Paul Cheney / Bravo

Top Chef Goes To Mexico

In Guadalajara, the final three become four, drink a ton of tequila, then become three again.

The Final Three…Er…Four

We kick the episode off with a recap of the journeys of our three finalists, as we watch them roll their suitcases into the hotel in Guadalajara. What's interesting about Top Chef in the last several seasons is the camaraderie and general positive vibe among the contestants, especially as the competition grinds to the end. Case in point, Shirley and Sheldon show actual enthusiasm when John arrives. It's kind of nice, actually. With other reality shows, there's a level of gamesmanship that goes along with competing and winning the crown. With Top Chef, that doesn't come into play much. I think it's that way because these are all professional chefs, and they've got high levels of pride. They don't want to win for any reason other than cooking the best food. Period.

As they drink in their new surroundings, John quotes Steely Dan, because he's an old white dude. "Steely Dan said Guadalajara wouldn't do," he says. "But I think it's doing okay." The three chefs drive to Estadio Chivas, the home of the Chivas football team, where Tom, Padma, and local chef Francisco Ruano meet them. It's there that they find out that Brooke won her way back onto the show via Last Chance Kitchen. So we're back to the four we started with at the beginning of last episode. Don't even think for a moment about how silly that might be, because it's not, it's dramatic. Or something. But as annoyed as I might be on principle that the show eliminates people and then brings them right back, I am glad that Brooke is back in practice.

Quickfire Challenge

Of all the contestants, John knows that Brooke coming back might not be the greatest news for the three of them. She's a strong contender to win it all. Maybe he's the most aware of this fact because he's also aware that he's the fourth best chef there. Who knows what goes on under that sweaty dome of his?

The Quickfire Challenge tasks the chefs with coming up with a dish that celebrates the local team. Since Chivas means "goat" and the team mascot is the goat, they'll be cooking goat. The winner will get an advantage in the next round, which is already pretty amazing, but also $10,000. Because of the potential toughness of the goat meat, I imagine, they have forty-five minutes instead of the usual thirty to prepare their dishes.

Both Sheldon and Shirley immediately opt to use the dreaded pressure cooker, never a confidence-inspirer on this show. Sheldon's familiar with working with goat, and chooses to makes something from the cheeks. Shirley's worked with goat before as well, but her normal way of making it involves a two-day preparation. She's also making a soup noodle, only since she doesn't have a rolling pin, she's using a tortilla press for the first time. After reading up on Guadalajara, John decides to do a torta, a Mexican sandwich with braised goat and two sauces.

Brooke returns to the competition all relaxed and mellow, because, as she says, she feels like she has nothing to lose. It was probably a good thing for her to get eliminated last episode. She had started freaking out and stressing, but now she's all loosey-goosey. It just might help her win this thing. "I feel like nothing's gonna stop me," she says. Even though she's never made goat ribs before, she decides to make goat ribs. "I hope there's enough meat on them."

Shirley offers a goat breast soup with her homemade noodles that honestly looks sort of sad. Brooke surprises Francisco by pairing fruit with the goat rib. John's torta looks pretty tasty, but Padma finds the meat to be a bit chewy. Sheldon's braised cheek stew seems to be a hit with all three judges. Enough so that he kind of thinks he might have won the challenge, but he's mistaken. Ultimately Brooke wins the Quickfire, the advantage in the next challenge, and the $10,000.

Elimination Challenge: Prep

Since they're in Jalisco, the Elimination Challenge is based around Patron tequila. Patron is hosting an exclusive party for one hundred people who work at the distillery, and the chefs will be provide the food and the margaritas. Because she's talking to chefs who probably don't know anything about margaritas, or any other booze for that matter, Padma describes the flavor profile of a classic margarita: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Their dishes should have all of those elements, plus be paired with a unique margarita.

Of course, because we're at the end, the last four eliminated chefs get trotted out to be their sous chefs: Casey, Katsuji, Sylva, and what the fuck -- Emily? Goddammit, will we never be rid of Emily? Since Brooke won the Quickfire, she gets first choice. She chooses Casey, and then she gets to choose everyone else's sous chefs as well. She pairs Sylva with Shirley, Emily with Sheldon, and of course Katsuji with John. Tom speculates that Katsuji, who is Mexican, could be a secret weapon for John. "I don't know," Brooke says, "I've seen them work together." John says, "I have no problem with this." Katsuji adds, "I do." Klassic Katsuji. Also klassic: Katsuji immediately informs John that he is definitely NOT over the fact that John threw him under the bus.

The chefs go to the Patron Hacienda, where they see the production of tequila and then do a tasting. Sheldon says, "I love tequila, but I'm allergic to tequila. If I drink too much of it I break out. I break out in dance." Just when you think Sheldon can't get more adorable. During the tasting, the ladies quickly get lit up pretty well and start getting silly. Well, the ladies with the exception of Emily, because she's just a fucking bummer. "It just got really hot in here," Shirley says when they're on their third tequila. "Tequila is something I have a deep appreciation for," Brooke adds with a laugh. "Perhaps a deeper appreciation sometimes than I should." Meanwhile, Emily the Eeyore lurks nearly out of sight in the background where the producers shoved her so she didn't bring the room down.

While everyone else plans their menus, John and Katsuji waste time trying to come to a detente about their checkered past. John assures Katsuji that he doesn't have any hard feelings. Katsuji smiles. "Of course you don't have any hard feelings," he says. "You're still here." But Katsuji wisely admits that he won't sabotage John, because he knows he'll only end up looking like an ass. At the grocery store, Brooke has to adjust her plan to make a watermelon-cured tuna ceviche thing, because the quality of the tuna available isn't super-great. So she bails on the tuna and replaces it with…coconut? What? She's kidding, right?

Shirley is making a charred steak with charred vegetables, and a cucumber/honeydew margarita to go along with it. Once it comes to working in the kitchen together, John and Katsuji actually get along fine, which you can tell because Katsuji says, "Fuck you, John." If he was genuinely mad, he wouldn't have said anything. As a result, John's chicken dish and basic margarita are coming along just fine. Honestly, I'm more interested in the margaritas than the food, especially when it comes to Sheldon's dish, which is octopus. God, what is it with octopus this season. This is Top Chef, NOT Top Octopus.

Shirley encounters the first hiccup with her steak marinade, because Sylva grabbed bottles of Mexican vanilla instead of extra bottles of agave. But she decides to go with it and adds the vanilla to the marinade. Look, I love vanilla, and I love steak, but under no circumstances do I want to eat a vanilla steak. Sheldon discovers that he has slightly overcooked his octopus, and says, "This is not good." But things that happen like this on Top Chefright before commercial breaks are often red herrings.

Elimination Challenge: Service

Brooke and Casey are hilariously enthusiastic about their tequila. Brooke admits that the cocktail she's serving is probably not as strong as she would generally make for herself, but she thinks it pairs well with the food. Brooke and Casey celebrate that fact with another "taste" of their margarita.

Then we get some terrible news: in addition to guest judge Ray Garcia, it looks like Richard Blais also made the trip to Mexico. Not sure why such a big deal was made about Graham Elliot being on the show this season, I feel like I've seen Blais every bit as much. While tasting Sheldon's margarita, Blais says it looks like the bottom of a fish tank. As much as I want to, I can't fault him for that assessment. He's right, there's a LOT of stuff in the bottom of Sheldon's drink. But Ray and Blais seem to like his disgusting octopus horror.

Tom and Padma love Shirley's salsa garnish, but predictably are not cool with her vanilla steak. Because VANILLA STEAK, SHIRLEY. Honestly now. They also ding her cucumber and honeydew margarita for being "thick" and "chewy," because it needed to be strained more. Ray and Blais stop to taste John's dish, which is hard to focus on because John couldn't be sweatier. How is it that John looks like he just jumped out of the shower, but literally no one else shows even one drop of perspiration? His chicken dish works fine for them, but his margarita comes across as a glorified tequila shot.

Tom and Padma love Brooke's cold soup. Padma adds the useless criticism that it could have less coconut in it. Tom nods, not in agreement so much, probably, but more like he knows there's a certain amount of what Padma says that has to stay in each episode, and "less coconut" might not be an accurate critique, but it sounds like one.

Tom and Padma aren't very wowed with John's dish, and even less so his margarita. Padma says it's not going to be an easy Judges' Table, but it certainly doesn't feel like that's because everyone killed it. More like that everyone was at about the same level of medium.

Judges' Table

Blais kicks it off by getting up in Brooke's shit: "So, Brooke, cold soup in the finals of Top Chef?" he says to her with a sneer. "Playing it a little safe, no?" Okay. A lot to unpack there, for sure. But first, it should be mentioned that both Brooke and Tom give Blais a "What the fuck are you talking about?" look. And then Brooke tries VERY HARD to shoot lasers or daggers or jets of hot poison out of her eyes at Blais. And rightly so. First off: This isn't the finals. It's the semis. Someone goes home today, and the three remaining chefs compete again. For that reason alone, it can't be the finals, because it's not the final dish. Duh. I'm not explaining this to you, reader, but to Blais should he be reading this, because apparently he doesn't understand.

Second: the choice to end his smarm phrasing with "no?" couldn't possibly be douchier. Third and finally: What the fuck? How in the world is making a cold soup that has no protein in it "playing it safe"? Making tacos to go with margaritas would be playing it safe. Making a meat-free cold soup took fucking balls. It wasn't like she made a mixed green salad. Jesus, Blais, get your shit together.

"You have to think about how to win, not just how to survive," Blais says. Brooke isn't having it, though. She stands up for the amount of work she had to put into her dish. "I feel like because it was a cold dish, and because I wasn't really cooking anything, it had to be perfect," Brooke says. "I thought your dish was beautiful," Padma says. And while it seems like that's Padma standing up for Brooke, I wonder if it was also Padma fishing for a compliment. Like she was expecting Brooke to say, "I think you're beautiful." Only Brooke doesn't take the bait. Tom also defends Brooke's dish, reiterating the things he liked about it before finishing with, "I also really appreciate it that you stood up to this guy [Blais] here." Everybody has a good laugh at that, even Blais.

Tom calls John out on his cocktail's basic nature. John defends it by saying that he really wanted to spotlight the tequila. And Tom reminds him that the challenge was to make a creative cocktail. "I understand," John says, though it's clear he does not, because he defends his cocktail again. "The gentlemen who work here all day long came back and said, 'I love this because you respect our tequila. You did this for us today, not for you as a chef.' And that's important to me." Tom gives him a hard stare and says, "Is that more important that winning this competition?" Boom, another point for Colicchio.

Sheldon's dish is praised, but the sloppiness of his cocktail is mentioned again. The judges again rave about Shirley's salsa, but then Padma asks about the choice to put vanilla in the steak marinade. Shirley misses the point and happily retells the story of the "beautiful accident" that led to that decision. Nope, the judges remind her, we did not like VANILLA STEAK. Shocker!

Ray gives the win to Brooke, which is no surprise. As a bonus, he gives her a special bottle of Patron worth $7,500, which she wastes no time cracking open and tasting straight from the bottle. Despite Shirley's vanilla mistake, Padma asks John to pack his sweaty knives and go home. Which means that the ideal final three is in place for the finale.

The Verdict

Couldn't be more thrilled at the final three. Sheldon, Shirley, and Brooke are the three most talented chefs of the season, so it is fitting that they face each other for the title. Can't wait to see how it all plays out.

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