Top Chef - Season 11

L-R: Carlos Gaytan, Nick Elmi, Nina Compton and Shirley Chung on "Top Chef." (David Moir / Bravo)

It’s the final four.

We start off this week with a high-stakes and final Quickfire Challenge. Padma is joined by  fellow judges Gail and Tom and reveals the keys to a new 2014 Toyota Corolla -- the second time this season that a car has been given away. That would make two for Shirley if she can pull this off.

In this two-part QF, the cheftestants first must create “one perfect bite” for Gail in 20 minutes.  She offers up a small cocktail fork and requests something that captures all of her favorite flavors: salty, sour, sweet and spicy. The two chefs who can accomplish this will move on to a second round of the challenge.

Nicholas immediately starts up with another kitchen “spazz-out” (you may recall last week’s “Don’t move my pots!” incident) and asks Shirley if she changed the temp of the oven. She replied with “Sort of, but not really.” (Whatever that means…I think she was just messing with him on purpose!) He doesn’t like this answer and flips out a little.

Carefully and with much difficulty the chefs stack their final bites onto the little forks to present to Gail. Carlos made grilled mango and shrimp. Shirley created flank steak with black pepper cherry. Nicholas made beef with aged balsamic and potato chips. Nina whipped up shrimp Escabache and pickled shallots.

The first round goes to the boys.  Both Carlos and Nicholas succeeded in giving Gail her perfect bite. The girls move to a set of stools to watch the rest of the challenge play out.

For the second part of this challenge, the guys must create in 20 minutes a dish for Tom that highlights either a bell pepper or an eggplant. Whoever gets to the table first gets their pick of the ingredient. And they’re off! Carlos heads straight for the eggplant to create a marmalade.  But Nicholas gets to the table first and snags the eggplant!  He later brags, “four-time varsity track – beat you up there, man!”

Carlos cooks up a fried red bell pepper soup with fennel. Nicholas creates roasted eggplant, tahini and chili treads. Tom likes the flavor of the soup, Gail loves the heat in the soup.  For the eggplant, Tom would have liked it to be seasoned better, while Gail really likes how smooth and soft the eggplant is.

So, who gets a shiny new Corolla?  Carlos! Now all of the remaining chefs have won either a car or cash. All except Nicholas. Sorry, pal.

For the final challenge, Padma tells the chefs that the remaining three will be headed to the final in Maui, Hawaii!

Emeril joins Padma and tells the chefs that it is time to show what their cooking experience in NOLA has done for them. They must create a dish that will leave their mark on New Orleans. Their dishes will be served to a collection of other chefs who have left their culinary mark in other cities.

The winner of this challenge will not only move on to the finale, but will have his or her dish featured in all of Emeril’s restaurants in NOLA! That’s some pretty good bragging rights, but then I feel like you’d have to pay for all your friends and family to visit the restaurants to prove it.

It’s off to Whole Foods to shop for their dishes before heading out to have dinner personally cooked for them by Emeril himself.  Not bad, not bad at all.

The next day, Emeril and the judges are joined by Grant Achatz, Douglas Keans and Andrew Carmellini for the final dinner. This is a stressful moment for the chefs; just as you never want to be the first one out of the competition, you certainly don’t want to be the last one eliminated before the finale. The stress shows when, as the timer goes off, Nina realizes that she has left an item off her plates.

Nina’s signature dish for New Orleans is a speckled trout with baby vegetables and a barbecue sauce. Tom asks what happened to her malfatti (the element she left off the plate), but Andrew insists the dish did not need it.

Carlos presents a steamed seafood tamal with saffron cream sauce and okra. Emeril is unsure about this dish, but after eating it, decides that it works.

Nicholas creates a charred cobia, roasted bass and tuna confit with crispy rice and a shrimp consomme. Sounds simple enough, right?  The judges think that the dish could have used some additional salt and seasoning.

Shirley’s dish is a seared black drum with black vinegar butter sauce, braised celery and mushrooms. Her concept was to create a dish that you could enjoy in either China or Louisiana. The judges enjoy her description and the tastes in her dish.

There is a lot of tension at the Judge’s Table. This is it!  Someone is going home, while the rest of the chefs will be off to Hawaii for the finale!

Very quietly, Padma tells both Nina and Shirley that they have the favorite dishes of the night. They are both safe and both have made it to the finale! Woo hoo! Shirley starts to cry and exclaims how proud she is of herself – this even brings a tear to “Uncle Emeril’s” eye. And, guess what, Shirley – you also won the challenge! Shirley’s dish will now be featured in Emeril’s restaurants. A pretty sweet way to end the competition before the finale.

It’s down to the guys. The judges agree that Carlos’ dish was technically done well, but was a little off and could have been served warmer.  Nicholas’ dish would have been just as good as the ladies dishes, if it had that additional salt. Padma brings up the point that it’s the show before the finale and someone is still not seasoning right. That’s cooking 101.

The end of the road is here for ... Carlos. He’s off to Last Chance Kitchen. (Which will take place in Hawaii, so at least Carlos gets to go there after all.) I think I should write my review there next week too! I’ll probably just have to settle for some macadamia nuts and a Mai Tai.