Top Chef Masters
Top Chef Masters Finale

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Three's Company

Previously: Weeks of competition honed down the best of the best. Now only three chefs remain -- Angelino and Mexican cuisine maven Mary Sue Milliken, virtuoso of French-California cooking Traci des Jardins of San Francisco, and classically trained Indian chef from New York City Floyd Cardoz. Each of them has a charity (Share Our Strength, La Cocina, and Young Scientist Cancer Research Fund at Mount Sinai Medical School, respectively), and each of them is angling for the $100,000 prize. But who will be the Top Chef Master?

The final three walk into the dining room to find Curtis Stone, James Oseland, Ruth Reichl, and Gael Greene awaiting them. There will be no quickfire this week, only an elimination challenge. The cheftestants are asked to create a three-course meal of a lifetime. The first course should be inspired by a food memory, the second will represent the experience that made them decide to become a chef, and the final course will be critics' choice. Floyd draws first and selects "James," who wants him to make a classic Indonesian dish. Mary Sue gets "Ruth" and her magical lemon soufflé. Traci pulls "Gael," who wants French fried duck. All in all, it seems like a fix, except for Mary Sue. Good luck to you, girl! Before the cheftestants begin, they're given help in the form of the sous and executive chefs at their home restaurants.

The final three head into the kitchen, where the judges tell them exactly why the dishes they chose are special to them. Gael had duck on her French honeymoon. Likewise, Reichl went to Paris with her family (parents) when she had soufflé for the first time. Oseland's dish was similarly eye-opening because he had it the first time he went to southeast Asia and experienced the layering of flavors that typify the cuisine. He tells Floyd that his dish is not one "you cook from your mind, it's a dish that you cook from your soul." Oseland challenges Floyd to bring on the heat. For his part, Floyd seems a little nervous about the reverse-braising tactic that typifies his dish. Traci is also ambivalent about Gael's insistence on serving her duck with a béarnaise sauce.

After the critics leave, Mary Sue conjures the experience that made her want to be a chef. It was a simple shrimp cocktail made by a mentor of hers who recently passed away. She wants to make the dish in honor of him. Traci remembers enjoying a quail salad when she was debating whether to go to college. The quail salad won. Floyd calls to mind a business lunch he attended with his father in Bombay, where he had bass and learned the ceremony of dining.

The cheftestants have eight hours to prep, including shopping. Floyd rounds his meal out with oxtail and plans to make a different style of Oseland's dream meal. Floyd thinks it shows guts and courage to do two different preparations. Traci, however, has the same idea when she decides to present both a French-style duck and a Peking duck. Mary Sue encounters problems selecting her lobster and decides to make shrimp instead rather than lose an hour to traffic. As an L.A. native, she understands that it's more effective to get all her food from one place rather than shop around. As such, she is the first person back to the kitchen.

Hours later, Floyd is the last and feels that he is at a disadvantage. He finally arrives back, ultra-stressed that he won't have time to braise his meat properly. Mary Sue, on the other hand, won't be braising any meat for her first course of steak tartare. She explains that it was a classic German dish she had as a child and a highlight of her year. Floyd has no time to consider his happy memories because he's too busy fretting over the shoddy job his butchers did prepping his fish. The fillets are broken with scales all over the place. "I've realized that it's not my day," he says.

Mary Sue says her second course -- now shrimp instead of lobster -- will express her mentor's exuberance with food. Traci explains that her first course is inspired by her Louisianan grandfather. Floyd's is a semolina dish cooked with diced vegetables that he's decided to twist with coconut milk, chicken stock, and roasted mushroom. He considers the dish "ballsy." Traci also stretches with a duo of quail for her second course. As the night wraps up, Floyd is very concerned about his second dish -- a snapper in broth -- because he has lost a lot of time. Mary Sue admits that she hasn't made a soufflé in 30 years. Traci is similarly out of practice with duck and hopes for the best. Fortunately for Mary Sue, her test soufflé turns out well, and Floyd feels the heat yet more.

The next day, the cheftestants are driving away from the kitchen and deep into the Hollywood Hills. They arrive at a house, where Curtis greets them and tells them that, for a change, he is going to cook for them. He pours a couple of glasses of champagne, then prepares a hamachi appetizer followed by sunchoke soup. Traci especially appreciates the moments to take a breath and collect her thoughts.

But it's no rest for the weary, and soon enough they're back to the pressure cooker. Traci admits that Gael's dish is her biggest concern because she's taking a risk. Mary Sue is also branching out by making her lemon ice cream with liquid nitrogen. As the clock ticks down, Floyd keeps adding spice after spice because he doesn't think he's achieving the flavors he wants. Meanwhile, a slew of critics arrive outside, including bear icon Tom Colicchio, blogger Danyelle Freeman, former Masters finalists Susur Lee and Rick Moonen, and former Masters contestants Jody Adams, Jonathan Waxman and Susan Feniger -- who not only owns Mary Sue's Border Grill but used to be married to her husband. Mmmmmm, incest.

Without further ado, the cheftestants present their first courses. Floyd offers his wild mushroom upma polenta with kokum and coconut milk, Mary introduces her Asian steak tartare, and Traci puts forth modernized shrimp Creole. The critics find Traci's deconstructed classic ballsy and delicious. With Floyd's dish, Reichl thinks the subtle flavors ricochet around your mouth, though others consider it too simple. Susan is content reminiscing about the old days with Mary Sue, though Tom doesn't think she went far enough with her dish.

It's time for the second course. Floyd spins a lovely story to introduce his rice-flaked snapper and tomato-fennel broth with carrots, and it seems to do the trick for most everyone but Gael, who deems the fish overcooked. Mary Sue's shrimp and chervil mousse stuffed rigatoni with crab and shrimp salpicon is deemed classic 1960s, though Danyelle finds it a little heavy. Gael deems the sweetbreads that accompany Traci's roasted quail salad with mushrooms and pancetta "almost right."

And lest ye think Mary Sue is a ringer, she starts beating her egg whites too soon and fears that she doesn't have enough batter. She orders her sous chef to crack more eggs, but it's at the expense of the time she needs to cook her soufflé. Everyone pitches in so she can plate her third course in time for the judging. The cheftestants head out to the dining room, where Floyd introduces his rendang two ways: oxtail and short ribs, accompanied by tapioca pilaf with diced potato and peanuts. Mary Sue next offers up her lemon soufflé with rhubarb compote, lemon-hazelnut meringue and lemon ice cream. Finally, Traci presents her duo of duck -- crisp due béarnaise and braised duck leg salad.

Curtis laughs that Gael will be happy regardless because she'll remember how much sex she had on her honeymoon. Alas, he is wrong. She appreciates that inappropriate béarnaise but thinks the more out-there preparation of duck is "dry and hard to cut." If she'd had this dish however many years ago, she might not have become a writer, she concludes (with some help from Colicchio, that scoundrel). The final verdict of Floyd's rendang is likewise mixed. Oseland doesn't know if it would have affected him

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