“Top Chef: World All-Stars” is down to its final four: Ali Al Ghzawi (Middle East and North Africa), Buddha Lo (Houston), Tom Goetter (Germany), and Gabriel Rodriguez (Mexico). But really it’s the final five, as Tom reminds Gabri at the start of episode 12, “Goodbye, London.” That’s because last week marked the finale of “Last Chance Kitchen,” which means one eliminated chef is coming back into the competition. But who will it be? Tom and Gabri speculate about Dale MacKay and Nicole Gomes, but fans who have kept up with “LCK” know that it’s really between last week‘s ousted chef Sara Bradley and “Street Food Fight‘s” eliminated contestant Charbel Hayek. So who is it?
When Tom, Gabri, Buddha, and Ali enter the “Top Chef” kitchen, they get two immediate bits of information. First, behind host Padma Lakshmi is a table full of jellied dishes, making it clear what this challenge would entail. They are also reintroduced to the chef who won “LCK” and returns to the main competition. Through the doors walks … drumroll please … Sara! I had a feeling that was the way it would go after Tom Colicchio critiqued their dishes on “LCK” (then left us hanging about the outcome). It’s nice to have a woman back in the competition as Sara was the last one standing.
“Those boys thought they were rid of me. I’m back, bitches!” says Sara. “I’m ready to win. I’m inspired. There is a fire going on inside of this belly right now, and it’s not heartburn.”
No time to celebrate her return, though. It’s straight into the Quickfire, for which Padma introduces guest judge Sam Bompas, the co-founder of Bompas and Parr, which specializes in jellies. Of course, that’s their challenge: to make a dessert that incorporates jellies, and they must use a mold, though the mold doesn’t have to be just for the jelly component. They have 30 minutes to cook, followed by an hour wait for their jellies to set, and then a final 15 minutes to de-mold and plate their dishes. Sam explains to them that they need to use just the right amount of gelling agent: too much and it’s like eating rubber, too little and it won’t set at all. Or as Padma helpfully puts it, “You want a little quiver in your jelly.”
Buddha fears there’s not enough time to get jelly to set in a mold, so he decides to be strategic. He’ll use his mold to make an orange blossom out of ice cream, but he’ll prepare his jelly in a cup. Gabri makes a tres leches panna cotta. Tom opts for a goat cheese panna cotta — there’s a lot of panna cotta to go around in this challenge — which he thinks is fun because it looks like vanilla but then tastes completely different. “Pranks are my superpower,” he explains.
Ali hopes to get his black currant jelly to set by spreading it thin on a sheet, while Sara is taking a chance on a layered jelly. And Gabri makes the sponge cake for his tres leche in the microwave, but the 30 minutes run out before he can get them out. Well, the good news is that after the hour wait time is over, Gabri’s cakes seem fine, but the bad news is that his panna cotta didn’t set well at all. It’s goopy and loose. I have to believe that effectively takes him out of the running for this Quickfire, or as Gabri puts it, “There’s no time to wiggle wiggle anymore.”
Indeed, when Padma and Sam taste his dulce de leche panna cotta, they notice the unset component immediately. Then they try Ali’s dark chocolate cremeux, black currant sauce and pistachio crumble, which has good wobble and makes Sam smile. Next is Tom’s goat cheese panna cotta, cherry jelly, beetroot disks, curry popcorn and cider gel, and oh boy does that sound like a lot of different flavors to wrap your head around. Buddha’s “Orange blossom” saffron ice cream with orange blossom jelly and panna cotta gets a “wowzer” from Sam when he sees the mold work on the ice cream — a good sign for the chef who has already won three Quickfires. And Sara closes it out with her layer buttermilk and strawberry jelly with fresh berries, ginger and pecans.
Ultimately, the bottom two chefs aren’t surprising: Gabri‘s dish was nice to eat, but failed at the jelly component. And Tom indeed had too much going on and needed to better consider how his flavors would work together. The other three received praise: Ali‘s great flavors that were never boring, Sara‘s spices and berries and ambitious layering of jellies, and Buddha‘s presentation and clever use of his jelly. And the winner is, as if there was any doubt, Buddha! That’s his fourth win out of the last five Quickfires. He’s certainly peaking at just the right time in this competition.
“Things are about to get tricky,” says Padma. “In 18th century England, a fashionable person’s taste was always under scrutiny.” A representation of good taste at dinner was trompe l’oeil ceramics. And let me tell you, I definitely didn’t spell that right on the first try when taking notes. Luckily it’s not just me, though. None of the chefs have a clue what trompe l’oeil is either.
The phrase means to fool or trick the eye. So their challenge is to make a trompe l’oeil dish. But it’s up to the chefs to decide how they want to interpret the challenge. They can either make a dish that looks like one food but tastes like another. Or they can make a dish that resembles some other object. They’ll have 300 pounds to spend at Whole Foods and then the next day they’ll cook for three hours at Hatfield House where Queen Elizabeth I found out she would be queen. As Quickfire winner, Buddha will have the advantage of an extra 30 minutes of cooking time.
“This challenge is made for me,” says Tom, who already told us what a prankster he likes to be. Yeah, and watch him be eliminated after saying that.
Ali has the most trouble at the start of the challenge, though. In his career he likes to “manipulate the eye or the senses of my guests,” but trying to fool a table full of accomplished chefs with some sort of imposter dish is something else entirely. And he needs to think fast because by the time they roll up to Whole Foods he still doesn’t know what he’s making, and starts wandering the aisles for inspiration.
The other chefs seem more confident. Gabri got his start in the kitchen as a dishwasher, so he’s going to make a dish that resembles a sponge. “This is one ambitious dishwasher that wanted to become a chef,” he says, “and here I am in ‘Top Chef: World All-Stars.'” Buddha plans to make something that resembles a charcuterie board with impostor food items. Sara will make a matzo ball soup, except the matzo ball will resemble a tamale — “It’s not really my style, but you know, it’s ‘Top Chef,'” she says, which is super worrisome. Tom will make a caviar imposter out of seaweed, which will also work in a message about sustainability.
And Ali … finally settles on the idea of a garden while looking at flowers. He will create a garden with soil and plants that taste like falafel. It’s sort of a slapdash concept, but at least it’s a concept, and something he’ll hopefully be able to execute. Right now I’m most worried for him and Sara, especially after Sara decides to use molds for items in her dish; she herself admits that those molds take away from the vision of her meal overall, but she sees everyone else using molds, so dammit she’s going to use them too! Another really bad sign.
Sara is first with her duck fat matzo ball soup, poached chicken, apple and bone marrow salsa with herbs. The judges can’t tell what her concept even is at first until she tells them and immediately she is asked why the soup is so acidic. Oof. Other judges do give her credit, though, for the good flavors in her dish, even though Colicchio, unsurprisingly, points out that the molded elements added nothing to the central tamale concept of the trompe l’oeil.
Gabri is next with his lemon brioche with lamb tartare, macadamia and Parmesan foam, though as he’s plating the dishes he realizes his foam is too hot so it’s spraying haphazardly across the plates. He decides to lean into that, though, since a sponge is all about cleaning up messes. There’s a moment where the judges seem almost offended that their plates look so dirty, but in this case when Gabri explains his concept and his personal history as a dishwasher, the dish goes over well, even if it’s not that technical of a visual fake-out.
Ali’s garden-looking falafel, sumac mousse, chickpeas, quinoa mousse, herbs and breadcrumbs soil has nice elements, and Padma like how it tastes like a well-done, herbaceous, tangy falafel, but none of them are particularly fond of the bland breadcrumbs at the bottom or the presentation of the “garden,” which doesn’t really look like a garden enough to be a successful trompe l’oeil dish. As one judge points out, there’s a difference between a trick of the eye and something just inspired by a garden, and this was just inspired by a garden.
Tom’s seaweed and fish stock caviar, almond cream and seaweed salad seemes promising from the looks of it. He has managed to make seaweed look exactly like little pearls of caviar. Unfortunately, the judges are put off by the texture, which is “gummy,” and the flavor, which tries to mimic caviar instead of being a true impostor that tastes nothing like the sea. Tom’s preparation also took away the seaweed’s natural umami flavor. Man, the judges are salty today. Right now it sounds like Gabri is ahead in this challenge despite a couple of criticisms of his execution. Buddha’s got this challenge in the bag if his dish is solid.
Buddha went for true impostors: beef and onion “red wine,” bread “porcini,” polpette “cherries,” and potato croquette “black truffle.” The judges love the presentation, which looks like a still-life painting. The “wine” broth is one of the best things the judges have tasted all challenge. All the food items taste different than what they look like. One of the judges thought he might be able to eat the toothpick too. Buddha is obviously the winner of this challenge. But who goes home? Tom or Ali maybe?
The judges get down to business and tell Gabri and Buddha that they’re indeed going to Paris for the finals and are the top two for this challenge. That makes two weeks in a row for the duo, who won last week’s Wellington challenge as a team. Buddha is praised for making every item a true trick of the eye and for holding back instead of overthinking his dish. The camera immediately cuts to Tom after that comment, which is like a massive side-eye from the editors. Gabri is also praised for his clever trick, as well as for his well-seasoned lamb, and flavorful Parmesan. But really it’s just a prelude to the inevitable announcement that Buddha is the winner of the challenge.
The bottom three chefs Sara, Tom, and Ali then receive their criticisms. Tom gets credit for executing the visual component of the challenge well, but the flavors didn’t come across, and the almond cream got in the way of everything. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sara is praised for the flavor of her dish, but she could have taken the visual component a lot farther than she did. Ali stumbled a little on both counts. He had some great pops of flavor apart from his dry, under-seasoned breadcrumbs, but it wasn’t really a trick of the eye in any meaningful way. In the end, the judges decide to save the two chefs who delivered at least some good flavor — Sara and Ali — and they eliminate Tom. Sadly, that’s the end of the road for the German chef as “Last Chance Kitchen” is over and done with.
“‘Top Chef’ is a beast, and I’m very happy to be selected for it to be honest,” says Tom in his exit interview. “You’re talking about the 16 best they could find in the world. But it’s sad to go now just before Paris. I learned a lot about cooking and about myself. There are so many jobs out there, but tell me who can show so much expressions like a chef. So I feel like it’s the best job in the world. And I’m not going to damn change, that’s for sure.”
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