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May the Best Chef Win

Hugh Acheson was impressed with Brooke's food for how deep in the weeds she got.

By Hugh Acheson

Our semifinal episode begins in Alaska, whose state bird is the Willow Ptarmigan. Two chefs remain, and they have mushed, cooked, flown, boated, and smoked their way into this near-end of the competition. Josh has left the state to join his family and his newly-minted daughter, Georgia. 

How to Watch

Watch Top Chef Season 21 Wednesdays at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock.

Juneau at sundown and Sheldon and Brooke are dancing and jamming on the ukulele. Brooke is not entering a freestyle rap competition anytime soon. Sheldon, powered by Pre-98 Bubba Kush, is just coming up with hooks and lines left and right. 

Hold up -- we are fast-forwarding to a future time in some island nation. It’s like Lost with Sheldon. I am hoping that he is allowed to bring Ben Linus on as a sous and that they will cook on the wreckage of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815. Alas, he is back at his restaurant in training and has been stage-ing at the Dharma Initiative in his free time, learning how to handle tweezers, Xanthum gum, and anti-griddles. Back at his noodle joint, he does seem like a very calm leader as his legion of cooks crumbles under the bright lights of fame. Spoons are dropped, tostadas and buns are made, signatures are signed, shirts are sold. Off to a family BBQ with his family of super-cute Hawaiians. Vittles and brews beachside. Keepin’ the Menehune spirit going. 

To L.A. where Brooke is homesteading Cali’-style. She is raising a family and their robots, plus she’s a chef and restaurateur. She pays the bills and gets the pig ear salad prepped, cooked, and socially-documented. She hints to the cameras that pig ears for the finale would be handy. When would pig ears not be handy? Brooke narrowly averted a lawsuit by marrying her sous chef. They decide to celebrate life with Sang Yoon and Roy Choi at A-Frame, Roy’s kickass restaurant in Culver City. Y’all should go there. Great food. It’s a Toyota ride to Craft, L.A. In attendance are Tom, Emeril, Padma, and some guy who is dressed like he won the Masters… oh, that’s me. Sheldon and Brooke line up and wait for the arrival of the Last Chance Kitchen winner. We hear many shrieks and learn the following:

1. Carla is crazy, calls a squab “that bitch,” and butchers like she’s blind. 

2. Kuniko swallows live butterflies and keeps them alive in her stomach.

3. CJ’s burger still isn’t any good, and he has nightmares about crumpets.

4. Tyler is still my favorite enunciator. “OK, Freako.”

5. Tall people, short people, beautiful people, anyone can win in LCK.

6. Josie is still looking for her niche, and her salmon is on the floor. I picture the whole salmon wearing a headband, cause that’s how I roll.

7. Stefan grows on us daily. That is meant as a compliment, not like it’s a case of shingles. 

8. Kristen reigns supreme and comes back from her strange departure on Restaurant Wars. Reminder: I wasn’t a judge on Restaruant Wars. 

So the three-headed hydra of finales has been born. It’s a Shelbrookrist, genetically represented by Hawaii, East L.A., and Southie, Boston. 

The challenge is to cook a three-course meal at Craft with Tom expediting. Sheldon mentions that he is pretty on edge cooking at Tom’s house, like Tom has a bunkbed in the Craft L.A. kitchen where he lives throughout the year. The Menehune then threatens to set the place on fire. Tom tells the chefs that his customers expect a lot and not to let them down. This is called “foreshadowing.” Their menus are set and they get cooking. Sheldon changes hats and this is a curveball we are all trying to figure out. Brooke says she’s happy to see Kristen back, but her therapist is saying otherwise. Sheldon brings in da sexism and wants the best "man" to win. He is installing a glass ceiling in the kitchen. 

They pick proteins and Sheldon counts spot prawns, a popular skit on Sesame Street in Hawaii. I check on Brooke and she seems frantic and really, really happy to see me. We chat about sweetbreads, something I revel in cooking and I give sage advice on cleaning them. Blah blah blah. Brooke really has excelled this season and to now get as weeded as she is about to get is odd. The rest time before finale has left her a bit rusty. 

Tom checks on Kristen’s French, non-boring menu, which finishes with a chocolate "thing." She is desperate not to overthink the next few hours. Emeril checks on Sheldon and his Sheldon is feeling quail tonight. 

The Craft kitchen is a beauty, but to find a sheet pan you must make up a song, and then the sheet pans appear. Brooke burns nuts and is behind on her prep. She is flummoxed. Sheldon decides this is the perfect time to bother her. Dessert apparently is an afterthought for all of them, save for Brooke who is so weeded it don’t matter. 

We start eating. Tom mans his station. Martin Yan and John Besh have joined Padma, Emeril, and I for dinner. The tickets start pouring in. Tom is calmer with these chefs than he would normally be. 

Sheldon’s spot prawn is beautiful but underseasoned. Kristen’s veloute with duck rillettes needs acid but is overall a nice dish. Brooke’s sweetbreads is pretty darned fine in the modern American vernacular. The sweetbreads have a bit of sinew still though, contrary to my sage advice. Tom is now getting on the chefs and demanding more and more. They are barely keeping up. 

Kristen’s tuna and veal with lemon curd was interesting but needed more synergy. If it’s a play on Vitello Tonnato, I want more veal… I want something to bring it together. Kristen says she peed in her pants a little while Tom was expediting. TMI, but she is one of the only people who can say that and make it sound sexy. 

Brooke’s ribs are good, real good. If this is how she cooks when weeded than she has even more skills than I thought. It’s a fine plate of food. Sheldon’s quail, the smallest main course ever, is just anti-Sheldon. It’s like Sheldon was kidnapped by a Michelin chef with fancy tweezers. I wanted his flavors to shine, but they were muted, like a pine nut puree that can’t tell a story. 

Desserts are a mixed bag of melancholy. Sheldon’s weird fennel and white chocolate thing had no reference to Robin Thicke and was just odd. Kristen’s chocolate pot de curry crème was just not very inventive or skilled. Brooke had the best dessert but Tom found it wasn’t restaurant-worthy…. I thought it was pretty awesome. 

In the end you need to cook with the flavors and power that got you to this point. You need to cook with panache and zeal and intensity. We loved the old Sheldon with his ode to Hawaii and to the Philippines. It was food from the heart, not food from the latest Art Culinaire. 

That said, Sheldon rocks. He is a fresh voice for food in this country and brought such a warm and nice personality to the show and to the cooking. Godspeed. 

Best of luck to both Kristen and Brooke next week. May the best chef win.   


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