Paul Cheney / Bravo

On Top Chef, Four's A Crowd

But, you know, somebody's coming back, so who knows how many chefs are really left?

Our Candidates For Elimination?

So we're down to the final four, which in the case of Top Chef means the final four plus whoever wins their way back from Last Chance Kitchen. Now, whether that's one chef or more, we don't know. There aren't really rules to this anymore, are there? People get voted off but then come back and win the whole thing. We whittle down to a final three but then it becomes a final four, and then a final three again. Or we lose a circuit court appeal and then say, "See you in court." What I'm saying is, nothing makes sense these days. Don't know why I'm expecting Top Chef to be the beacon I focus on to get me safely to shore. But here we are.

All that said, the current final four revisit Shirley's win in the stew room. But it's John who is the tearful one. Not exactly sure what he's crying about; maybe he's relieved his nightmare dish of octopus and eggs with hollandaise didn't send him home. He's proud of his accomplishment regardless, as anyone who makes it this far should be. The (temporary) final four toast themselves, John toasting with a coffee mug, because obviously part of his "transformation" from an asshole to slightly less of an asshole involved at least one twelve-step program. So Shirley and John get focused on in this opening segment. But I'm going with opposites this week and believing that those two are safe, leaving either Sheldon or Brooke on the chopping block.

Why switch my strategy now? Like I said, nothing makes sense these days.

Quickfire Challenge

Brooke reminisces about how she hit a stride in Season 10, with a bunch of wins that carried her to the final. That's not so much the case with this season, though. This is a portentous statement, and already I feel like my Costanza-like opposite strategy is paying off. The chefs walk into the Top Chef kitchen, and Padma informs them of something they already knew: This is their last Quickfire Challenge before Mexico. Brooke notices that the cooking stations are set up with partitions in place that bisect each cooking station. Chef Michael Solomonov joins Padma for this challenge, which Padma says will put their communication skills to the test. You know, because communication is a skill that's important for chefs -- unlike every other job in the world. Go ahead, name a job, and I bet you communication skills don't matter at all. Teacher, police officer, doctor, air traffic controller, all of those idiots hardly use communication at all. So this seems like a great challenge that is very specific to chefs. For this challenge, the chefs must walk a "mystery partner" on the other side of the partition through a dish, then they'll be judged on how identical their dish and their mystery partner's dish look and taste. The winner gets a sous vide machine and ten grand.

Turns out, the mystery partners are family members: John's wife, Shirley's wife, Sheldon's wife, and Brooke's sister. Somehow, no one recognizes the voice from the other side right away. I mean, I get why Brooke doesn't immediately recognize her sister, I guess. But how is it that none of the other three chefs recognize their spouses? Well, no one but Sheldon, who almost immediately says, "Hi, hon." He teases her by throwing mushrooms at her over the partition. Gotta love that Sheldon.

Shirley's reaction is adorable. "It's Jimmy, my husband!" she says before hugging him. "I'm glad I didn't recognize your voice, otherwise I would have been flustered." Padma notes that Jimmy's dish is maybe seasoned a little better, and Solomonov asks if they'll be cooking together more now. Jimmy quickly answers, "No." Ha. Very cute. But not nearly as cute as Sheldon and his wife, whom he calls J.Lo. Not because of their cuteness, though that didn't hurt, Sheldon and his wife win the challenge, the sous vide machine, and the ten grand.

Elimination Challenge: Prep

Mary Sue Milliken arrives, I think, just because she's a previous winner of the James Beard award. She talks a lot about that moment all those years ago when she won the award, then doesn't really add anything beyond that. "And I know a few of you have also been nominated," Padma says. It's a total dick move, because Shirley, Sheldon, and John have all been nominated. And Padma fucking knows that. So she should have just said, "I know that three of you have also been nominated." But whenever she gets the chance, Padma can't help but be a mean girl. "Oh, didn't a few of you also get nominated? What about you, Brooke? When did you get nominated? You didn't? Oh, that's surprising. I have my own line of frozen foods. Do you have your own line of frozen foods? You don't? Another surprise. Who here is also a former model? Just me? Weird." Dick.

Padma tells the chefs that their challenge is to cook a dish that represents their journey in Charleston. The winner will get to cook their dish, and develop a whole menu around it, at the James Beard House in New York City, whatever that is. I guess it's a big fancy place that chefs want to cook at. Or maybe it's just a gay bathhouse. Both seem plausible based on the name alone.

While Sheldon and Shirley talk about their emotional connection with their cooking, Brooke admits she has trouble pulling inspiration from abstract ideas, that literal interpretations are easier for her. "So I want to make the dish using ingredients from challenges that I was the champion of," she says. It seems like a solid way to build a greatest hits album, but a pretty random way to build a single dish. "I think that a more literal interpretation is a safer way to go," she says. Ruh-roh. When on this show has taking the safer way EVER been the right choice? Oh man, Brooke IS going home tonight, isn't she? To answer that, let me just say that Brooke has decided to braise a pork shoulder in a pressure cooker. Yep, the pressure cooker. She might as well be making a dessert in that fucking thing. Because those are both cursed pathways to Knifey-Packey Town.

Back at the house, Padma cooks for the chefs, who at least pretend to be excited to eat it. "It's so good," someone says with almost no emotion. "I brought my own organic frozen rice," Padma says. Then we get to see a nice product shot of her stupid rice. Way to "cook for" a bunch of chefs, you beautiful monster; throw in a batch of frozen rice and call it a day. I swear, if you watch Brooke eat the food, you can tell she thinks it's terrible. Watch her face as she shovels a forkful into her mouth. Watch her mouth. That's not a happy mouth, is all I'm saying. Even though they're having a good time eating dinner (reheated frozen food, in this case), Sheldon can't help but worry about his dish. His rice noodles aren't coming out the way he needs them to.

When it's time for the family members to leave, I quickly rank the couples in order of likelihood that they tried to have a quickie before not seeing each other for another couple weeks. Sheldon and his wife definitely did it, Shirley and her husband are a solid maybe, and John and his wife definitely did not.

Come the next day, Sheldon figures out the solution to his noodle problem. John describes his technique for making a sofrito, which includes leaving the skin on the peppers, even though others might not do that. John doesn't like how the peppers clump together if they don't have their skins. Brooke worries a little bit about her dish, specifically the pork tenderloin. "The cookery is something I feel like I have to nail," she says, before deciding to sous vide her meat. Oh man, that's another bad sign. Never sous vide your meat on this show. Cook that shit in an iron skillet like god intended it! Or over a fire. Not in a bag in a cauldron of hot water. Ugh. Come on, Brooke!

Elimination Challenge: Service

Padma, Tom, and Gail welcome a table full of James Beard Award winners, including Mary Sue Milliken and Michael Solomonov, as well as Sean Brock, Ken Oringer, and Renee Erickson. John's dish is the first to come out, and I have to say, it looks pretty amazing. It's a very simple dish that Padma immediately calls beautiful. Ken gives John credit for having the balls to try something so simple. Tom and Sean both ding John for leaving the skin on his peppers. For Sean, it would have given the dish that extra level of refinement. For Tom, the skins just add unwanted bitterness to the dish. Padma says, "I actually did get a tiny bitterness from the broth, not the peppers." The silence on this issue from the other chefs speaks volumes. "You're wrong, Padma," that silence seems to say. "The bitterness is from the pepper skins."

Shirley shores up her case for being a chef to root for by saying, "Today, I'm not cooking for judges. A whole table of James Beard winner chefs doesn't really scare me anymore. I feel like I'm cooking for myself, and for my grandparents and everyone who supported me through the whole entire journey. 'Cause I want my grandparents to be proud up there. I just want to cook my heart out." It's obvious from the reaction at the table that she did just that. Gail says that her dish is a perfect example of how Shirley can create connections between worlds. In this case, between the Southern cooking and her Chinese heritage. Tom adds, "This should be a signature dish of yours." Their reactions to her food bring her to tears.

As she plates her dish, Brooke says, "I'm not in love with this dish." She wishes she had time to fine-tune it, but she knows she doesn't have that. As Brooke describes her dish to the table, she looks bummed out. But they seem to like it all right. Tom zeroes in on the fact that Brooke interpreted the challenge literally. Sean calls her out on the sous vide. Not that the pork was bad, just not as good as if it had been done any other way than sous vide.

As they deliver Sheldon's dish, Tom immediately recognizes that there's okra on the plate. "I'm excited to finally eat some okra down here," he jokes. Sean calls Sheldon's dish "insanely good." Then he points out that Tom ate the okra, all of it. Sheldon's on such a high as he walks from the table that he points at Tom and says, "I got you, Tom!" Mary Sue says, "Any of these four chefs would make an incredible dish at the James Beard House." And Padma adds that they have a difficult decision ahead of them.

Judges' Table

The judges immediately single out Sheldon and Shirley as the top two. At this, Shirley cries again. Tom reiterates how perfect he thought her dish was. Padma asks Sheldon how he feels about winning. Sheldon says that because of his humble upbringing, it's just awesome that he gets to continue this journey. Then Tom says, "I would say, Sheldon, being humble is great. But at some point you're going to take your place amongst some of America's greatest chefs." Sheldon manages, just barely, to keep the tears at bay and says, "Thanks, chef. That's awesome." Ha. Yes, it is awesome. Sean gives the win to Sheldon, his first of the season.

That leaves Brooke and John at the bottom. "I didn't want to come back and not do better," Brooke says, tearing up. The judges excuse them to the Stew Room, where chefs toast Sheldon's win. And this time John drinks a beer. So I guess I was wrong about John giving up the sauce. But that doesn't mean he's not in more than one twelve-step program. It just reduces the total number by one. They come back out to face the judges. The only thing bad anyone could say about John's dish was Tom's pet peeve about the pepper skin. Whereas Brooke had the sweetness of her dish called out and the choice to sous vide her pork questioned. Well, it's no surprise considering all of the indicators pointing in that direction that Brooke is sent packing. She tries to take it in stride, but can't keep from crying. "Don't confuse emotion for weakness, okay," Gail says to her as she shakes everyone's hand.

"Today was about being the best, and I wasn't the best," Brooke says. "Brooke," Tom says, "I will see you in Last Chance Kitchen." While still crying, she gives a bit of a laugh and says, "Yeah, shut up." Brooke hopes to flip the script. Since she's the one who lost to Kristen Kish when Kristen won her way back through Last Chance Kitchen, back in Season 10. And I kind of hope that too. It would make for some good drama anyway.

The Verdict

Pretty satisfying episode. Although I'd certainly rather see Brooke in the final than John, to have Shirley and Sheldon win by cooking dishes they prepared with such emotion makes me excited to see how this plays out. Especially considering that either Casey or Brooke has a chance to get back in the game.

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