Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Puerto Rico, My Heart's Devotion (Top Chef Finale Part One)

... and one chef went back to the ocean. It was a night of hot flavors and fierce competition as plantains and pigs took center stage. The scenery was beautiful and the chefs well rested, but once they landed on the island there was no time for vacation - it was right back to the same high-caliber challenges.

Filmed just weeks ago, the chefs had a hefty break (about three months) between filming in Chicago and the Puerto Rico finale, which they all spent differently. Antonia opened her restaurant (Foxtail) and put in 100 hour weeks in the kitchen - yikes! [Sidenote - looks like Foxtail is just about the hottest new spot in West Hollywood - SUPER popular with the celebs! Go Antonia!] Steph traveled around southeast asia. Blais and Lisa spent the time sharpening their skills as well.

Blais, Antonia, and Steph are cheerfully reunited at the airport. They indifferently wait for the arrival of Lisa... no one is particularly excited to see her. Everyone feels like she should have gone home weeks ago.

No sooner have the cheftestants landed when they're thrown back into the fire - or, the Quickfire in this case. The chefs are welcomed to San Juan by Padma and guest judge Wilo Benet, apparently known for his fine Puerto Rican cuisine (...only in Puerto Rico). The challenge: create two kinds of frituras, or "fritters" - ubiquitous fried nuggets of various composition found throughout Puerto Rico, and "enjoyed best with a cold, cold beer" (of course Padma would be the authority on this!). Both must include an element of plantains. The chefs are also offered a full table of produce and a full refrigerator of proteins. Basically, whatever they do, it has to be nugget/bite sized, and it has to be FRIED - very typical of caribbean & central American food. And it's GO TIME!

Steph serves up tostones (flattened, fried plantain slices) with seared tuna, as well as pork & shrimp fritters with brown butter, lime & basil sauce.

Antonia serves crispy oysters with cilantro plantain jam, and fried yellow plantain with spicy slaw.

Lisa offers tostones with pan roasted duck & mango salsa, and chorizo fritters.

Blais has a play on "chips & salsa" with fried green plantain "chips" and a fresh plantain "salsa" as well as pork meatballs with plantain sauce.

The outcome? Wilo doesn't like Antonia and Blais's dishes as much as Lisa and Steph's. Guess the tostones were a good call! But its ultimately Steph who takes the win. And surprisingly it's her first quickfire win! Guess she's just been racking up the elimination wins. Not bad!

After the challenge, Wilo invites the four chefs over to a "classic Puerto Rican party" complete with dancers and live drummers. CUE THE SLOW MO! Over dramatic music, we now listen to Blais and the others remark about how nervous they are while we watch them akwardly dance with the locals and clap their hands. This is a little cheesy, but points for trying to add some gravitas to the finale!

Finally we're onto the elimination challenge and it is: pigs. Four of them. The chefs each get a full pig, and they must make at least two dishes out of it, that will feed 100 people at a very exclusive VIP event in the gardens of a famous Puerto Rican building. But they don't have to do it alone! To the "top chef march" theme, out come Dale, Andrew, Nikki, and Spike! As her "advantage" in this challenge, Steph gets to assign the sous chefs. After taking Dale for herself, its Spike and Blais, Nikki and Antonia, and Andrew and Lisa. Really, no one wanted to work with her. But Andrew-who-doesn't-throw-people-under-the-bus is going to channel his inner mother theresa and try to support Lisa even as she barks in his face.

The chefs get some PM prep time before the big day, and they take full advantage. However, Dale forgets to put the pork belly in the fridge overnight. WHAT AN IDIOT! They find it in the morning and it goes straight into the trash (why wouldn't it? why was there so much discussion about that?) so Steph and Dale need to think of a new third dish. They come up with a salad of chicharrones, fruit and prosciutto which ends up being a hit, surprisingly.

After the guests have left, it's onto judges' table. Blais and Stephanie are the favorites - Blais for his simple, yet elegantly executed dishes (especially the pork belly) and Stephanie for her consistently creative dishes, including the chicharrones salad. And the winner is... BLAIS! And he wins... A CAR!! Wow toyota, you've gone too far! Blais is overwhelmed.

Unfortunately, it's now onto the losers. Antonia gets dinged for her undercooked pidgeon peas and for serving all three of her dishes on the same plate, and the judges note that her dishes are the least sophistocated of the four. Meanwhile Lisa is criticized for poor execution of her tostone bite and overly sweet plantain-potato puree, as well as over-garnishing her dishes in general.

We go to commercial break and see that the fans have texted their votes for who should go home tonight... and it's a whopping 91% for Lisa. Wow. I don't think I've ever seen a margin that large on a Top Chef poll before. Unfortunately for the fans, it sounds like the judges have set up Antonia as the loser tonight... and indeed she is ultimately the one who is told to pack her knives. The collective audience watching around the country consequently groans out loud or shouts obscenities at the TV. Or a combination of both.

To top it off, Lisa's extra bitchy to Blais and Steph when she returns to the waiting room. "You could of at least said congratulations!" she exclaims. Blais decries her poor attitude to the cameras in one of the best lines of the night: "what does she want me to say? Lisa, you've won the bronze medal. Congratulations!" OH SNAP!

Why Lisa is still on - after sliding by week after week - is still a mystery. And all it means is that the finale is clearly a bout between Steph and Richard - although we could have assumed this all along. But its too bad that more likeable, personable, and inventive chefs could have made it this far - at this point, Lisa just makes the show a little difficult to watch... and take seriously.

Looking forward to next week, where the final flames are fired up in Top Chef's Puerto Rico kitchen. TEAM STEPHANIE ALL THE WAY!!!

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