'Top Chef': Pork and Beans

Top ChefTime has passed. Fauxhawks have changed hue. Do-rags have been discarded. Hair has been shorn. Other than that, it's a remarkably familiar bunch that arrives in sunny Puerto Rico for Top Chef's penultimate competition.

Once Antonia, Richard, Stephanie, and Lisa land on the island, they're immediately whisked away to the beach where they meet Padma and guest judge Wilo Benet, one of Puerto Rico's pre-eminent chefs. He informs the crew that they've got a Quickfire challenge to attend to, which consists of creating pairs of small fried snacks called frituras. Basically, it's beachy snack food. Good for carbo-loading with an ice-cold cerveza. And the chefs will need to center their snacks around the plantain, a favorite local ingredient.

[Spoilers después del salto.]

The Quickfire kitchen montage showed four competitors who seemed pretty cool and confident. The biggest flare-up was between Richard and the gas stove. [Insert embarrassing Blais pun here.] People were rushing around, as per usual, but there wasn't any kind of desperation. The dishes rolled out to Wilo and Padma on the patio as follows:

Stephanie served a pair of Tostones with Seared Tuna, as well as Pork & Shrimp Fritters with Brown Butter, Lime & Basil Sauce.

Antonia offered Crispy Oysters with Cilantro Plantain Jam, and Fried Yellow Plantains with Spicy Slaw.

Lisa's dishes were Tostones with Pan Roasted Duck with Mango Papaya Salsa, and Sweet Plantain, Red Onion & Chorizo Fritters with Chutney Slaw.

Richard brought the challenge to a close with Pork Meatballs with Ripe Plantain Sauce, and his play on chips and salsa -- Green Plantain chips with Ripe Plantain Salsa.

After Padma and Wilo down a few brews and taste the goods, the guest judge gets to some guest adjudicating.

Richard's raw, ripe plantains don't thrill Wilo's palate. Nor do the raw plantains in Antonia's jam. Apparently plantains, unlike revenge, are best served warm. Or at least cooked at some point. Lisa gets good marks for her choices, but Stephanie wins her first Quickfire for the great taste and the bite-size-ness of her frituras.

After some local color at an afternoon block party in San Juan, the crew assemble the following morning for the Elimination Challenge.

Tom Colicchio does the honors of unveiling the secret ingredient, in a very Iron Chef flavored reveal. It's fresh local pig. Whole. The challenge will be to butcher the pork and create three separate dishes to be served at a garden party at the Governor's mansion. Yes, it's another catering challenge, which does seem like a little bit of a let-down this late in the competition. Still, better this week than next, I suppose.

And here's the twist: Andrew, Nikki, Dale, and Spike are brought back to act as sous chefs for the remaining competitors. Stephanie's prize for winning the Quickfire is to assign the partners. As Lisa surveys the returning chefs, she quickly realizes that two of them hate her guts. Stephanie tries to be nice about the pairings. She takes Dale since they've known each other for a long time. She assigns Spike to Richard and Nikki to Antonia. And that leaves Andrew as Lisa's right-hand man. He says he'll be professional and do what he can to help her win, but you can see the pain on his face as he says it.

The clocks are started and the chefs are given some time to shop and butcher, two hours to prep, and then five hours to cook on the day of the party.

After watching the chef's helpers fumble their way through the local mercado using nothing but rudimentary Spanish and ambiguous hand gestures, everyone crowds into the smallish kitchen to prepare their ingredients for the next day.

Despite Dale and Stephanie having the best rapport, disaster strikes when Dale forgets to cover and refrigerate the pork belly that Stephanie has cut and reserved for one of her planned dishes. When they return to the kitchen the day of the party, Stephanie knows she can't serve the meat and will have to scramble to replace the missing course. At first, she seems unfazed by the setback, but before settling on a fruit salad garnished with fried pork skins -- chicharrones -- she does begin to panic and doubt whether she can overcome the mistake. Dale claims that if his error causes Stephanie to lose, he'll never forgive himself. It was probably the most likable moment in Dale's entire tenure on the show. If he'd been as cool and enthusiastic during his own run as a competitor, he would have been better served.

On to the party!

Stephanie gets a save as she manages to deliver three fully realized dishes and never needs to mention the mishap in the prep phase. Her menu is:

  • Pork Satay on a Sugar Cane skewer with Miso Almond Sauce
  • Coconut Braised Pork with Black Plantain Pancake
  • Tropical Fruit & Prosciutto Salad with Chicharrones

Richard tells cute little stories about each of his dishes and what part of his life inspired the ingredients. It's clichéd, but it also shows a lot of thought. He's a precocious bastard, that Richard. He also manages to sneak in an extra dish, which certainly can't hurt his chances:

  • Fresh Ham with Local Beans
  • Presure Cooked Pork Belly with Pickled Watermelon
  • Pork Ribs with Malta & Soy Glaze
  • BBQ Pork Shoulder with Braised Greens & Mango

Lisa dishes were controversial in that she went for Latin style, rather than her usual Asian. Richard thought it was a bad idea. Colicchio expressed surprise. Lisa said she was comfortable working in that cuisine since she'd spent six years cooking in Miami. Here were her dishes:

  • Citrus Braised Pork Belly with Potato & Plantain Mash
  • Adobo Roaste & Onion Tosto
  • Pork-Filled Yuca Rellena with Pineapple Mojo

Antonia's dishes were apparently served together on a single plate, although the shots we saw of the judges eating seemed to contradict that. Regardless of plate size, there were comments made at the judges' tasting that led one to believe that Antonia had definitely not hit it out of the park. In fact, he usual calm demeanor seemed to morph into a grim resignation that she didn't know whether the judges enjoyed her meal at all. She served:

  • Honey Pork Belly With Pickled Sweet Pepper Salad
  • Curried Pork with Pumpkin & Yuca
  • Pigeon Peas with Pork Sausage

After a few interviews with guests at the party, we're back at a familiar-looking judges' table for the thumbs up and the thumbs down. Richard and Stephanie are brought out first and everyone knows what that means. Dale won't have to fall on his sword. Stephanie is safe. She and Richard get lots of love from the assembled tasters. And, apparently, going the extra mile and making an extra dish helped Richard get the victory for this challenge. And speaking of miles, Richard is awarded a Toyota Corolla as a party favor. Of course, he immediately announced that, due to the skyrocketing cost of gasoline, he'll be melting down the car and forging it into a 16-piece set of non-stick cookware.

On the other side of ledger, Antonia and Lisa are brought up to answer for their menus, which were by no means disasters, but which were each thought to have significant problems.

Lisa was criticized for executing poorly on the Tostone, despite the fact that she'd done one successfully for the Quickfire challenge. Also, her plantain mash was judged to be unpleasantly sweet and a poor compliment to the citrus-infused pork belly. She was also accused of lacking "balance" in some of her dishes.

On the other hand, Antonia was faulted for undercooking her Pigeon Peas. She tried to play it off as a preference on her part for "al dente" beans. However, Gail Simmons put the kibosh on that excuse, rightly claiming that beans should never be served undercooked.

Also at issue was that pesky single-plate issue. While Antonia's choice to serve her dishes family-style instead of on small plates was certainly conscious, it seems like a fairly small point to focus on this late in the competition. Still, the judges were clearly looking for reasons to disqualify someone, since the cooking is generally at a high level across the board.

In the end, Antonia got the axe and Lisa made it through to the final three.

The scene back in the kitchen after Antonia was sent away was a nice reminder of why we're all rooting for Lisa (to be eliminated). She said she understood that Stephanie and Richard liked Antonia better than her, but she was pissed that they didn't congratulate her for getting to the finals.

It's sad to see Antonia go, but it's nice to know that we get to savor our distaste for Lisa for one more glorious week. See you next time for the finale!

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