutto in it. “It has such a robust savoriness.” An Italian female chef at the table dubs both chefs as being “very brave.”
10:49 p.m. Kevin puts grated cheese on his plates tableside. Good move or not? You decide. Tom says, “Bryan made the best pasta of the day – just the pasta.” The same female chef says, “What I didn’t really appreciate was the Parmigiano treatment. It’s very artificial for me.” Tom agrees: “It’s a good dish but not the best way to use this ingredient.” A male chef then damns Bryan’s plate by saying it was “completely devoid of any love or passion. The dish is flat.”
10:52 p.m. As for Kevin’s dish, Gail observes, “His beans, brodo and vegetables were beautiful. It felt right in the setting, right in this region.” The other female chef in the Edna Mode bangs and eyeglasses adds, “The vegetables are very crunchy.” Padma asks, “Do you like that?” Her reply: “Yes, but a pinch of salt too much.” As I suspected, Kevin gets dinged by Padma for heaping more Parmesan at the table on what was already a very Parmesan-y plate. Well, Melissa and Steph def won round one!
10:53 p.m. Stephanie rushes to plate her braised cabbage with a prosciutto jus and Parmesan fonduta. She calls her fonduta “great” and observes that it tastes like Parmesan but with a silky texture. She is confident and upbeat for once before serving her food. Padma asks one of the male chefs if he liked Melissa’s dish, and indeed he loves the combination of Chinese food with a different culture. We then learn this dude is Enrico Bartolini, who has earned eight Michelin stars, the most ever held by an Italian chef. He likes “the saltiness, the chili, the butter, full of flavor.” Padma was worried the sauce would overpower the prosciutto, but it didn’t.
10:54 p.m. But wait one minute! Guest judge Evan says that Steph’s cabbage is the best of everything they tried so far. He applauds her layering the meat and cheese in inside the leaves. Chef Massimo likes that she treated the cabbage like a lasagna and found it “enjoyable to eat.” Gail rightly says that Stephanie “is doing some of her very best cooking today.” The guys better be stepping up their game this round. Kevin cuts into his pork roast, tastes it and says, “It’s absolutely perfect” and adds, “That will make you slap somebody!”
10:55 p.m. Bryan serves his bass with Prosciutto di Parma and squash. Kevin tells the chef that they are getting a roasted fresh pork coppa with apples and 36-month prosciutto. The chefs like Kevin’s sauce and apples, but the pork is tough. Edna Mode agrees it is “not so good.” Padma likes Bryan’s dish much better. The harshest male chef observes Bryan has good technique, “but with no soul.” That is a criticism that has been thrown his way several times before. Also, more than one chef says the bland pesto did not work.
10:55 p.m. Tom tells the four that they should all be proud with what they did. Padma reveals there were two chefs who stood out – Melissa and Stephanie! Stephanie is beyond joy, saying that making it this far is “a very humbling and proud feeling.” Tom gives her high praise by saying, “The cooking was fantastic.” Chef Evan tells her, “What stands out to me is the cabbage. It really worked. A lot of times when you use both Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano, it becomes overpowering and really salty. And you showed a very, very delicate hand. The dish was spectacular.”
10:56 p.m. Gail says Melissa’s first course was done in such a respectful and elegant way, she loved every slurp. Padma adds, “That broth was so clear and yet it had such a depth of flavor.” Tom applauds her use of XO sauce on her scallops. Evan gets the privilege of announcing the winner. And that person would be … Melissa! Padma points out that it is her third win in a row. Then the host tells the guys, “You gave us so much in those plates of food, but one of you will be going home.”
10:58 p.m. Chef Evan tells Bryan, “Out of all of you, your pasta was cooked the best. But his treatment of the Parmigiano ruined its flavor. Padma then gets down to the nitty gritty: “A lot of the Italian chefs said there is no heart or soul in this dish. Now I know that’s a hard thing for me to pass along to you.” He counters, “The idea and intent of that did come from heart because I wanted to take a dish that I enjoy because I like to try to push the envelope with food and try to do something new.” Tom delivers Kevin’s critique: “Kevin, this was your food. There was a lot to like about both dishes. I thought the beans were absolutely beautiful.” Gail liked the idea of him sprinkling cheese at the table. She just thought there was too much cheese on every raviolo.
10:59 p.m. Gail tells Bryan his fish dish looked like a masterpiece. But she criticizes it for being “very soft on very soft” and she missed the textural component. Chef Evan wished he put more garlic in his pesto. Padma takes on Kevin’s secondi, telling him she loved that he did pork and apples. However, it ate dry and tough. Another sin? Evan thought his prosciutto was an afterthought. Gail adds that neither of the male chefs treated their Parmigiano in the right way. Oh, and don’t get the four judges going on how Kevin mistreated his pork. And Bryan would have done better with crispy prosciutto. And the chef packing up his knives and going is … Kevin. He leaves saying, “I wanted to come back here as a message of hope. I had a really hard time these last couple of years. And I fought back and I won. I wanted people who are struggling to feel like they keep hope and on the other side great things can come to them.”
Next on “Top Chef”: Padma tells the three finalists that each of them will be responsible for making the best four-course meal of their life. The best news? They get reinforcements in the form of Kevin, Brian Malarkey and Lee Anne Wong. I knew we wouldn’t be totally over with Mr. Malarkey. In a car, we hear Kevin telling Bryan, “If you want to break somebody’s knees, just let me know.” Ouch! Mr. Meatball is now the Godfather.
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