Top Chef Boston Recap
By Jason Lee
January 26, 2015

Honestly, I didn't deserve to make it this far.

The chefs return home after last week’s stunning Elimination Challenge win by Melissa over Mei, thereby securing one of the three coveted spots in the TC finale. In my mind, Melissa effectively stealing one of the spots puts a lot of pressure on Mei and Greg - they’ve been the two chefs to beat all season, and frankly they deserve to be in the finale. As the opening credits roll, the remaining chefs toast to being among the final four. There’s laughter all around as the glasses clink, but a palpable tension underlies it all.

The chefs head to Top Chef Kitchen for their Quickfire and encounter Padma standing next to Wylie Dufresne - a frequent presence on TC (longtime fans will recall his presence in the Season Two finale between Marcel and Ilan). Though one might expect some type of molecular gastronomy Quickfire given Wylie’s culinary style, instead, the chefs will be asked to elevate the most humble of ingredient – beans - into something that could put Beantown back on the map. The winner gets a trip to Napa, California.

Greg is a bit flummoxed. Unable (apparently) to do anything outside of Asian food, he laments the fact that Asian culture infrequently uses beans in their cooking (apparently he’s never tried goma dangos). He decides to cook navy beans with sake, ham, avocado, and carrot chips. I think the combination of avocado and sake sounds bizarre, but hey, what do I know?

Mei knows exactly what she wants to make for Wylie - she’s fully aware of how much he loves breakfast, and she plans to indulge that. She’s putting together black beans and corn with bacon, a poached egg, and a pinto bean foam. She plates up her foam . . . and it looks like a big, soft, pillowy, brown turd. I hope it tastes better than it looks.

Melissa is a huge fan of fried garbanzos and is planning on making that a key part of her dish. She puts a seared pork tenderloin alongside it with a bacon/butter-bean puree.

Meanwhile, George wants to do a traditional Greek dish, pairing chickpeas with seafood. Unfortunately, he’s unable to find any in the Top Chef kitchen and incorporates a pork tenderloin instead.

George’s dish is up first with Wylie and Padma. Padma enjoys the texture and Wylie likes the spice of the dish. They move onto Mei’s bean breakfast - Padma is weirded out by the foam but Wylie appears to enjoy the runny yolk of the poached egg. Melissa is next and gets chided by Wylie for not making beans the focus of her dish. Finally, we have Greg. His dish is not a hit. Padma notes that his dish has some element of bitterness to it. “Sake,” Wylie concludes.

Finishing up, Wylie is assigned to give the verdicts. George had nicely cooked beans with some good spice, but the pork felt like an afterthought. Greg overcooked his beans and didn’t have any texture to his dish. Melissa’s food tasted good but didn’t highlight the beans. Finally, Wylie was concerned about Mei’s dish, saying that it was the least-appetizing-sounding of the four, but compliments her textures and flavors.

The winner, Wylie says, is the chef who highlighted the ingredient the best… and it’s Mei. Good for her. This is her first Quickfire win of the entire freaking season. Mei promises to go to Napa and “get wasted.”

But enough of this Quickfire stuff. It’s onto the only thing the chefs have been thinking about since the last episode: the Elimination Challenge and making it to the finale. The challenge is very much in the style of Wylie. The chefs are asked to create an “innovative” dish - one that pushes their own boundaries and demonstrates the next iteration of their own culinary style.

My first thought is that Melissa must be thanking her lucky stars she already has secured a spot in the finale. I’m not sure what innovation she would be able to bring to a challenge like this. Perhaps she could demonstrate a new, innovative set of knife skills in cutting vegetables.

George is a bit daunted by the challenge - he notes that it’s very hard to nail innovation on the first try. One typically fails before succeeding in the context of innovation. In contrast, Mei thinks that she has an advantage having worked at Ink under the tutelage of Michael Voltaggio. I think she’s exactly right.

The chefs head to Whole Foods where the only drama is the fact that there’s no pork belly. George really wanted to pair pork belly and octopus. But there’s no pork belly. Even though Whole Foods always has pork belly. He has no idea what he’s going to do in the absence of pork belly. This goes on for a while.

Meanwhile, Greg calmly and deliberately picks out his ingredients. He declares that he’s going to make something straightforward and clean - he doesn’t think it makes sense to take a big risk this late in the competition. I think he sounds insane. The whole point of this challenge is to push your boundaries. Greg’s approach seems to be to cook something that’s within his comfort zone and hope that someone else messes up.

The next morning arrives and everyone except for Melissa is very, very nervous. Mei admits that she didn’t sleep well the night before. The boys confess that they both sweated a lot in their beds. Melissa smiles away.

Once in the kitchen, the chefs are all business. Tom and Wylie wander in at one point and start asking each chef about their dishes and the innovation they’re bringing to the table. Greg is first with a spin on tom kha soup. When asked point blank what’s innovative about his dish, he says “ummmmmmmmmm, well, I’m finding new ways to bring texture to my dish.” Tom and Wylie look on, unimpressed. I can almost hear Wylie’s thoughts: “this kid is intentionally ignoring the point of this challenge.”

As for the other chefs, George is doing some neat stuff with octopus heads and harissa, Melissa is trying out new flavor profiles (integrating miso and walnut into the classic combination of duck and cherries), and Mei is doing a lighter spin on curry (incorporating yogurt).

Before we know it, it’s service. Greg is first and serves a pan roasted salmon with tom kha broth, crispy chicken skin, and crispy salmon skin. Gail has no idea what the intended innovation was, and Greg mumbles something about integrating texture. Padma loves the flavors of the dish, but Tom agrees that while the dish itself is nicely prepared, he’s hard-pressed to find anything innovative about it.

Melissa is next and offers a seared duck breast with farro, walnut miso, and pickled cherries. She says that the flavors incorporated were outside of her comfort zone. Gail adores the combination of walnut and miso as used with the duck, Tom wishes there were a jus but loves the dish, Wylie compliments the duck as perfectly cooked, and Padma raves about the pickled cherries.

George is third with a charred octopus, yellow split pea purée, and a green apple harissa. Wylie calls the dish “nicely done,” but Tom doesn’t like the bitter notes he’s finding in the octopus. Gail blames it on the charring of the octopus. After George walks away, Wylie expresses his disappointment that George hadn’t exercised more editing in his dish, suggesting that elements like lentils and rhubarb really didn’t need to be on the plate.

Finally, there’s Mei with her duck curry with vadouvan and yuzu yogurt. It’s a bizarre sounding dish - a fact reflected on the confused expression on Tom’s face. Tom calls the dish a “tough one” because he’s not sure how to describe it, even though he likes it. “Isn’t that a good thing?” Wyle asks, and Tom agrees that it is. Wylie compliments Mei’s broth and Gail chimes in regarding her use of duck skin. Tom, who’s finally found his voice, says that the dish changes as he’s eating it, finding new flavor points. “It’s very complex,” he ultimately concludes.

With the eating out of the way and the chefs back in the kitchen, the judges pick apart the dinner. Richard Blais (who decided to show up, finally, to do a little judging) says that Melissa’s dish was his favorite. Gail says that it didn’t excite her, and would instead pick Mei’s dish as the best, most interesting, and creative. Wylie declares that he liked best Melissa’s duck and Mei’s curry.

“So the two worst dishes are George’s and Greg’s?” Tom asks, and gets confirmations all around. Wylie fights on behalf of George, pointing out that at least he swung for he fences. Tom cannot, however, get past the over-charred octopus. Wylie isn’t giving up, though, and notes that George made the decision that if he goes home, he’ll go down fighting. Richard agrees, saying that Greg knew that his dish would have broad, general appeal, and just kept his fingers crossed that it was enough to get him to the next round. That sounds spot on to me.

Wylie sums the conundrum up as follows: “does a well-executed dish trump one that’s innovative but disjointed?” Silence meets this question. Wylie takes this to indicate that his question is a tough one to answer. In fact, I think most people at the table have reached the opposite conclusion - at this point in the competition, errors like George’s almost always are fatal.

The bigger question for me is whether Mei beats Melissa. I predict that Mei wins this one. The judges aren’t really going to ask the chefs to do something innovative, and then simply honor the best tasting dish. That wouldn’t make any sense.

Padma calls the four cheftestants out to Judge’s Table. Tom says that innovation sometimes breeds failure. The challenge was to make something authentic but different, though not all chefs actually pushed their own boundaries.

Because there’s so little drama as to which dishes were the best, Padma gets straight to the point: Mei and Melissa were the two standouts. Tom loved Melissa’s perfectly cooked duck, and Gail is a huge fan of the walnut-miso combination. As for Mei, Tom really liked the complexity in her dish, while Wylie was swept up in her rich, delicious broth.

The winner, Wylie says, is the chef whose dish was the best example of innovation and execution, and that’s… MELISSA. Holy cow. Her second Elimination Challenge win in a row. I’m stunned. Tom says that she gave the judges “everything you want in a dish,” and Wylie says that it was “technically very sound.”

Mei, meanwhile, is pouting, though justifiably so. Earlier in the season, it seemed like she kept getting edged by Greg. Now, in the homestretch, she’s getting edged by Melissa. This is gonna be interesting to see how it all unfolds.

As for the bottom two, Tom says that the judges struggled to figure out what to do. Gail notes that his octopus was bitter due to over-charring, but she loved the green apple harissa, which tied the whole dish together. Wylie chides Greg for playing it safe and encourages him to “think about sticking his neck out a little more.”

With all this said, the outcome seems obvious. And yes, Padma asks George to pack his knives and go. Tom says he cooked a great dish and really pushed himself out of his own comfort zone, but the octopus did him in. Padma tells him that he earned every minute of his return to the competition.

The chefs circle George and give him hugs. George jokes that Greg has now knocked him out of the competition twice. In his closing moments, George expresses his gratitude for having received a second chance. “There’s a small difference between good and great,” he says, “and when I get back to DC, I want to be great.” Before that happens, though, he’ll have a chance to be great in Last Chance Kitchen.

Anyone for thirds?