Finally, a challenge that truly lived up to the “Master” name.
On last night's TCM, the three remaining chefs, Kerry Heffernan, Chris Cosentino and Lorena Garcia, did not touch the food they served in the Elimination Challenge. In fact, they did no cooking at all. Instead, in true master chef form, they instructed a set of line cooks on how to execute the dish they envisioned to perfection — a task most accomplished chefs must tackle every day.
As Evan Kleiman once astutely pointed out, “A chef is definitely not merely a cook. In fact, many chefs haven't really cooked in years. That's the whole conceit for Top Chef Masters.” Through this challenge, we got to see how the contestants held up playing the real world chef's role of leader and teacher.
But first, the Quickfire.
The show resurrected its favorite type of match-up for the final three, in which each chef must instruct a partner to make a dish alongside them, but with a wall between them, so they don't know who they're working with. Heffernan observed that it pays to be nice to your phantom friend, considering that poor Naomi Pomeroy of San Francisco's Beast ended up unknowingly berating her father during this challenge on a previous season.
Thankfully none of the chefs got short with their mates, which was especially lucky since their partners were, in fact, the judges. Ruth Reichl cooked alongside Heffernan, James Oseland was paired with Cosentino and Francis Lim got set up with Garcia.
Fearing they'd be found out, each of the judges put on ridiculous accents, with Reichl sounding something like the frau from Austin Powers and Oseland, apparently, channeling his inner Art Smith drawl. (Lim went more the indistinguishable route.)
Curtis Stone served as sole judge, and after ribbing each of the chefs about the judges cooking a better plate, the win went to Cosentino and “the sweater man” himself, Oseland.
Then came the aforementioned Elimination challenge, in which the chefs drew knives to see which pair of students they would work with. Each student set had created a dish to serve their chef, and it was the chef's job to teach them how to reinvent it.
For the most part, each chef embraced the role of mentor quite nicely, which made us all warm and fuzzy. Still, this was the challenge that determined the finalists. Underneath each of those patient smiles were gritted teeth, we imagine. But happily, we didn't see them.
Keffernan's team had whipped up a Chicken Florentine, Garcia's a lasagna, and Cosentino's a basic pork dish — no bells and whistles in any of them. But the chefs took different approaches when it came to vamping them up. Keffernan stayed relatively true to the original form, guiding the students in creating a Florentine-inspired chicken with orzo and asparagus ragout. Cosentino went out of his way to teach the kids that what a pig eats is reflected in how it tastes, and used the pig's presumed diet to help them put together a pork loin with hazelnut brown butter, apples, and watercress. And Garcia, the queen of “food is love,” kept it basic, enhancing the students' lasagna with better ingredients and technique, and serving it family-style.
That service went not only to the judges, but to the students' teachers and parents, all together a supportive bunch. At one point, the moms of both students Emilio and Jhane teared up, beaming with pride at their kids' accomplishments — and frankly, if you didn't tear up with them, you're soulless.
But back at judges' table, the critiques were a little harsher. While no dishes were poor, Reichl couldn't get past the fact that Garcia's lasagna was more home cooking than high end cuisine. And Cosentino may have taught his kids all too well, since they plated five minutes early, causing his salad to wilt. Keffernan skated by with little criticism and won his ticket into the finale. After lots of heated banter, the judges finally decided, we think rightfully, that Cosentino should join him.
Though it should be noted that Garcia was the best loser ever, especially this late in the game, sincerely thanking the judges and lauding the wonderful experience she's had in the last few weeks. Usually, at this point, judges are exhausted and bitter. We'll see if next week's runner-up can muster the energy to be so gracious.
Follow Ali Trachta on Twitter @MySo_CalLife. Follow Squid Ink at @LAWeeklyFood and check out our Facebook page.