Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 | 11:28 a.m.
It was edge-of-the-seat drama, tension and tears: In the short space of a TV hour, our Las Vegas cheftestant Shirley Chung went from an exuberant high to a near-dangerous low on Wednesday night’s “Top Chef” New Orleans first finals.
Initially, judges praised her Quickfire Challenge prepping a Dover Sole seafood dish in 35 minutes to the precise techniques set by legendary veteran kitchen king Jacques Pepin.
Shirley, who has won two immunities, narrowly missed out on a third when judges said there was little different in the quality of her service and rival-team chef Nicholas Elmi from Massachusetts. However, he drew the safety card, which 40 minutes later turned into an ugly situation.
Bravo TV chief Andy Cohen said: “This was the most intense episode of all 11 seasons of ‘Top Chef.’ ”
The six remaining chefs were divided into two teams of three representing France and Spain, and the chefs joined to create a rival five-course menu. Shirley was on the French team with Nicholas and Stephanie Cmar, also from Massachusetts.
The judges decided that the Spanish team was best, and thus because Nicholas had immunity, it meant that either Shirley or Stephanie would be sent packing their knives.
Our Venetian and Palazzo star-chef judge Emeril Lagasse explained: “I thought that this was a great challenge. I’m not surprised that the chefs had a tough time with this challenge. It’s all about precision and technique, and you can’t make it up. Everything has to be perfect.
“The best dish from the French team and of the night was the chicken liver mouse with roasted chicken bouillon. It was spectacular, and the mousse was perfect. Shirley and Stephanie nailed this dish.
“I agreed with my colleagues that the Cornish game hen and spiced chocolate with corn silk nest from Nicholas was the worst dish of the night. It was a very one-note dish, and the chocolate overpowered the entire dish.”
Judge Hugh Acheson continued: “Chef Pepin put an option out there for Nicholas: Resign, or watch a non-deserving teammate go home. But he is in it to win it and shrugged off the idea.”
The judges, including MGM’s Tom Colicchio and the Bellagio and Aria’s Julian Serrano, were in a quandary fretting and debating how to eliminate one chef who didn’t deserve to be kicked off the show. But those are the “Top Chef” rules! Finally our hometown hero Shirley won the edge with the leadership of her liver mousse and consomme creation, and Stephanie was KO’d.
Shirley was in tears over the result and told me this morning: “It was sad. It was a close call for sure for me. What didn’t kill me, though, makes me stronger. It was a very emotional episode.”
Emeril summed up: “It was a really tough call. It’s a group effort, but, at the same time, this is a competition. Nick had the worst dish of the night, but he won immunity, so who’s to say what’s fair?
“It’s easy to say that if you were in Nick’s position that you would take the fall, but, in the end, he did what he thought was right, and someone with a great dish went home. It’s all part of the game.”
Shirley, who has worked here in Las Vegas with Thomas Keller, Guy Savoy and Jose Andres, now moves on to the final two episodes as part of the five remaining challengers and might wind up in the finale in Maui with my longtime chef pal Sam Choy as the celebrity guest.
Wednesday night’s nail-biter, though, is just a precursor for more heartache ahead as Sam is called in to untangle a judge’s tie. Host Padma Lakshmi — to be seen in a stunning bikini striding from the Hawaiian sea a la Ursula Andress and Bo Derek — says it will be the closest finale in all 11 seasons.
At stake, $125,000 and bragging rights to be named Top Chef. Meantime, Las Vegas fans can meet Shirley when she helps kick off the cocktail welcome hour at the Jan. 19 Max Jacobson benefit dinner at Rx Boiler Room in Mandalay Bay organized by Rick Moonen and Barry Dakake.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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