‘Top Chef’ 20 episode 13 recap: ‘Champions in Paris’ celebrated fungus in France before deciding the final 3

“Of the top four, I’m the only one who didn’t win my season,” notes Sara at the start of “Top Chef: World All-Stars” episode 13, “Champions in Paris.” “They probably think I don’t cook as refined as them, but that’s my journey is realizing my self-worth.” All of the final four chefs set foot in France to prove something to themselves and the judges. So which of them advanced to the grand finale, and who had to pack their knives and go in this penultimate episode, “Champions in Paris”? Was it Ali Al Ghzawi (Middle East and North Africa), Sara Bradley (Kentucky), Buddha Lo (Houston), or Gabriel Rodriguez (Mexico)?

SEE‘Top Chef’ 20 episode 12 recap: In ‘Goodbye, London,’ one chef returns to try to fool the judges

Quickfire Challenge

“Today we mark our 300th episode,” says host Padma Lakshmi when she meets the final four chefs in front of the Eiffel Tower. But there’s no time to dwell on that. We go straight into this season’s very last Quickfire: the “infamous” wall challenge. The chefs will each have to prepare a dish using the limited ingredients set out for them, but that’s not the hard part. They’ll have to guide a mystery guest through the process of cooking the same dish. They won’t know who their partner is, and they won’t be able to see each other until the cooking is done.

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The guest judge for the challenge is Michelin-starred chef Greg Marchand. Though honestly, every guest this season seems to have a Michelin star. Who doesn’t have a Michelin star these days, amirite?

We’re introduced to the chefs’ partners while they chefs are blindfolded: Paralympic swimming medalist Mallory Weggemann (paired with Ali), Paralympic track and field medalist Hunter Woodhall (paired with Buddha), Olympic gymnastics medalist Suni Lee (paired with Gabri), and Olympic track and field gold medalist Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone (paired with Sara).

Gabri and Suni get off on the wrong foot immediately and hilariously. Communicating through the wall is hard enough, but Gabri’s accent seems to make it more so. He tells her to get a pan and fill it with oil, but instead of “pan” Suni hears “cup.” He tells her to fry a chili, but she picks the wrong one. Then he wants her to get the coriander. She doesn’t know what that is, so he explains it by saying “coriander” again, but louder. Then she burns the butter for her baby corn and chili sauce. No bueno.

Buddha doesn’t have quite as many communication problems with Hunter, though Buddha still wishes he could jump over the partition, cook both dishes, and just let Hunter watch. He has to explain to Hunter what leeks are — no judgment here, Buddha might have to explain the same thing to me in the kitchen. He later instructs Hunter to get parsley and Hunter identifies it because “parsley is pointy!” Time for the thyme, which Hunter identifies as looking like a Christmas tree.

Ali and Mallory have a relatively smooth partnership. Ali has the wisdom to use measuring cups and spoons so that he can give his partner specific instructions and make their dishes as similar as possible. Sara, meanwhile, has experience teaching cooking. When COVID closed restaurants across America, she started cooking classes, with all the proceeds going to her employees. “From the energy in this kitchen I think we might be winning,” Sara tells her partner. They might be right.

Time’s up and the chefs are shown the Olympians they’ve been working with and Gabri is mortified. “Oh my f*cking God, this girl has been winning an Olympic gold medal and I just screamed at her. I feel so embarrassed right now,” he says. Poor traumatized Suni then tells the judges that the experience makes her less interested in cooking in the future. “I’m so sorry!” Gabri says. I’ve honestly never seen him as frustrated as he was during this challenge. I love the guy, but remind me never to take his cooking class. He’s in good spirits, though, when the judges tell him that he was one of the bottom dishes of the challenge — and that the judges might have actually preferred Suni’s version of the dish to his.

Surprisingly, the other bottom team is Sara and Sydney, who despite their harmonious partnership ended up with some dry chicken. Buddha and Hunter‘s cauliflower puree was a success where both dishes ended up with similar flavors despite an ambitious use of multiple creative elements. But the winning team turned out to be Ali and Mallory with their potato and leek soup. Thanks to Ali’s precise measurements, they ended up preparing nearly identical dishes. Ali wins $10,000 to fly anywhere in the world on Delta Airlines. Not too shabby.

SEE‘Top Chef’ spoilers: Who was eliminated in season 20 of Bravo cooking competition?

Elimination Challenge

“I know you want to reach for the stars, but greatness often grows from the humblest of beginnings,” says Padma as the rain pours down on them. “French cuisine is known for simple ingredients that are artfully prepared.” So the challenge for this round is to create a Michelin-star-worthy dish using one such humble ingredient: the simple button mushroom. They will serve their dishes to multiple Michelin-starred chefs on the boat of 21-Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse. Jeez, how many Michelin stars are there? Can I have a couple? I make a killer instant ramen.

Before they shop for their groceries they visit the dark and ominous catacombs of the Champignonniere Des Carrieres, and once they figure out where the heck they are in those winding tunnels they’re introduced to Angel Moioli, whose family has been farming mushrooms for three generations. He gives them free rein to pick from his fresh selection. “You can still smell the freshness,” Gabri marvels, “and the horse shit.”

After harvesting their freshest ingredients it’s off to Galeries Lafayette to shop for groceries with 400 euros. “Everybody kind of looks like a deer in the headlights,” says Sara, as they struggle to navigate a market where everything, naturally, is in French. “My French is shit,” admits Buddha. And Ali wanders in search of panko breadcrumbs, but when he asks store employees nobody knows what the hell he’s saying.

Ali’s plan is to elevate mushrooms “to another level” by showcasing it in many different textures and techniques, including a mushroom steak that treats the ingredient like meat. Buddha wants to make mushrooms on toast, but he’ll “French it up” to make it worthy of Alain Ducasse’s boat, so he decides to prepare his mushrooms seven different ways. Gabri wants to represent both his past and his future in the dish, so he’s going to incorporate roast chicken from his childhood, plus morita pepper for an added Mexican touch. Sara is preparing mushroom soup, but when she sees the complex techniques being undertaken by her opponents she worries she’s not doing enough to elevate her dish to a Michelin-star level. That’s okay, Sara, not everyone can live up to my 47 Michelin-starred instant ramen.

The chefs spend three hours cooking the next day in Alain Ducasse’s floating kitchen. We weren’t expecting Alain himself to make an appearance in the episode since Padma had told us explicitly that he wouldn’t be, but that was just to set up a big surprise. When Tom Colicchio and Greg Marchand come to monitor the chefs’ progress, they have that very special guest with them. The thing is, everyone is so absorbed in their cooking that nobody notices at first. Alain leans in close to observe Gabri’s work, but Gabri just keeps looking down until Tom points out that the world-famous chef is standing there before him.

But it’s Buddha who is the most excited to see Alain. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Buddha this excited. The typically stoic and focused chef is downright giddy. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this star-struck in my life,” he explains. He describes it as a “highlight of my life.”

The rest of the cook seems to go mostly smoothly for everyone but Gabri, who has a pot going on the stove bur burns it, which is becoming a habit for him. He burned his mole in “Holiday Vacation,” and then he burned two sets of beans in “Thali Time.” He also runs out of time before he’s able to plate his entire dishes, so he leaves out his mushroom cookies, his herbs, and his roasted cepes. He’s afraid that he just lost his chance at the finale. I’m worried for him too; sometimes when you forget a component of your dish it ends up being the one thing that would have tied it all together. “El Gato” is running out of lives.

SEE‘Top Chef’ 20 episode 11 recap: Brutal ‘Battle of the Wellingtons’ claims 2 casualties in a double elimination

Meal Service

Buddha is first with his champignons de Paris en croute, chicken farce, mushroom puree and pommes puree. The judges are all silent as they eat it, absorbed in their meal. Clearly they all liked it, and it sure sounds fancy to me. The judges describe his dish as classic but well done, well executed, with a great combination of textures.

Ali is next with his mushroom steak, mushroom croquette with za’atar and goat cheese, mushroom jus and pickled mushrooms. Certainly no one can accuse him of not using mushrooms enough. The croquette has an amazing aroma when you cut into it, and his dish shows a lot of respect for the main ingredient. They do criticize him, however, for using gritty pomegranate in a soft croquette, and the mushroom steak got a little boring after two or three bites.

Sara presents her mushrooms, beef leg marmalade, pears and pickled mushrooms, which is the first dish that makes one of the Michelin-starred guest judges really taste the champignon de Paris. It’s simple, clean, and pure. She definitely elevated a soup to the level of a Michelin-starred establishment.

Gabri is last up with his “Nest in the woods”: potato nest, chile morita champignons de Paris puree, shiitake broth and cured egg yolk. The regular judges are shocked because it’s the spiciest dish they’ve gotten from Gabri all season long. It’s intense, the broth is amazing, and one of the guest judges would be happy to have Gabri come work for him. “Gabri gave me the crunch I wanted,” says Padma. His only problems are that the construction of his dish could have been better (a product of him rushing, methinks), and that the mushroom gets a little lost in all the chicken flavor.

SEE‘Top Chef’ power rankings: Who will win season 20?

Judges’ Table

Tom lets the chefs know that he never holds back on his opinions so they should believe him when he says that this was a genuinely great meal from all involved. They all proved why the deserve to be in the competition. Alas, only one of them can win the challenge and only two others will advance to the season finale. The judges start by revealing their winner … Sara! It’s her first Elimination Challenge victory of the season and must be especially vindicating after fighting her way back from elimination in “Last Chance Kitchen.”

The judges’ other favorite dish, unsurprisingly, belonged to Buddha (it’s never a surprise when Buddha excels, and I’m pretty sure he’s on his way to winning his second consecutive season of “Top Chef”). He’s also moving on to the finale, which means that two out of the three “World All-Stars” finalists will have come from American editions of “Top Chef.” The question is who joins them: MENA’s Ali or Mexico’s Gabri?

Ultimately it’s a question of what matters more to the judges? If they’re deciding based on who prepared the better overall dish, then Gabri gets the spot in the finale. But if they’re deciding based on who made better use of the key ingredient, that’s Ali. When all is said and done, “El Gato” survives again. Gabri moves on to the finale and Ali is eliminated from the competition in fourth place.

“It’s a bit hard. I’m sad, disappointed,” says Ali in his exit interview. “But you need to embrace the win, you need to embrace the loss, and you take it from there. This is a true lesson in life. Sometimes you might find rejection, but if you’re persistent enough, you can make it even though you are facing all of these obstacles. I’m very grateful for every single step in this journey. I was able to represent Jordanian cuisine and I hope people know more about our culture, our cuisine, our people, and I’m very happy for that.”

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