Well, it's certainly been a fun run, but all great affairs must come to an end. And this, the last week of Top Chef Season 4 in Chicago, was our fabulous last hurrah. The chefs fevereshly sliced, diced, and sauteed their last efforts toward the finale in Puerto Rico - but only four would last the night. Guest judge and Chicago culinary icon Rick Tramonto was on hand to oversee the action.
After a few "wakeup" shots we are quickly on our way to the quickfire... which is a test in butchering at the famous Allen Brothers meat packing plant (located at 3737 South Halsted on Chicago's south side). And a classic Chciago challenge it is, if we consider that the very heart of Chicago's early industry was the infamous Union Stockyards of the city's south side, which supplied freshly butchered beef, via rail, to a significant majority of the country. And how appropriate that the Allen Brothers' business originated in those very stockyards, in 1893. But I digress.
The cheftestants are presented with large cuts of cow, which they are instructed to butcher into prime bone-in "tomahawk" chopped steaks. 20 minutes later, they're told to pack up their steaks and head back to the Top Chef kitchen, where Rick Tramonto and Padma are waiting. Predictably, Padma announces that the challenge is to cook the perfect steak. And how does Rick like his? Medium rare. The chefs have 35 minutes to get it right.
Spike starts grilling, then throws it in the oven. Antonia's basting away, trying to
"seal in the flavor". Stephanie's planning to let hers rest for at least five minutes. Blais is using a torch. Lisa's pan searing. Time is up and Rick knifes into each chef's steak, but doesn't taste them! Shocking. He simply inspects each steak for the quality of the butchering, and the done-ness of the meat. As Rick moves from cut to cut, his poker face gives nothing away. Stephanie and Blais come out on the bottom for their poor butchering, while Lisa, Spike and Antonia are praised for their clean butchering and precise cooking job - but it's Spike who ultimately takes the win. Padma tells him he'll have a very important decision to make in the next challenge, which is...
... having first choice of protein in the elimintation challenge (sound familiar?). For one night, Rick is handing over the kitchen of his hot new restaurant, Tramonto's Steak & Seafood (part of the Cenitare Restaurants), to the Top Chefs. They are each charged with creating an appetizer and an entree from what they find in Rick's kitchen. The place is fully booked for the night, so it's going to be a telling trial of each chef's true restaurating potential. Let the flames begin!!
As the sun sets, we see the Rav 4s powering up Lake Shore Drive to the suburbs (the restaurant is in the north suburb of Wheeling, IL). When the chefs arrive, it's up to Spike to choose his protein. He goes for the tomahawk steaks (trying to coast off his quickfire win, perhaps?) and a bag of frozen scallops, which the other contestants shun. I guess frozen scallops are NOT such a good idea. Lisa goes for shrimp and a whole New York strip steak, with peanut butter mashed potatoes... questionable. Antonia chooses a bone-in ribeye with mushrooms and potatoes. Stephanie decides on sweetbreads and a beef filet. Finally, Blais chooses hamachi and sweetbreads, and a beef tenderloin. MMMM... MEAT!
After making the rounds, Tom announces that he'll be "expediting" the meal. At first, this sounds like a cruel twist. But to the contrary, Antonia explanins giddily that this simply means that he'll be timing out the meal for the chefs, as is the custom role of an executive chef. Antonia is excited that Tom is expediting tonight! Oh yes she is.
It's almost time for service, and OH SHIT! there are VIP guests! And they're... THE WINNERS FROM THE LAST THREE SEASONS! This is a lovely surprise. Harold, Ilan, and Hung offer words of wisdom to the chefs as they're sweating it out, and take their seats. The stakes are duly (triply?) raised. The judges decide that they want "tasting portions" of all the dishes - and the chefs have to whip it together quick.
It's time for service and Lisa is up first. Her chilled shrimp appetizer is not a hit, and neither is Spike's scallops and hears of palm or Antonia's warm mushroom & artichoke salad. The sweetbreads appetizers are a hit, however - both for Blais and Stephanie.
Next up it's Blais's entree - and he's taking his time plating his beef filet with potato puree, red wine, turnips and pickeled brussels sprouts. The presentation elicits a "wow" from Gail. Nice work! Harold notes that all the flavors work well when eaten together. The overall vote is positive.
Lisa's NY Strip steak with spicy apple caramel sauce and peanut butter mashed potatoes is next. Rick's digging the flavor profile, but in the general opinion, the beef is not cooked quite right.
Up next is Spike, and his tomahawk steak with sweet potato puree, blanched brussels sprouts and cipollinis. The sweet potatoes are too sweet, the meat is "just ok" and the judges aren't "blown away".
Stephanie comes next with a beef tenderloin with wild mushrooms and an apple sauce. Georgeous presentation, well constructed, and a hit with the judges. Yum!
Antonia lets us know, again, how much she loves having Tom "in the kitchen" with them, doing the "expediting". Her bone-in ribeye with toasted fennel & cipollinis and a potato gratin goes over well - the judges like that its rounded and rich... if a bit too rich.
Service is finally over, and it's on to the last Chicago judges table. They love Blais's sweetbreads appetizer, but felt his entree was a little undercooked (even though it was plated beautifully!). Steph's sweetbreads are praised, but her entree is questioned. Predictably, Lisa's chilled shrimp is slammed, but her peanut butter mashed potatoes are a hit. Antonia's whole menu is praised as being "perfect steakhouse". Spike's meat is cooked well, but he gets slammed for choosing the frozen scallops (you'd have to be blind not to see that coming) - but he tries to blame it on Rick Tramonto for having them there in the first place!! OH SNAP!
When the chefs have exited, Gail expresses how happy she was to taste clever and delicious dishes that she's never had before. I love this comment, because I believe the hallmark of a top chef boils down to just that - to make truly original dishes, combining new flavor profiles, that taste great. And that's probably what I love most about food - maybe even the reason I'm a "foodie". Nothing compares to the thrill of ordering something you've never had before... say, coconut curry ice cream, or a wasabi-white chocolate cupcake... and the experience of that first bite. It's not always great - that's why you have to take risks! But when it hits, it hits. And you know that the person who dreamed up that dish has some kind of genius about food. That's what it takes to make an authentically original dish shine.
So who's hit it tonight? The chefs are called back, and while Blais has the best appetizer, and Antonia has the best entree, it's Steph who nets the win for having the most well-rounded, best executed dishes overall. It's then down to Lisa and Spike... and although we ALL want to see Lisa go, it's Spike who gets the axe, ultimately for his poor choice of scallops.
And there we have our curtain on the Chicago chapter of Top Chef Chicago. What a ride it was. I am still sorely dissappointed to see that Grant Achatz has been left off of the guest judge roster, and less so about Charlie Trotter... although I suspect that either or both of them may make appearances in the finale. Mindy Segal has been passed over completely, it seems. Pity. But there are still two weeks of action in store for the chefs, so who knows who will show up. And the gender odds are good: with three women and one man in the final four, it's highly likely that America's Next Top Chef will be a woman.... and that her name will be Stephanie. :)
Until next week... keep up the TC spirit! TEAM STEPHANIE ALL THE WAY!!