Are we there yet? Alas, no, we are not. There’s still one last hurrah for this season of Top Chef, but now that we’ve suffered through the sight of Mike Isabella diving topless for conch, it should be all downhill from here.
“It’s evolution, man,” Mike tells us as his fellow contestants mourn Carla’s departure. “We just gotta keep evolving our food.”
And that’s what they presumably try to do in the Atlantis kitchen, where Padma and Lorena Garcia — helpfully introduced as the host of America’s Next Great Restaurant — present the Quickfire Challenge. After some windy preamble about great chefs and precision, Padma orders everyone to pair off and make a dish for 100 diners. Mike makes a beeline for Richard, because even though Antonia is his cousin, “she is the black hammer.” Wait, that’s not all. “Obviously we’re the favorites,” he blabbers on. “The girls know that, we know that.” So the big bad boys make pork bolognese with pecorino and homemade macaroni, which bears a suspicious resemblance to dog food when it’s plated.
The girls, meanwhile, make seared beef tenderloin salad with lentils and celery leaves. “It’s slice and serve,” Richard scoffs. “What we’re doing is much more ambitious.” Padma and Lorena, however, disagree. They reward Tiffany and Antonia with $5,000 and the rest of us with a rare moment of catharsis.
For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs will have to make an “exclusive lunch” for members of the Nassau Yacht Club, who are celebrating its 80 years of maritime snobbery. They’ll be cooking on an island. “This could be Lord of the Flies,” Richard says, wide-eyed. Oh, if only.
The next day, after drawn-out scenes of Richard and Mike applying styling products to their hair, everyone goes to the dock where they’re met by Padma in a bikini. After he finishes leering at her, Mike tells the camera, “I’m just trying to stay cool, calm, and collective.” We wonder what a Mike collective would look like, then decide we’d prefer not to know.
Everyone gets on a boat and goes to an island, where they run onto the beach, looking for their ingredients. “I felt like I was storming the beach at Normandy!” Richard exclaims, and that remark sort of makes us wish some artillery had been there to greet him.
Instead, he and the other contestants find boxes of fish, and one full of the snorkeling gear they must wear to go diving for conch. As everyone prepares to strip down to their bathing suits, Richard almost redeems his Normandy comment. “I don’t want to see Mike Isabella topless. And you don’t, either.” Unfortunately, Bravo does.
So everyone goes diving and returns with conch. The producers draw this out for as long as possible, so we’re treated to shot after shot after the contestants hammering away at the poor things while Richard provides sound effects. It’s kind of bizarre.
But not as bizarre as the sight of the yacht club members and judges arriving for lunch. Everyone’s dressed in white, and what do you know, all of the yacht club members are white. It’s surreal, one part sci-fi dystopia, one part colonialist fantasy, and one part Massengil ad. Everyone sits down and starts making faintly stilted conversation about the mechanics of yacht club membership, so it’s a relief when Richard shows up, along with a crew of uniformly dark-skinned waiters, with the first course.
He’s made a sweet potato linguine with conch and spiny lobsters, which he of course hates. Everyone at the table, however, is impressed, particularly with his ingenious fake linguine, though Lorena grouses that hers is undercooked. Next, Antonia presents her red snapper with conch tartare and lobster nage. “Antonia did a deeee-licious dish here,” drawls one yacht club member. “My fish was overcooked,” Tom sniffs.
Tiffany then serves her conch and coconut chowder with sweet potatoes and conch ceviche. Unfortunately, she plated it too early and it’s now cold, and Tom remarks that it’s also too sweet. Finally, after Gail tells everyone that she, too, was in a yacht club — in Canada! — Mike serves his banana leaf-wrapped grouper with braised pineapple and conch vin. Tom strokes his nose and opines that the dish has too much butter, but Gail is “sort of obsessed with that braised pineapple.”
Finally, it’s off to the judges’ table. Here, they look more like a panel of cult members getting ready to serve Kool-Aid and human sacrifice:
The contestants are understandably freaked out. After calling out Tiffany for her cold, sweet chowder, Richard for some undercooked lobster, and Antonia for being predictable, they pronounce Mike the winner of the challenge. Richard’s reaction is really kind of heartbreaking:
While Mike goes off to drink beer and gloat to the camera people, the judges, to no one’s great surprise, tell Tiffany to pack her knives and go home. We saw that coming the minute Tiffany decided to make chowder, because if there is one thing we have learned from Top Chef, it’s that chowders, like desserts, are problematic. Still, it’s sad to see her go, though our spirits are lifted by the realization that next week is the finale, and it involves unsmiling chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Michelle Bernstein and something “rancid”.