‘Top Chef’ Week 13 Recap—Habanero and Hoja Santa

As of last week, Shirley Chung is solidly ensconced in the “Top Chef” Season 14 final three. Sheldon Simeon and Brooke Williamson bring comparable skills and the same determination to win, and represent serious competition. I think this is the most evenly matched semi-final in the show’s history, in both kitchen chops and plain likeability. Shirley’s got her work cut out for her.

The first challenge last night involved using habanero, the famous chile of the Yucatan, which we’re told has been domesticated in this region of Mexico for 8500 years. Poor Sheldon bought a tamal when he was after cheese at the local market, gamely using it to stuff his chayote squash anyway, to no great success. Shirley’s masa dumplings with habanero-infused tomato sauce looked great and won high praise, but it couldn’t beat Brooke’s pork loin with fresh, chunky habanero salsa. Williamson for the win, again.

For the elimination challenge, the chefs met the fabulous Jeremiah Tower, who’s lived in the Yucatan for many years. They’ll be cooking with traditional Mayan ingredients, and without benefit of electricity—live fire will fuel everything. Thrown a bit at first by the lack of familiar aromatics like onion and garlic, all three cook local fish: snapper for Simeon and Williamson, grouper for Chung. There’s more overlap when the two women both wrap their fillets in hoja santa leaves for grilling. Clearly, the differences will be in the details.

Judges’ table chatter was fairly brutal—while Williamson’s fish was “perfectly cooked,” flat flavors didn’t impress. Simeon’s shredded fish, a casualty of sticking to the grill, was a black mark, though too-hot sauce was also mentioned. But what about Shirley’s dish? Perfectly balanced sauce, well-edited use of Mayan pantry ingredients… and well, it just doesn’t get any better than Jeremiah Tower himself saying, “That girl can cook.” Yep, she won, and advances to next week’s final final. She’ll be cooking against Williamson—in a very close finish for the crucial second slot, Simeon’s imperfect presentation did him in. His vociferous and active social media fan base was not happy, and I’ll miss seeing him cook in the final. As successful as Brooke has been, I think Sheldon is a better match for Shirley’s talents.

Read all my Taste of Orange County “Top Chef” coverage here.

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