And so we come (almost) to the end. This episode began with four chefs left standing, any of whom could do justice to a spot in next week's finals. But as the events of this week's episode unfolded — and particularly when it came time to eat and judge the contestants' food — it became clear that it was time for Naomi to leave us.
Naomi is a terrific chef, one who makes really gutsy, earthy, soulful food. Unlike some of her competitors, she doesn't cook cerebrally, and her style isn't about displaying great technique. That's not to say her cooking isn't built on a solid technical foundation, it's just that Naomi's priority in feeding people is evoking something deep, emotional — almost primal. This is one of the highest compliments I can think of: She cooks really extraordinary mom food, designed to nourish on all levels. But she's also a very focused, very serious chef, and she delivered a narrative lineup of really strong dishes over the course of this season. From her steak sandwich in the fast-food episode to the grasshopper pie she knocked out of the park on the '60s appetizer episode, she's been one to beat every step of the way.
It's a shame, then, that her impressive run had to end on such a not-so-great note. Tasked with cooking a Hawaiian feast — and never, by her own admission, having worked with those flavors and techniques before — we saw the limit of Naomi's considerable culinary talent. (For now, at least: She seems like the type of chef who will go home and pour herself into mastering Hawaiian cuisine as a matter of principle.)
What sealed it, for me, was the pork shoulder: Beautifully flavored with a sweet-savory balance, it was a textural mess of dry, limp meat in a soggy sauce. In her shrimp and rice salad — essentially a cold fried rice — there were so many competing elements, not one of which worked in harmony with another. The poke was also a disappointment, particularly because I'd eaten a marvelous poke just a few weeks earlier at a restaurant in Las Vegas, and Naomi's somewhat bland version was competing against a very fresh and very wonderful memory. Her panna cotta was tasty, but it wasn't enough to save an overall underwhelming demonstration, one out of character with Naomi's usually spot-on cooking. I was sad to see her go.But Naomi wasn't the only one cooking outside her comfort zone on this episode. It turns out that Traci, who can produce exquisite, subtle dishes under even the most extreme circumstances, had never made meatloaf before! Watching the episode, I found it so funny that she's so removed from this staple dish that she didn't even know to use ground beef; instead, she bought whole cuts and minced the meat herself. The result was more of a beef terrine than a true American meatloaf, as if an alien from the planet White Tablecloth read about meatloaf in a book and then attempted to make it from scratch. Still, it was good — despite its saltiness, Traci created a plate that was both elegant and satisfying. Similarly, Floyd made a meal that was at times bizarre in its details (his salad was like something you'd make in desperation five days after buying way too much produce at the farmers' market), but taken as a whole was pretty impressive: His filet mignon and clam chowder were probably the best I've ever eaten in a buffet setting.
Compared to Naomi's disappointing showing and Traci and Floyd's passable fare, Mary Sue's stellar, confident lineup of dishes shined extra brightly. From her tart-savory tomatillo-glazed ribs, to her brilliant guacamole-style relish, to the deep, layered flavors of her patatas rajas, to her pretty damn incredible bread pudding, it was a marvelous meal. I was sitting with the family that Mary Sue was cooking for, and I loved how much they reveled in her food. It was yet another well-deserved win for Mary Sue, and her excitement was palpable — her charity Share Our Strength probably feels pretty excited about it, too.
I felt good about the outcome of this challenge when we were deciding the winners, and I still feel good about it upon watching the episode. I had some suspicions at the beginning of this season about who might not make it to the final three, but there was a broad pool of chefs whose talent and drive was strong enough to get them to the very end. The three chefs who will compete for the title of Top Chef Master next week are all very talented, very smart, and very different in their gifts. It makes sense to me that they're the ones who have made it this far.
As for the episode to come, I went into it with high hopes for the best meal of my life. Wait until you see what happened — next week is going to be very interesting.