Paul Cheney / Bravo

This Top Chef Episode Is All Mayan

The final three cook a Maya-inspired dish, using only Maya-appropriate cooking tools.

Team Seattle & Shirley

"I couldn't have asked for a better final three," Sheldon says, and he's totally right. This is easily the best final three in the history of this show. I don't want to see any of them go home and any of the three deserves to win this season. Just when I think that ideally I'd love to see Brooke win, I realize that would mean that Sheldon and Shirley would lose, and that just doesn't seem right. I mean, push comes to shove, I guess I'd put Shirley last, but only by the slimmest margin. Then choosing between Brooke and Sheldon is impossible.

"I respect Brooke and Shirley so much," Sheldon says. "I felt that they've been the toughest chefs all season. And that's what I want to do, compete against the best." If there's been a more honorable and upstanding chef on Top Chef, I don't remember them. Sheldon is simply the best. He might be the most kind-hearted contestant ever to appear on a reality show. And the fact that he's been on this one twice but still seems like a great guy? That's just unprecedented. Hard to believe that there was a time when Sheldon hurt his back and it seemed like he might go home for medical reasons.

Shirley feels left out because of the closeness of Team Seattle. Yes, she and Brooke are close, but it doesn't compare to the camaraderie of Brooke and Sheldon. The three chefs pack up to leave Guadalajara for Riviera Maya, the location of the Secrets resort. Oooh! Secrets! What secrets will we discover about our chefs? About Tom and Padma? About Mexico? ...Nothing, it turns out. Well, other than the fact that Brooke admits focusing on Top Chef for the last four years is maybe the most selfish thing she's done. That's not the most amazing secret, but it'll have to do. I suppose the resort will have to earn its namesake from some other guests.

The producers give the three chefs the rest of the day to drink and snorkel and swim with turtles and just generally relax -- and there's not even another shoe to drop on that. They actually get time to relax. So unusual for a reality show. Over breakfast the next morning, they get a note from Padma that reads, "Good morning, chefs; eat up because today we're traveling to Valladolid in the heart of the Yucatan. And trust me, it's going to get hot."

Quickfire Challenge

Padma greets them in a lovely pale blue dress and wait are those fucking cornrows? Oh, Padma. Why? She's in a town square in Vallodolid with Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, the "anthropologist of Mexican cuisine." Padma tells the chefs that the winner of the Quickfire, which she has yet to describe, will win a seven-day trip to any Secrets resort in Mexico, and they can bring a guest. Who will that guest be? IT HAS TO BE A SECRET! Duh. It's called Secrets for a reason.

For the Quickfire, the chefs must create a dish featuring habaneros and ingredients from the local market. They have one hour to shop at the market down the street and prepare their dishes. Brooke does what she has done in the past, and that's let the ingredients she finds guide her and inspire her. It's a dangerous gambit, because it's failed her as often as it's worked out. Both Brooke and Shirley navigate the market fairly easily, because they can both speak Spanish pretty well, but Sheldon cannot. His communication strategy boils down to pointing at things and holding out a stack of bills. I mean, it actually works okay. Until he tries to find queso fresco, which he can't find anywhere. Finally he gets directed out toward the street, where he sees little wrapped packages that he believes to be cheese. "I see something that looks like cheese to me, so I get it," Sheldon says. "I hope that's what it is."

But the lady who sells it to him calls it "tamal." And Sheldon obviously suffers from a rare form of tamale blindness that results in him mistaking tamales for cheese. Normally, this malady doesn't cause problems. But today is different.

Shirley brags about how she can tolerate very spicy food. Then she tells a crazy story that goes like this: "A lot of times if I want to wake up, I will actually bite on a habanero pepper. So that adrenaline will hit you and I will be awake." Okay. That's not normal. That's very strange. But I expect no less of Shirley. So I'll let her have her Habanero Alarm Clock. Though that should probably be a cocktail and not a habanero that you bite instead of having coffee.

On the other end of the spice spectrum, Sheldon admits that habaneros are normally way too hot for him. So he hopes to cool his dish down by stuffing his chayote squash with the cheese he bought. Which is when he cuts open his "cheese" to find out that it's a tamale. His reaction? "Damn, you're a mess, Sheldon." Then he decides he's just gonna stuff his chayote (hey-oh!) with the tamale anyway and hope for the best.

Ricardo loves all the dishes. He praises Shirley for making dumplings out of the masa flour, and Brooke for using pork tenderloin, which is the protein of choice on the Yucatan Peninsula. He liked Sheldon's dish, but found it too spicy. And Padma calls out Sheldon's tamal filling for not really doing anything for his dish. Ultimately, Ricardo gives Brooke the win, which means she has won three straight since coming back from Last Chance Kitchen. Sheldon calls her the Quickfire Queen, but Shirley points out in a confessional moment that she actually has a better record in Elimination Challenges. "So I hope that by continuing to do that," Shirley says. "I can beat her in Top Chef."

Elimination Challenge: Prep

For the Elimination Challenge, Padma welcomes legendary chef Jeremiah Tower, who will be the guest judge. Padma talks about Maya pyramids and Maya traditions, setting up a challenge where the chefs will only get to use fire pits; no tools other than their knives; and no electrical appliances, just like the Mayans did. Shirley is surprised that there's a challenge with handicaps such as these at this stage in the competition, and I agree. While it's an interesting challenge, it's designed to create fuck-ups that have nothing to do with the chefs' abilities as chefs. That's fine for earlier in the competition, but at the final three, it seems a tad silly.

The three chefs get a pretty cool tour around town to taste the foods of the region with Ricardo and Jeremiah. They show the chefs the aromatic leaves of the hoja santa plant, and give them a few pointers about ingredients that are and are not generally used in Yucatecan cooking. They seem to be spending a LOT of time with Shirley and on Shirley's story. It makes me wonder if she's maybe not making it to the final.

Elimination Challenge: Service

The chefs all arrive at the crazy cave where they'll prepare their food like a Maya chef would, and it's bananas. Not that there are bananas available, because there aren't. Also not in attendance are onion and garlic and limes. The absence of this triumvirate really throws Brooke for a loop.

"I can't believe that we've come all the way to the end of this season," Sheldon says. "And this is how I'm going to have to showcase what it takes to be Top Chef." Hey, you and me both, Sheldon. Brooke seems more panicked than Sheldon, though. She's the most freaked out that there's no limes, even though Ricardo basically told them during their "tour" that tomatillo was the main source of acid in Yucatecan cooking. While Brooke and Sheldon spin out a bit, Shirley stays calm. Well, for her. "I'm not letting this get to me," she says.

As Sheldon literally tears ingredients apart with his fingers, he begins to see that there are a lot of similarities between the pantry here and the types of produce he uses back in Hawaii. Sheldon smashes tomatoes up in his fists, I guess, just like the Maya would. We flash back to Sheldon's exit from Top Chef: Seattle, where he went out in third. And it occurs to me that another reason this final three is so great is how close to winning all of them came. Shirley went out in third on her season as well. And Brooke was the runner-up to Kristen Kish. Two third-place finishes and a second. And as it turns out, I'm still mad that Kristen won Seattle, that she basically didn't have to cook in the regular competition of Top Chef for the last third of the season, but then got to be back for the final. It still burns me up.

Brooke decides it's wise to try a test filet to see if the fire is hot enough to keep the fish from sticking to the grill. "I'm just trying to build layers of flavor, with no dish in my head," Brooke says. And that's not great news. Sheldon waits until the last moment to see how Brooke and Shirley are cooking their fish. When he notices that both are wrapping their fish in hoja santa leaves and cooking them, he decides that's not what he wants to do. He's just gonna put his fish directly on the grill. And that's not great news either. Predictably, when Sheldon tries to flip his fish, it sticks to the grill and comes apart. But there's no time to recook it.

Brooke serves her meal first. She tells the table of judges, "If you open up that little pouch, the snapper is inside." SHE'S TALKING ABOUT HER FOOD, GUYS. JEEZ! As she's describing her dish, you can tell there's too many ingredients, because she won't even list them for the judges. It's weird that she chose now to go full-Katsuji, but here we are. Graham Elliot heaps praise upon her snapper (hey-oh!), but the rest of the table seems torn regarding her two salsas.

Sheldon serves his shredded up snapper with crab sauce and Yucatan vegetables on the side. Tom tries to give Sheldon an out by asking, "Did you break up the fish to mimic the crab, or did you just mess up the grill?" Because he has a heart of pure gold, Sheldon cannot tell a lie and admits that the grill caused him problems. He doesn't take the out offered by Tom. Sheldon's dish seems like it's a disaster, and not just because of the destroyed fish.

Shirley serves her dish. She made the grouper, a fattier fish, which one of the chefs at the table points out was a smart choice, given the grill. After she walks off, Jeremiah says, "That girl can cook." Later, he compliments her further, saying, "For me Shirley's dish says, you know, I knew what I was doing in the beginning, and I did it." Tom points out that Shirley did a good job of editing things down, which doesn't bode well for Brooke.

The three chefs share a final toast in the stew room as they await the decision. "It's been my wish since day one that Sheldon and I both made it to the finale," Brooke says. "Not because I want to cook against him, but because I want to cook with him." And that's what has made this season so special.

Judges' Table

"This is a tough challenge," Tom says, when Brooke, Sheldon, and Shirley return. "But I think at this stage of the competition, why make it easy?" Jeremiah gives Shirley the win, which means that Brooke or Sheldon will go home. Man, this sucks. I don't want either of these guys to go home, ever. I want them to be on my TV forever now. Or if they go home, to go to my home and cook me food and hang out for beers. This, however, is not what will happen. Of course, I know that.

Tom says, even though Sheldon's crab sauce was too aggressive, he liked Sheldon's dish, but…yeah. But the fish stuck to the grill. "It's hard to overlook that," Tom says. Jeremiah calls Brooke's fish "perfect" and says it was definitely the best of the three. And I start feeling like the Tom Colicchio Protein Rule -- never fuck up your protein -- might sink Sheldon. But I'm just praying that maybe they decide at the last minute to let all three go through to the finals. Padma saying, "Only one of you will go on to the finals" isn't filling me with confidence, though.

The judges send the chefs away to deliberate. It's true that Brooke's dish didn't tie together. But Sheldon's fish. And Brooke's dish just had so much going on, totally needed editing. But Sheldon's fish. And Brooke used a private email server. But Sheldon's fish! They truly have a difficult time. There are good things and bad things with both dishes. Tom says, "I mean, if we had Brooke's fish on Sheldon's dish, with some salt. Awesome!"

The chefs come back in. Padma sends Sheldon home, and I'm stunned. I was sure Brooke was going home. And I'm also surprised at how sad it makes me. Sheldon's the greatest. As they play some of the highlights of Sheldon's time on the show, Sheldon says he's glad he came back to do Top Chef again. "It just showed me how blessed I am. And how thankful I should be for what I have in my life." Before Sheldon leaves, Tom reiterates something he said a couple episodes ago. "You know, Sheldon, I really think you're gonna take your place among the greats in this country, cooking, not only from Hawaii but America. I really believe that." And for the first time that I can remember on this show, the judges actually get teary-eyed watching someone leave. Tom tears up. Padma wipes away a tear. And Sheldon says, "Mahalo, Top Chef. Mahalo."

The Verdict

What a great episode. This season has far and away been the best season of Top Chef possibly ever. Amazing food, and chefs you actually care about as people. I can hardly wait for the finale. And after that, to go to Brooke and Shirley and Sheldon's restaurants for some snacks.

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