Feb. 17--Unlike last year, this season's "Top Chef" finale is being dragged out over three episodes, instead of two.
The three remaining chefs, including Orange County's Shirley Chung, have left Charleston behind for Guadalajara, Mexico. They walk in to the massive Chivas soccer stadium to face their first Quickfire Challenge.
Chung is instantly worried. "Are we going to cook for 30,000 people?" she asks.
Nope. Instead, the stadium's jumbo TV screen serves as the perfect way for the chefs to learn who won "Last Chance Kitchen." They look high above the nosebleed seats to see a smiling Brooke Williamson on the TV screen.
Yes, Williamson, like our old friend Amar Santana, has fought her way back into the game. It's the ultimate irony, as Williamson lost "Top Chef" to the "Last Chance Kitchen" champion during her season. With renewed energy, she joins the remaining chefs.
Can she outcook underdog John Tesar, energetic Chung and happy-go-lucky Sheldon Simeon?
Let's find out.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Quickfire Challenge: The chefs are tasked with making delicious "chivas," or goat dishes to impress guest judge Francisco Ruano. Chung has redemption on her mind. At this point during Season 11, she was eliminated.
Chung, who lives in Newport Beach, says she's grown as a cook since she last competed. "My food is more soulful," she said.
She makes braised goat with "tortilla" noodles made from a tortilla press. The judges, once again, love her flavors and texture.
But Williamson, the comeback kid, ultimately wins the challenge with a risky dish made of goat ribs. Her flavors knock everyone out of the park, er stadium.
Can Williamson pull off a sweep?
Eliminations Challenge: Chung is nervous because Williamson has her mojo back. "I thought I had a chance. Now I wish Brooke hadn't come back," Chung says.
Luckily, Chung can drown her sorrows in tequila.
The chefs take a road trip to the Patron Hacienda, where they are shown how tequila is made. They also get to sample a flight of some of Patron's best spirits.
For the challenge, the chefs must make a creative margarita using Patron, and pair it with a dish.
They must serve 100 people at the hacienda, so of course, the chefs are given help.
Four eliminated chefs join the group of finalists: veterans Casey Thompson and Katsuji Tanabe and rookies Sylva Senat and Emily Hahn.
As the Quickfire winner, Williamson gets first pick.
She chooses gal-pal Thompson. Predictable.
But host Padma Lakshmi rewards her with another perk: She gets to assign sous chefs to her rivals. Knowing how angry Tanabe was at Tesar after he was eliminated during Restaurant Wars, she smartly pairs the two together. She knows they'll butt heads.
Chung gets Senat, while Hahn is assigned to Simeon.
The tension is thick between Tesar and Tanabe. Tesar wants to "bury the hatchet." He says he has "no problem" working with Tanabe.
But the kosher chef from Los Angeles is unforgiving. "I do," he retorts.
It doesn't look good for Tesar, as we suspect the evil Tanabe will sabotage him.
Tanabe knows what everyone is thinking about him, so he gives Tesar reassurance: "As much as I hate you, I'm not going to sabotage you because then I'll look like an ass."
Aw. How unselfish. Not!
In the kitchen, it is surprisingly calm. Chung is working well with Senat, but he goofs and gets vanilla instead of agave nectar at the store. She embraces the mistake and uses the vanilla for a skirt steak marinade. She garnishes the charred steak witih jicama, watermelon, and a spicy molcajeta salsa.
She pairs it with a honeydew margarita.
"The vanilla in the beef is not working for me," Colicchio says. He also called her thick cocktail chewy. It needed some straining.
Simeon, who admits he's a six-pack expert not a cocktail lover, struggles with his margarita. The herbal garnishes fall to the bottom of the foggy drink, making it look like the "bottom of a fish tank," according to one guest.
Luckily, the judges love his Filipino version of ceviche, which he makes with octopus.
In a surprise twist, the one thing the judges like from Tesar's pollo verde soup is a garnish made by Tanabe. Everything else is a fail. He's faulted for making a basic margarita. It tastes good, but there was no creativity, says guest judge chef Ray Garcia of Broken Spanish in Los Angeles.
Judges Table: Williamson continues her streak. Though guest judge Richard Blais said serving a "cold soup" is playing it safe, the other judges don't care. They loved the coconut soup and her margarita.
She sweeps the episode as the judges declare her the winner. She receives an expensive bottle of tequila as a prize. She immediately opens it, and takes a well-deserved swig.
Packing knives: Tesar is sent home for making the weakest dish. Chung is lucky. Had the judges decided to boot two chefs, she might have gone home for Vanilla-Gate. But she gets to move on.
Next week: A trip to the Yucatan and cooking with no tools. (What is this "Top Chef," or "Cutthroat Kitchen"?)
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