“Top Chef: World All Stars” elevates the humble mushroom for a top-tier penultimate challenge

“Top Chef: World All Stars” elevates the humble mushroom for a top-tier penultimate challenge

I’ve been tough on “Top Chef: World All Stars” over the past few weeks — and this episode shows why.

When “Top Chef” is good, it’s stellar — this episode was a perfect example of that caliber. 

When “Top Chef” is good, it’s stellar — and this episode was a perfect example of that caliber. 

The final four cheftestants make their pilgrimage to Paris and directly to the Eiffel Tower (which Buddha deems “huge and pointy and in the sky”) for their final Quick Fire of the season. It is a new variation of the “wall” challenge, in which a contestant is paired with an unseen stranger behind a partition who has identical appliances, utensils and ingredients. The chef must verbally convey instructions on how to prepare a dish to this person of unknown cooking ability so that both partners deliver dishes as identical as possible.

Our guest judge for the episode is Chef Greg Marchand of “Frenchie,” who seems really terrific (I love how he judged the food). “Top Chef” is two-for-two with amazing guest judges this week and last!

Hunter Woodhall in “Top Chef” (Fred Jagueneau/Bravo)

The cheftestants are tasked with creating a dish from a small pantry, but as always with this challenge, the larger difficulty is being able to produce two identical dishes, both in terms of aesthetics and taste, only via vocal encouragement and direction — and this season, with total strangers, not family members. These total strangers, however, are probably not strangers to many: The “guest” cooks in this challenge are Olympians and Paralympians who will be competing in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. Buddha’s partner is Hunter Woodhall, Gabri’s partner is Suni Lee, Ali’s partner is Mallory Weggemann, and Sara’s partner is Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone. 

The Gabri and Suni scenes – in which Gabri’s chaotic energy occasionally overrides his ability to communicte clearly – are legitimately uproarious and probably the hardest I’ve laughed this season, while Ali and Mallory are fascinating to watch because of Ali’s wise decision to use measuring spoons and cups for all of his directions (and opting for the very standard, simple potato leek soup, too). Sara and Sydney seem to work very well together on their chicken-and-cauliflower dish, and Hunter cracks me up, his general nonchalance clashing a bit with Buddha’s pointed directions. Hunter isn’t familiar with leeks, capers or parsley, but Buddha handles these roadblocks well, while Gabri’s frustration with Suni is humorous throughout, all the way until he is seemingly defeated at the end of the cook. (I will note, too, that thank goodness Suni was good-natured! Someone else may have really gotten into a tiff with Gabri because he was being quite short and snippy with her.) Also, isn’t it interesting that Marchand prefers Suni’s “almost burnt” vegetables to Gabri’s? 

Top ChefSuni Lee and Gabriel Rodriguez in “Top Chef” (Fred Jagueneau/Bravo)

Marchand and Padma give Ali the win (and $10,000 for a Delta flight anywhere in the world!), noting that they literally couldn’t tell the difference looks-wise between his potato-leek soup and Mallory’s, which is the whole purpose of the challenge, making him a clear-cut winner. As the rain picks up to a concerning degree, Padma ominously notes that “greatness often grows from the humblest of beginnings” before sending the cheftestants off to a mushroom-growing cavern of sorts in order for the chefs to peruse the amazingly high-quality mushrooms that’ll be the focal point of their elimination challenge dishes. 

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Our chefs make their way though the intimidating, cavernous mushroom caves before meeting with Angel, the owner and purveyor, along with a family friend and translator. Our final four take their pick of the perfect, simple button mushroom (“champignon de Paris”), as well as some beautiful shiitakes. Ali’s aiming for a mushroom “steak” of sorts that’s seared off, while Buddha references a favorite meal of his — mushrooms on toast — and how he’s aiming to amp it up a bit, since this is the semifinals and the cheftestants will be serving on iconic chef Alain Ducasse’s boat/restaurant for the elimination challenge. 

Top ChefBuddha Lo, Sara Bradley, Gabriel Rodriguez and Ali Al Ghzawi in “Top Chef” (Fred Jagueneau/Bravo)

Something that strikes me throughout this episode is Gabri’s deep, impassioned desire to succeed, which stands in slight contrast with Ali’s general laid-back air and Sara’s consistently “chill” vibe. Gabri and Buddha have chats with their families, noting their journeys, their paths and their hopes for the future. While their personalities and dispositions seem so disparate, their similar passions are evident. 

While their personalities and dispositions seem so disparate, their similar passions are evident. 

On Ducasse’s boat, Buddha works on his dish, which becomes a terrine with bacon, mushroom and leek mousse, while Gabri’s dish contains a “potato nest” (it reminds me a bit of Begoña’s beautiful dish from earlier in the season) with morita pepper and mushrooms in different preparations. Ali pairs his seared “steak” mushrooms with za’atar, sumac and various mushroom textures an consistencies as well as a pomegranate-studded croquette, while Sara opts for a silky, velvety mushroom soup with raw pears and a beef marmalade. 

The chefs are shocked when Alain Ducasse peeks in, and it’s so cool to see how genuinely starstruck they all are. I love how Sara asks if she should peel her mushrooms and then immediately does so after Ducasse confirms that she should. Buddha’s up first to serve to the amazing table of Michelin stars and our judges, presenting his Champignon de Paris en croute with chicken farce, mushroom puree, pommes puree, bacon and mushroom leaves, which goes over well (as usual)! Ali’s up next with his mushroom steak with mushroom croquette, za’atar, goat cheese, mushroom jus and pickled mushrooms, but the table isn’t fond of his croquette, referencing it’s being a bit “gritty” and not loving the inclusion of pomegranate. Sara’s elevated soup dish with raw pear and beef leg marmalade, on the other hand, goes over beautifully, with remarks of how it honors the mushrooms and feels cozy “like you’re near a fireplace.” Sara states in a confessional that not only is she the only one of the four who didn’t win his/her original season, but she also has no elimination challenge wins under her belt this season . . . but she’d sure love one right now (Hint hint! Foreshadowing!). 

Top ChefBuddha Lo in “Top Chef” (Fred Jagueneau/Bravo)

Last up is Gabri, who again, ends up burning one of his components, rescuing it, but then forgetting numerous components of his dish as the timer runs out during plating (mushroom “cookies,” herbs, roasted cepes). He serves his potato nest with chile morita and champignon de Paris puree with shiitake broth and cured egg yolk, which the judges note as being exponentially spicy but also very delicious, as well as having some texture, while many of the other dishes don’t.

At judges’ table, Sara earns her first win (hooray!) for her soup which is “the essence of champignon de Paris” and is told that she’s made the judges proud. Sara also notes that she feels more accomplished making the finals in this season than she did when she made the final two in Kentucky, her first season. Buddha is also told that he’s also moving to the finals. It’s between Gabri’s scattered, not-every-component-is-included dish (which wasn’t especially mushroom-focused) and Ali’s mushroom “steak” with a problematic croquette, but which has much more mushroom flavor.

At judges’ table, Sara earns her first win (hooray!) for her soup which was “the essence of champignon de Paris” and is told that she’s made the judges proud.

In the end, after what seems like a contentious, emotional judges’ table, Ali (!) is told to “pack his knives and go,” leaving Gabri in a puddle of tears as he advances to the finals with Sara and Buddha. Our final three pop some champagne bottles and celebrates under the lights of the Eiffel Tower as we head into the finals. So exciting! It’s wonderful to see their pure, unvarnished jubilance as they gear up for what is sure to be one of the most special cooks of their lives.  

Who are you rooting for?

After dinner mints

-Just want to reiterate that Chef Greg Marchand is lovely — such excellent guest judges this season! 

-Padma is so fun, loose and humorous this episode.

-I am rooting for Sara, but obviously wouldn’t be disappointed with a Buddha win. A Gabri win, conversely, would be a truly amazing underdog come-from-behind victory for el gato, wouldn’t it? 

-Ali’s departure before the finals will certainly upset many in the “Top Chef” fandom, but after last week and this week, I do feel as though he almost sputtered out a bit towards the end of the season. But I guess this boot may fall into the “shocking” elimination category for most, all things considered. 

-I am fascinated by this Top 3: Buddha is an obvious inclusion, but I don’t think many would’ve pegged Sara or especially Gabri as being a part of this group. Rewinding a few months back, from a sheer talent perspective, I would maybe have thought Ali, Charbel, Begoña or even Tom may have made it to the finals. From a personality/reality tv character perspective, I would’ve loved to have seen Victoire or even Sylwia make it further. But I will note that now, I am very pleased with our contestants going into the big finale. 

“Top Chef: World All Stars” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on Bravo and streams next day on Peacock.

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