'Top Chef' recap, 'Holy Escamoly!'

For The Baltimore Sun
Taking on ant eggs on the way to the "Top Chef" finale.

After surviving last week's elimination against Melissa, "Top Chef" finalist Mei uses one of the most overused phrases in reality show history: "S--t just got real." That’s what happens when you’ve been in front of a camera for a long period of time. Actually, she’s just upset that she was nearly sent home.

After winning five consecutive challenges (including Last Chance Kitchen) Doug has earned the right to drop the “ie” after his name.

For the second part of the three-part finale, the last three cheftestants — Doug, Mei and Gregory — take a trip out to Hacienda Purisima de Jalpa, an organic farm in San Miguel de Allende for their final QuickFire Challenge. Walking through the farm, the chefs spot fresh produce growing straight out of the ground. It’s like nature’s Whole Foods!

This week’s QuickFire guest judge is Enrique Farjeat, executive chef of this veggie paradise. It’s OK, I have no idea who he is either. Padma alludes to the challenge’s main ingredient when she mentions it’s a “bittersweet” QuickFire because it’s her last one this season. There’s nothing sweet about less screen time for Padma, FYI. It’s just bitter.

The ingredient, of course, is chocolate. The chefs have to make two dishes, one savory and one sweet. They’ll also have access to anything they can forage from the farm. The catch is they’ll only have 45 minutes, an extremely short amount of time.

Doug has a confession to make: He’s not a dessert guy. All this time he’s been dreading for the moment where he has to make a sweet dish. Well, looks it’s time to put on the big-boy pants, Douglass.

At one point during the obligatory, “What are you making” awkward back and forth, Doug says his dessert is melted chocolate with melted white chocolate on top. He’s just glad this isn’t an elimination challenge because that dessert is pretty phoned in.

This is also the episode where Padma lets us know she’s totally fluent in Spanish saying, “Manos arriba, cuchillos abajo” which Google Translate tells me means, “Hands up, knives down.” 

Mei’s savory dish is duck with bitter greens and chocolate mezcal; her dessert is a chocolate yogurt with cocoa nibs and nasturtium.

In typical fashion, Doug quickly made a stew out of onions, tomatoes, chocolate and ancho chili with his seared hen. For dessert, he basically made what looks like a version of Jell-O chocolate pudding snacks with white chocolate swirl. Let me break it to you gently — he didn’t win this QuickFire.

You know who won? Gregory. He made lamb with white chocolate, and then made a dessert out of baby carrots, turmeric, dark chocolate and ginger. That dessert alone wowed the guest judge so much so he wanted Gregory’s recipe. 

Because he won, Gregory gets first pick of his sous chefs from the eliminated contestants.

Much to Padma’s surprise, Gregory picks George. “Wow really, George?!” Padma asks. I’m more surprised at the retro-'80s look George sports. With them big ol' Vuarnet sunglasses and his slicked back hair, the only thing George is missing is a Member’s Only jacket.

To no one’s surprise, Mei picks BFF Melissa. The two had wanted to be in the finals together and now here’s their chance in spirit. 

Doug picks none other than Katsuji. Being buddies aside, they are in Mexico and having a Mexican sous vide is probably a good choice.

The Elimination Challenge is to work together to a cook a six-course progressive dinner featuring six of Mexico’s most beloved ingredients. Each chef is in charge of two dishes, and each of the six ingredients must be featured in the dishes. 

Usually a progressive dinner means you go to a series of different residences and each house’s host cooks a dish. It's like a traveling party, and there's usually a theme. I have no idea what make this particular dinner progressive other than judge Richard Blais’ hipster hair-do. 

The six Mexican ingredients that must be used are guava, avocado, poblano chili, Mexican queso, a black fuzzy fungus called huitlacoche, and the pièce de résistance, escamoles, which is ant eggs.

As if it’s his first time competing or perhaps he's just shocked that there are ant eggs on the table, Doug freezes while Gregory and Mei pick out their ingredients. Realizing what had just happened, Doug finally says, “So I’m going to get these two [expletive] things?” He ends up with cheese and ant eggs.

The gang heads to Hidalgo market in San Luis Potosi to shop for their ingredients. Toto, we’re not in Whole Foods anymore. In fact, had it not been for Katsuji, Doug might not have gotten those precious ant eggs. For his invaluable service, Katsuji is allowed two beers for the night, Doug says. 

Next morning, during the roof terrace “personal reflection” moment, Doug reveals his goal of opening up a lodge in Montana where people can go fly fishing and he’d offer them delicious food. It’s quite a romantic, “A River Runs Through It” moment.

Mei’s still seeking for her family’s approval. Instead of being really proud of her accomplishments, her parents’ message is “You gotta win,” and “Don’t make yourself look bad.” I can vouch — that’s how traditional Asian parents roll. Meanwhile Gregory’s parents are just glad he’s sober. It’s all about perspective.

I’d go into detail on all the Mexican VIPs chefs who are present, but you really only need to know two — Zarela Martinez and Eduardo Wichtendahl Palazuelos. Martinez was discovered by chef Paul Prudhomme and she later went to become one of the pioneers of Mexican cuisine in New York City. Eduardo Wichtendahl Palazuelos is also this week’s guest judge, and is a dashing celebrity chef who does not have his own Wikipedia page. 

Gregory says that since Boston, he’s been spending weekends and nights studying Mexican ingredients and spending time with Mexican chefs to prepare for the finale. Looks like it’s paying off. 

His first dish is a chilled guava soup with bay scallops, habanero and roasted guava. Everyone loved it. Apparently it’s got all five tastes. Tom especially likes how the spiciness of the habanero builds slowly. Say what you want about him being a one-trick-curry pony, dude knows how to combine sweet and savory. Remember a few challenges back when he instructed his sister how to make watermelon soup? 

Next is Mei’s guacamole. Her ingredient was avocado so she decided, what dish better highlights avocado than guacamole? Though simple, she presented it with thinly shaved slices of avocado and made the whole thing look like a sushi roll. The reaction was underwhelming. It was too simple. Padma says at the end of the day that dish was just refined guacamole.

Doug, under the guidance of his Mexican sous chef Katsuji, serves the ant eggs as in a Spanish tortilla, which is basically an omelette with potatoes. The concept here is to serve (ant) eggs with (chicken) eggs with an aioli of blended with more (ant) eggs. The consensus was “meh" because the flavor and texture of the escamole was lost. Even if he studied up on this ingredient, it’s not like Doug could have practiced it. These ant eggs aren’t allowed in America. I know, a real surprise. (Sarcasm.) 

Back to Mei, who is working with huitlacoche, a black fungus also known as corn smut. It’s supposed to be intensely earthy and woodsy like a mushroom. Mei’s using it as a filling for her agnolotti and serving it with roasted corn broth. Conceptually this is a smart dish considering that huitlacoche grows on diseased corn. Most everybody likes it a lot. Tom says that as a savory ravioli dish it was really delicious. Seems like she’s redeemed herself from the first course for now. 

Gregory’s next ingredient is poblano pepper. His dish is a pork-and-poblano stew with tomatillos, and it's a home run. When a Mexican chef tells you your the dish is “the flavor of Mexico” you’ve done something right. At this point it’s obvious Gregory will be one of the final two contestants. 

Will Doug’s cheese course push him ahead of Mei for the final spot? His final course — smoked queso with spiced honey, squash chips and charred pickles — earns compliments all around. Everyone had good things to say about this dish. Doug was so happy returning to the kitchen from all the praises I thought he was going to make out with Katsuji.

This is as close of a Judges Table as there’s been all season. Partly because much like the judges, we don’t want to see either Mei or Doug go home. It comes down to Mei’s uninspired guacamole or Doug’s muddled Spanish tortilla.

Whether it’s in life or on a competition show like "Top Chef," sometimes things are not fair. And like the great Tony Soprano once said, “More is lost by indecision than the wrong decision.” Doug’s hesitation landed him those ant eggs and subsequently the potato-egg mush. It’s sad to think that after all those weeks of besting other chefs in challenge of skills, it all comes down to who “called it” first. 

Doug's momentary freeze-up ends up costing him the competition. Padma tells him to pack his knife and go. The good news is it probably won’t take $125,000 to open up a lodge in Montana. I hear it’s quite cheap up there. Good luck Doug, you’ll always be Dougie to me.

Next week: The (true) finale. Who do you think will end up with the top toque? 

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