Top Chef Season 17: Episode 13 Recap
By Jason Lee
June 17, 2020
One isn’t the loneliest number, four is. With four chefs left, one will be left to rue how agonizingly close he or she came to making the finale.
Padma puts a more positive spin on things. With four chefs left, they each have a 25% chance of taking home the title. Yes, Padma, but some chefs more than others.
To determine who makes it to the finale, the chefs are going on one last journey, and it’s a mind-bendingly amazing one. I’ve often said that the experiences you get on Top Chef—the people you meet, the food you get to try, the restaurants you get to dine at, the cuisines you’re exposed to—are beyond valuation. Accumulating as many of those has got to be as much of a driver to progress in the competition as hitting such “milestones” like making it to Restaurant Wars or making it to the finale.
Today is no different. Guided by Lorenzo Cogo, the youngest chef in Italy to be awarded a Michelin star (and probably the front runner if there were ever Top Chef: Europe), the chefs get an amazing tour of Parma, a region of Italy home to two of the country’s most famous exports: Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and parma ham. The chefs will have to soak up as much inspiration as possible, as they’re tasked in the Elimination Challenge with making a “primi” (a first course, usually constituting a rice or pasta dish) and a “secondi” (the entree course, usually with meat or fish). The chefs’ primi and secondi will need to highlight either Parmigiano Reggiano or parma ham.
To get a feel for both ingredients, straight from the source, at their respective freshest, the chefs first stop by a company famed for making some of the best Parmigiano Reggiano in the region. They make 80 wheels per day, each of which is worth $1,000. The shelves stacked with giant wheels of parmesan is a sight to see and the chefs drink it in. They also sample as much as they can, especially the 15-year old parmesan. RPG-style, the chefs are gifted a giant wheel of Parmesan for use in their Elimination Challenge.
Next, they hop back into the car and head to Ruiliano, a family-owned business famed for making prosciutto. Massive rooms are lined with pork legs being cured and air dried. They’re approximately 7 kilos each and worth $285. Another round of sampling occurs, with Kevin in seventh heaven as he samples some of the best pork in the world. He’s already dreaming of making a secondi that features “ham on ham.” Again, RPG-style, a whole leg of pork is the chef’s gift as they depart.
But they can’t make due on parmesan and prosciutto alone. The chefs head to an amazing palazzo encircled by speciality markets selling meats, produce, spices, cheeses . . . you name it. Kevin goes wild for the beans he sees, Bryan grabs some squashes, Stephanie picks out some cabbage, and Melissa ruminates about possible using the prosciutto to make a spin on a classic Chinese XO sauce.
The chefs have one more stop for the day. They’re brought into yet another Michelin-star restaurant for an amazing dinner, which they reach by taking a tour of the oldest cellar in the world where cured meats are hanging to dry before being shipped out to some of the best restaurants in the world.
What an amazing experience. Bryan is loving the opportunity to take a deep dive into Italian culture and learn more about his heritage. Kevin is fascinated by Italy’s varying treatments of pork. Melissa is relishing how confident she feels—such a difference from her time on Top Chef: Boston. And as for Stephanie, she’s made it so much farther in the competition than she’d expected. She’s just enjoying the moment.
Cooking begins the next day. The chefs have three hours to prep and cook their meals, which isn’t a ton of time for two dishes. Everyone thus keeps their head down and stays focused on everything they need to do, which, for Melissa, includes making a beautiful broth that puts an Asian spin on an Italian dish. It’s a time-consuming process to clarify the broth, and everything almost goes awry for her when the broth accidentally begins to boil and she has to start everything all over again. Luckily, she’s able to complete everything in time to serve her primi alongside Stephanie.
It’s a daunting group of diners. Along with the judges, and the guest judge, Evan Funke, a chef who revolutionized pasta in Italy, the folks at the table have received cumulatively 16 Michelin stars. To this discerning group, Stephanie serves a fresh fettuccine with prosciutto ragu and parmesan. Padma loves it at first bite. The Italian chefs are all impressed by the level of difficulty—combining prosciutto and parmesan (both big flavored-ingredients) was not easy, and yet, the ragu has wonderful flavor. Gail chimes in, loving how Stephanie incorporated prosciutto.
Melissa presents a chicken anolini with yuzu and her beautiful, golden, parmesan brodo. The Italian diners love the use of Japanese ingredients, like yuzu, and Gail praises how the parmesan, including the rind, which was used in the broth, really comes through. Tom simply shakes his head in amazement, saying, “This is a really good plate of food.”
Bryan and Kevin are next up. Bryan serves a chitarra pasta with a soft egg yolk and an aerated Parmigiano fonduta, which really means a parmesan foam. He encourages the diners to mix everything together to make the sauce for the pasta. The Italian chefs are, quite surprisingly, entirely unimpressed. The consensus is that Bryan’s dish is “devoid of passion,” “flat,” and has “no inspiration.”
As for Kevin, he has a raviolo with cannelloni beans and parmesan whey under a fresh bean ragu with borlotti bean broth. Then, to many diners’ shock and horror, he goes around and personally dumps a huge spoonful of grated parmesan on everyone’s food. It’s something straight out of Olive Garden. Though Kevin’s pasta is good, and his beans are well cooked, the disrespectful use of Parmigiano Reggiano rubs everyone the wrong way. One chef calls it an “artificial” treatment of the ingredient, and Tom understatedly notes that it was “not the best way to use” the parmesan. Padma says what everyone is thinking: Kevin “did not need to put literally a heaping tablespoon of parmesan on something so delicate.”
Back in the kitchen, Stephanie is humming along. She’s in a great mood, not overthinking things, but simply relishing and being in the moment. It’s different than you’ve ever seen Stephanie on the show. What a time to be peaking.
She serves a braised cabbage with prosciutto atop a parmesan fonduta, turnip, and cabbage puree. One chef declares it to be the best dish he’s eaten so far and praises how she layered the prosciutto between the leaves of the cabbage. Another Italian chef compares it to a delicious “lasagna” of cabbage with prosciutto. Gail rightly notes that Stephanie is serving some of the best food of the entire season.
Not to be upstaged, Melissa has scallops with a “prosciutto XO sauce” and radicchio. In my mind, I’m praying that Melissa picked a different variety of radicchio than Stephanie did in the prior challenge, which almost became her downfall.
Again, Melissa can do no wrong. The diners love the combination of Chinese and Italian flavors to create something that’s salty, spicy, savory, and simply full of flavor. Padma notes that she had worried the prosciutto would overwhelm the XO sauce, but it was beautifully balanced.
That leaves it up to the boys to bring it home. Bryan has bass with squash, pumpkin seed pesto, and prosciutto di parma. It’s . . . not a hit. The Italian chefs again criticize his food as strong on technique but lacking “soul.” The pesto is also a big problem, as it’s underseasoned. Tom notes that despite some high points in the dish, such as the texture of the squash, it’s “not one of his best dishes.”
Finally, Kevin has his “pork on pork” dish of roasted fresh pork coppa with heirloom apples and 36-month prosciutto. Gail loves the uses of apples, and Tom likes the acid in the dish, but the focus is supposed to be on the prosciutto and it’s pretty much an afterthought. The Italian chefs wish Kevin had found a better way to use one of their most cherished ingredients. Additionally, his pork coppa is tough and uninviting. “Not so good,” one Italian chef says, not mincing words.
The four remaining chefs are brought before Judges’ Table and Tom assures them that the food was, across the board, very good. Two chefs, though, stood out: Melissa and Stephanie. “Holy shit,” Stephanie exclaims in surprise. “Me?” “Yes, I said you,” Padma responds with a smile.
“You guys do realize you’re in the finale, right?” Tom asks. “Take a moment to enjoy it.”
“I was psyched to be in the final ten,” Stephanie admits, “and now, to be here and see [everyone’s] cooking,” she says it feels great to know she has “earned her place.”
Yes, she did. Gail loved her innovative use of prosciutto in the ragu, which was bold and savory. The pasta, as in the last challenge, was also very well made. Tom gives Stephanie the biggest compliment coming from him: she made simple and straightforward food that was fantastic because of the way it was cooked. Our guest judge Evan chimes in: the cabbage was great. It could have been overpoweringly salty but it was spectacular.
Melissa’s food was equally good. Gail loved her primi, which was respectful and elegant—she loved “every slurp.” Padma adored the broth, which was so clear but so full of flavor. Tom found the XO sauce “brilliant” in the way Melissa incorporated flavors that she knew and loved. “That’s what cooking is all about,” he says.
While both chefs made amazing food, Melissa takes home the win for the THIRD TIME in a row. Holy cow. What a dominating performance she has put on since leaving Los Angeles and coming to Italy. If Melissa takes home the title, it will be one of the most convincing string of wins in Top Chef history.
But who will join Melissa and Stephanie in the finale? Padma notes that Bryan and Kevin both “gave so much in their plates of food,” but one of them will be going home. Bryan probably cooked his pasta the best out of the four chefs, but Evan was almost offended that he would turn the Parmigiano into an aerated foam. Aged Parmigiano, Evan explains, builds up beautiful salt crystals that pop when eaten, and by aerating the cheese, those were all lost. Gail passes along the comments from the Italian chefs about how his food “had no heart or soul,” and Bryan is clearly taken aback. Blinking back tears, he explains that he always tries to do something new through his food. It’s not a great response, but he clearly doesn’t know how to respond to such painful feedback.
Turning to Bryan’s secondi, it looked like a masterpiece when brought out, with the gingerly draped prosciutto over the fish, but it ended up being “soft on soft,” with no textural contrast. Also, the pesto didn’t work. Evan emphasizes that pesto should be heavy on basil and garlic, but those flavors were missing. Tom notes that if Bryan had added more garlic to the pesto, the whole dish might have come together.
As for Kevin, Padma loves the idea of pairing pork and apples, which is absolutely his style of cooking. However, the pork ate dry and tough. Showing why Tom has a restaurant named “Craft,” he focuses on the technique of the cookery. The pork was over-seared on one side, he says, meaning that when the pork rested, the juices didn’t flow back out. Beyond that, the prosciutto felt like an afterthought, piled atop the pork.
There’s thus little surprise when Padma asks Kevin to pack his knives and go. Though Bryan didn’t employ the best technique with highlighting the parmesan, Kevin’s token sprinkling of parmesan over his raviolo and lack of focus on the prosciutto sends him home. It’s a very similar outcome to last week, where Gregory went home for shaving hundreds of dollars of truffles over his dish to little effect, showing a lack of respect for the ingredient.
With tears in his eyes, Kevin shakes the hands of all the judges and reminisces to us about the hard times he’s had over the past couple of years. He hopes that he’s served as a beacon of hope and an example of how great things can follow after tragedy.