season 20, episode 12, “Goodbye, London!”

“It was a really tough elimination challenge,” Padma Lakshmi said of the Wellington Beef Battle which knocked out two of the season’s strongest competitors, Amar Santana and Sara Bradley, last week. “I can tell you it’s not going to get any easier from here,” she informs the other four challengers during Thursday’s episode of best boss: World All-Stars– and for good reason: One of these two kitchen heavyweights returns to the competition.

Yes, Sara Bradley crushed it in Last chance kitchen, beating fellow deceased former chef Charbel Hayek and returning to the kitchen of Top Chef just in time for the penultimate episode before the grand finale in Paris. “Those boys thought they got rid of me?” I’m back bitches! Sara announces bravely. “I am ready to win. I am inspired. There’s like a fire going on inside this belly right now, and it’s not stomach pains.”

And it’s good that she’s feeling excited, because for this week’s Quickfire, the last before it all leaves London for France, the chefs have to break the mold, well, the molds. With Sam Bompas of Bompas & Parr (a culinary arts studio known for its intricately decorated jelly desserts) acting as guest judge, players must prepare a dessert that incorporates both gelatin and the use of a mold. (“Buddha might just pass out for sheer love of mussels,” Sara jokes, to which the toque admits, “I’m pretty pumped.”) The key is to get your gelling agents on the spot, Bompas tells chefs: “Too much and it’s like eating a bouncy ball. Too little and you end up with an embarrassing puddle on the plate…there must be a wobble.

The five chefs will have 30 minutes to start, then their jelly creations can take an hour, and they will have a final 15 minutes to unmold and dress their desserts. “There’s no way I’m putting jelly and mold in this kind of weather. It’s so important to be strategic in that,” worries Buddha, a concern echoed by Alie: “Normally, jellies take up to four hours minimum…but I’m going to use small molds for my dark chocolate cream defines it perfectly,” Ali reasons. “An hour, I hope that will be enough.”

Unfortunately, Gabri’s dulce de leche panna cotta with strawberry-raspberry coulis doesn’t take on time (“There’s no time to squirm anymore. I don’t know what to do. Mom!” -il), so he tries to hide the jelly under his sponge cake. “I enjoyed eating it but I wanted to see more of that mold and jelly be proud of,” Bompas told him during judging. And although he salutes the ambition of Tom’s goat’s cheese panna cotta with cherry jelly, curry popcorn, beet discs, and cider gel, he tells him: “I think that more consideration of how all the flavors might work together would really enhance the dish.

Unsurprisingly, the master of the mold himself, Buddha, who sculpts a “truly magnificent” saffron ice cream flower with orange blossom jelly and panna cotta, wins the Quickfire, much to Ali’s chagrin. (The latter’s chocolate cream with blackcurrant sauce and pistachio cream was also previously praised by Bompass for its “good wobble”.)

On the final elimination before France: “Things are about to get complicated,” Padma tells them. Indeed, chefs will try their hand at Trompe-l’œil, a very realistic optical illusion practice in which food is manipulated to look like something else. “We want to be tricked, we literally want to be tricked,” says Padma. They will have £300 to shop at Whole Foods, a full range of mussels provided, and three hours (excluding the Quickfire Buddha winner, who will get an extra 30 minutes) the next day to cook and get ready at Hatfield House. (Historical fact of the episode: this is where Queen Elizabeth I learned that she would be queen.)

Sam Bompas, Padma Lakshmi
Photo: David Moir/Bravo

“I’ve never done trompe l’oeil but I always try to manipulate my guest’s eye or senses,” Ali says, though he struggles to come up with an idea even when he is at Whole Foods. He ends up settling in a garden of tiny falafel turtles: “I hate turtles. But if these turtles take me to Paris, I’m going to buy a big turtle and call it Amar! Gabri, on the other hand, has a clean and clear inspiration: the ScotchBrite sponge, a nod to his past as a dishwasher. “I remember where I come from.”

Gabri’s “clever” lemon “genoise” brioche with lamb tartare and parmesan mousse ended up being a hit with the jury and distinguished guests this week, including a trio of two-Michelin-starred chefs: Jeremy Chan ( chef and co-owner of Ikoyi), Rafael Cagalli (chef-owner of Da Terra) and Tommy Banks (chef-director of Black Swan and Roots). “I think his idea was very ironic, very sweet,” proclaims Gail Simmons. “And when I eat it and close my eyes, it’s a tasty plate of food,” adds Jeremy.

Also among the top two are Buddha’s “impressive” display of beef and onion “red wine”, “porcini” bread with bone marrow butter, polpette “cherries” and apple croquette of land “with black truffle”. “It was my favorite bite or bite of the day,” Gail says of Buddha’s “wine.” And after announcing that Gabri and Buddha would move on to the Paris procedure, Buddha is declared this week’s winner.

Ali’s turtle-filled garden puts it in the bottom three – “There’s ‘trick of the eye’ and ‘inspired by a garden.’ It’s inspired by a garden,” says Jeremy, with Sara’s tamale-shaped matzo ball soup and Tom’s almond cream seaweed caviar. The judges feel Sara tasted the best of the bunch, while “Tom topped and Ali topped the Trompe-l’oeil part of the challenge,” says Gail. In the end, Tom’s ‘caviar’ just couldn’t take him to Paris and he is eliminated, even though he is proud to cook alongside “the best sixteen they could find in the world”.

And now it’s off to Gay Paree!

Spurious observations

  • Sara and Gabri have never been to France. “What do we do when we arrive in Paris?” she asks him. “French kiss with random guys!” he declares. Gabriel forever!
  • Speaking of Sara, she actually served Padma jelly once before… in the form of Jell-O shots. “We called it jiggle juice,” she exclaims before the producers cut to a fun flashback of the best boss host barely surviving the alcoholic experience.
  • Ali Stans, good news: There were plenty of swoon-worthy moments from the Jordanian chef this week, from his upper body workout at the start of the episode to his blatant wink at the camera while when discussing shock freezing. “I can’t wait to put Ali in the final!” We love a little king.

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