Photo: Virginia Sherwood / Bravo
To quote a rock star more into fashion than food: Oh, the ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. We're never quite sure how much time elapses between the main season of "Top Chef" and the home-stretch finale episodes, and this year, the difference was particularly noticeable.
What happened to Richard's porcupine spikes!? Did they wilt once they got a hint of the Bahamian humidity? And what's up with that feeble beard? Meanwhile, Mike boasted that he spent his time off training monastically all over the kitchens of D.C. -- working with pastry chefs, even.
By the end of this grueling episode, the formerly pumped-up Mike Isabella could be heard moaning, "Ugh. It's been so long since we had a Judge's Table."
What could cause such dread? Well, first was a Quickfire Challenge in which each chef was pitted against the winner from their season. This meant Mike had to go head-to-head with the snottier of the Voltaggio brothers. Richard and Antonia went toe-to-toe-to-toe with Season 4 champ Stephanie. Of course the cheftestants wanted to prove they were better than their former competitors. Everyone but Carla and Antonia did just that -- with perhaps the most stunning defeat being Mike's taking some of the shine, however briefly, off of Voltaggio.
Turns out it was just a warm-up. The elimination challenge was to create a meal for the king and queen of the Bahamas -- at a fish shack, no less -- and then came a deep-fryer fire that forced all of the cheftestants to recook their meals completely.
For some, this meant throwing out their original menu entirely, with disastrous results. As they waited for the fire department to clear, Richard messed with Antonia's head and convinced her to scrap her original dish. The result: Shrimp and grits atop a mealy slab of short ribs. An added insult was her thread of carrot on top, summarized by Tom thusly: "Howard Johnson called -- they want their garnish back."
For others, cooking a second time just highlighted the flaws in their meal. Carla's dish of pork loin, apple chips and sweet potato was a disaster when she realized her deep-fried pork wasn't cooked all the way through. (Cue the frantic searing of already-cooked medallions. When you hear "I have to MacGyver this!" you know the chef's in trouble.) As for Tiffany, well, there wasn't much to her dish of pork and dirty rice -- something we'd love to have at home every night, sure, but not something you win competitions with.
That left the self-flaggelating -- but really self-aggrandizing -- Richard to compete against Mike. The former's lamb with pickled turnip, grain mustard, and cannelloni was avant-something, all right, but when the judges came down to it, it was actually a very simple dish. Not so with Mike's lobster hash, unified with a perfect sauce and topped by a lovely sous vide chicken breast.
The newly fortified Mike took the edge over the "I hate everything I cook -- wink wink" Richard, setting up what we hope will be a photo-finish between those two and Antonia, if she can get her groove back. And as for the loser, well, we hated saying goodbye to Carla, but even she acknowledged that one out of four properly cooked pieces of meat does not a Top Chef winner make. Goodbye, Carla -- we'll miss you and your spazzy take on life most of all.