Top Chef: The pig that flew

hey pig
yeah you
hey pig piggy pig pig pig
all of my fears came true
Nine Inch Nails, "Piggy"

Here we are in Puerto Rico, for the first course of Top Chef's season 4 finale, and we've all had a week to come to grips with the fact that the wrong "fourth person" was in the final group. Lisa, for her part, at least seems interested in making a fresh start. She arrives last to the taxi with a clean (albeit brutal) haircut and perhaps a slightly lighter mood. Still, she looks like the escalator insulted her heritage as she sneered her way to the ground floor.

The other three chefs are less overtly changed from the pre-finale break. Stephanie toured southeast Asia. Richard appears to have debulked his hair slightly. And Antonia opened her restaurant. From all this, we can presume that things will go according to hopes, if not plans. Absence has not made anyone's heart grow fonder towards Lisa, as she gets the most tepid of group hugs.

Puerto Rico is one of the few places outside the borders of the continental US that I've visited, and seeing the chefs stroll into that plaza for the Quickfire made me really miss everything. Particularly the trip to the Bacardi distillery. But the chefs have work to do; they can drink later.

They meet Wilo Benet, the founder of Pikayo restaurant in San Juan. He and Padma task the chefs to create two frituras, tasty fried beach snacks. The only catch is that they must use plantain with both. Plantain's an odd bird; mostly like a banana, but very much not in some key ways. Stephanie tells us that she's been practicing with plantain in advance of this trip, and she just can't get behind 'em. Lisa's unconcerned, having some familiarity with Latin cuisine.

In fact, she's so confident, she turns and goes the opposite way when Padma kicks things off. Everyone else runs to the plantain table (a la Iron Chef), but Lisa goes to the little kitchen to see what the protein situation looks like. As Steph piles plantains of all shades into her arms, her voiceover explains that she's realized that her Quickfire problem is a traffic jam of ideas in her head. She's gonna try to simplify.

Indeed, Steph kicks it off with some tostones with seared tuna and a pork/shrimp fritter with brown butter and a lime-basil sauce. Her first-ever attempt at tostones is met well by Benet. Lisa also whips up a tostone, hers with duck and mango papya salsa. Antonia misses the mark with her crispy oysters with plantain jam, and Richard overthinks the room with too-dry pork albondigas and green plantain chips and plantain salsa. Stephanie takes a pretty easy victory, and boy does she get a whopper of an advantage.

Wilo invites all the chefs to a party in San Juan, and we learn that pink Crocs aren't made for dancing. After some dramatic music and slo-mo camera work (what, are they all about to die in a kitchen explosion?), the chefs make their way to a very detemined Elimination Challenge.

my little piggy needed something new...

That Elimination Challenge, it turns out, will be held at the very austere and photogenic La Fortaleza, the Puerto Rican Governor's mansion. Unfortunately for us, the weary viewing public, this will be another catering challenge. For 100 VIP guests and visiting chefs, the contestants will have to butcher a whole pig and make at least two dishes from separate parts of the animal. Chef Tom pulls a large frond off of the table behind him to reveal the special guest, a carcass!

This is actually a pretty cool challenge, despite the multi-plate setting. As usual, four past chefs arrive to lend helping hands: Spike, Dale, Andrew and Nikki. And that advantage Steph won in the Quickfire? Yeah. Not only does she get first choice for her partner, but she gets to assign everyone's partner. Wow, aren't we glad that Spike didn't make it this far on his own? What an opportunity for total destruction-wreaking.

But we know our Steph, and she's such a nice little thing that she wanted the best possible competition for this round, not a trainwreck. With the best of intentions, she took Dale for her own purposes, and assigned the following pairings: Richard/Spike, Antonia/Nikki, and Lisa/Andrew. Now, I know Andrew's kind of a spazzy doofus, and wouldn't really work well with anyone except maybe Richard. But Steph had to know that Lisa/Andrew would not go over smoothly. Indeed, Andrew shows just a glimmer of the crazy eyes he was giving Lisa at the end of the box lunch challenge. But he declares that he battles with honor, and will do his best to help Lisa win. I actually believe him, but that doesn't mean it'll be easy breezy.

After a brief planning session, the sous chefs are off to the market while the chefs still in the running head to the kitchen to start prepping their pigs. Richard appears to have gone to mob culinary school; his plan is to cut the head and feet off and use them together. Antonia wants to go traditional Latin, as does Lisa, surprisingly. That's the death knell; whenever a chef abandons his or her own vision for someone else's, that chef loses. Immediately. It's almost like a disqualification. Richard notes this, and exhorts "play your own game."

The irony here is that Lisa's Jewish. So for her to not only abandon her home cuisine for Latin, but also to have to work with a food item that is zeyer trayf...well, it just doesn't seem like she's destined for greatness.

She and Richard both send mallet heads flying in the kitchen, but Richard at least keeps his head about him, as he calls Spike to task him with an added market item fondly remembered from his grade school days: malt liquor! Okay, so it's Malta, a malt beverage made with hops, barley and yeast, but without alcohol. Sounds interesting as a rib glaze, so his menu appears to be shaping up. Antonia seems comfortable too, as she discusses easy ways to break down a pig, but Nikki notes that it seems like Antonia's distracted and lacking focus. Lisa, meanwhile, is getting pissy at Andrew for not doing things exactly her way.

And then there's the Stephanie/Dale superteam. Dale would be arguably the greatest asset of the four helper chefs, and indeed he snags Steph some black plantains to use as a very sweet ingredient. But as he finishes his discussion of how cramped the tiny fridge is, and the chefs all walk out of the kitchen for the night, the camera pans to a pan. A pan of Stephanie's dry-rubbed pork, in an error reminiscent of Marcel's fish in the season 2 finale. This is a big problem, and at that moment, Stephanie's in trouble. And it was Dale who left it out.

This is the big time, people. Let's just break down the menus, straight up:

  • Richard's ambitious and broad menu includes coffee-cinnamon BBQ pork shoulder with braised greens and mango; pressure-cooked porkbelly with pickled watermelon; Malta and soy glazed ribs; and fresh ham with beans.

  • Antonia plates honey porkbelly with sweet peppers; pork sausage with pigeon peas and habañero; and curried pork with pumpkin and yuca.

  • Lisa's dishes are a yuca and pork rellena with pineapple mojo; citrus braised porkbelly with plantain and sweet potato puree; and an adobo roasted pork tostone with black bean and plantain.

  • Stephanie, forced to improvise almost an entirely new menu, comes up with (with Dale's assistance) a fruit and proscuitto salad with chicharrones; coconut pork with a black plantain pancake; and pork saté on sugarcane skewers with miso-almond butter.

To emphasize just how bigtime this finale is, the First Lady of Puerto Rico is in attendance. We get very little realtime feedback from the guests, and what we do get is edited to provide a compliment for every chef. The Judges' Table is where we're gonna get the real meat.

hey pig
nothing's turning out the way I planned

The Puerto Rico stew room is indeed a lovely place to be, unless you feel like you made a fatal flaw. None of the chefs are extremely worried, but when Padma calls out Richard and Stephanie, Lisa sums up the obviousness of the verdict: "ahhhhh....fuck."

Wilo saw originality and good execution in everyone's menu, but Tom clearly liked Richard's porkbelly and Steph's chicharrones the best. Tom tells Richard that he thought Richard self-edited more in this challenge, and for the better. Stephanie's summation of her experience was that it was great working with Dale. That should give you an indication of what the judges might be thinking at this point. We've seen this play out before (sea beans, anyone?).

The winner, clearly, is Richard. And when he is declared the winner and told to look behind him for his prize, we see just how big-time this finale is. A 2009 Toyota Corolla rolls out (my fianceé asks, "how's he gonna get that back to Atlanta?" It's Atlanta, not Atlantis), and Richard gets to float back to the stew room to roust the bottom two.

Lisa, in a moment of graciousness, expresses confidence in her dishes but can't fault the two top chefs for their product. Tom, predictably, is puzzled at her departure from Asian fare. Gail found her puree too sweet, and thinks that Lisa's garnishes distracted from the main items. Wilo wasn't a fan of her tostones this time around.

But the most damning critique is saved for Antonia. Her beans were vastly undercooked (despite her lame attempt at defense by saying she likes her beans more al dente). Her three dishes were all served on the same plate, which bewilders the three regular judges. Here we see that maybe Nikki wasn't the best influence on Antonia's efforts in the finale. Ol' One Pot didn't do enough to push Antonia to innovate, and that only fostered the kind of conservative cookery to which Antonia can sometimes fall victim. Her dishes were easily the least sophisticated (read the menus above, and see if you notice how simple her items were in comparison to the other three chefs'), and her technical execution was just as shoddy.

Despite Lisa getting a whopping 91% of the phone poll for who should go home, it is Antonia--that strong contender for fan favorite--who gets to get back on the plane and head home. She brought a B+ level to an A game competition, Tom chirps proudly (you know he was practicing that one), and her table just didn't have the crowds the other three did. Back in the stew room, Antonia whispers into Stephanie's ear, "Kick their ass." Lisa, not to be forgotten, rails against Richard and Steph for the lack of congratulations to her for making it to the finale. I know you guys think the wrong chef went home, but how about some props? Richard, in a rare pottymouth moment, considers the following: "You won the fucking bronze medal. Congratulations." But Antonia did deserve to go home for this performance. So this time, we are given a week to grips with the fact that, amazingly, it was indeed the right "third person" out of four who was sent to the final group.

hey pig
there's a lot of things I hoped you could help me understand
what am I supposed to do
I lost my shit because of you