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Top Chef Season 15, Episode 11: 'Cooking High'



We’re down to the final four: Chris Scott, “Mustache” Joe Sasto, Adrienne Cheatham and Denver chef Carrie Baird, otherwise known as She Who Has Won A Ton Of Money By Making Toast. All hail toast! 

Unlike last week, which was pretty much a collective meltdown for every reason imaginable—the altitude, the pressure, nightmares, time (or, in Baird’s case, the lack of it) and cranky judges—there’s newfound optimism in the Top Chef sleeping quarters. That’s mostly because head judge Tom Colicchio didn’t crucify the chefs after last week’s Elimination Challenge. “The food was focused, well seasoned and the proteins were nicely cooked,” he concluded. Well, except for Bruce Kalman’s duck dish, which was downright awful. He got the boot, and now that he’s gone, the original bear den is officially extinct. Deep, heavy sigh.

At least Kalman won’t have to huff and puff in Telluride, which is the destination for the first leg of the Top Chef finals. “I can’t wait to show you guys Telluride,” bubbles Baird, who pumps her fists and breaks out a little hip jig on the sofa.

“I moved to Colorado when I was 19 because I was a good skier, and I thought it could take me somewhere,” shares Baird. Her skiing aspirations didn’t quite pan out, but her cooking career certainly has, and while Baird doubts herself all too often on Top Chef, she seems to be finding her center. “Just because I don’t think I measure up, maybe I just don’t see myself as clearly as I should,” she muses. 

Seemingly relaxed in their swanky BWM SUVs on the comfy ride to Telluride, Baird and Cheatham wonder who’s returning from Last Chance Kitchen. Could it be Brother Luck, the Colorado Springs chef whose luck has been nothing short of stupefying? “That would be crazy,” Cheatham declares.

The chefs arrive at their new digs in Telluride: the super-swanky Madeline Hotel & Residences. There are lots of “oohs” and “ahhs” and Scott compares the ritzy resort to “Fantasy Island.” He then plops down on a plush sofa and asks no one in particular to fetch his “damn robe.” No takers.

Instead, the chefs uncork a few bottles of bubbles to celebrate the high of making it to the finals. There are no discernable warning signs to guzzle water, but mama Baird has undoubtedly passed along the mandatory H20 memo.

In other news, host Padma Lakshmi has left a note for the chefs with instructions to meet her at the New Sheridan Hotel’s saloon. “Vacation’s over,” announces Baird. Meanwhile, Sasto compares the historic bar to the O.K. Corral. Giddy-up.

“Welcome to Telluride and the beginning of the finals. This is where you’ll duke it out for the grand prize of one-hundred-and-twenty-five-thouuuuuusand dollars,” burbles Padma, who pauses for dramatic effect before introducing guest judge and extolled New York chef Wylie Dufresne.  

Once the obligatory introductions are out of the way, Lakshmi poses the obvious question: “How’s the altitude?”

Not to be outdone, Colicchio quips: “How’s the attitude?” Ha-ha.   

Lakshmi recites an abbreviated Wikipedia version of the history of Telluride (Butch Cassidy robbed a bank!), which eventually leads to the announcement of the Quickfire Challenge: The chefs are saddled with creating a gastropub-inspired dish featuring saloon-centric sarsaparilla, which, relates Lakshmi, was first exalted for its medicinal purposes and then later marketed as a hangover cure.

“Do something unexpected,” advises Dufresne.

The chefs draw knives to determine who will get first crack at choosing one ingredient from four different categories: sweeteners, fruits, vegetables and proteins. Scott, who’s up first, snatches up a few nicely marbled ribeye steaks. Baird goes forth and chooses pork, followed by onions, honey and lemons. Sasto hoards fish. Cheatham is stuck with chicken. No one ever wants chicken.

“There’s a lot at stake in this Quickfire,” stresses Lakshmi, noting that the winner will win $10,000. Baird, no doubt, has visions of another windfall.

Following that nugget of news, Colicchio, always the interloper, interjects: “You didn’t think it was only going to you guys, did you?” Nah. Of course not.

Sadly, Luck’s lucky streak is over. The conqueror of Last Chance Kitchen is Joseph Flamm. Welcome back, Flamm! Oh, and there’s another twist! Flamm, upon his return, gets to pilfer one ingredient from each of his competitors. He robs Baird of her pork, so she calls him a “dirty little thief.” Touché. 

To be honest, her ingredients kinda suck. What do you do with honey, lemons and onions?

French onion soup, that’s what. More to the point, “the top of French onion soup.” You know what that means? Toast! “I’ve made a few toasts here, but they’re awesome, and you can’t bag on it if it’s good every time, right?” she assures herself. Nonetheless, she’s a little worried that her bread might turn soggy, but because she grills it “really crunchy,” she goes from worried to “stoked.”

The chefs present their dishes to the judges, and Baird’s “Top of the French onion soup” with sarsaparilla-deglazed onions, melted cheese, beef stock and a sprinkle of fresh herbs gets a predictable bristle from Sasto, who’s perpetually incredulous every time Baird brings bread to the table.

“She can’t win twice with $*%$# tartines,” hisses Sasto to Flamm, who concurs.

Not to belabor the point, but Baird clearly has some sort of superpower when it comes to toast. And somewhere Sasto is weeping, because Baird wins the Quickfire Challenge. And another $10,000. Take that to the bank, “Mustache” Joe Sasto!

But while $10,000 is a nice chunk of change, it’s less than the altitude where the Elimination Challenge unfolds. “We’re going higher than Top Chef has ever gone before!” squeals Lakshmi, who goes on to explain that the chefs must conjure up a high-concept, high-end dish to serve at Alpino Vino, which, at an elevation of 12,000 feet, is North America’s loftiest restaurant.

“Cooking at altitude is no joke,” warns Dufresne, and just to make sure the chefs get the punch line, Lakshmi tells them that they must include a baked element on the plate. Oh, and Michelin-star British chef—and New York resident—Paul Liebrandt is a guest judge. And he’s not the kind of chef you want to disappoint. Plus, he once cooked at 19,000 feet, so he’s got some major altitude-attitude under his belt.

Baird decides on beef Wellington, but she has reservations: ”Do I really have the balls to cook beef Wellington for a British chef?” she asks. “I don’t know.”

She questions, too, her ability to execute her baking skills at 12,000 feet. “It’s incredibly hard to bake at altitude. Bread takes twice as long, and it never rises because here’s no oxygen,” she gripes.

Liebrandt, along with Colicchio and Dufresne, saunter into the kitchen to offer a few high altitude-baking tips to the struggling chefs. “Add more egg whites to get the structure better,” advises Liebrandt. And watch the sugar dump, he warns. Scott gives them a taste of his test batch of cornbread, which passes muster.

Baird is still contemplating the wisdom of doing beef Wellington, but Liebrandt gives her a push and tells her that if she can nail it, “It shows amazing technique.”

She doesn’t nail it. In fact, she eschews beef Wellington altogether because of an epiphany that flutters through her brain in the early morning hours after another vivid dream episode. Baird, we learned while watching last week’s episode, dreams like nobody’s business. “No fool should cook beef Wellington for Paul. That’s stupid. It’s suicide. So I’m not going to do it,” she proclaims.

Instead, she explains that her sleep trance produced images of perfectly cooked spring vegetables festooned with slices of rib-eye and little corn bread thingies that will allegedly resemble towers. “I see it. It’s colorful. It’s Colorado. It’s Carrie.” There’s a woman with a vision—and it’s not beef Wellington. Dream on, Liebrandt.

The judges take their seats on the sun-smooched deck and admire the backdrop of the snow-capped Rocky Mountain mosaic. Lakshmi looks insanely gorgeous. The altitude clearly agrees with her.

“I’m going to channel my inner Liebrandt and nail it,” claims Baird just before waltzing outside with her dish of fanned Wagyu rib-eye with foie gras, spring vegetables and the promised little towers—they look like tots—of honey-drizzled corn bread.

“Carrie’s dish doesn't have a distinct point of view to me,” remarks Lakshmi. 

Colicchio disagrees and insists that her dish isn’t required to have a theme. All that matters, though, is Liebrandt’s critique, so we wait with bated breath until he opens his mouth. Hold everything! “Carrie executed the baking element—which was the most challenging part—extremely well. If you just eat the corn bread on its own, she nailed it,” he flatters. But he’s not quite finished. “Having said that…it would have been nice to see a beef Wellington,” he laments. In other words, Baird played it safe.

Baird’s competitors, on the contrary, pull out all the stops, patting themselves on the back for creating what they consider to be their best dishes of the season. The judges, for the most part, concur.

“Collectively, this is the best food you’ve done all season,” applauds Colicchio.

The top three are Flamm, Sasto and Cheatham. Sasto, whose roasted duck with spring peas, cherry jam and kombucha cherry puffs, wins the heart of the almighty Liebrandt, is gifted with the prize. “The clearest vision of high-level cuisine and high-level baking—and the most delicious dish of the day—belongs to Joe,” announces the esteemed Brit.

And now it’s time for someone to pack up their blades and return to the world of oxygen.

So who gets pushed off the mountain? Baird for playing it too safe, or Scott, whose quail, corn pudding, butternut squash and maple-bacon cornbread dish was deemed “too clunky” for judge Gail Simmons?

While they’re awaiting their fate, Scott’s Adam’s apple nearly implodes when he swallows. Baird bites her trembling lip.

“We always need to challenge ourselves and take what we do to the next level,” preaches Colicchio. You know exactly what’s going to happen next.

Except. Wait!

While Baird is the one who was scolded for clinging to her comfort zone, it’s Scott who’s eliminated. “Your dish was really, really flavorful, but there were a few technical mistakes,” says Colicchio

Baird, Denver’s homegrown heroine, can breathe. 

Next on Top Chef Colorado: We knew this season of Top Chef would include an homage to balls, so for the Quickfire Challenge, it’s Rocky Mountain oysters, y’all! “Hope no one’s allergic to nuts,” deadpans Lakshmi. “This challenge brought out the best of all the chefs,” she later announces, and judging from Sasto’s swell of tears, it’s an emotional Elimination Challenge.

 By Lori Midson

For its 15th season, Top Chef, the smash Bravo TV show that features 15 chefs from across the country competing in high-pressure culinary challenges, unfolds in venues across Colorado, including several locations in Denver. 

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