This week, in part one of the first of 4 installments of the almost-finale, we start out with the final two chefs, Brooke and Sheldon. That is, until the final two once again becomes the final three a few minutes into the episode.
Look, I get the appeal of Last Chance Kitchen. I really do. Sometimes the right chef is sent home for the wrong reasons, and this gives them a shot at redemption. But in its second season on the show, LCK is feeling more and more like an opportunity to stretch the show out as far as possible.
Brooke and Sheldon relish the feeling of being in the top 2, complete with “we made it to the finals” dances, despite knowing full well that they are still stuck in the top 3 until the LCK winner joins them. And just like that, we time travel 6 months into the present where we get a nice little recap of what our finalists have been up to during the break. Sheldon’s Star Noodle seems to have gotten the inevitable post Top Chef boost, and Brooke returns to her family, the kitchen, and mountains of paperwork.
The scene of the finale is Tom’s L.A Craft location, where we find Brooke and Sheldon not so eagerly awaiting the reveal of their mystery competitor. In what turned out to be one of the most entertaining montages of the season, we get a recap of LCK and see a lot of chefs I’d sort of forgotten about entirely.
And then…time for the big reveal!
“OMG! I’m so surprised that Kristen won Last Chance Kitchen” – Said no one watching this season, ever.
Yup…Kristen beat out Lizzie and Josh to earn her spot back in the running. I want to be excited, because she was the clear favorite to claw her way back into the finals. She should have won. But I can’t get past how contrived her dismissal and subsequent redemption felt. Perhaps if she had actually deserved to be eliminated in the first place, it wouldn’t be so transparent.
The challenge is simple: The chefs are running regular service at Craft, each responsible for an appetizer, entrée, and dessert. This is real service with real customers, and Tom Colicchio really breathing down their necks as the expediter in the kitchen the whole time. No pressure.
From the word go, both Sheldon and Brooke make some serious tactical errors. Sheldon makes the oh-so-overplayed error of wanting to “show his growth” to the chefs by doing a quail dish that is totally not his normal style. The finals are supposed to be where you cut loose and cook your style of food. Not the best time to try something new.
Instead of making a bad decision, Brooke struggles with making any decision. She spends so much time in the pantry wavering between various “gorgeous” proteins that it is almost like she forgot she has three hours to prepare three courses for an entire restaurant full of Tom’s customers.
Brooke moves swiftly, trying to keep out of her own head and not overanalyzing or overcomplicating her dishes, she is taking the “clean and simple” route. I see the wisdom in that…the challenges that she excelled at during this season were the ones where she was decisive and seemed to quickly develop a clear vision of what she wanted to do. The one that she struggled with was because Josie was on her team. Good news Kristen – Josie isn’t on your team tonight, so you should be good.
If you ever wondered how to make Tom Colicchio want to throw a meat cleaver at your head, just watch Brooke during service. I don’t think it was editing this time…Tom spent half of his time in the kitchen barking at Brooke to hurry up. She was seriously throwing off his expediting game.
It is time to eat, and while Tom tastes from the kitchen the chefs parade their dishes out to John Besh, Martin Yan, Hugh, Padma, and Emeril.
Sheldon’s spot prawn appetizer starts things off well, getting high praise from both Emeril and Martin Yan, who compliments Sheldon’s ability to pull off such a delicate dish. Kristen’s chestnut veloute, duck rillette, and Brussels sprouts is well received, but both John Besh and Hugh think that it is missing just a little something that would have made it great (a touch of acid). And Hugh was just waiting to see if Brooke did a thorough enough job of cleaning her sweetbreads (she didn’t), and he spends so much time using phrases like “milky softness” we don’t hear if anyone else enjoyed the dish.
On to the entrees, Kristen’s seared tuna with veal mustard and meyer lemon puree gets mixed reviews, with Yan complimenting the perfect sear on the fish while Padma thinks the lemon is too harsh. Brooke’s short rib knocks it out of the park, both with the judges and the rest of the guests. But Sheldon’s quail earns the spotlight for how un-Sheldon it is…and not in a good way. His little experiment seems to have failed, leaving the judges longing for the “old Sheldon.”
No one at the table has an ill word to say about Brooke’s brown butter cake, getting only a “Holy smokes!” from Besh, while Yan compliments the balance in her dish. Sheldon tried to get all fancy again on his dessert, but the choice of pairing his white chocolate mousse with raw fennel does more to confuse and frustrate the judges than impress. And Kristen glides through with her Chocolate curry cashews, which Hugh summarizes as “really basic.”
Going into Judge’s table, there is no clear winner to me. Everyone missed on something…Brooke’s slow service, every one of Kristen’s dishes lacked a little something, and Sheldon swung for the fences on his Quail and missed.
Sorry Sheldon. You almost made it. Time to pack your knives and wait until you get used as a Sous chef in the real finale and watch someone else win.
One more episode to go…and next week is going to be Iron Chef style, in front of a live audience packed with Top Chef alum. I’m actually looking forward to that one.
- By Jon Watson, Food & More blog