At long last, the two chefs who always should have gone up against each other go up against each other. There is Mei, the queen of technique who draws inspiration from her Chinese upbringing. She has so much to prove: She needs to win it to show her family that she was right in rebelling and becoming a chef instead of a doctor or lawyer. She wants to win it for the ladies, who have been underrepresented as “Top Chef” victors. There is Gregory, the king of balanced flavors who draws inspiration from the corners of the world. He wants to win the title (and the $125,000 “furnished by Healthy Choice,” Padma finds herself mumbling in her sleep), but his motivations may not be as urgent as Mei’s.
The episode kicks off with a hot air balloon ride at the crack of dawn. Tom and Padma are waiting at the landing site to relay the challenge: Create the meal of your lives. Cook the best four dishes you can possibly cook.
Again, they pick their sous chefs from among the other contestants. Gregory goes first, but they would have wound up with the same teams either way. He chooses Doug and George. Mei chooses Melissa and Rebecca. It’s boys against girls, but Mei has picked Rebecca out of strategy not sisterhood: She wants her pastry experience. And more than brotherhood, it’s Portland-hood motivating Gregory’s team. And I thought this was “Top Chef: Boston.”
The usual cast of judges is here, along with some world-class chefs, including Traci Des Jardins, Sean Brock, Michael Cimarusti, and Gavin Kaysen. NBD.
Mei’s menu draws further on her Chinese heritage, reflecting who she is as a chef. Always a good move. It also incorporates ingredients from their surroundings in Mexico, also a good move.
Gregory has a newfound love for Mexican ingredients, which is a nice takeaway for him, whatever happens. He focuses on them, wanting to show diversity and prove he is not a one-trick pony with the Asian flavors. Also a good call, but a less-personal approach. These judges can taste when food comes from the heart.
Mei buys every duck in the store. Gregory has trouble finding Mexican chocolate in Mexico. Come to Somerville. They are both cooking octopus, head to head (leg to leg?). And Gregory is making mole! I knew someone would eventually. I hope it works, because he is serving that to Mexicans, as he seems to remember with nervous laughter at the last minute.
Now, on to the food.
1. Octopus with fish sauce vinaigrette, avocado-coconut puree, and herbs. It is fresh and bold and full of flavor, and it looks beautiful. But the octopus is slightly overcooked.
2. Congee with carnitas, scallion puree, hot sauce, peanuts, and egg yolk. Everyone is excited to eat this. Mei first wowed everyone with congee, so this is a fitting return. Introducing Mexican flavors into the dish is a nice way to do it differently, and it feels appropriate, full circle. It’s perfectly balanced and even better than the first congee she made.
3. Duck with braised lettuce, kimchi jicama, and huitlacoche. The judges don’t love this one as much. There are various small issues -- the ratio of huitlacoche to kimchi, the rendering of the fat. Tom says it has “lots of interesting moments.”
4. Strawberry lime curd with toasted yogurt, milk crumble with bee pollen, and yogurt-lime ice. She is finishing with dessert, and no one seems to think this is a good idea. Too risky for a chef who specializes in savory dishes. But it’s beautiful, still smoking from the liquid nitrogen. The toasted flavor of the yogurt is perfect. Tom says it is the best dessert he’s ever had on “Top Chef” and that it was a very good idea for her to make dessert after all.
1. Grilled octopus with prickly pear, xoconostle, passion fruit, and cashew milk. Padma says it’s sublime. Other words tossed around: refined, elegant, balanced. Looks like he won the octopus battle.
2. Shrimp broth with green chorizo, pickled nopales, and crispy shrimp heads. It’s brothy. It’s gumbo-esque. It has coarse shells in the broth that aren’t working. Tom doesn’t think it’s balanced.
3. Striped bass with roasted carrots, radish, pineapple, and tomatillo. He forgot to add sugar and vinegar at the beginning when making the carrot sauce, he tries to fix it, and it winds up too sweet. He knows it wasn’t there. He doesn’t need the judges to tell him.
4. Red mole with short ribs, agave, and sweet potato. It’s spectacular. The Mexicans love it.
At the judges table, Tom says he can’t get enough of the mole. It’s perfect.
But he also says Mei’s dessert is one of the best desserts he has ever had in his life, never mind on “Top Chef.” If it comes down to the final course, that’s the ringingest endorsement I’ve ever heard.
He is so jazzed to see young talent emerging. “You guys are the future,” he says. It’s kind of lovely.
The judges adore Gregory’s global perspective, but his meal ultimately wasn’t as successful as Mei’s.
She wins. She weeps. “I am Top Chef,” she says. Then she curses a lot. She’s the best.