Your Top Chef: California Recap (OC Edition) – Week 12/Finale, Part One

Disclaimer: While this is a Top Chef recap, this is also specific to OC. In other words, us Weeklings are rooting for Amar Santana!

Disclaimer #2: There are total spoilers in here. Do not read unless you want to know who won what this week, okay? Now, let’s DO this.

Back in December, we predicted on The SoCal Restaurant Show that Amar Santana could, should and would make it to the final four. So how did he fare last night?

The abbreviated version:

Amar Santana won Last Chance Kitchen!
Amar Santana made it to Vegas as the last of the final four cheftestants!!
Amar is going head-to-head with Jeremy for the title of Top Chef!!!

The standard recap:

You’re still here? Okay. Let’s discuss how they got down to the remaining two chefs. It’s quite interesting, actually. But first, why a Vegas finale? Padma pointed out that many of the best chefs own restaurants out there. Also, their first of two challenges this episode required Lady Luck. 

The four suits in a deck of cards were explained, and we learn that different social/economic classes were represented by each suit: spades were royalty, hearts were clergy, diamonds represented merchants and clubs equated peasants. Our chefs are dealt cards, and this decides their mise en place fate. Their challenge: create a dish inspired by your limited pantry, worthy of getting into the finale. Three hours, 150 guests, and a sous chef of their choosing round out guidelines.

Marjorie is the queen of spades, and she has only the finest ingredients to choose from. She also gets to choose from everybody else’s selections. Because royalty. With her sous, Karen, they create a seared salmon with shaved vegetable salad and Meyer lemon vinaigrette. Clergyman Issac selects Carl as his sous chef, and together they serve seared black cod with caramelized fennel, eggplant and red wine vinegar. He was allowed to select from the other pantry selections, except from royalty. 
Jeremy becomes an honorary merchant, and requests Kwame as his wingman. Together, they bust out butter poached chicken, zucchini puree and a chicken crackling with pickled sweet and hot grapes. Jeremy rummaged through Amar’s peasant pantry for ideas, as Santana worked with ex-roomie Philip on chicken livers and onions with root vegetable puree, crispy leeks and caramelized honey gastrique. While it was a well-seasoned, nicely balanced dish (that made Rick Moonen smile from side to side), a perfectly cooked liver could not beat Jeremy. Yes, Jeremy not only advances directly to the finale, but he scores $25,000. 

As Jeremy takes the next day off, the remaining three must conduct research in the form of a David Copperfield show. It is pretty inspiring to Amar, “I wanna incorporate everything I learned today and put it into my dish tomorrow.” This is a good thing, as they are expected to create a culinary performance that leaves the judges spellbound

As Marjorie experiments with liquid nitrogen and oranges, she burns her tongue and cannot taste her food. However, her showmanship is a class act, as she interacts with the judges the entire time she cooks and plates. Their major critique is how there wasn’t enough orange flavor in her roasted duck a l’orange with braised endive, caramelized romesco and fennel puree.

Issac used some slight-of-hand to dazzle our judges. His “chicken fried steak” fused dry-aged rib eye with crispy hen skin, plated with a quadruple fennel puree and ‘suspended’ yuzu hollandaise. His fennel was too grainy, per Tom. But Issac certainly proved his talent went beyond Southern roots. Emeril should be proud.

And then there was Amar, “Gerry Hayden was the first chef I worked under (he recently passed away). I’m doing this for him. So much is on the line.” While there was next to no showmanship in the beginning of his performance, Chef Santana does do “a beautiful reveal” according to David Copperfield. After the smoke clears from their dishes, Amar explains his magic while dolloping what looks like cream onto the plates. His roasted squab, white chocolate, cauliflower and truffle ganache, mole sauce and “onion” ring are deceptive. That dollop: a balsamic whipped to appear sweeter than it was. What looked like pebbles are liquid nitrogen mole sauce. And the ring? Made of potato and crusted with onion. His dish overall is technically the most difficult of the three.

Before his fate is revealed, there is a last chance to speak to the judges. Amar discusses his father’s passing, and how he was asked to take care of his mom and brother. He considers making it to finale the proverbial icing on the cake, and believes everything happened for a reason.

When he’s given the good news, Santana starts to cry. We start crying. We’re pretty sure every loyal diner in Orange County is cheering and crying at the same time. For Amar, the finale will be for Jerry, for his dad and his mom. 

We cannot wait for next week. Go, Amar, GO!

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