All season long on Bravo’s “Top Chef: Charleston,” Dallas-based “cheftestant” John Tesar (Knife) has been saying that he’s a changed man. This is the guy that D Magazine once called The Most Hated Chef in Dallas, the guy whose Twitter rants against Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Leslie Brenner received national attention.
And yet, for most of the season, he has lived up — onscreen, anyway — to his advertised change. Oh, there was that “Restaurant Wars” episode where he finally lost it in a sniping match against button-pushing teammamte Katsuji Tanabe, who blamed Tesar for their team’s losss. But ultimately, Tanabe was the one who was eliminated, while Tesar has stuck around — albeit while narrowly escaping elimination himself in the past couple of episode.
Otherwise, Tesar’s not the self-described rageaholic he used to be. But it is still a little weird to see him choke up onscreen. He did that twice in this week’s episode, at the beginning, when he was one of four chefs left standing on the main show (the online series “Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen” gives an eliminated chef the opportunity to return for the finale) and at the end, when he made it to next week’s finale in Guadalajara, Mexico.
This season, the 14th, pitted eight “Top Chef” veterans, including Tesar and former DFW chef Casey Thompson, against eight rookies. “Last Chance Kitchen” not withstanding, all four non-eliminated chefs at the beginning of Thursday’s episode were veterans — and perhaps more impressively, three of them were from season 10, “Top Chef: Seattle”: Tesar, Hawaiian chef Sheldon Simeon and “Seattle” runner-up Brooke Williamson. Shirley Chung, a strong but non-winning chef from the New Orleans-set 11th season, rounded out the final four (Napa Valley-based Thompson, formerly of Dallas’ Shinsei and Fort Worth’s now-closed Brownstone, was eliminated last week but as of Thursday’s main episode was still alive on “Last Chance Kitchen”).
Thursday’s episode began with a “Quickfire Challenge” that was all about communication: Each chef had a partner that they couldn’t see, on the other side of a wall, and had to make a dish while instructing their “assistant” on how to make the exact same dish. Those walls must’ve been something, because the partners consisted of Tesar, Chung and Simeon’s spouses and Williamson’s sister, yet the only person who recognized their teammate’s voice was Simeon. Then again, Williamson was distracted by Chung’s loudly shouted instructions, so maybe she had a hard time hearing her sister.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Simeon, who has had a strong season without winning any challenges, won this one, although host/judge Padma Lakshmi and guest judge Michael Solomonov were impressed at how similar the assistants’ dishes were to the real thing. Tesar was surprised to see his wife, Tracy, whom he described as being so shy that he couldn’t believe that she was persuaded to appear on the show. Her pan-seared scallops weren’t sauced as well as his, and Lakshmi said that Tesar’s flavoring was more pronounced, but Solomonov added “They’re both awesome.” Tesar also credited his 5-year-old son with making him want to be a better man.
The elimination challenge was one of the introspective ones that “Top Chef” likes to reserve for late in the season, where the chefs make dishes inspired by their time in the host city and on their particular season of the show. Or their “journey,” as the synopsis put it. Tesar opted for another scallop dish, sofrito crusted scallops with a braised leek sea broth made from the juice of steamed clams. The dish included red peppers, which Tesar opted to cook with their skin on for texture’s sake, which proved to be a controversial decision among the judges, who found the skin-on peppers to be a little bitter.
(There was also an interlude in which Lakshmi cooked dinner for their chefs and their spouses, which was predictably an excuse for Lakshmi to promote her own organic frozen-rice line.)
To radically condense things, Tesar was up for elimination, along with Williamson, who had a particularly strong run on “Seattle” but has not cooked with the same confidence in Charleston, even though she made it to the final four. The judges had more problems with her braised pork shoulder and tenderloin dish than they had with Tesar’s peppers: the although they overall liked the dish, the sous-vide pork and the cola-sweetened sauce left them with nitpicks about taste and texture, and head judge Tom Colicchio thought that her dish was too literal an interpretation of her “journey” this season.
Chung and Simeon quickly moved on to the finale. Williamson, who had never heard Lakshmi’s “pack your knives and go” elimination catchphrase before, heard it this time and Tesar avoided elimination for at least the second week in a row, earning him a finale slot as well.
“This moment today is a moment that I’m going to cherish forever,” Tesar said upon learing that he would be in the finale. “Even though I can be a flawed human being, my one saving grace is I do learn from my mistakes. And here I am, at 58,” he added, choking up, “and I’m going to the freaking finale.”
The multipart finale begins at 8 p.m. Central on Thursday, Feb. 16, on Bravo. And don’t count Williamson out — with a “Last Chance Kitchen” win, she could be back for the finale.