There are four chefs left in the Top Chef Masters competition, and none of them are Takashi. He was knocked out last week by Patricia Yeo; I remind you of this because it was so painful that I assume you drank yourself into a coma that night in pursuit of a blissful innocence that I just destroyed. It’s true. He’s gone. As if in tribute, the king of condiments, Thousand Island, was also absent from the shelves of all of the grocery stores within a two-mile radius of my house, and by the time I had my Reuben sandwich sitting in front of me as I prepared to eat like a hog while I watched other people gobbling fancy food, I didn’t even want it anymore. I felt like this and I didn’t feel like watching another ax fall in the kitchen of broken dreams. But I did. So let’s do this thing.
For the Quickfire, the contestants are grouped into two teams — Kerry and Lorena versus Chris and Patricia — and assigned the task of cooking for guest judge and professional odds-maker Johnny Avello (he gave Robin Leach, who shows up in this week’s elimination challenge, his take on Top Chef Season 6 here). In this challenge, one chef from each team is relegated to the pantry while the other mans the stoves for the duration of both dishes, a test of communication that seems to favor Patricia and Chris’s team, as she was once his boss (and now she thinks she’s everybody’s boss, but that’s another episode). Though Kerry once again prioritizes his dish over his teammate’s, neglecting Lorena’s rice and leaving her salmon all alone on a cold porcelain plate, their team wins thanks to Kerry’s raved-about shrimp-and-pasta dish. That’s $5,000 split between their two charities. Cosentino’s duck with dates and pine nuts disappoints duck-body-shamer Avello, owing to its layer of unsightly fat on top, and Patricia’s tuna tataki can’t redeem them.
The elimination challenge is described by Curtis as “the privilege” of participating in a Las Vegas edition of the pop-up picnic event Dîner en Blanc at the Venetian, a very popular and sort of silly event requiring invitees to arrive at a secret location with their own utensils, chairs, and linens. The strict rules and questionable eurocentrism of the event are not even the primary reasons I don’t immediately jump online to try to score a reservation: There are mimes en blanc, too, being generally mimey and terrifying and totally creeping me out. The chefs must each prepare three courses to be served picnic-style (read: cold) for 80 people the night before the event, then serve each table’s basket themselves. They only get four hours to cook, which is rough, plus everyone seems unnerved by the possibility of nighttime goblins coming to stick their grubby little goblin fingers in the dishes overnight: What will become of my terrine?! What will those evil gnomes do to my moooooooooousse!
It seems as though the main appeal of le dîner is that it appears “out of thin air,” which I take to mean that the diners set up their whole banquet really fast. Wow. Imagine. Robin Leach is there, just relaxing and looking as though he’s settled back into his body over the years like it’s a lounge chair made of fur, and so are judges Francis Lam, Ruth Reichl, James Oseland, and the founders of Dîner en Blanc. Lorena voices a pre-service concern about the presentation and consistency of her jalapeño-chocolate mousse, which seems valid as she slammed the lids on those puppies like she was trying to trap scrambling gremlins within the night before; meanwhile, Patricia has conceptualized her menu around Marco Polo’s journey from Italy to China, because what makes more sense than that? I forgot to mention that there’s an accordion involved in this event. There is. The chefs deliver their white bags of delicacies to each table, offering Cosentino the opportunity to give instructions as to how to disperse his fancy coarse salt and Kerry the chance to awkwardly attempt to interact with the diners en français, which they either don’t speak or just don’t like. He is met with icy stares. Lorena, of course, charms everyone with her “I cook weeth love” shtick: I, too, have been charmed by Lorena over the course of this competition. She’s clearly the underdog, and yet she keeps on truckin’ and sells that spicy pudding like the rent is due tomorrow. I admire that.
Lorena’s basket is presented to the judges first: Huancaína-style potato salad, jerk chicken salad with mango, and a jalapeño-spiked chocolate mousse. A sweet main course, especially one involving chicken, is an unlikely bet when it comes to wowing people, and this one is just too sweet. However, her potatoes are memorable, and her mousse, according to one guest who seems about ready to maul her tablemates for the last bite, is “stupid good.” The judges are a little less enthusiastic about the dessert, comparing its texture to frosting and then, horribly, to toothpaste. Organizer Aymeric Pasquier suggests adding cheese to make it less sweet. This poor mousse. Cheese, jalapeño, and chocolate. Throw in some capers. Go crazy with some caramel sauce, pork rinds, and mayonnaise. At this point I am concerned for Lorena, but the response from the guests makes her “feel like a winner.” If only they were judging. Alas, they are not. Patricia is next, with a daikon-and-edamame salad, bison with chili jam, and curried cauliflower flatbread bringing up the rear. She says she’d have liked to have served it warm, but that’s not the challenge, so there you have it. Enjoy it, maybe! A mime comes by at this point to flick his tongue over a takeout box while gripping a bottle of wine, and by the time I return to the television from hurling in the bathroom the judges are grappling with the “tricky” sauces and accoutrements Patricia has packed with her dishes. Diners and judges dig the bison, but some find the chili jam too spicy; unfortunately, the flatbread has become cardboardlike in its chill zone overnight. One guest opines that, “For being yesterday’s cooked food, it was delicious.” Zing!
Cosentino presents a swordfish conserva with green beans, marinated wild mushrooms with pine nuts, and a pork-and-chicken-liver pâté with hazelnuts and truffles and “carrots cooked in hay.” Though his swordfish is a little dry, the pâté is the best EVER, EVER OF ANYWHERE EVER, and, according to the judges, even liverphobes would be down with this terrine. Smart move on Cosentino’s part, making something that actually benefited from sitting overnight. Take it home, Chris! That pony’s a winner!
Finally we have Kerry, who will not be thwarted in his repeated attempts to greet people with a halting “Bienvenue au diner en blanc!” His menu seems to be the only one even attempting to adhere to the dress code: chilled cauliflower soup (h/t to Hillary Clinton for the recipe), a green-bean-and-orzo salad with mozzarella, and grilled chicken with peppers and kielbasa. Lam notes that “Kerry’s really swinging for the fences on this chicken,” which I think is a nice way to say that perhaps Kerry was not an obvious pick for the final four. In the last two episodes, he’s really stepped up his game. Good for him, but it would be disappointing to see him win the whole season considering the fact that he kind of blended in with the cutlery for the first five episodes. Still: chapeaux, dude.
And just like that, the whole setup “vanishes just like it appeared.” Chairs are folded and people in precious white hats with precious white veils mount majestic white steeds and gallop off into the white French Sauvignon Blanc fog. The chefs are summoned to judges’ table and congratulated on a smooth service. Kerry and Chris are at the top this week, and, while the critics are heaping praise on Kerry, he takes a (possibly unintentional) dig at Lorena by saying how great it was to work with such helpful and amazing chefs as Patricia and Chris. Was it karma alone, then, that made Chris the winner? I don’t know. That or the heavenly pâté. Lorena and Patricia, needless to say, are this week’s losers — Lorena for her sweet chicken and toothpaste mousse, and Patricia for the discord between her bison and jam (“They’re waving at each other,” says Ruth almost apologetically, “but they never actually met”) and grotty flatbread. This time, the bell tolls for bossypants, and Patricia is sent packing.
Next week, the chefs are paired with a “mystery teammate” behind a divider (looks like the judges, oh snap), and then instruct some “kids” (I don’t know — one of them looked 30 or so, but then again they put some crazy hormones in beef these days, so maybe he was just biologically precocious) who, it appears, will be preparing the chef’s dishes in the elimination round. It’s the penultimate episode, people. Plan ahead and don’t get stuck running all over creation for your sandwich-makings. Plus! I am giddy that it’s almost time for Life After Top Chef, which will probably be a study in shark jumping but also features two of my favorite Top Chef and Top Chef All-Stars alumni, Jen Carroll and Richard Blais. I know we still have two more episodes of TCM for dinner, but at this point I’m just looking forward to dessert. They say Fabio Viviani’s ambitions start to take a toll on him “physically and emotionally”! How am I supposed to wait until October 3 when Fabio’s physical health is at stake? I care deeply! Until then, I’ll just be sitting here, chanting “Cosentino!” and calling Johnny Avello to invest my life savings in his victory.