“Top Chef” has landed in Macau with the final five chefs, and you know it’s going to hurt.
Any chef who has been with the show this far has talent and fans. And the bare-knuckled action in the first of three episodes does not disappoint.
It opens with a reintroduction to the top five:
▪ There’s Eric, who got here by cooking from his African roots and plans to keep doing so.
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▪ Michelle, the quiet but fierce chef who battled her way back onto the show and says she’s “ready to kick some ass.”
▪ Adrienne, ready to showcase herself as a top performer.
▪ Kelsey, who nobody under estimates anymore, who is “here to win and win big.”
▪ And Kentucky Sara, who says the remaining chefs are strong competitors “but yeah, I think I can beat them.”
Judge Graham Elliot, who has a restaurant in Macau, kicks off the action by taking them on a tour of a couple of famous Macau markets, showing them things that many of them have never seen or even heard of.
In the Red Market, he shows them seafood so fresh it spits at them. Then leads them to the roof, where they discover host Padma Lakshmi.
It’s their first Quickfire challenge: They have to cook something from what they find and buy in the market, paired with one of the, uh, kinda disgusting things that Graham bought on the walk through. Gum fish? Does that even sound appetizing?
Sara goes for the giant scallops, but Kelsey, who’s been taking notes as they go, bites on that gum fish.
Michelle picks cuttlefish (which is turns out she’s actually cooked before ... sneaky! I’m impressed, I would never have expected that of the quiet one).
Eric takes seasnails and Adrienne picks the razor clams.
They tear through the market, where Michelle tastes everything, and Kelsey finds her new best friend who loads her down with all the Chinese flavor goodies.
Sara’s been learning a little Cantonese, and buys some celtuce, which is a kind of stemmed Chinese lettuce that allegedly is delicious.
They whip up their dishes, which have a few surprises in store: Michelle’s cuttlefish “noodles” come out curly. Eric’s snails are chewy and Sara’s scallops are too firm to cook. The white stuff that Kelsey got in the market turns out to be cornstarch instead of flour, but that’s what Chinese cook with so she’s happy.
The final dishes look surprisingly tasty, and Kelsey’s fried fish with sweet and sour sauce were called out, but it’s Michelle’s cuttlefish that wins the challenge.
Her big prize is getting to go first in picking who and what she will work with for the Elimination challenge: The chefs have to fix something for a Chinese New Year feast for 200 at the MGM Macau.
To help, five of the eliminated chefs come back, bearing baskets of foods traditionally eaten for Chinese New Year. Each chef gets to be the only one to cook with those ingredients and has to use all of them, plus pork to honor the Year of the Pig.
Michelle picks David, who has peaches, noodles and peanuts, representing long live. “David’s Portuguese. We’re in Macau, which has a huge Portuguese influence,” she says. Clever!
She dubs Adrienne to go next, and she taps Brian, who has broccoli, eggs and ginger, representing health. Since they are using pork, having the ultimate “meat guy” to help out is smart, she says.
Kelsey picks Brandon, who has oranges, cashews and cabbage, representing wealth. What Kelsey remembers, but apparently nobody else, is that Brandon has Asian cooking experience. So much strategy!
Sara goes for Eddie, who has cauliflower, shrimp and walnuts, representing happiness. Which makes Eddie smile, for once.
That leaves Eric with his pal Justin, who has water chestnuts, coconut and lychee, representing togetherness. That’s certainly fitting.
They do some meal planning, then get a night out at an amazing restaurant, Five Foot Road, where some of them reveal a bit of their plans, which leads Kelsey to call an audible: If Adrienne and Brian are doing pork belly, then she decides to do something else with hers.
At the eye-popping MGM Macau, they get down to work for this amazing “Chinese New Year’s Eve” party, complete with lion dancers.
Michelle gives them a pork lettuce wrap with a cold noodle salad, peanuts two ways and pickled peach. Tom pronounces it tasty.
Adrienne goes with a “non-traditional pork fried rice,” with fried sticky rice cake, hoisin braised pork belly with roasted chili aioli. It’s a tiny bite with some of everything, she says.
Tom and Graham seem underwhelmed: Tom wants more umami, and just wants more food. Graham says it needs depth. Padma’s “one-bite puff” is too hot, burning her palate.
Eric prepares coconut curry, with braised pork shoulder and crispy pork ears with lychee glaze and Thai chili. Now it’s Padma underwhelmed: “Bit timid with the chili,” she says. Guest judge Jowett Yu wants some rice to soak of the curry.
Sara goes with shrimp and “cauliflower” grits with poached walnuts and pork shank. Graham says he’s feeling the “Southern” style but it’s a solid dish, and Tom says he likes the flavor.
Kelsey also goes Southern, with her “spin on black-eyed peas and collard greens for New Year’s,” with mushroom broth with peas, greens, orange rinds, Portuguese sausage, cashews, cilantro and chives. Both Padma and Jow say it’s a good blend of her background with the flavors of China.
At judges table, things get “really interesting,” Padma says.
They are impressed: Everybody picked up right where they left off, weaving their own traditions into the menu.
The two best, Kelsey and Michelle, earn high marks. Michelle’s dish “could have been from a young contemporary Chinese chef,” Tom says.
“It looks very simple but when you eat it, each elements had a lot of flavors,” Jow says. That’s a hallmark of great Chinese cooking, he says.
Graham says Kelsey’s dish really celebrated what Chinese New Year as well as the market. “It was so satisfying and very soulful. There were so many layers that went into it,” he says.
(Anybody else craving Chinese now??)
Jow announces that Kelsey, who “from concept, execution, presentation and flavor has really blown us away.”
Kelsey is overjoyed, says this the pace she wants to set. “I definitely have a new confidence that now I could win the whole thing,” she says.
Now the bad news: Despite delicious food, somebody has to go home.
Padma says Eric’s green glop lacked clarity and “felt a little muddy.”
Eric pushes back: “Respectfully, I disagree.” EEEK, mistake!
Padma says it lacked complexity, while Graham says it was too sweet, and the lychee and water chestnut were lost.
For Sara’s dish, Tom says he like the idea (uh oh ...) but that cauliflower ain’t grits.
(Anybody who’s had that cauliflower pizza crust knows that it just isn’t what you’d eat if you didn’t have to.)
Sara admits she thinks it needed “a pound or two of butter.” Padma says it ate salty, too.
But for Adrienne, the big diss is it’s just a bite ... for Chinese New Year, where you eat until you pop. And far too predictable.
Meanwhile, we get snippets from next week, when it gets cutthroat:
▪ The last Quickfire of the season apparently will involve the notorious durian, which Padma says she likes to think of “a little stinky feet with a drop of rotten fish.”
▪ The chefs get a surprise visitor, apparently female ... could it be Nini or one of the other eliminated chefs?
▪ Sara says it’s going to be down to three for the finale, “and I’m going to have to cook the dish of my life to get there.”
▪ And we see Tom saying: “It’s horrible to have to cut someone especially when you ‘ve come this far, but unfortunately …” And then Eric: “It’s that time.” Foreshadowing??!
Stay tuned; “Top Chef” airs at 8 p.m. on Bravo.