Fusion cuisine is almost a cliche these days but when the Portuguese colonized Macau it was just a shotgun wedding of different food traditions.
Luckily, for the “Top Chef” Kentucky final four it turns out that there’s very little that won’t meld well with inventive Chinese cooking.
The one thing that didn’t work in this week’s challenge was not cooking Chinese enough, which was what got poor Michelle sent home.
It was the emotional culmination of an episode that started with a stinker of a challenge: The chefs had to make something with durian, the fruit so stinky that it was banned from lots of public places like the airport.
The quickfire turns out to be one of the hardest yet. Kelsey, who said she thought she “changed this in a diaper form before I left” gave her best shot. But she admitted she was going to lose because you can’t fix good food from something you hate.
Eric also hated the assignment, but Michelle and Kentucky Sara kind of got into it. Sara’s bass with vadouvan and durian curry with dinosaur plum (I don’t even know what those are, except for the fish) got some high marks. But it was Michelle’s espuma of chilled durian, ice and coconut cream with shrimp ceviche and molho cru sauce that won the challenge.
Her reward: An extra hour to prep for the Elimination challenge. Padma told them: “Look to your own heritage and make a dish reflective of that but with Chinese ingredients.”
They had to cook for eight, and served in the stunning Cafe 360 in the Macau Tower, which looked like the Space Needle of Macau.
Guest chef Abe Conlon, owner/chef of Fat Rice in Chicago, took them to Restaurant Litoral for a meal for inspiration.
And when they arrived they were greeted by surprise guests: The mothers of Michelle, Kelsey and Sara, and Eric’s sister! The chefs dug into a Macanese meal, sat down for some meal planning and then shopped together.
Kelsey, who’s done really well channeling her Gulf Coast connections through a Chinese lens, served a low country boil, subbing in Chinese flavors.
Sara played up her Jewish roots, with a matzo ball soup.
Eric said he wanted to do egusi, a spinach stew, from his African cuisine and dress it up with a fufu dumpling and a kind of fish ball.
Michelle went with a “cioppino” seafood and bean soup. And she planned to make the most of that extra hour.
At the table, the judges included each chef’s relative and invited the chefs.
Michelle brought out her “cioppino.” She told the judges she was worried that she was overly ambitious, that the extra hour let her do too much. And pretty much from that moment, she was doomed.
Head judge Tom Colicchio asked why no broth, which was typical in, say, soup? And she did not really have a good answer. Behind her back, judge Nilou Motamed and Padma admitted they wanted broth. Tom said the problem was there was “no Chinese flavor at all.”
Sara came out with her chicken thighs with matzo balls in savory mushroom consomme and Padma told her mom that “Sara did Kentucky so proud.”
And Sara did her mom, Bebe, proud, too, by incorporating her secret trick (club soda) for lighter matzo balls. The judges love the matzo and Sara and her mom celebrate. Meanwhile, the judges were licking the bowls.
“She nailed this,” Tom said. They loved the spice of the chili and the sweetness of the fruit that she incorporated from Chinese cuisine.
The dish was a hard act for Eric’s egusi stew with panko fried fufu dumpling and shrimp to follow. After Eric left, Nilou said she hated the texture that the spinach had from the chopped seeds mixed in; Tom said the fish balls were too salty.
Kelsey came out last with her low-country boil with shrimp. Tom and Abe loved it, but Padma said it was too strong “for a whole bowl.”
At the judges’ table, Abe said the dish that best “brought heritage and local ingredients into a harmonious dish” was Sara’s.
Tom, whose wife is Jewish, said he had plenty of matzo ball soup but her’s was fantastic.
As Eric put it: “Old Paducah Broth wins again!” That was a reference to Sara’s previous win with ham and soup beans in the last episode filmed in Kentucky.
The bad new was, someone had to go. The judges hashed it over, arguing what they liked and what they didn’t. Which was worse? Eric’s seedy stew or Michelle’s broth-less soup?
It’s the soup. Yep, that extra hour did Michelle in.
As Tom said, “You guys can cook on a world stage. There are no losers right now.”
That left three for the finale next week. Or did it??
Tom told them that only two will be cooking in the finale.
“More work to do,” Eric said.
If last week’s was the last quickfire, it will be interesting to see how they winnow it down.
Padma told them they have to cook a “four-course meal of your lives.” Tom gave further hints: “Keep doing what got you here.”
For Eric, that meant more of his fascinating African cuisine.
“My four-course meal is going to tell the story of the transatlantic slave trade,” he said.
Well that sounded amazing and ambitious.
But Sara and Kelsey aren’t going to make it easy.
We got a flash of Sara: “If they (tell) me it’s not good, I’m going to flip the (bleeping) table.”
Whoever ends up in the finale, it’s going to be “brilliant,” according to one guest judge. “One of the best dishes I’ve eaten this year,” says another.
Just when you think “Top Chef” has no more surprises left: “Boosh!” as Nilou says.
Stay tuned; the “Top Chef” finale airs at 8 p.m. Thursday.