updated 03/23/2011 AT 5:00 PM ET
•originally published 03/24/2011 AT 9:15 AM ET
And then there were two.
On Wednesday’s Top Chef, the judges narrowly decided which of the three finalists – Richard Blais, Mike Isabella or Antonia Lofaso – would be competing in the final episode. And it was a nail biter.
After a Quickfire challenge where the chefs assigned each other classic tasks from seasons past – plus an eleventh hour twist – Mike Isabella claimed another victory from guest judge Wolfgang Puck for his braised pork, which he cooked in a pressure cooker. (Antonia had to use canned products for her meal, while Richard used hot dogs in his dish.)
For their elimination challenge, the three were assigned a master chef – their choices: Puck, Michelle Bernstein and Masaharu Morimoto – and were to cook a “last supper” of the chef’s choosing. Richard was paired up with Puck, Mike got Bernstein and Antonia was to cook for Morimoto.
The chefs had special requests: food that would conjure specific memories. For Puck, it meant reflecting on his childhood in Austria, and he requested comfort foods like goulash, strudel and spaetzle. Bernstein eschewed her Latin-Jewish heritage, opting for a Southern inspired meal of fried chicken and biscuits. Morimoto, meanwhile, went for traditional Japanese cuisine, asking for miso soup, rice and sashimi.
Before they began cooking, the three finalists were warned by Padma Lakshmi that there would be one final twist, sealed in an envelope, which would be revealed later in the challenge.
Despite some initial hesitation, each chef delivered in a big way with their final meal. Richard’s strudel won over Puck, while Mike’s clever play on biscuits – he put an egg yolk inside an empanada – earned points for ingenuity from Bernstein. And though she didn’t go super traditional, Antonia’s bold flavors intrigued Morimoto, though her use of indigenous local peppers added some extra spice to her dish, which caught some of the judges off-guard.
Richard was instantly declared the winner and he passed on to the next round, while the other two chefs were reminded of that aforementioned twist. They would have to return to the kitchen and, in 45 minutes, prepare just one perfect bite. The winner would be finale-bound, and the other would have to pack his or her knives and go.
Antonia stuck with bold flavors with her seared grouper and lobster broth while Mike went more subtle with his tempura-fried lobster over beef tartare.
It was anybody’s game, and the judges deliberated for quite a while, finding winning qualities in each dish. In the end, Mike was named the winner in a split 4-3 decision.
“Its just like having your stomach just drop,” Antonia said after her elimination. “It feels worse this time. So much work to get so close and just have it go away. It’s so hard.”