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Top Chef Season 15, Episode 13: 'A Little Place Called Aspen'



We begin this episode with a giddy trifecta of chefs, all of whom are SO CLOSE to winning. The final three—Joe Flamm, Adrienne Cheatham and “Mustache” Joe Sasto—high-five each other, and Flamm tells the world that he “feels like he came back from the dead” after being banished to Last Chance Kitchen and then resurrected in Telluride.

Carrie Baird, the chef from Denver’s Bar Dough, who was sent home last week after cooking her best food of the season, is given a proper salute. “First and foremost,” says Flamm, “a toast to Carrie.” Glasses are raised! “She was the one to beat,” admits Sasto. Cheatham appoints her nixed competitor a “genius.”

Anyway, now that Baird’s gone, there’s only one thing to do: “Let’s light this town on fire!” rumbles Cheatham who, along with her cohorts, will compete against one another in the glitter gulch that’s Aspen.

But first they check into the ritzy Viceroy resort and hotel, which is actually in Snowmass, but whatever. They have a palatial suite and cheese and Champagne. Welcome to the high life, cheftestants!

For their Quickfire Challenge, the chefs amble over to the meadow that surrounds T-Lazy-7 Ranch, where host Padma Lakshmi, who’s decked her head with a spiffy cowboy hat, greets them with a chirpy “Good morning, chefs!”

Enough of the small talk. The chefs have 40 minutes to create a dish cooked with trout…but there’s a catch; first, they have to catch the trout from a nearby lake. Fly-fishing, it turns out, is not a favorite pastime of any of the chefs. Everyone who witnessed Baird’s enviable outdoor skills knows that this would have been a slam-dunk for her. If only.

Sasto is the first to finagle a fish, but fish are sneaky little suckers and they keep escaping. But not from Flamm, who actually nets himself a trout without much effort. Not bad for someone who admits that all he really knows about fly-fishing is what he’s seen in “A River Runs Through It.”

Sasto eventually succeeds, too, leaving Cheatham to fend for herself. With just under 30 minutes left, she coaxes the fish to come hither. They decline. “Bite me,” she dares. Fish is one of Cheatham’s specialties, but with the clock ticking down to the 20-minute mark, the trout continue to outsmart her. Finally, a fish succumbs to her seductive advances, but she’s only got 20 minutes to cook and plate it.  

Cheatham’s pan-seared trout with spring onions and jalapeno ponzu vinaigrette produces properly seared skin, but because of her time constraints, the flesh is raw, so when guest judge, celebrity chef and part-time forest ranger Chris Cosentino schools her on the ways of the wilderness—namely that there are bears in them thar woods, and, uh, bears go poo, which taints the water—Cheatham quickly realizes that she’s in deep doo-doo.

“Should I eat this?” wonders Lakshmi.

“No!” warns Cosentino. In fish talk, Cheatham floundered.

Meanwhile, Sasto’s smoked trout rillette with spring onion corn cakes pooled in a summer berry glaze is “really lovely,” according to Cosentino.

Not to be outdone is Flamm’s pan-seared trout with black garlic beurre blanc, fennel, mushrooms, asparagus and breadcrumbs. It’s “beautiful,” gushes the San Francisco-based guest chef who, by the way, won season four of Top Chef Masters. Flamm’s dish is so beautiful, in fact, that he clinches the Quickfire round and an advantage in the Elimination Challenge, which the chefs learn involves large Cowboy Cauldrons, otherwise known as super-expensive outdoor steel fire pits and grills.

And just how are the chefs going to use those Cowboy Cauldrons?

Let Lakshmi explain. “We want you to make a good impression on the best of the culinary world by hosting your own event during the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen,” where, she continues, the chefs have to feed 200 culinary superstars, including Lakshmi’s “dear friend Daniel Boulud.” Oh, and their dishes must be vegetarian and cooked over the Cowboy Cauldrons. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Too bad they don’t have accomplices to help them.

But, wait! There’s Baird! She’s back! So, too, are eliminated chefs Bruce Kalman and Chris Scott.

But they’re not returning as competitors. Instead, they’re sous-chefs, and Flamm’s perk for winning the Quickfire battle is getting to choose his sous-chef before Cheatham and Sasto. He plucks Baird, who squeals “Hi!” and then bounds over to him like a bear cub. Flamm also gets to assign sous-chefs to his teammates: He pairs Sasto with Scott, while Cheatham is partnered with Kalman.

Kalman clearly thinks this is his challenge to win since he rattles off a litany of ideas to Cheatham, who can’t get a word in edgewise. She sure as hell doesn’t want any pasta on her plate, which is the first thing that Kalman suggests. Cheatham rolls her eyes and vows not to play it safe. Her plan is to channel her ambitious side.

During their grocery shopping jaunt to Whole Foods, Flamm asks Baird if she knows anything about those Cowboy Cauldrons, and low and behold, her dad used to build them. “She’s the mountain woman; she’s got this,” proclaims Flamm, whose belly nearly explodes from the extreme happiness that overcomes him.

The next morning, while mulling over their prep lists, Flamm asks a rather peculiar question. Is John Elway—the general manager of the Denver Broncos—going to be part of the culinary cognoscenti. Say what? “He’s from Aspen, right?” asks Joe with the mustache to Joe without the mustache. No, he’s from Washington and, anyway, why would he be in Aspen? I mean, he doesn’t even have a steakhouse there.

It’s a gorgeous afternoon in Aspen on the day of the Elimination Challenge, but the chefs are more concerned with the cauldrons than the scenery.

Sasto has the novel idea of using sourdough bread as an anchor and accent to his beet dish. “Carrie, you know what I’m making today? Fancy toast!” he tells her.

“Are you really?” squeals Baird. “Nah,” retorts Sasto.

Baird ignores him and focuses on the cauldron, which is smoldering, so naturally she worries that her eyelashes are going to burn right off. Flamm offers up his…should they win.

Head judge Tom Colicchio and Nilou Motamed, a contributor to Food & Wine magazine, drop in to check on the chefs. Cheatham just wants them to go away. She has things to do, people!

While Flamm and Baird grill their vegetables—big and little zucchinis—with ease, Sasto isn’t satisfied with his vat of not-charred red beets, so he yanks a couple of flaming logs from the cauldron and submerges them into the beet poaching liquid. He wraps his yellow beets in foil and buries them in the fire so they’ll get all smoky, which, of course, is the whole point of the challenge.

Cheatham is having issues of her own. The tempura batter isn’t adhering to her shishito peppers, the lime pearls aren’t setting and her corn pudding is too soft. “Everything I’m planning is going wrong,” she wails. She nixes the tempura batter, replaces the lime caviar with lime gelée and adds toasted coconut flakes to her corn pudding to give it texture.

The who’s who of the culinary world arrives en masse: Danny Meyer, Daniel Boulud, Brooke Williamson, Denver chef Gregory Gourdet, Bryan and Michael Voltaggio, Ludo Lefebvre, Scott Conant, Tim Love and Jonathan Waxman. That’s the short list.

Sasto’s tri-color beet carpaccio with beet yogurt and green bean-tomato vinaigrette is mostly good, except for the toast, which isn’t. “It needs nourishment,” opines Frenchman Boulud, whose profound opinion is uniformly shared by his vaunted cohorts.

For all of her mishaps, Cheatham earns praise for her charred corn pudding with grilled shishito peppers floating in a Champagne and corn husk broth. “When you have sweetness, acid, heat and salt, you have a leg up,” declares Colicchio.    

Flamm’s dish—grilled baby zucchini topped with toasted hazelnut-zucchini pesto, mushroom vinaigrette, goat cheese and raw asparagus salad—spawns flattery, too. “This is the first time I’m really getting smoke,” hurrahs Lakshmi.

“And char,” chirps Nilou.

Back at the judges’ table, Lakshmi and Boulud inform the chefs that, for the most part, their dishes were “delicious,” “vibrant” and “amazing.” Colicchio, always the devil’s advocate, is less impressed. “What we got were good dishes, but I think there was a missed opportunity given what you were given to cook with.”

Colicchio, Lakshmi, Boulud and Gail Simmons step away to deliberate. “The bread was bread,” says Colicchio about Sasto’s boring bread.

“Joe Flamm really embraced the challenge,” surmises Simmons, only to be rebutted by Colicchio, who isn’t pleased that Flamm used baby zucchini. “The pesto overshadowed it,” he counters. His opinion falls into the “everyone has one and we disagree with you” category.

“Joe had me at hello with the beautifully cooked hazelnuts,” rhapsodizes Waxman. And even Meyer, who hates hazelnuts, voices his resounding approval.

Only two chefs will saunter into the grand finale, and one of them is Flamm, who wins the challenge. But since Lakshmi gravely calls his name first—an ominous sign that he and his knives have been quashed—he’s pretty sure he’s gotten the kibosh. Oh, those judges are teases! Flamm twitches with relief.

Sadly, it’s Sasto’s journey that’s come to an end. If only his toast would have been…fancier.

Next on Top Chef Colorado: It’s the grand finale in Aspen! Familiar faces from previous episodes return, and Lakshmi announces who wins the title of Top Chef.

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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