Top Chef Season 17: Episode 11 Recap
By Jason Lee
June 3, 2020
Before we jump into our recap of this week’s episode, one thing bears mentioning for those who have not been following Last Chance Kitchen: Kevin Gillespie. He beat Nini before sneaking past Lee Anne and Karen by avoiding the type of self-inflicted wounds that doomed their dishes (nori in an egg dish and black tea in a tea-themed dish, respectively). Then, with some self-aggrandizing commentary that was equal parts bravado and egotism, and then backed up by actual cooking, Kevin managed to best Malarkey in a risotto challenge and Gregory in a fruit-and-nuts challenge. With those wins, he’s back, fighting for a chance to make it into the finale.
But first things first, there’s a Quickfire to complete—the last one in Los Angeles. Padma is joined by “living legend” and James Beard Award-winning chef, Jonathan Waxman, a fixture on Top Chef for many years. Sitting in business class seats, and showing that we’re still in the alternative universe of Top Chef where people are flying on airplanes, the chefs are tasked with making an appetizer and main course that could be served in an airplane. They’ll only have access to ingredients that are available year round, just like the airlines, and the winner of the challenge will get an “important advantage.”
While Padma and Jonathan sip champagne, Stephanie grabs some rockfish to make a seafood main course, which seems like a questionable direction for something that’s supposed to be served in the closed environment of an airplane. Gregory grabs some broccolini, showing that he clearly doesn’t remember when CJ made roasted broccolini in an airplane challenge in Season 3 that Tom dubbed the worst ever in the history of Top Chef.
Before the chefs know it, the five minute warning goes off and mass panic ensues, as many of the chefs have not even begun prepping their appetizers. All the chefs manage to get food on their plates, but not without some mistakes.
For example, Bryan has a green goddess salad as his appetizer plus some braised chicken thighs on lentils that simply have not been cooked long enough. Jonathan questions him about it and Bryan owns up to the fact that they’re undercooked.
Bryan nevertheless avoids ending up in the bottom two. Those positions are reserved for Malarkey and Stephanie. “Air Malarkey,” who has pancetta with sherry mushrooms and brie as his appetizer and a rosemary-crusted pork chop as his main course. Jonathan’s comment is an indictment of Malarkey’s entire time on this season of Top Chef: “you tell a great story but the dish didn’t do the same.”
As for Stephanie, she had a potato salad with radicchio to pair with rockfish en papillote. Padma had a hard time getting the fish out of the papillote, which may or may not have had something to do with the amount of champagne she drank. Ultimately, though, it lands Stephanie in the bottom.
Kevin and Melissa end up in the top. Even though Kevin’s Moroccan-spiced lamb meatballs clearly violate the height requirements that were imposed at the start of the challenge (food cannot be higher than the lip of the airplane tray), Padma and Jonathan bend the rules for Kevin by smashing his meatball to proper size. They then place him in the top of the challenge for how his carrot salad made the whole dish sing.
He can’t beat Melissa, though, who takes yet another Quickfire win for her appetizer of chilled tofu salad and main course of beef curry with mushrooms and coconut rice. It was simple, elegant, delicious, and oh so Melissa.
That wins her the advantage headed into the Elimination Challenge that will decide which five chefs will participate in the Top Chef finale in Tuscany, Italy. To get there, the chefs will have to take inspiration from the restaurant Michael’s in Santa Monica, which pioneered California cuisine and is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Some really successful and influential chefs came out of that restaurant, including Jonathan, Roy Yamaguchi, and Top Chef winner Brooke Williamson.
The chefs are brought to Michael’s for an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime meal of the most iconic dishes to have been served at the restaurant over the past four decades. Michael McCarty, the founder of the restaurant, sits with them, introduces each dish. The chefs take careful note of each one, knowing they’ve been tasked with reinventing one of those classic dishes in their own way for the Elimination Challenge.
After the chefs are done eating, a knife block is brought out, which determine the order in which the chefs get to select the dish they’ll reinterpret. That is, except for Melissa. Having won the Quickfire, she gets her choice and she selects a quail dish made by chef Brian Bornemann.
Kevin is next and he picks a duck dish. Stephanie chooses an angel hair pasta dish that Jonathan Waxman came up with. Bryan goes with lamb. Gregory gets a monkfish dish that was conceived of by Brooke Williamson. And finally, Brian Malarkey chooses a sweetbreads dish.
With that decided, the chefs spend their $400 shopping at Whole Foods, some more wisely than others. For example, Brian notes that the chefs at Michael’s would often just visit the farmer’s markets and take inspiration from what they found. He adopts the same mentality at Whole Foods, picking ingredients that simply look good and are in season . . . forgetting that the chefs at Michael’s already made certain decisions regarding ingredients when designing the sweetbreads dish he’d been assigned. Nonplussed by the myriad of ingredients he’s purchased, which don’t necessarily go together, Brian simply decides that his dish will be a duo, allowing him to use all the ingredients he’s fallen in love with.
Meanwhile, back at the house, Malarkey has a quiet moment celebrating his twins’ birthday via Facetime. The Top Chef producers have gotten more savvy about incorporating these moments of personal reflection into the episodes. In the past, if you saw someone have a tearful call with a family member or muse about how much they missed home, it was a surefire sign that the chef was about to be eliminated. That hasn’t been as true in the recent seasons, but given Malarkey’s tendency to overcomplicate his food, this scene certainly doesn’t portend well for him.
And indeed, when Tom and Jonathan enter the Michael’s kitchen (which is incredibly tiny) the next day while the chefs are prepping, he goes straight over to Malarkey and asks, “what’s going on with all the fruit” seen on Malarkey’s station. As he typically does, Malarkey spins some tale out of thin air and professes confidence.
Meanwhile, Gregory has been struggling with Brooke’s monkfish dish, which features a number of ingredients that don’t normally go together. Sure, people have been wrapping monkfish in prosciutto (as Brooke did in her dish) since before Wolfgang Puck at Spago, but she also has the risotto, the beets, etc. etc. Gregory seems to have found his way forward, though, including by utilizing the prosciutto as a textural and seasoning garnish by crisping it up and putting it atop the dish, instead of wrapping the monkfish in it.
Except that the prosciutto gets left off entirely at the last minute. This isn’t an intentional omission, but rather, one born of craziness in the last minutes of plating. It’s a second, major unforced error by Gregory for a second week in a row, having under-salted his broth in the kaiseki challenge last week.
But there’s nothing he can do about it now. He serves up his version of Brooke’s dish, which has been transformed into a roasted monkfish with beets and pickled onions. Jonathan immediately notices the absence of the crispy prosciutto, and Brooke (who’s dining with the judges along with some other Michael’s alumni) notes that the dish consequently lacks salt. Tom agrees that the prosciutto would have made it a better dish.
Stephanie served her dish alongside Gregory and gets a much better reception. She serves her version of Jonathan Waxman’s angel hair pasta dish, which is now a seared scallop with caviar, pasta stuffed with asparagus, and a shellfish chardonnay beurre blanc sauce. Jonathan declares it “spectacular,” commenting that it’s of the quality demanded by the folks at Michael’s.
Bryan is next with a twist on a lamb dish that Roy Yamamoto had made. He presents a roasted lamb with a cabernet, cassis, currant puree and a fondant potato. The judges praise the dish for being simple, refined, and focused on the main ingredient—all in the Michael’s way. One diner, though, suggests that the lamb itself “lacks a ‘wow’ factor.”
Presenting with Bryan is Kevin, who has turned a duck dish by Mark Peel (also at the table) into a roasted duck breast with orange and heirloom onion marmalade plus with a wide rice croquette. The croquette is a huge success, and Gail loves the range of flavors incorporated into the dish as a whole.
Last up is Melissa and Brian, but not without some serious drama. Though each diner has Melissa’s dish in front of them, somehow, multiple plates of Brian’s dish are missing. He looks around, the tension visible in his face, asking where the rest of his dishes are. “I plated them all,” he says in the high-pitched tone of a person who recognizes that he’s seconds away from losing his temper.
Padma tries to keep things moving, saying that the diners will share the plates they have.
Encouraged to simply keep going, Malarkey says that he wanted to tell more than one story through his dish, and thus made a duo. He has sweetbreads with hollandaise with a champagne gastrique next to a veal loin with truffle, butternut squash, mushrooms, and a warm leek potato salad. He watches in horror as some of the diners begin to stir the two sauces together. Knowing full well that the duo will not taste good if eaten together, Malarkey strains in an effort to remain poker-faced and composed. In reality, though, he’s on the verge o losing it.
Oblivious to the madman standing next to her, Melissa introduces her dish of grilled quail with lime and a hot plum glaze with ninja radishes. The diners gush over it—it’s sweet, it’s spicy, it’s got bitter notes, some nice Asian flavors . . . one diner simply says that it’s “outrageous” how good the dish is.
As for Brian’s dish, the criticisms are ones we’ve heard before. He took a dish that originally had maybe four to five ingredients and presented something that has 45 ingredients. While the protein is perfectly cooked, a lot of the accompaniments simply had no place next to each other.
With the eating done, the chefs are brought before Judges’ Table and told that Melissa has won today’s challenge—a clean sweep of the last Quickfire and Elimination Challenge before the finale. Gail tells her that Michael McCarty himself was “blown away” by the dish, and that there was nothing on the plate that any of the judges or diners would have changed.
Though it may have sounded like Melissa took the win in a blowout, Jonathan tells Stephanie that that’s not necessarily the case—she was “right there” with Melissa and the race was “very close.” She did a great job of channeling Jonathan’s original dish and reinterpreting it to show how good it could be when adapted to today’s culinary environment. Giddy with happiness, Stephanie joins Melissa in the finale, as the two hug it out.
Bryan and Kevin are also going to Tuscany for the finale. Bryan smartly proportioned all of his ingredients to ensure they all worked together harmoniously, and Kevin presented a well-rounded duck dish with a dynamite sauce.
That leaves Gregory and Malarkey in the bottom. Gregory takes this outcome well. Though he cooked his vegetables great, the fish got lost. And it didn’t help that he forgot the prosciutto, which would have added texture and seasoning to the dish.
But the real drama is over with Malarkey, who’s vibrating tighter than a violin string. He launches into a tirade about how exhausted he is, how exhausting the show is, the issues he has going on in his life, how frustrated he was that the dishes were missing, how frustrated he was that the diners ate his duo together.
Gail and Tom try to point out that he’s gotten this far in the competition because he has cooked some really good food so far, but Malarkey is having none of it. Finally, Padma asks him, “So are you quitting right now?” Gregory urges Malarkey simply to let the judges make their decision. He doesn’t want to earn a ticket to the finale by default.
And he doesn’t. Malarkey is going home based on the dish he made—not because some plates went missing or because people ate his duo in a way he hadn’t intended. The two parts of the duo simply didn’t make senes next to each other, with the sauce, Asian pear, and pomegranate clashing with the flavors in the accompanying half of the duo. It wasn’t in the spirit of Michael’s and it wasn’t good enough to get past Gregory.
As he departs, Malarkey laments that his time on Top Chef is ending this way. He had intended to win, but says, “my mind melted when all that went down.” This conveniently overlooks, of course, the fact that the actual cooking of the meal was finished when “all that went down.”