Top Chef Recap: A Good Run

During a high-stakes Elimination Challenge before the season finale, maybe Carl Dooley was a little too ambitious.

Carl Dooley Top Chef

Carl Dooley presents his foie gras dish to a table of culinary pros including (left) Top Chef season 1 winner Harold Dieterle and (far right) Emeril Lagasse. / Photo by Kim White / Bravo

Last night, four Top Chef contestants had to create the send-off menu for a famed San Francisco restaurant and a dining room full of culinary superstars, and Cambridge’s Carl Dooley wishes he had a better showing. The Table chef was eliminated in the last episode before the two-part, season 13 finale.

French chef Hubert Keller reopened Fleur de Lys, a restaurant he helmed for 28 years before closing the doors in 2014, for one final hurrah. Dooley, Marjorie Meek-Bradley, Isaac Toups, and Jeremy Ford had just three hours to each make a dish in tribute to the fine dining institution, and Dooley settled on a foie gras torchon.

The classic French preparation calls for multi-day curing and a slow cooking process, but Dooley would adjust it for the time constraints.

“If anyone can pull something off like that, it’s you,” Meek-Bradley told him. “At this point in the competition, you live and die by your risk, and I respect those who take it,” she added, behind the scenes to the camera.

Dooley’s Top Chef run died by it. Well, it’s on life support: The chef could make a return in the finale, with a win on the web-only feature, Last Chance Kitchen. The Bravo producers left that outcome elusive, so if you’re invested in “the quiet killer,” as a Last Chance Kitchen opponent called him, don’t give up on Top Chef just yet.

If not on next week’s episode, will we ever see Dooley on Top Chef again? Not likely, he says. At the Table, a full-service restaurant owner Robert Harris and Dooley debuted in January, the chef is “the happiest I’ve been professionally in my entire career,” he says. “I get to cook for 45 people a night. I think we’re doing some high level food, and I’m excited about it. We have a wonderful team.” He’s not giving that up.

Here’s what Carl Dooley had to say about his elimination episode:

I’m sorry to you go! Anyway, to start, and I’m sorry, but really, how did you think you could make a foie gras torchon in three hours?

Foie gras is something I work with all the time; it’s on my menu right now. I’m very comfortable working with [it]. I knew it wouldn’t be a traditional foie gras torchon, which takes a few days to cure and cook. But I thought, given the time constraints, I could do something that was really tasty, if not 100 percent true to what it should be.

Can you tell us exactly what you did?

I didn’t cure it, but I marinated it in salt, spices, and wine; then I confited it in duck fat, which cooks the foie gras all the way. I let all the fat drain off, then rolled it into a torchon-style cylinder. I chilled that down, then sliced it. The foie gras was cooked, it had the a great texture; but it wasn’t really the same without the curing process. I knew that going in, but it was something I didn’t expect the judges to knock so much.

Looking at the Fleur de Lys menu Hubert Keller provided for you guys, it seemed pretty instant that you decided to do the torchon.

There were Fleur de Lys menus across multiple decades there, and every single one of them had foie gras and gelee on it in some form. It was something really appropriate for the challenge, and I thought I could execute something delicious, if not 100 percent traditional. Obviously, in retrospect, I would have done things a little bit differently, but I was proud of what I put on the plate. I stand by it.

I got kicked off doing a dish I really love. If I was going to get kicked off the show, it’s for something reflective of my cooking style and true to the challenge.

Is there another way you could have prepared foie gras that would have paid homage to Fleur but also met the time constraints?

Yeah, sure. I should have just made a mousse, or something pureed and then chilled. You wouldn’t have noticed the curing thing if the texture was like a mousse. But, I went one direction that was probably ill-advised.

But it was fun. Watching the episode, for me, was gratifying. I knew I was doing something difficult, but it was something I was excited to cook. It’s something I will always remember: Cooking in that kitchen, being really excited about the dish, and being really proud to walk into that dining room and send Fleur de Lys out with that team. It was a special moment.

Who were you most excited or nervous to cook for in that room?

Dominique Crenn. She has two Michelin stars in San Francisco. She’s an amazing chef who is always pushing the boundaries of flavor and texture; she’s a really innovative chef. It was a pretty spectacular room. I wish I had a better showing, but that’s life. I was happy to watch the episode and see I had a smile on my face the whole time.

I know you can only speak to your experience, but Isaac mentioned it, too, that he felt like he bit off more than he could chew. Do you think you guys were intimidated by the challenge at all?

No, I think it was the opposite. We’re chefs, this is what we live for: Cooking for VIPs, cooking for fellow chefs. For me, personally, and Isaac and Marjorie said it, too, we had a lot of enthusiasm and passion in our dishes, which maybe led to us over-reaching a bit. It wasn’t intimidation that brought us down, it was over ambition and trying to embrace the moment.

At the judges table, you weren’t alone in having a dish miss the mark a bit. Everyone was being criticized a little. What are the range of emotions you were feeling?

I was surprised at the judges’ reception to the dish. Like I said, I liked it. I knew it wasn’t the same texture of the foie gras that I cook at my restaurant, but I also didn’t think it was as bad as they made it out to be. Not to the detriment of someone else’s dishes, but I’m surprised mine wasn’t received better.

So, it was pretty intense episode for you. You had to compete to the death after your toast.
It was an exhausting!

First of all, I deserved to be on the bottom because I didn’t toast my bread enough, and it got soggy. The tomatoes leaked out too much juice, so when they were trying to eat it, it was like eating a bread bowl. But the [judges’ repeated criticism] of pairing fish and cheese? I didn’t pair fish and cheese. Shrimp isn’t fish; it’s shellfish. It’s completely different. And burrata is essentially whipped cream. It’s not like I was pairing cod and gouda.

Michael White is doing lobster and burrata and Marea, and he has two Michelin stars and nobody gives him shit about it. I feel like it was being a stick in the mud for Padma, not even really thinking about it, just saying, “I don’t pair fish with cheese.” It was shrimp and burrata. Nobody has a problem with fish and cream, but somehow burrata is a different category? That pissed me off.

But I deserved to be on the bottom because my bread was soggy. [laughter]

You also got a Padma side-eye for “another crudo?”

I cooked like, 30 dishes to that point, and I had made one raw dish. What is that, 3 percent? And she rolls her eyes. C’mon. That’s ridiculous. We’re professional chefs, we cook whatever we want. But, it was a delicious dish, and they liked it, so. They didn’t roll their eyes when Amar made foie gras again, even though he had just made it for the last elimination challenge.

I kind of can’t believe there was a Sudden Death QuickFire in the last episode before the finale.

That was so, so stressful. But honestly, as soon as I put up my toast, I knew it would be on the bottom, because I didn’t toast the bread enough. So, while they were going through everyone’s dishes, in in my mind, I was thinking about what I saw in the pantry, what I could cook under a time constraint, something high-impact with high flavor. I was already thinking about what I could make next.

Would you do Top Chef again?

Uhh, no. [laughter] No way. It was such a huge time commitment, time away from my wife, my dog, and my life. I feel really fortunate and blessed to have had that experience, and it’s something I will always really cherish, but I don’t want to push my luck. I had a great run, and I met some great people, but you saw what happened to Grayson.