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'Top Chef' recap, 'The Final Battle of Bean Town'

For The Baltimore Sun
How innovative can the cheftestants be on this week's "Top Chef"?

Ever wondered why Boston is called “Bean Town”? Me neither. But since this is the last challenge in Boston, Padma will give us one last local history lesson.

Apparently back in the day, the locals used to bake beans in molasses, and it was so prevalent that sailors could tell they were coming into Boston Harbor by the scent of baked beans. However, nobody can explain to me why these sailors didn’t just turn around and go home. Because molasses baked beans are not delicious.

The fact is, no locals nowadays use the term “Bean Town” and no one in Boston cares about baked beans. But we’ll do this challenge under the guise of “putting this dish back on the map.” Good luck with that.

The chefs will have one hour to come up with a dish that highlights beans. The winner gets a trip to Napa, because you really need to have some incentive to be excited about cooking beans.  Yes, we’re all so thrilled about this beans challenge.

This week’s guest judge, Wylie Dufresne, is one of the most forward-thinking chefs in the culinary world. He’s the owner of the (now shuttered) famous restaurant WD~50 where they served the iconic “eggs benedict” comprised of deep fried hollandaise cubes, dehydrated bacon wisps and egg yolk in the shape of a tube. Since he’s here, expect the word “innovative” to be used, a lot.

Speaking of which, Mei is making bean foam. Now there are two words that should never go together. However, she also knows that Wylie’s favorite food is eggs. So she’s throwing a poached egg in with some sautéd black beans and corn.

Gregory, whose flavor profile is as versatile as Keanu Reeves’ acting skills, decides to make “Asian beans.” What exactly are Asian beans you ask? Apparently you cook it in sake, add some pork and throw cubes of avocado on it (because avocados are so Asian).

From last week’s borderline offensive roll call to this week’s inane beans/fart jokes, I get the feeling George might be pretty awkward in real life. He is making a tomato-based Greek bean dish called plaki, thinking he’ll serve it with seafood. Poblem is, there's no seafood in the pantry today, so he’s just throwing some pork tenderloin on it.

Melissa basically makes a straight-up pork tenderloin dish with some pureed beans and fried chickpeas as garnish. I think there were more roasted carrots on her plate than beans.

Considering the guest judge is Wylie, you’d think these chefs would be a little more adventurous. The only person who went outside the box was Mei. She and her pinto bean foam are headed to Napa after this very uninspired last QuickFire.

“And now, for your last challenge in Boston. Are you ready?” asks a very enthusiastic Padma.

The chefs look like they’re so ready to get this over with and get the hell out of Boston. Trust me, I know how you guys feel.

The Elimination Challenge is simple but vague: create an innovative dish that pushes culinary boundaries. What exactly does that mean? Wylie says it doesn’t necessarily have to mean using a new technique. It could be experimenting with different flavor combinations. Basically, just do something different from what you’ve been doing all season long.

The winner of this challenge will get $10,000 and join Melissa with a spot in the finals in Mexico. That had better be one life-changing plate of food.

One last Whole Foods cameo, because I sincerely doubt there’s one in Mexico.

George is super-excited about this challenge. He’s looking forward to pushing himself as a chef and really do something that hasn’t been done before. So he’s going with octopus and pork belly. Oy, if there’s ever a need for a sarcasm font, it would be now.

Mister Innovation here has got both charred octopus and suckling pig on his menu at Kapnos right now! Luckily, whatever eureka dish he was going to pull out can’t happen, because it’s the one special day that Whole Foods doesn’t have pork belly. That’s like 7-11 being out of hot dogs. Guess he’s going to have to push boundaries without that exotic and revolutionary ingredient, pork belly.

Gregory is also pushing boundaries. He’s doing so by blatantly not following the rules. Dude is going with something “very straightforward.”

He says, “taking a big risk at this stage in the game can be very dangerous. So I’m using the amazing Asian flavors that I love to work with so much.” He’s making salmon with tom kha broth. Yes, once again it involves coconut milk. He’s gonna throw some crispy salmon and chicken skin on, so it’s, you know, innovative.

Melissa and Mei are both making seared duck breasts. Melissa is creating a walnut miso sauce to go with her duck with pickled cherries, while Mei is doing a light curry broth with yuzu yogurt sauce.

So far, it sounds like everyone is just doing what they normally do -- nothing groundbreaking going on here. During Tom and Wylie’s cook-n-chat, they are especially skeptical of Gregory’s crispy salmon and chicken skin concept as innovative.

Time for service.

Joining the judges this week is Harvard psychics professor Michael Brenner, who developed a course on science and cooking. It’s a lecture series that’s open to the public; true innovators like Ferran Adria and Harold McGee show up and talk about food. Pretty damn cool.

First up is Gregory and his salmon with tom kha broth. As suspected, it was a perfectly executed dish. Super-delicious and well-constructed. Only problem is, nobody can point out what’s so innovative about it. Not even Gregory.

Next up is Melissa’s seared duck breast with faro, walnut miso and pickled cherries. She explains to the judges that she’s not into molecular cooking, so it’s the flavor combination that’s out of her comfort zone. Wylie thinks it was too safe, while Richard Blais defends Melissa by saying, “I think this is a risk for her, she is stepping out a little bit.”

Ah, Richard Blais. Just a few years ago you were busy choking and losing to Stephanie Izzard in the finale and now you dare to contradict Wylie Dufresne? Wylie was busy coming up with fried mayonnaise before you knew what liquid nitrogen was!

Here comes George with his ground-breaking charred octopus, yellow split pea puree and green apple harissa. Just by looking at the dish, you can tell there’s too much going on. There’s also some mustard seeds, a bacon chip and some rhubarb. Everybody tastes some bitterness from the overly charred tentacles. Though everyone did like the green apple harissa.

Last we have Mei’s duck curry with vadouvan and yuzu yogurt. Tom is tongue tied. It’s so complex, Tom doesn't know quite how to describe it. The curry broth and yogurt aside, it sure looks a lot like Melissa's dish; they both had that farro component and those wafer-thin discs of radish.

Frankly the most innovative thing this week was Padma’s dress. It was pristinely white with a Grecian motif, an asymmetrical shoulder strap and cutouts where there usually shouldn’t be cutouts. It was daring, bold and nothing like any other dress I’ve seen before.

The food, however, considering that we’re one challenge away from the finals, looks uninspired. Mei’s Thoreau dish during the Authors’ Challenge looked far more inspired than anything we're seeing today.

But somebody’s gotta win and someone’s gotta go home.

Melissa’s perfectly cooked duck with her walnut pesto wins the day. She takes the 10 grand and now almost appears to be the favorite headed to the finale.

On the flip side, the discussion between judges is this: Do you send home Gregory for basically doing just enough to get by, or George, who swung for the fences but missed? Frankly, if George had just executed his octopus correctly, he probably would have been spared. But as a Greek chef, over-charring octopus is a cardinal sin. He gets sent to Last Chance Kitchen.

So now we’ve had an Elimination challenge where no one was eliminated and an Innovation challenge where no one was particularly innovative. We can only hope that the finale brings a little more oomph to the table than this.

Next week: We find out just how many lives George has, and how Gregory is going to use coconut milk in Mexican cuisine.

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