OK, we're coming down to the wire in the Kentucky Derby; it's the top of the 9th inning; we're in the 195th lap at the Daytona 500; we're at the two minute warning in the fourth quarter in the Super Bowl.
Even though she made it into the finale, Mei is very disappointed she was in the bottom in the last challenge because she didn't push herself enough. Gregory notes that Doug is on an amazing winning streak with three wins in Mexico. Gregory knows he needs to push himself a lot harder.
The next morning, the atmosphere in the house is very tense. They head off in a van into the mountains. They are at an organic farm, Hacienda Purisima de Jalpa. There's a mini-farm with fruits and vegetables, a greenhouse full of micro-greens. They find Padma with the farm's executive chef, Enrique Farjeat. This is the setting for the last Quickfire of the season. They will be cooking with a Mexican staple, chocolate.
Enrique explains that cacao has been used for centuries in Mexico, starting with the Aztecs and Mayans using the seed husks. Padma asks for one sweet and one savory dish. Doug says in the confessional that he doesn't do desserts at all, and he's been dreading this moment during the entire season. They will get to harvest their vegetables from the farm. The winning chef will get first choice of sous chefs in the next Elimination Challenge, and they have 40 minutes.
They grab boxes and run to the garden and get what they think they'll need, and then run back to where they are to cook. They get their proteins from coolers, and start cooking. Mei knows that the chocolate can overwhelm a dish, so she's being careful in its use. Doug is not comfortable with this dish, and continues to run back to the chocolate table in confusion as to what he wants to use. He's concentrating on his savory dish for now. Gregory begins to melt his white chocolate and realizes that he picked up cocoa butter, not white chocolate. He has wasted a good bit of time with only 14 minutes left. But Doug's dessert dish looks to be something very simple.
Padma and Enrique arrive, and she calls out time's up, utensils down in Spanish.
MEI (Savory) – Duck with Bitter Greens and Chocolate Mezcal – Enrique asks how she thinks the chocolate goes with the duck, and Mei replies she thinks it works perfectly together.
MEI (Sweet) – Chocolate Yogurt with Cocoa Nibs & Nasturtium – No reaction from either Padma or Enrique.
DOUG (Savory) – Seared Hen with Onions, Tomatoes, Chocolate & Ancho Chili – Doug admits that this was a tough challenge for him as he's not a fan of sweet flavors.
DOUG (Sweet) – Melted Chocolate with Chocolate Mezcal & White Chocolate – Padma says it almost tastes like alcohol that's not burned off a little.
GREGORY (Savory) – Seared Lamb with White Chocolate Ancho Sauce & Green Chorizo Vinaigrette – No comment from either Padma or Enrique.
GREGORY (Sweet) – Baby Carrots with Turmeric, Dark Chocolate & Ginger – Enrique says the ginger adds a bit of freshness, and the rosemary is nice.
Enrique said the dishes were interesting. Doug's chicken was well cooked, but his dessert wasn't balanced. Mei's duck went well with the chocolate, and the dessert was well received with the crushed cocoa nibs giving it texture. He liked Gregory's lamb with the chocolate sauce and thought the ginger and rosemary were very good touches to the dessert.
The winning chef for the final Quickfire is Gregory. He said the lamb was perfectly cooked, and the chorizo gave a nice touch. Enrique said he works with carrots all day long, and he wants Gregory's carrot and chocolate dessert to use at the farm, because he enjoyed it very much.
For the final Elimination Challenge, the dinner service is up to all of them. Padma explains that the three of them will work together to create a six course progressive meal, highlight six of Mexico's most beloved ingredients. Each of them will be responsible for two ingredients, and one ingredient must be showcased in each course and make it shine. They will find out what the ingredients are later.
They will head to San Luis Potosi to shop, and they'll then have two hours to prep and cook on the next day. The sous chefs will get to go shopping with them and work with them in the kitchen.
Gregory chooses first – he takes George.
Mei chooses Melissa.
Doug chooses Katsuji.
They head back to the villa to menu plan, and they'll find their six ingredients there. They are:
Avocado, guava, Mexican queso, huitlacoche (a.k.a. “corn smut”), poblano peppers, and escamole (ant eggs). Doug's weirded out by the escamole.
Mei takes avocado and huitlacoche.
Gregory quickly takes guava and poblano.
Doug ends up with the queso and escamole.
Doug's rather ticked he's got odd ingredients, but Gregory said he froze and didn't speak up. Gregory wouldn't give up the poblano, so Doug's stuck with the cheese and ant eggs.
They head out to go shopping, and Katsuji tells Doug that in Mexico, every time they eat escamoles, it's a big deal, because they're hard to find and very expensive. He said they have an umami flavor. The chefs talk in the car to ensure their courses flow well. They decide to start with guava, avocado, ant eggs, corn, pork with poblanos, and then cheese.
They arrive at the marketplace with lots of stalls, and it's crazy. Katsuji and Doug head off to find the ant eggs. They finally find it, and Katsuji is helpful to find the escamoles amongst the many vendors. Gregory said that after Boston, he spent the time learning from local-to-him Mexican chefs and researching Mexican ingredients. Mei is excited to work with the huitlacoche, and Melissa is excited to work with her. Melissa says if she can't win the competition, Mei is going to.
The next morning, Doug, Mei and Gregory talk. Doug said he's hoping to be able to eventually open a lodge in Montana, where guests can go fly fishing and put out “awesome food.” Gregory asks Mei if her parents are supportive of her being there, and she said yes, they said “don't make yourself look bad.” She's never heard out of their mouths that they're proud of what she's doing, so once she wins, she thinks she'll finally hear those words. Gregory's parents are stoked that he's doing well and is happy.
They head out to start prep and cook their dishes. Gregory is going to try and add some heat to what most will expect as a sweet first course. Mei is going to add some prickly pear to her avocado course – a guacamole with a twist. Doug asks Katsuji if the escamole can be used raw, but no – they have to be fried. He's going to blend some of them with some eggs for a tortilla, with an escamole aioli. Katsuji asks Doug when he thinks he'll cook with ant eggs again, and Doug replies “I hope never again.” Katsuji said “Seriously? You racist piece of s**t!” (Said in jest, of course!)
Meanwhile, Mei is using the huitlacoche into an agnoletti pasta – Melissa will be responsible for the pasta. Gregory is going to incorporate the poblano into a pork stew for the fifth course, and Doug is going to fry the queso, and is looking for a lot of elements in his final course – crunchy, sweet, savory and salty.
The judges arrive – Padma, Tom, Enrique, Richard Blais, and several Mexican chefs whose names I didn't catch (I'll try and get their names tomorrow).
GREGORY (1st course – Guava) – Chilled Guava Soup with Bay Scallops, Habanero & Roasted Guava – it's found to be very refreshing, and it's the perfect thing to start the dinner. Enrique said the balance of the habanero and the sweet guava is well done. Richard said it sounds easy, but a high level of difficulty to make it as good as Gregory did.
MEI (2nd course – Avocado) – Guacamole with Xoconostle, Radish, Serrano & Tortilla Chips – She patterned the dish after sushi, rolling the guacamole in thin slices of avocado. One guest judge said she didn't hide the flavor of the avocado, and Padma said while it's a carefully sliced avocado, it “is just a very refined guacamole.” A guest judge would have liked to have tasted a little more of the xoconostle. After Mei leaves the table, Tom said on the one hand, she's courageous to bring out a guacamole. But on the other hand, there are so many things she could do with avocado. He thinks Mei left the door wide open for someone to come and knock her out of the competition.
DOUG (3rd course – Escamoles) – Tortilla Espanol with Escamoles & Escamol Aioli – Richard said “I think you have to have a certain amount of huevos to do this!” but he also said the aioli is brilliant. One of the guest judges would have to have had more of the flavor of the escamoles. Tom said the texture is similar to the potatoes, and the escamoles gets lost. After Doug leaves, one of the guest judges says “The flavor is impressive. With a bit of fine tuning, this could be a spectacular dish.”
MEI (4th course – Huitlacoche) – Huitlacoche Agnolotti with Roasted Corn Broth – the roasted corn broth is well made, and Tom said the pasta was very well made. One guest judge said the huitlacoche was bitter, and Mei said she had looked to the corn broth would round it out, and another guest judge said he liked it and would order it again. Padma said it's one of the strongest dishes they've had so far.
GREGORY (5th course – Poblano) – Pork & Poblano Stew with Tomatillos – a guest judge said “This is Mexico.” Padma says he's emotional because he loves the dish. Richard Blais said the flavor of char is taken to a higher level; Tom said it has texture, it has earthiness, it has sweetness, and it's very good.
DOUG (6th course – Queso) – Smoked Queso Fresco with Spiced Honey, Squash Chips & Charred Pickles – Tom said it's probably the most difficult course, and he thinks Doug approached it really nicely. The quality of the cheese, and the flavor with the tomatillo works very well.
A guest judge notes that there were three very different chefs – one who is technical, one with many flavors, and one who between technical and improvisational. Padma thinks that both of Gregory's dishes were the best things she ate. Tom said his pork stew was the star of the entire night. Everyone unanimously agrees that Gregory belongs in the finale.
Padma said the major question is should Mei or Doug go into the finale. Mei's guacamole had so much missed opportunity. Richard said it was so beautiful, but so uninspired flavor-wise. Richard said his least favorite dish was Doug's escamole dish – he thought it was a little greasy. Mei's agnolotti and broth was good, but Padma said she'd prefer Doug's cheese, whereas Tom prefers Mei's dish.
They head off to Judges Table, and the chefs come in front of them. Tom tells them all he was impressed as to how the featured their particular ingredient. Padma asks how they divvied up the ingredients, and Mei replied “Once we saw them, I think we all knew what we wanted to pick.” Doug immediately laughs, and Tom laughingly said “Doug is saying 'I want ants!'” Padma asks Doug, and he said “Is it my turn? When we walked in there, it was just kind of grab and go.”
Richard tells Gregory his fruit soup could have gone wrong, but his was tasty with bright flavors, good spice. The pork stew took the guest judge back to his childhood years, and it's something he won't forget. Padma congratulates Gregory as he's going into the finale.
Richard said that Mei's avocado dish was a still life painting. Tom said he was confused by the dish, but that she did have a lot of fans in the way it was presented. The guest judge said the huitlacoche can be difficult to work with, but he thought the combination with the broth was very well done. He then tells Doug that he had a big challenge working with the escamoles, and he kind of lost the flavor. Tom thinks he had too much going on on the plate, but it was a very good dish. Padma thought he did a great job with something he knew very little about. Padma also said he did an even better job with his cheese course. Tom said he liked the high acidity, the contrasting flavors, the honey, and he made it an exciting dish.
Padma asks both Doug and Mei to take ownership of where they are right now, because they've both accomplished a lot. Mei is very emotional, and is tearing up, and Tom is telling them both that they can't look at this as a failure. Padma said it's been a real pleasure to eat their dishes.
The person leaving Top Chef is Doug, and Mei is moving on to the finale. (I honestly thought Doug's cheese course was going to pull him through.) Tom tells him it came down to small details that made a difference, but he should be proud of what he has done. Tom said he's going to go up to Portland, and they're going to fish and play some music together.
Previews show Mei and Gregory taking a balloon ride, and then preparing their dishes. Looks like Doug and George are helping Gregory, and Melissa and Rebecca helping Mei prepare her dishes.