Top Chef Boston Recap: Finale Part 2
By Jason Lee
February 9, 2015

Seriously? You're going to make me cook with ants?

I feel like every recap for the past three or four weeks has started off with some version of, “We’re here! We’ve finally arrived at (insert name of key point in Top Chef season)!” Well, this time, it’s true. Or at the very least, it’s merited once more.

We’re here! We’ve finally arrived at the Top Chef Finale Eve - the most important challenge of the season! Until next week!

In all seriousness, though, this is a really key point in the season. Today’s episode will separate the almost-rans (like Carla, Antonia, and Jen Carroll) from the winners/runners-up. Who will have the chance to compete for all the marbles, and who instead will be relegated to footnote status?

The producers kick off the episode as the previous Elimination Challenge fades away in the remaining cheftestants’ rear view mirrors. Mei is disappointed in herself. She put out a terrific dish but almost went home, and she only survived at the cost of Melissa, who she describes as “like a sister.” Mei - never slow to pull out the Spice Girl-ian, “girl powa!” manta - has made it clear over the course of the season that she wanted the final two to be her and Melissa. With that no longer a possibility, she feels immense pressure to win Top Chef for the both of them.

As for Greg, he’s daunted by Doug’s winning streak, which included Last Chance Kitchen and both of the last Quickfire and Elimination Challenges. Doug’s feeling pumped, noting that he does best when he feels like an underdog.

Makes you kinda wonder how he’s gonna do as the presumptive favorite to secure a spot in the final two, doesn’t it?

The Quickfire Challenge - the last for this season - kicks off with Padma describing it as a “bittersweet” moment. With the groundwork laid for the predictable food pun, Padma informs the chefs that this final Quickfire will require them to cook with a Mexican staple ingredient: cacao. They’ll be asked to make two dishes, one sweet and one savory. For ingredients, they’ll have the opportunity to harvest their own vegetables from the idyllic organic farm (Jalpa) that surrounds them.

As the chefs race off to select the ingredients for their dishes, Doug full of consternation and indecision. He doesn’t like doing desserts, knew that at some point he’d be forced to make a dessert, and has no idea what type of chocolate dish to make.

Mei is keen on winning this challenge, as the triumphant chef will get to choose his or her sous chef for the all-important Elimination Challenge before the other two. She wants Melissa as her partner-in-crime. I don’t think she has much to worry about. Even if Mei loses this Quickfire, I can’t imagine that Greg or Doug would choose Melissa ahead of George, Adam, or Katsuji.

Greg and Doug are both having issues, though for totally different reasons. Greg, noticing that his dish doesn’t look right, realizes that instead of grabbing white chocolate, he has grabbed cocoa butter. He moves quickly to remedy the situation. Doug, meanwhile, still has no idea what to make for his dessert. He melts some chocolate in a bowl and proceeds to put some white chocolate foam on top.

As a side note, I find it utterly perplexing that Doug would not have arrived in Mexico without some idea of how he might incorporate chocolate into a dessert. Chocolate is such an obvious target for use in some sort of finale challenge.

Time is up and Mei’s food is up first for tasting by Padma and Enrique Farjeat, the executive chef of the organic farm. Mei serves duck with bitter greens and chocolate mezcal for her savory dish, and chocolate yogurt with cocoa nibs for her dessert. Enrique appears to question her pairing of chocolate and duck. I find this bizarre - duck and chocolate is a classic combination.

Doug offers up a seared hen with onions, tomatoes, chocolate, and ancho chile. As his “dessert,” he has melted chocolate with chocolate mezcal and white chocolate. Padma notes that not all the alcohol in his desert has been burned off. Doug is POed at himself. He knows that with this challenge, he’s lost a lot of the momentum that he’d come in with.

Lastly, Greg has a seared lamb with white chocolate, ancho sauce, and green chorizo vinaigrette. For his dessert, there are baby carrots with tumeric, dark chocolate, and ginger.

Enrique delivers the verdict by first noting that Doug cooked his chicken well but lacked balance in his “dessert.” Mei did a nice job pairing duck with the chocolate and her dessert was well done. Padma chimes in to compliment her inclusion of cocoa nibs. Greg cooked his lamb well and made a great sauce, but the dessert with its use of ginger and rosemary was a great final touch.

Greg, predictably, ends up as the winner. With perhaps the biggest compliment Greg could have asked for, Enrique asks if he could copy Greg’s dessert for the farm’s restaurant. Greg is thrilled - having not won anything for a long time, he believes that he’s back in his groove.

With that, Padma preps them for the Elimination Challenge. The three chefs will have to work together to create a six-course, progressive meal. Each of the six dishes will have to highlight one of six beloved Mexican ingredients - one ingredient in each course. The chefs will have two hours to prep and cook for the judges and four esteemed Mexican chefs. To help, the chefs will be able to select one sous chef from the eliminated bunch.

Greg, as the winner, picks George. No surprise there. Mei goes with Melissa, and Doug picks Katsuji. Predictable (and smart) selections all around.

The chefs migrate to a different area of the farm where they find, seated atop a table, bowls of the six ingredients that they’ll be asked to highlight in their respective dishes. Spotted are guava, avocado, queso, poblano, huilacoche (a fungus that grows on ears of corn, also known as corn smut... go ahead, google it), and escamoles, which are ant eggs.

Within seconds, the chefs prove that Finale Eve will be a dog-eat-dog world. Mei, showing deft restraint, expresses interest in using avocado. Greg pounces, declaring that he’ll take poblano and guava. Mei instantly responds by calling both avocado and huitlacoche. Silent, slow Doug gets stuck with the leftovers. It’s basically a scene out of the drinking game Kings Cup where a Seven is drawn - Doug is the last one to shoot his hand up to “heaven” and thus must drink. Except here, he has to drink queso and ant eggs.

“I got totally screwed on that one,” he laments to the camera.

The chefs pile into cars with their sous chefs and start planning out their dishes. Doug tries to push Greg to make a guava dish as a dessert, but Greg will have none of it. He not only doesn't want to make a dessert for last, he insists on his guava dish going first. He’s being quite bossy so far.

Meanwhile, Mei says that she wants to do guacamole. My mouth drops open. What on earth is she thinking? Guacamole? That is the stupidest thing I’ve heard from her all season. This clearly fails Tom’s oft-repeated standard for a good Top Chef dish - “Did you really think you’d win with (insert dish)?” If you can’t see yourself winning with a dish, then you shouldn’t be making said dish.

The cars stop at an awesome-looking outdoor market. It reminds me a lot of the outdoor market that the chefs got to explore in the Singapore finale in Top Chef: DC. The chefs all struggle trying to find their “highlight” ingredients in the market. Deftly navigating the market and communicating with the vendors with ease, Katsuji proves that, as a sous chef in Mexico, he’s worth his weight in gold.

Afterwards, the chefs retire to their gorgeous, palatial digs for the finale. Doug notes that this is the biggest challenge of the entire season, as the winner gets to compete for the title. He shares his dream of someday having his own restaurant in Montana. Meanwhile, Mei reminisces about the lack of support she’s received over the years from her family. Winning the title, she imagines, would finally win her the respect she’s been denied.

As these little vignettes play out, alarm bells go off in my head. Emotional segments like these often portend doom later on in the challenge at judge’s table. Quite pointedly, Greg gets no such vignette for himself.

The chefs are back in the kitchen before they know it the next day. For our benefit, they take us through the menu and their dishes one by one. Greg is first with his guava soup. He’s confident because he loves guava - he’s aiming to make a bright first course that’s equal parts tart, tangy, and spicy. Something to awaken the palette.

Mei will be next with her unstrategic, stupid, ridiculous guacamole. I’m still shaking my head over that one. Mei, though, believes she can make something fresh and new by incorporating prickly pear into the guac.

Doug will be third with his ant eggs. Katsuji has advised him that escamoles is treated a bit like caviar in Mexico. Thus, like all chefs do with caviar (insert sarcasm here), Doug is going to make a Spanish tortilla with escamoles aioli.

Mei’s second dish will go fourth with a huilacoche pasta. Melissa’s sole responsibility, Mei tells us, is to make this pasta for her. I’m not sure how smart this is - though Melissa made a good smoked eggplant pasta last time around, it was also the dish that got her eliminated.

Fifth up is Greg’s pork and poblano pepper stew. He’s looking to incorporate poblano flavor into the dish in a variety of ways.

Lastly, the menu will end with a cheese dish prepared by Doug. He’s feeling confident about this one - he believes he can elevate queso by pairing it with other components.

The two hours end and Greg heads out to the dining room with his chilled guava soup with bay scallops, habanero, and roasted guava. The Mexican chefs rave about the fresh flavor and balance between spicy and sweet. Tom loves the texture of the soup and heat it leaves in his mouth. Richard, after Greg leaves, points out the high level of difficulty in making a sweet soup.

Mei, in my eyes, has somewhat redeemed herself for choosing to make guacamole - she forms the guacamole in the shape of a sushi roll. It looks incredibly cool. She fills the “roll” with xoconostle, and tops it with radish, serrano, and some fried tortilla chips. Padma appreciates the fact that Mei didn’t hide the flavor of avocado, but notes that at the end of the day, it’s essentially refined guacamole. A Mexican chef wishes that there’d been more xoconostle flavor. Mei leaves, and Tom turns to the group noting that while Mei had been creative with her guacamole, there was a lot more she could have done with the ingredient. “I think she left the door wide open to get knocked out by another chef,” he says.

Doug comes out next with a tortilla español with an escamoles aioli. Richard Blais (who’s here in place of Gail) finds his use of aioli brilliant. The Mexican chefs, however, wish that more escamoles flavor had been present in the dish. Tom doesn’t like the texture of the dish, as the escamoles is similar to that of the potato in the dish, and thus he can’t tell where one ingredient ends and the other begins.

Feeling immense pressure after the “meh” reception her guacamole elicited, Mei’s feeling great about her huitlacoche agnolotti with roasted corn broth. One Mexican chef compliments her for really bringing the huitlacoche flavor forward. Tom loves the broth and deems it a “very well made” savory ravioli. Before she leaves, another of the Mexican chefs tells Mei that he loves the broth and would order her dish again. Padma notes that Mei’s pasta is one of the strongest dishes so far and Tom concurs.

Greg puts the final touches on his pork and poblano stew before bringing it out - he was worried that it lacked sufficient punch and adds more pepper. Upon tasting it, one Mexican chef proclaims that the dish has made him “very emotional” because of the authenticity in it. Richard loves the flavor of char that Greg incorporated, and Tom immensely enjoyed the earthiness of the dish.

As the closer, Doug comes out with smoked queso with spiced honey, squash chips, and charred pickles. Tom notes the difficulty of doing a “cheese platter,” he says that Doug approached it nicely. Richard says that it’s “far from being boring,” and loves the combination of queso with tomatillo.

With the eating over, the judges’ work begins. Padma says that Greg’s two dishes were the best things she ate all night and the others around the table agree - Tom dubs the guava soup “very good” and calls his stew the “star of the show.” Without much drama, everyone agrees that Greg has earned himself a spot in the final two.

The question, then, is who should join him. Tom feels like Mei’s guacamole was a missed opportunity, and Richard calls it beautiful but uninspired. Richard’s least favorite dish, however, was Doug’s escamoles dish, which he found greasy. Tom comments that even after eating that dish, he has no idea what escamoles tastes like.

The chefs’ two latter dishes, however, were much better. Padma loved the rich corn flavor in Mei’s ravioli dish, but she prefers Doug’s cheese course. Tom, on the other hand, would give the second course to Mei.

I’m thinking Mei is going home. It’s a duel of moles . . . guacamole on one hand, and escamoles on the other hand. Both seemed to have design issues, with Mei’s lack of ambition and Doug’s lack of flavor. The chef that goes home is typically the chef who has made the more “fundamental” error in his or her dish. For me, given that it’s the Finale Eve, the more egregious error is Mei’s.

The chefs show up at Judges Table and it’s made immediately clear that Greg is safe. Richard compliments the difficulty of his fruit soup and tips his hat to Greg’s incorporation of bright flavors and spice. Tom loves that the dish’s finesse. As for Enrique, he loved the poblano and pork stew, calling it something he will never forget. With no fanfare, Padma tells him that he’s in the final two.

That leaves Doug and Mei for the final spot, though Padma tells them that they each made delicious food. Richard tells Mei that her guacamole was like a still-life painting - beautiful but flat. Tom felt conflicted about that dish - it was good, but not the best guacamole he’s ever had. He tells her, though, that she had “many fans about the table” for how she presented the dish.

As for her second dish, all judges agree that she took a difficult ingredient and made a very good dish with the corn broth.

As for Doug, he also had a bit of a challenge with using escamoles, but didn’t do enough to highlight its flavor. Tom in particular thought that he had too many other components on the plate. Padma, on the other hand, thought he did a great job with an ingredient he knew little about, and did an even better job with his queso dish. For that one, Tom liked Doug’s use of acid and honey, with a nice contrast of flavors that made it exciting.

Both chefs are clearly feeling a lot of pressure and anxiety. Though usually stone-faced through thick and thin, Mei listens to the judges’ comments with silent tears coming down her face. Tom tells both chefs that they’ve made great food all season long and that he was thrilled to have gotten to know them both. Mei thanks the judges for the opportunity to be on the show and Doug says in a quiet voice that “it’s been awesome.”

Regarding them both, Padma tells Doug to pack his knives and go. Wow. What a tough way to end. Tom tells Doug, in closing, that it was the “small details that made the difference between his dishes and Mei’s.” He advises him to be proud of the work he did.

Doug, though, in his final interview, says that being eliminated “feels horrible” and that he “can’t put into words how much he wanted to win.” He was right there, but one dish (again) sent him home. Through this experience, Doug says that he learned that he can cook his own food and be special. He hopes to see Greg bring the title back to Portland.

One week and we’ll find out.