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'Top Chef' recap, 'Getting Prickly in Mexico'

For The Baltimore Sun
"Top Chef" presents a literal connection between food and art.

A three-part finale? Are you kidding me?

Looking back at past seasons, they’ve all lasted about 16 or 17 episodes. This season felt longer because it was Boston, where the frigid weather and overall snobbery make a month feel like a year.

After a customary hiatus before the finale, the chefs reconvene back in Guanajuato, Mexico.

No, it’s not the seaside town where Andy Dufresne finally reunites with his buddy Morgan Freeman at the end of “Shawshank Redemption.” That would be Zihuatanejo. And yes, it would have made a cool tie-in given the fact that "Shawshank" was based in New England. But they decided to pick this artsy town of San Miguel de Allende.

It’s been six weeks since Boston. During that time, Mei went to work at that “other” Voltaggio’s place in Frederick (Volt) and even staged at a Mexican restaurant just to prepare for the finale. I guess that place doesn’t get a name drop, since it’s not part of the Voltaggio empire.

Back at the "Top Chef" villa, Dougie and George are battling it out in Last Chance Kitchen. Their challenge: make a Mexican-inspired clam dish. Dougie makes clams with charred pineapple butter, while George makes more of a soup, with steamed clams and tomatillo salsa verde. It's a close call, but as expected, Dougie takes the win and gets back into the finale.

No rest for the weary. As soon as Dougie is declared the winner, they’re told to grab their knives and find Padma for the QuickFire.

This week’s guest judge is Enrique Olvera. His Mexico City restaurant, Pujol, is number 20 on San Pellegrino’s “The World’s Best 50 Restaurants” list. He recently opened Cosme in New York City and has received great early buzz.

This week’s QuickFire involves xoconostle, a particular type of prickly pear that is known for its tartness. They’ll have 30 minutes to create a dish highlighting this fruit, with the winner getting  an advantage during the Elimination Challenge.

This is a good challenge to see if these guys came prepared for the region. Melissa says she studied up on cooking cactus and even has some experience with xoconostle. She’s making a salmon ceviche complete with leche de tigre, which apparently is an aphrodisiac. Of course, Padma immediately throws an “I’ll let you know how it goes later tonight!” comment out there.

We get it already, Padma. You’re a super sexpot and at this point probably the most enticing thing on the show. There’s no need to tease us with provocative innuendos.

Here’s a pro tip from Mei. Don’t have time to fully cook your steak? Just switch it up and call it a “tataki!” She’s slicing and picking the best parts of her encyclopedia-sized steak and serving it with some cactus salsa. But the judges see right through that weak sauce. “The meat was just not cooked correctly,” said Chef Olvera.

Gregory’s not familiar with this product and it shows. He’s basically throwing stuff into the Vitamix and blending them into sauces; add some sautéed shrimp and he’s ready to go. He has the worst dish in this challenge.

Dougie, high off his Last Chance Kitchen win, takes the daring route and makes a vegetarian dish. He stews the xoconostle with some roasted peppers and tomatillo. I need someone to explain to me how the hell he made a stew in 30 minutes.

It comes down to Melissa’s ceviche and Dougie’s stew. I guess that aphrodisiac bit didn’t work, because Dougie takes the win and grabs the advantage in the Elimination challenge.

This week’s Elimination challenge theme is "inspiration." Oy. Last week it was innovation, now they need to be inspired? If $125,000 and the fame and glory of being Top Chef doesn’t inspire you, what will? Well, apparently paintings.

Padma randomly assigns each chef an artist from whom they will have to draw inspiration and then come up with a dish that visually represents the artist's new painting.  Tomorrow, they’ll have four hours to cook for 150 people while the artist finishes their work.

And of course, since this is the finale, it’s time to bring back all the eliminated chefs. Dougie’s advantage is that he gets to pick both of his sous chefs before anyone else. He wastes no time in picking up Adam and his BFF Katsuji.

It doesn’t really matter who the rest of the chefs pick as sous chefs. None of them have been particularly memorable all season long, and that’s not going to change now. Nobody picks Aaron, but you could have guessed that already.

Time to meet the artists.

As if out of central casting, each artist is distinctive in his or her style, somehow seeming to match their respective chefs perfectly.

Gregory’s artist, Artemio Sepulveda, is a zen-looking older dude with longish shaggy white hair. He is an expressionist painter whose work often focuses on the toils of the working class. But instead of depicting darkness, he gives them hope.

Gregory immediately relates to the light-in-darkness theme from his battle with addiction. For this project, Sepulveda is going to paint a peasant planting seeds in the ground. Gregory draws a connection between the role of a sustenance-providing peasant with that of a chef.

Melissa gets Leonardo Diaz, an edgy graffiti-style artist who loves pink and blue pastels. You know, the kind of color palette that doesn’t really exist in the world unless you’re a pastry chef. Diaz says he’s basically gonna improvise tomorrow. So that leaves Melissa in great shape (sarcasm).

Mei’s artist, Bea Aaronson, is one of those multimedia artists whose personality is just as colorful and out-there as her work. She’s dancing around with her wild-looking masks.

But it doesn’t matter who Mei’s paired with. She’s got enough technical skills to just make her food and make it work. Mei sees a painting with a fish that’s also a chicken and that’s going to be her inspiration. She’s making a raw-fish dish with chicken elements. That sounds just as weird as Arronson’s wacky masks.

Dougie’s mom is an art teacher from Texas. And he just happens to be matched with possibly the only Texas woman artist in all of San Miguel de Allende. Merry Calderoni draws her inspiration for this collaboration from the layers of green, brown and red that are often found in central American pyramids. Dougie’s inspiration is clear. He’s going to do a Texas chili red sauce with brisket.

Gregory’s dish perfectly captures the color palette and the essence of Sepulveda’s work. The strip steak that represents the man, the earthiness of the beets and tamarind sauce and the backdrop of the valencia orange sky is all brilliantly represented on the plate. Not to mention it’s also super delicious. Right away Tom says it’s “super strong.”

Doug’s brisket with Texas red and tomatillo is a literal reflection of Merry’s painting. The colors and composition on both canvases match perfectly. At one point, you see Merry describing her painting in Dougie’s ingredient terms. “Tomatillo here, a tortilla there…” The fact that they got along so well and formed a connection totally translated both into the food and onto the painting.

Melissa, unfortunately, did not have that kind of bond with her artist. I get the feeling Leonardo’s kind of a one-man-wolfpack. She did her best to replicate his pop-arty painting of a gray house floating on top of a cloud of pink and yellow graffiti, using smoked eggplant ravioli, chorizo and shrimps to give the plate that pop of pink. But instead of capturing the essence, Melissa gave her interpretation of the painting.

Talk about personal interpretations. Mei’s dish looks nothing like her artist's painting. But to be honest, that painting looks like a Picasso-influenced chicken-and-fish-hybrid-Godzilla dancing in front of flaming stars. So I’m not sure exactly how Mei could make a dish like that.

Instead, her dish has bright pops of color, composed in the same playful way. Tom says the subtleness of the presentation was definitely overcome by the wildness in flavor.

At the judges' table, it's obvious that Gregory and Dougie nailed it. Both of their dishes connected with the artwork and both were executed flawlessly. However, inspired by thoughts of Texas and reminiscent of his art-teacher mom, Doug dug deep and brought that inspiration onto the plate. He wins the challenge and as a bonus, he also takes home the painting! He says that painting is going straight to him mos’s house. *tear*

On the flip side, Mei and Melissa had always talked about being together in the finale, but I don’t think they had this in mind. Mei looks like she’s either about to kill someone or ball her eyes out.

When Padma asks if they think they did everything they could have done today, Melissa says, “I’m proud of the dish and I feel like it really represented Leonardo.” And therein lies the problem. Out of all the paintings I think Leonardo’s was the hardest to replicate visually and taste-wise. Melissa didn’t make a mistake, she just wasn’t good enough today.

Now there’s just Gregory, Mei and Doug. Looking back and looking at some of the eliminated chefs today, we could have saved ourselves a whole lot of time and trouble and just started with these three.

Now, in the wise words of Gail Simmons, “Can we drink more tequila?”

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