Bravo’s Season 14 of “Top Chef” started off as a rookies vs. veterans match up.
But in the end, it’s been a tale of redemption for past contestants who came close to the coveted prize. The rookies never stood chance. As expected, most were axed early on. The three chefs left standing Thursday night -- Brooke Williamson, Sheldon Simeon and Shirley Chung -- have been the most motivated of the returning chefs.
Chung, who moved to Orange County after her first tour of duty on Top Chef, calls herself the “underdog” because Williamson and Simeon bonded after competing together in Season 10. Going into Thursday night’s penultimate episode, Williamson is on a hot streak. She won Last Chance Kitchen, and handily beat everyone last week.
Will she stay on a roll?
Let’s find out.
Quickfire Challenge: The chefs travel to the Yucatan Peninsula and go snorkeling at a posh resort. Later, they learn this week’s Quickfire prize is a stay at the Riviera Maya hotel. To win, you have to dazzle local chef Roberto Muñoz Zurita with a dish featuring the region’s most famous ingredient: habanero.
They have one hour to shop and cook. No more Whole Foods Market. They shop at a local outdoor market where their Spanish skills are put to the test. Williamson and Chung fare well. Chung worked for China Poblano, by Jose Andres, so she’s very comfortable working with Latin flavors.
She grabs masa and eggs, while Williamson settles for pork and fresh fruits and vegetables. Simeon is scrambling. He has trouble finding cheese, even though he’s asking every vendor for “queso fresco.”
He finally buys something that he thinks is cheese, but it turns out to be a tamale. Don’t they have tamales in Hawaii?
He doesn’t let it go to waste. He stuffs pieces of the tamale into a pan roasted chayote with charred habanero salsa.
The judges enjoy Chung’s masa dumpling with poached egg and habanero salsa but the flavors are not as complex as Williamson’s pork and fruit and vegetable salsa. The “Quickfire Queen” wins again. Simeon and Chung are scratching their heads wondering how they can stop her.
Elimination Challenge: Culinary legend Jeremiah Tower, who lives nearby, gives the chefs a tutorial on Yucatan food history. He tasks them to cook a traditional Mayan meal using only local ingredients and ancient Mayan tools.
They must also cook over an open fire. No electricity.
Since Mayans used obsidian tools, Host Padma Lakshmi gives them a free pass to use their own knives. The chefs let out a big a sigh of relief.
Still, Chung questions the absurdity of the primitive challenge.
We agree. Is this Top Chef or Cutthroat Kitchen?
“I'm surprised at this stage of the competition we have this out of box challenge. No tools. No blender. This sounds really crazy,” she says.
They cook in a sinkhole, a giant cave-style pit decorated with Mayan sculptures. It’s hot, and slightly creepy. Williamson notes it reminds her of scene out of an “Indiana Jones” movie. She expects skeletons to come flying at her.
Besides their knives, the only tools they can use are wooden spoons, molcajetes and clay vessel pots for cooking over a coal-fueled fire.
As the chefs scan the ingredients before them, they immediately notice the absence of several key staples: garlic, onions, salt and limes.
“I’m blindsided,” Williamson said.
Now, if they paid attention during their Mayan food lesson, Tower hinted that Mayan cooks used natural ingredients to develop acid flavors.
Did any of the chefs pay attention? I did. (Hint: Use tomatillos.)
Chung is the only chef who doesn’t get unhinged. “I'm not letting this get to me.”
In fact, she cleverly decides to make her own salt by roasting and crushing the outer shells of shrimp. “If the Mayans can do it, I hope I can do it better.”
You go girl!
One of Chung’s best skills, outside of cooking, is her mental toughness. Those traits, along with her speed in the kitchen, have gotten her this far.
She’s bringing all three to the table now.
She decides to serve grouper because the fatty fish will add flavor to her dish. She wraps the filets in a “Hoja Santa” leaves to cook.
Williamson leaf-steams her fish, as well. Trying to be different, Simeon decides to cook a whole yellow snapper directly on the grill.
Judges' table: As the chefs finish cooking, the judges enter the cooking pit and sit at a communal table nearby.
Williamson goes up first, and she admits how tough the challenge was. “I'm cooking with ingredients I can't pronounce.” She serves her snapper with bean and corn ragout and papaya relish. They describe her dish as timid, though the fish is cooked perfectly.
Simeon is up next. Colicchio immediately spots his blunder when he sees lumps of fish on his plate. Colicchio says its looks like crab meat.
Chung goes last serving her grouper with dragon fruit corn salad and a habanero tomato sauce seasoned with her homemade “crustacean” salt.
Tower is in awe of her skills: “That girl can cook.”
Colicchio said she was clever to edit down the pantry of goods -- only using the items she was most familiar with.
The clear winner is Chung. She jumps up and down in disbelief: “Oh my God. Oh my God. Serious?”
Redemption has arrived.
She advances to the final battle. Tears well up. “I made it. I made it. I get to cook. I get to cook. I can’t wait to show you. I'm so excited. Thank you so much.”
Packing Knives: Two great chefs are left -- and one has to go. Lakshmi, who seems genuinely crushed, sends Simeon packing. The fish massacre was just too big of mistake. Colicchio attempts to lesson the pain: “I really think you are going to take your place among some of the greats in the country.”
Next: Will Top Chef finally crown a champion from Orange County or will Los Angeles get another win with Williamson. Find out next week.
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