Last night on Bravo was the final preliminary round of “Top Chef Masters,” and next week begins the finals, in which one chef will be voted off each week until someone is crowned Top Chef Master. And last night, more so than in previous episodes, there was a lot of love and mutual respect going on between the contestants…..Jonathan Waxman of New York City, better known as the dude who trained Bobby Flay; Roy Yamaguchi of Honolulu; Michael Cimarusti of Los Angeles; and Art Smith of Chicago (better known as Oprah’s chef). You could already sense that this would be a very competitive round, and it was.

Their quick fire challenge was to create a dish with just $20 and the use of a single aisle at a grocery store, drawn randomly. Jonathan drew the aisle with canned veggies and dried beans, and wound up making a red pepper and lentil salad. Art had the rice aisle and made a risotto with crispy rice salad. Michael had the baking aisle and made a chocolate parfait, and Roy had the pasta aisle and made an Asian style spaghetti with an egg on top. The judges for this were Whole Foods employees, and they liked just about all of the dishes, but loved the chocolate parfait the most…..even after Michael claimed to not be much of a dessert expert. So Michael wound up with 5 stars, Art 4.5 stars, Roy 4, and Jonathan 3.5…all of which would go toward their final score.

The elimination challenge was another “Top Chef” favorite, the mystery box challenge…..each chef would create a mystery box for one of the other chefs from which they had to make a dish. Roy and Art drew each other, and Jonathan and Michael drew each other as well. For Art, Roy chose chicken, corn and yams among others…..Art gave Roy mahi-mahi and short ribs…..Michael chose pork chops, cauliflower and black truffles for Jonathan….and Jonathan gave Michael lamb, portobello mushrooms and sunchokes. The judges were regulars Gael Greene and James Oseland, with “Top Chef” regular Gail Simmons filling in for Jay Rayner.

Art, who has southern roots, made fried chicken and a mango tart, and I’m pretty sure the judges are still licking their fingers. It’s almost unfair I think to make fried chicken or anything with bacon! Anyway, Art made a surf and turf but some of the judges thought he over-sauced the fish. Jonathan made a pork sausage and pork chop with cauliflower puree and black truffles, and the judges were mixed on this one, though Simmons went on and on about how the earthy truffles made the dish. Finally, Michael, who is a seafood chef, made loin of lamb with sunchoke puree and cauliflower….the judges were mixed on this one too. It’s also worth noting that while Jonathan challenged Michael a bit by not giving him seafood, the others made sure they gave their opponents the best chance to shine…and the love-fest these guys had for each other was at a higher level than in earlier rounds of the show.

Anyway, at judgment time, Roy earned 11 stars between the diners and the judges, giving him 15 total. Michael, who was in the lead after the quick fire challenge, earned 12.5 stars, giving him 17.5 and eliminating Roy. Jonathan earned 16.5 stars, giving him 20 total, and eliminating Michael. Finally it was Art….and we all knew they loved his chicken and tart…..Art earned 17.5, including a perfect 5 from Gael Greene, to give him 22 stars total and the victory.

So Art will join Hubert Keller, Suzanne Tracht, Rick Bayless, Anita Lo and Michael Chiarello in the finals, which begins next week with the grand prize being $100K for charity. This show has been really exciting so far, so seeing the best of the best square off now is going to be really fun to watch. Join us next week and let us know your thoughts on last night’s episode….