Just in case you were wondering, George Pagnois wants to remind everyone that he is both white and he likes girls. George does a roll call of everyone left: "We've got a little Asian (Mei), a lesbian Asian (Melissa), a gay black dude (Gregory) and (pointing to himself) a straight white guy."
Thanks for clearing that up, George.
The final four walk into the "Top Chef" kitchen, where they see Padma and 2014 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef Southeast, Ashley Christensen.
Christensen is the owner of Poole's Diner in Raleigh, N.C. I have no idea what her Boston tie-in is. But after the past few weeks' cameos from football players and Bravo Andy's college roommate, I'm just glad they got an actual chef to come in to judge.
Not so fast. She's not actually going to be judging, because there's no QuickFire this week. Padma says there will be no QuickFire because the chefs will be too busy spending the day at an oyster farm digging their own clams, dredging their oysters and even foraging for seaweed! A foraging activity? What, was René Redzepi too busy to come on the show? (He definitely is.)
Well then, on to the Elimination Challenge!
The chefs are to make two dishes, an appetizer and a main course, using these fresh local ingredients. Apparently making two dishes now qualifies as a "huge" job, because Padma says this is so big, the chefs needs some extra help in the kitchen.
Nope, not the eliminated chefs. They're still stuck watching Adam and Dougie battling it out in "Last Chance Kitchen." And even if they do come back to help, it'll be for the finale. The extra help this week are the chef's family members.
In walks Mei's brother, Harly; Melissa's mom, Alice; Gregory's sister, Jessica; and George's dad, Mr. Tony. These four will serve as sous chefs and will be solely responsible for making the appetizer. The chefs can advise and direct their loved ones, but they cannot touch that dish at all.
One last thing. No one will be going home today.
So it's a week of no QuickFire and a non-elimination Elimination challenge? Um. What's the point then? It's like a Bizzaro "Restaurant War" episode where everyone just kinda hangs out.
At least there'll be a winner. The winning chef of this challenge advances directly to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico for the finals.
The gang drives out to Island Creek Oyster Farm and spends some time on the water. Remember what Padma said about them spending the day digging clams and foraging seaweed? Well, not exactly.
They go through the gratuitous motion of dredging up some muddy oysters and clams on the boat, then proceed to hand pick their proteins from organized piles of lobsters, surf clams and cleaned sea beans on ice. All the "foraged" seafood goes neatly into their promotional Island Creek Oyster Farm reusable bags.
The fun this week is the interaction between the chefs and their loved ones. Through 10 weeks now, we've watched these guys put up their bravest and baddest fronts in order to compete and survive. And now we get to see their slightly different, more vulnerable side. Well, all of them except for Mei.
Mei is still pretty much the same cooking machine as before. Her parents shunned her career choice and that lack of love and support is evident in her fierce focus.
Her brother Harly doesn't know how to cook and barely knows the difference between a teaspoon from a tablespoon. But Mei could not care less. She orders him around as curtly as she would any prep cook off the street, without a hint of love or compassion. Even with a family member, her directive is clear: Don't stand between my and my goal of being a Top Chef, or I will cut you.
She's going to have Harly shuck some oysters and walk him through how to make a vinaigrette for it, while she focuses on her own lobster and surf clam dish.
On the flip side of this iciness is the nurturing relationship between Melissa and her mom, Alice. You can tell just how close they are with each other. This square-jawed, broad-shouldered toughie turns into a giddy girl who can't wait to get a word in edgewise while chatting with her mom.
Where Mei rudely barks orders at Harly, Melissa lovingly writes down and numbers all the directions; she even sets up her mom's cutting board for her, saying, "Here's your knife, mom." Alice is going to make a version of chawanmushi, a steamed savory egg custard with clams and kombu, while Melissa prepares her butter poached lobster dish.
Gregory says his sister Jessica is his best friend. She stood by him through his troubled days of being hooked on drugs and alcohol, and never lost faith. He then tells this fun story of how they tried to hide the evidence of a disastrous baking experience by wrapping the burnt cake in a plastic bag and burying it under a bush. Siblings who bury evidence together, cook together.
Gregory's going to have Jessica make a tomato watermelon soup and he's going to do a umami and herb focused halibut dish.
Lastly we have George's father, Mr. Tony. Growing up, George worked in his dad's diner. That's where he learned about cooking and about a work ethic, so to George, dad is always the boss. Hence the endearing title of "Mr.Tony." It's as much out of respect as it is out of love.
When a man has run a diner for 20-plus years, some things doesn't faze him much. Like when Tom Colicchio, one of the most respected chefs in the country, says goodbye to him, Mr. Tony simply says, "Take it easy." George simply shakes his head and smiles.
Mr. Tony is going to grill some oysters with garlic butter and razor clams on top. Easy peasy. George is also going butter-poach his lobster and serve it with sunchokes.
Time to eat.
First up are Harly and Mei. For a complete novice, Harly totally comes through with his oyster dish. Kid managed to shuck the oyster cleanly without hurting himself and the radish brunoise looked about as professional as it gets. Plus, Mei's food just keeps getting better and better. Her surf clam with lobster and tomato-coconut broth totally wows the judges. Can't even imagine what that broth would taste like. Also, I'm on a mission to find surf clams.
During the interlude, Adam Evans, former employee at Craft in N.Y., embarrasses Tom by describing him as a boss who's "um…you know, very informative, very direct, and knew what he wanted." What a glowing review for a boss. "Very informative" is definitely how I'd like to be remembered.
Back in the kitchen, Gregory realizes he might have spent too much time focusing on Jessica's dish rather than his own. His halibut is slightly overdone and now he's feeling the heat. Jessica's watermelon soup with shrimp and pickled cucumber gets better reviews than Gregory's halibut with oysters, mussels and creamy dashi. I think he lost everyone on "creamy" dashi. Tom says that is not the type of clean and bright dish Gregory's been serving all season long.
George's biggest concern is whether or not the boss man, Mr. Tony, will be able to take directions from him. Not a problem here. True to a kitchen professional, Mr. Tony comes through with his grilled oyster with razor clams. And the table also loves George's poached lobster with sunchokes.
Remember this, boys and girls. Tom Colicchio does not like unnecessary garnishes of micro greens!
The beauty of this episode really was to watch Melissa cook with her mom. It shows what a harmonious cooking environment can do to translate that happiness onto the plate. Melissa's always giving positive feedback and tending to her mom without breathing down her neck. And giving her mom, an aerospace engineer, a procedural list to follow is simply brilliant. That's what engineers do, follow procedures.
In the end, Alice's egg custard is so good, Tom doesn't even wait for the introduction. Melissa's slow-poached lobster is also the most well-cooked of the day, and as always she nails her vegetables.
This week's exercise wasn't really to advance the competition by eliminating another chef. It was more of a reset button for these chefs. After weeks of grueling challenges, they were sent a friendly face, and under no fear of going home they could do what they love with the people they love.
Lucky for Gregory this wasn't an elimination round. If so, he would have been sent packing. But then again, perhaps he knew the lack of consequences and just wanted to try something out of the box.
The winner is between Mei and Melissa. Though both teams had great dishes, in the end harmony just beats out ambition. The love that went into that comforting bowl of custard trumps the technique of assembling that cold slurp of oyster.
In a development that nobody saw coming, Melissa is the first one in the finals.
Next week, we find out who else is heading south of the border. Home stretch, people!
"Top Chef" feedback.
Let me know what you think on Twitter: @ChezWu