Talkin' Top Chef, Episode 11: Baking at 12,000 Feet

We're coming down to the final few episodes of Top Chef, and this week, the chefs have to create a high-end dish to serve in the highest restaurant in North America: Alpino Vino, which sits at 12,000(!!!) feet.
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Welcome to Talking Top Chef, a weekly blog where we review the latest episode from the best reality show on TV. I’m going to fill you in on a little secret: Shortly after the season premiere last month, I discovered Top Chef is extremely popular at Sports Illustrated. From Crossover writers to our very own managing editor, this show is loved by so many over here. (Even Rob Gronkowski's been on it!) 

And why shouldn’t it be? It has everything: Amazing food, intense competition, plus the chefs are insanely talented but more often than not they can also be erratic and unpredictable, which makes for great entertainment.

As for me? I’m obsessed. As a result, we decided the logical move would to be start reviewing the show here at SI Eats. So let’s get down to business.

Season 16, Episode Eleven; “Cooking High”

The final four is set! Welcome to the first leg of the finals in Telluride, Colorado.

Chris, Adrienne, Carrie and Mustache Joe are all ready to go. I don’t want to brag or anything but two of my picks from the very beginning are in the final! Guys, I am basically a soothsayer.

Alright, let’s do this.

As they enter a cowboy-looking saloon in downtown Telluride, the chefs meet Padma, Tommy C and chef Wylie Dufresne from Du’s Donuts and Coffee.

The quick-fire challenge seems simple enough—create a gastropub inspired dish—but here’s the kicker … it has to feature a classic saloon drink: the Sarsaparilla, which is in the family of root beer, made from the Smilax ornata plant.

Each chef now has to do a draft of ingredients, as they pick several items from a table in the bar. In terms of protein, Chris goes with the rib eye, Carrie goes with the pork, Mustache Joe chooses the fish, leaving Adrienne with chicken. That’s a sneaky move by Joe, as he knows Adrienne can kill it with fish, so he’d rather take away her strength. Let’s see if it works out for him.

Here’s what’s at stake: the winner banks $10,000 so there’s a lot of pressure to get this one right.

But … not so fast, y’all. It’s time to find out who won LAST CHANCE KITCHEN!

I can tell you this, Brother had been on a roll in recent weeks, beating competitor after competitor where the final obstacle was Joe Flamm and Bruce. It was an all-out Bear final.

Tom is about to announce the overall winner and see who will join the finalists.


Joe Flamm is baaaaaaaaaack! Oh boy. This is tough news for the rest of the chefs, as I really do think Joe can win it all. He’s a very good chef who had no business leaving in the first place.

Padma announces that Flamm can now steal an item from each competitor! He steals Carrie’s pork, meaning that she is now left with onions, lemon and honey.

Oh boy, here we go!

Chris, with his potato-crusted chicken fried steak with sarsaparilla gravy and fennel salad, is feeling confident. He uses sarsaparilla all the time back in his restaurant, so this dish is like bread and butter to him.

We’ll find out if the judges agree.


Mustache Joe wanted to give them something cold, so his halibut crudo soup might do the trick.

Flamm’s pork porterhouse with sarsaparilla pickled carrots and sarsaparilla berry sauce sounds amazing, but he was worried the pork had not cooked all the way through.

Carrie made the top of the French onion soup with sarsaparilla deglazed onions and beef stock. Pretty amazing since she had very little to work with. She also made some toast to go with the soup.

Finally, Adrienne gives the judges sarsaparilla-glazed chicken with crispy sarsaparilla chicken skin and garlic tomato compote. Chicken is always a tough one to sell so we’ll see if it passes the mark.

And the quick-fire winner is: Carrie!

Ladies and gentlemen, Carrie is a savage. She had onions, honey, lemons and whatever was left in the pantry and won $10,000. I have to tell you, she’s the favorite by a mile and Mustache Joe can’t take it.

“Toast, toast, again???”

Ha ha ha ha!  Yes, Joe. Toast again! Simplicity can be genius, my friends.


Elimination Challenge

Padma announces that the chefs must create a high-concept, high-end dish to serve in the highest restaurant in North America: Alpino Vino, which sits at 12,000 feet.

12,000 feet!

As if that wasn’t enough, each chef needs a baked element on the plate, which will be judged by James Beard award-winning chef Paul Liebrandt.

No pressure.

The good thing about this one, though, is that they have the rest of the day to test what they want to cook—and the key thing here is baking, which is extremely difficult at high altitudes. Once the chefs return to the hotel to start experimenting, Tom, Wylie and Paul Liebrandt enter the room to check out on their progress.  That gives the chefs an opportunity to ask Liebrandt, who’s had some experience working in altitude, for some baking tips.

The day has come.

The judges arrive at Alpino Vino and Gail Simmons joins them … thank the LORD. Gail has the best palate in my opinion.

First up is Joe Flamm, who brings to the table a buttermilk braised pork loin with pea sorrel puree, pepper jam and goat cheese buttermilk drop biscuit. The key here is the biscuit—remember, the altitude can ruin the texture so we’ll see how it fares with the judges.

So far so good as the judges think he did a great job with the overall mix of the dish.

Carrie-who-can’t-be-stopped is up next. She made a wagyu rib eye with foie gras, spring vegetables and honey cornbread. She was going to make a beef wellington but ended up nixing that idea as making a beef wellington for Liebrandt was too risky. It seemed strange to me that she wouldn’t go ahead with it, as taking risks is what Carrie is all about.

Mustache Joe follows Carrie with a roasted duck with spring peas, cherry jam and kombucha cherry puffs. (It could have been a profiterole but he has never made one so decided to name it a puff.)

Adrienne feels confident with her dish: a butter poached lobster with mountain bread, champagne beurre blanc and caviar. It sounds like the perfect recipe for this challenge and the judges liked it. Tom wanted something more adventurous but it was well made.

My No. 1 choice Chris is up and his crispy black pepper quail with corn pudding, butternut squash, maple and bacon cornbread sounds amazing.

All in all, the judges felt everyone delivered in one way or another so it’s going to be difficult to send someone home.

Adrienne, Joe Flamm, Mustache Joe are the favorites and the winner and first chef heading to the final three is Mustache Joe.

Now the bottom two. The judges loved Chris’s dish but the refinement was needed. For Carrie, it wasn’t adventurous enough and as the judges keep talking, it’s clear that they enjoyed the dishes tremendously; it’s just that there has to be a loser … and that loser today is:


Well, that’s it from me. I’m done. My top pick goes home. You can’t take anything away from his performance on Top Chef; he delivered and lost by a thread of a decision. Good luck in the future, ma man.

I’ll see the rest of you next week!

*I still have Adrienne in the running for the winner.